Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Alchemist - Heady Topper

Let's talk about cans. Beer cans that is. A lot of people don't like them, and you can't really blame them. After all, look at the kind of beer that people are used to seeing in cans- Schlitz, PBR, tall boys of fill-in-the-blank malt liquor, and the usual suspects (Bud Light, Miller Light and Coors Light). A lot of people are turned off by beer that comes in cans because, let's face it, a LOT of cans out there contain bad beer. But wait, my can-fearing friends, I have news for you. Cans are making a comeback. In a really big way. In fact, the number one beer in the world comes... in a can. You heard that right, a can.

So what is the new number one beer in the world? It's a Double IPA from Vermont called Heady Topper. Ever since it was canned in 2011, this beer has been rocketing up beeradvocate's Top 100 (now 250) list until it claimed (and ran off with) the #1 spot last year.

I've been trying to get my hands on this beer for a while. I even enlisted the help of my sister, who lives in nearby Boston. But for all our efforts, this beer has proved very, very elusive. The brewers of this beer, a brewery called The Alchemist, are completely devoted to making this one beer, but they don't make so much of it that it escapes the state of Vermont on a regular basis. If you want Heady Topper, you pretty much have to go to Vermont or make friends with someone there. Luckily, I didn't have to do either.

I've been going to a store in Santee called Beverages 4 Less for a few years now. The owner, Freddy, always manages to surprise me with the beers he brings into the store. He may not be the most popular guy on beeradvocate, but Freddie has been nothing but friendly to me since the minute I stepped into his store, so I keep going back. If it wasn't for him, I would never have gotten to try a lot of amazing beers that don't usually come near the state of California, including Heady Topper. A few weeks back, I got an email from him saying that he had gotten Heady Topper in. I thought it had to be a misprint, but when I went in a few days later, he showed me an empty can and told me it had sold out almost immediately. "Don't worry," he said, "I'll make sure you get to try it. I'm getting more in a few weeks." Fast forward to Monday when, after getting off work, I checked my email and saw he had just gotten more. After an Andretti-like performance down the 52, I ran into Beverages 4 Less to see a smiling Freddie and my first full can of Heady Topper. At last! At #1- Heady Topper.

The Alchemist puts labels all over this can telling you to drink Heady out of the can. But I had to see what this puppy looked like, so I took a few glorious sips from the can and then poured it into what I felt was the appropriate glassware. After a few ounces had left the can, I could see why The Alchemist would want you to leave it in there. This may be a fantastic beer, but it's no looker. Heady Topper pours an insanely cloudy dark golden color with a thin off-white head. The dark gold turns a foreboding brown near the edges of the glass. The coloring and murkiness are probably better suited for an unfiltered wheat beer, but I had been warned about this beer's appearance beforehand, so I soldiered on and gave the beer a smell. Holy...Balls! Mango, papaya, citrus and pine explode from the glass (and the can) and mingle together so perfectly, you'll swear your nose just climaxed. Mint, grapefruit and some biscuity malt are in there as well and

The taste, somehow, is even better. Right away, your tongue is walloped with a big dose of pine and citrus. Those start to fade to a bit of a bready malt taste, but just before that can take over, another wave of hops hit. This time, the hops show more of a piney, grapefruit pith note before falling into a fantastic resinous finish that is intensely hoppy without being that bitter. The word that hit me over the head again and again as I was drinking this beer was "balance." It's perfect. You just can't make a beer that is more balanced and layered than this. It's got so many elements that it hits you with and yet they're all so wonderfully restrained. It's not the hoppiest, boldest, or booziest Double IPA I've ever had, but it is definitely the best. If you ever find yourself in Vermont, make a point to seek out this beer. Then you, too, can see how far cans have really come.

Final Grade: A+

Top 250 Beers Tasted: 116

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Great Lakes Brewing Company - Great Lakes Barrel-Aged Blackout Stout

As much as I want to believe trying all of the Top 250 Beers is possible, I know the odds are against me. Some of these beers are just too rare to get without spending massive amounts of money on trade or travel. And even then, you'd be hard pressed to find a few on this list. So whenever I'm perusing the list, I mentally class every beer into either "Yeah, that's possible," or "No way that's happening." For a long time, one of the beers that fell into the "No way that's happening" category was Great Lakes' Barrel-Aged Blackout Stout. No more.

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend got a text from one of her best friends, Eileen. Eileen is an awesome person who now lives in Pittsburgh and knows how much I love beer. She was in Cleveland for a day, happened to be at the Great Lakes brewery, and was wondering if there was anything I wanted her to pick up for me. My girlfriend asked me and while I figured there was no way, I had to try anyway:

"Ask her if she can get Barrel-Aged Blackout Stout."

Through my years on, I've learned that if a beer is on the list of top beers AND it's barrel aged, the chances of you getting it if you don't live nearby are pretty much zero. Most breweries don't like to devote a lot of brewery space to barrel aging their beers, so the batches that do get barrel aged are small. Small batches + good review scores = rarity. Rarity = I'm usually S.O.L. So the next day, when I asked my girlfriend how the hunt for the beer went, I pretty much already knew the answer I was gonna get. Here's what happened instead:

Me: So did Eileen end up finding that beer?

Her: Oh yeah, she did. She said she'd mail it in a few days.

Me: That's ok. I don't know why I asked anyways. It's a super rare beer and....WHAAAAAAAAT??????????

A few days later, a package came in the mail. At #89- Barrel-Aged Blackout Stout.

Barrel-Aged Blackout Stout pours black with a thin light brown head. The head didn't wow size-wise, but it still left tons of soapy lace down the glass with each sip. The first smell of the beer brought a huge wave of bourbon-y goodness. I know next to nothing about bourbon, but I'm pretty sure whatever barrels they used for this beer used to hold some good stuff. This bourbon in particular smelled amazing. Brownie batter, toffee, caramel, vanilla and some faint tobacco came forth the more I smelled and the more I let this open up.

The flavor opens on a huge roasted note, full of dark chocolate and some astringent black coffee. The darker, roasted flavors throughout this beer are absolutely beastly, but I really liked them. The bourbon shows up on the finish, bringing with it just a touch of heat and dryness along with some notes of anise and peat. It feels like there are sweeter flavors in here trying to get through, but the big, dark flavors in here have a reverse naked chokehold on them and aren't about to let go. It definitely makes me wonder what a little age would do to this one, and I would love to find out someday. As is, it's an exceptional stout if you like things on the blackest end of the taste spectrum. Luckily, I really do. A huge thanks to Eileen for this beer. It's now officially checked off the "No way that's happening" list.

Final Grade: A

Top 250 Beers Tasted: 116

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Bruery - Tai Kao

Recently, I became a Reserve Society Member at one of my favorite breweries, The Bruery. Basically, this entitles me to some awesome bottles of beer from them through the year, along with a really good excuse to go to The Bruery as often as possible. I'll be reviewing a lot of The Bruery's great beers throughout this year, but I can already tell that none of them will be quite as strange as one I tried this weekend, Tai Kao.

Tai Kao is a new beer (beer cocktail?) from the Bruery that attempts to meld two very different drinks- beer and Thai iced tea. To make it look and taste like a real Thai iced tea, the uncarbonated, 8% base beer is poured over coconut milk and then ice cubes are added. I wasn't sure if I wanted to try this one before I got to The Bruery's tasting room this weekend, but when I saw how crazy it looked, I had to do it.

Tai Kao pours a thick, impermeable carrot juice-color with a rich light orange head. The head may not have been big in size, but it was dense as hell and it left thick lace spackled down the sides of the glass like drywall. The smell was musty and earthy with a big smack of sweetness from the coconut milk. I also picked up some hay, shaved carrots and a faint jasmine rice aroma. Interesting...

The taste starts in a sweet, very Thai iced tea-tasting direction. Condensed milk and black tea mixed with sugar cubes definitely comes on strong at first. But just when you start to wonder what happened to the beer in your Thai iced tea beer, a strong fermented wheat bread flavor shows up and pulls the sweetness back like crazy. There's a bit of an off-tasting farmhouse funk flavor in there as well before the return of the sweeter flavors, highlighted by some creamy coconut milk. What really caught me off guard came after the finish, when I noticed that the beer had left my mouth as dry as a bone. What a strange beer!

Everything about this beer both confused and amazed me. It's been almost a week since I tried it and I'm still trying to decide whether I liked it or not. For that reason (and because I feel strange reviewing what's really more of a beer cocktail), I'm not going to be giving this beer a grade. However, I will say that if your travels take you near The Bruery in the near future, it's worth popping in to try this one. Tai Kao really is one of a kind. For better or worse.

Top 250 Beers Tasted: 116

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Stone Brewing Company - Dayman Coffee IPA

In my book, last year was a really good year for Stone. They released some awesome collaboration beers (the Mint Chocolate Imperial Stout and More Brown Than Black IPA being the highlights for me) and showed that they can still make incredible IPAs (Tenth Anniversary Ruination and Enjoy By IPAs were absolutely amazing). While I knew it was going to e really hard to follow up their efforts in 2012, I wondered what Stone had planned for 2013. When I heard what their first collaboration beer of the year was, I figured that Stone had gone off their rocker. A coffee IPA? Really, Stone? Still, after winning me back last year, I owed it to them to at least try this one.

Dayman IPA pours a dark burnt orange color with a creamy, one-finger tan head. I was pretty skeptical going into this one, but the smell gave me some hope. It brought an intriguing blend of intense citrusy hops and dark roasted coffee. While I would never have thought these things would go together, it just seemed to work. I caught some chocolate, tangerine rind and grapefruit in the smell as well. Interesting...

The first flavor that hits your palate is a blast of dark roasted coffee. But soon after comes a big hit of smooth citrus flavor. While I've never experienced coffee and citrus together in a beer before, something about the two elements just worked together. There was an insane blend of chocolate covered oranges, hazelnut, coffee and piney hops throughout the flavor. And it worked! The finish was silky smooth with a lingering coffee bitterness. I have no idea how they did it, but Stone pulled this off. What a great beer to lead off 2013. I can't wait to see what they're going to do this year.

Final Grade: A

Top 250 Beers Tasted: 115