Color me Converted: Norwegian Sour Ale

So, I have to say that, in my rather limited experience with sour ales, I’ve found the results to be especially satisfying. These beers are a very specific kind of brew that generally follows a set formula:

-fermented with an organism other than traditional yeast

-a blend of older, oak-aged beer with a younger specimen to combine aged sourness with young sweetness

-red or brown coloring from specialty malts

-strong fruity and floral aromas and flavors that overwhelm the beer’s natural hoppiness

Now, by and large, sour ales are considered a Belgian specialty. I for one had always invested in Belgian sours and Flemish reds. I have one more with intent to review in the fridge right now, actually.

The real story, though, is, on a whim, while I was placing an order at Bruisin Ales, I swapped out a duplicate Flemish red for a Norwegian sour as recommended by their proprietor. How was it? I’m not even going to tease. I loved it, and here’s a massive shot of it so you can see what I got. Haandbakk by Haand Bryggeriet. An Oud Bruin (Flanders brown) ale. Delicious vitals after the jump.

The Results:

The appearance of the beer is very appealing. It has a deep reddish brown color but a pure translucency. There’s very little cloudiness, which lends it a bright red luminosity in the light. The head retention is decent, but it’s not enough to let the beer truly develop in the glass. Once it’s there, the aromas will begin escaping, so you better enjoy it quickly.

The nose of the beer is almost purely sour fruit, with green apple and sour cherry. There’s almost no beer smell to it. The unusual preparation lends it an almost dusty, earthy aroma.

The mouth feel of the beer matches the flavor profile very well. It’s actively acidic and carbonated, accenting the sourness while adding structure to the perceived sweetness.

The flavor of the beer is very brisk and very sour. It has hints of herbs and grass, though it’s largely a fruit affair. Apple, cherry candy, almost like a Jolly Rancher. The hops come through on the finish with a hint of dark chocolate. The alcohol, at 8%, is nonexistent on the flavor.

For the Casual Drinker:

This doesn’t even remotely approach the typical flavor of a beer. The response I got from someone not expecting a sour ale said quite plainly that it smelled rotten. The fruits are pungent and, quite frankly, a trifle dusty, overwhelming a surprised palate. You have to go into this expecting anything but a typical beer.

The Conclusion:

Want a unique experience? This certainly qualifies. It’s a bit expensive at $11 for just over a pint, making it on par with those $40 to $50 bottles of juice you always bypass at the wine shop. Special occasion beer? Absolutely, but I recommend getting a bottle to try before you stock the fridge for New Years. 8/10

In Case You Missed It:

Beer: Haandbakk

Producer: Haand Bryggeriet

Region: Norway

Vintage: 2008

Alcohol: 8%

Price: $11 / 16.9 oz

Yeti Espresso, an Oak-Aged Gem from Colorado

The Back Story:

It’s a funny thing about wine regions. People are very, very protective of where their favorite wines come from. Wine regions have spawned organizations, bloggers, books, arguments, articles, and carefully delineated wine sections.

But what about beer?

Trappist beers: Belgian beer brewed directly by or under the supervision of Trappist monks only (from crossroadsmag.eu)

I’ve had a Belgian Twitterer(er?) quickly and sharply correct me when I incorrectly referred to a Canadian ale as a Belgian ale instead of “Belgian-style.” Can you imagine a Kentucky resident knocking someone down a peg for referring to a Heineken as an “American beer”?

I’ve been told that Colorado is the capital of American craft beer (a claim I wouldn’t necessarily dispute, either). Considering the staggeringly good beer coming from that state, it’s a rightful argument.

Oktoberfest is a now-worldwide celebration inspired by Bavaria and its many, many fine beers. Without the German pride and enthusiasm combined with quality food and brews, this innocuous seasonal festival would never have reached global obsession.

Basically, the short answer is yes, beer regions have their supporters as well. Because beer is so much less dependent on terroir and because beer (generally) takes a lot less time to craft and perfect, regions matter much less than the process and the quality of ingredients. This doesn’t negate the fact, though, that hops are like grapes in that they have ideal climates and harvest times. It’s just that there are so many more ingredients involved in the process that the gains are diminished.

The perception of region is more dependent on the fact that certain places attract certain brewers and breweries, and that tradition dictates product moreso than terroir. Belgian-style ales can be brewed anywhere on the planet, but the best still arguably come from Belgium. The monasteries that made the Trappist and Abbey styles famous still hold the mystique and guard the secrets that keep their product in higher esteem than the non-so-designated outsiders.

Because the New World is so, well, new, we don’t really have respected beer regions yet. Americans celebrate their Budweiser and Miller beers, and Pabst Blue Ribbon is only somewhat ironically consumed by hipsters. When Belgians bought Anheuser-Busch, swill-drinking Americans acted as though the world were ending. Since the buyout, A-B has produced two astoundingly not terrible beers: the American Ale and Golden Wheat. Lo and behold, the noise machines wound down, and the world moved on. To relate, a similar reaction would be to Americans protesting a Bordeaux chateau purchasing Franzia and developing premium wines that don’t taste like the underside of a shower drain. There shouldn’t be a down-side, but we just largely didn’t know better.

I don’t think we have too much longer to wait on this. We’re developing regional craft beers that are gaining steam. Dogfish Head in Delaware, Abita in Louisiana, Bell’s in Michigan, these are all attracting like-minded, experimental brewers who are slowly bringing recognition to their respective regions. Because of the absence of tradition in any of these regions, they are free to create whatever beers strike their fancy. There is one state, though, that I believe is ahead on many fronts.

The state that produces Coors Light.

Allow me to present exhibit A for the case of Colorado as the first great beer region of the United States: Great Divide‘s Espresso Oak Aged Yeti. Aged with oak chips and infused with coffee, this beer showcases the innovation of American brewers.

The Results:

The appearance of the beer is deep, dark, opaque, almost entirely black. It pours like a cup of strong coffee. The head is thick and espresso-colored and retains for over a minute.

The nose of the beer is of a dark roast coffee combined with notes of almond and vanilla. There’s no mistaking the added coffee in this beer.

The mouth feel of the beer is wonderfully active and hefty with a very thick smoothness. The carbonation is more aggressive than I anticipated. It’s bright and sharp.

The flavor of the beer is, as you might expect, primarily coffee-forward with a hint of vanilla. The hoppiness comes through after the initial coffee flavors fade, contributing a bitter orange zest. The finish is a blend of dark chocolate and espresso, and it tastes almost exactly like the sediment at the bottom of a mocha latte. You’re basically approaching a wine level as far as alcohol is concerned, at 9.5%, and it’s hardly detectable. It does for beer what alcohol should always do for beer: stay out of the way of the flavor while providing the structure.

For the Casual Drinker:

The color alone should suggest that this isn’t going to be a light affair. The coffee flavor, though, makes it drink much more smoothly than a black stout would. As much as I mention coffee in the descriptors, it’s actually fairly light, at least lighter than a cup of coffee would be. If you’re looking for a food pairing, you’re going to want to look on the hearty side. Savory dishes like pork or chicken with spices and gravy, or spicy, bright foods.

The Conclusion:

Phenomenal. Of the higher end craft beers I’ve had, this one is right up there. For $11.00 per half-liter, it’s not cheap, but let’s face it: you’re willing to spend $20 on 750 ml of wine, why not invest in a properly brewed craft beer? 8/10

In Case You Missed It:

Beer: Espresso Oak-Aged Yeti

Producer: Great Divide

Region: Colorado, US

Vintage: n/a

Alcohol: 9.5%

Price: $11 / 500 ml

Wailua Wheat Ale: A Sign of Summer

The Back Story:

Everyone has their own triggers to make them officially recognize when winter ends and spring begins. Maybe it’s the first Sweet William planted in April, gambling against the chance of a late-season frost. Maybe it’s the first time you look outside before work and trade in your khakis for a pair of shorts, even if it’s not quite casual Friday.

Maybe it’s simply the first time you break a sweat while walking around outside and have those first pinings for sand and surf.

Regardless, as seasons change, so do tastes. We spend less time in front of fires, whether real or simulated, with our GSM blends and Chardonnays, and migrate to the porches, pouring Pinot Noirs and Gewurztraminers. Whatever habits we happily indulge in during the winter months are slowly replaced by equally enjoyable and possibly ill-advised vices inspired by the warmer months.

For me, my wine drinking habits are the first to change. I always go through a period of three to four weeks where I just have no compulsion to put red wine to my lips. It literally takes several bottles of even the most disappointing white wine before I want to see a Carignan or Merlot placed before me. All the meanwhile, I’ll happily toss back the most opaque, dark-as-night black ales and mocha stouts. At some point, probably the first time I attempt to engage in an athletic activity while sipping on said beers, I’ll have a change of heart (and stomach) for some lighter fare.

Enter Wailua Wheat. Brewed and bottled in the heart of Hawai’i Island’s Kailua by the Kona Brewing Company, this beer pulls off a feat that few alcoholic beverages achieve. Let’s face it: if you made a Venn Diagram of delicious beers versus refreshing beers, it would look something like this:

Venn diagram of beer

If you’re looking for a beer that strikes a nice balance between being drinkable and being drinkable when you’re actually thirsty, your options are fairly limited. Do I think Wailua Wheat fits the bill? You already know the answer to that question.

The Results:

Wailua Wheat Ale PourThe appearance of the beer is rather pale and golden, similar to a Belgian-style ale, but with a very strong orange cloudiness that becomes apparent as light refracts through. Head retention is fairly minimal, especially for a wheat beer.

The nose of the beer is a sweet and very ripe citrus, reminiscent of its passion fruit along with a note of sours and a malted, nutty scent consistent with American lagers.

The mouth feel of the beer is extremely dry and crisp, not at all full, and it doesn’t coat the mouth like a more substantial beer. Its carbonation is fairly light but still active. It hits the tongue with a very active, citrusy acidity.

The flavor of the wine is not nearly as fruity as you’d expect. There’s a distinct passion fruit, but it doesn’t overwhelm the flavors of the beer. It conveys the flavor and sweetness without being syrupy. The beer itself has a flavor of almonds and puffed wheat cereal (think Super Golden Crisp). The taste is rather understated, almost powdery, very delicate. It’s on the cusp of being too thin. As soon as it starts warming up, the flavors dissipate, and it starts tasting more like a typical wheat ale. This beer is best by far at around 40 degrees.

For the Casual Drinker:

This is a very friendly beer to approach, especially if you’re used to the typical American lager. It’s got a simple flavor, not at all overwhelming, and the passion fruit flavor comes through just enough to give you a taste of complexity. To me, this beer just seems like it would be at home with beads of condensation running down it. Hot and humid would only make this beer taste better. Drink it cold, and don’t dilly-dally!

The Conclusion:

For 8 bucks a six-pack, you’re not priced out of enjoying a delicious and refreshing summer ale. 6/10

Beer is Hopping on the Organic Bandwagon

As much as I hate to admit it, wine is not the only passion in my life. I know, I know, boo, hiss, all that. Please stop firing Champagne corks at me. Today I’m changing my moniker from Wine(Explorer) to Beer(Explorer)… but I’m not changing my logo. Forget that. That thing is set in stone.

The Back Story:

Our beer sampling today is from Peak Organic, a brewing company in the alcohol mecca known as Portland, Maine. Seeing as how I’m a fiend for IPAs (I’ve probably single-handedly paid an executive bonus or two at Dogfish Head), I decided to give theirs a try.

IPA, in case you’re not a craft beer kind of person, means India Pale Ale. Despite its name, it’s darker than the more wide-spread macro beers (Budweiser, Heineken, Corona, etc), usually some shade of amber, though deeper hues of red or brown are often present. The “pale”  originated from the pale malts used to brew this style of beer back in the 17th century, and the “India” is an homage to the East India Company who first spread it throughout the world. The brewing process usually gives it a more bitter and hoppy taste and a higher-than-average alcohol content. The most expensive and high-quality IPAs approach or even exceed 10% alcohol, making them an incredibly rich experience that also packs a punch.

Peak Organic’s IPA is brewed in a similar tradition, except they don’t use any traditional hops. Instead, they use a combination of Simcoe, Amarillo, and Nugget hops, all of which are specialties used to impart certain flavors to certain beers. Simcoe is a fantastic bittering hop that is often used in IPAs. Amarillo is a very aromatic and flavorful hop with fairly high acidity; use of this newer variety results in robust citrus and floral notes. Nugget hops is a hybridized variety that’s typically used in American lagers. Its flavors tend to be more herbal or spicy, and it also has a high acidity.**

**I didn’t know a lot of this hop knowledge, by the way. I definitely have to credit Brew Dudes for researching the hop varieties. There’s a wealth of beer knowledge over there that I will happily explore outside of this blog post.

As you may have gathered from the company name, Peak Organic specializes in organic beers. I’m just going to let them tell the story:

With roots in home brewing back in the 90s, brewer Jon Cadoux set about combining his love for beer with an ethic for sustainability. Whenever possible, he would go out and find ingredients from local organic farmers for his homebrews.  It was a defining day when Jon discovered that you don’t need to sacrifice flavor for sustainability, but that better ingredients actually made the beer more delicious.

Well done, Jon. Well done.

The Results:

The appearance of the beer was a deep gold with a healthy reddish-brown tint, a little paler than I prefer for an IPA, but that’s mostly because I like my beers dark. For an IPA, it’s at a very good level. It formed a thick, enduring head that lasted for several minutes, becoming denser rather than dissipating as it shrank. That is phenomenal head retention, helping to keep the aromas and flavors in the beer better than most.

The nose of the beer was very appealing. It had a strong bouquet of orange zest, fairly sweet, and an herbal undertone that suggests a crisp but not overpowering bitterness.

The mouth feel of the beer would best be described as luxurious. It was very smooth but tangy, with a nice bite that I could feel in my jaw.

The flavor of the beer was extraordinarily complex. It began with a burst of sweet citrus, both lime and grapefruit, more sour than the orange nose suggested. There was definitely a floral taste, though nothing in particular I could nail down. The flavor suggested to me the overall smell of a budding garden, a combination of similar, jostling scents that result in a recognizable but hard to pin down aroma. After the initial flavors faded, the bitterness came forward, accompanied by a vanilla mocha taste, much softer and tamer than the stark coffee flavors of darker ales. The beer had an incredibly long finish that to me tasted of autumn leaves.

For the Casual Drinker:

This beer is much more complex than the widespread lagers and pilsners of the world. Most people find IPAs off-putting if they’ve never had a darker beer. It’s not as light as American macrobrews, and it’s simultaneously more sour, bitter, and sweet, but it’s not as medicinal or spicy as European-style ales. As long as you’re expecting the bitterness and the change of flavor that occurs after the initial sip, you might find this an interesting beer, especially paired with a spicy or otherwise aggressively flavorful meal.

The Conclusion:

This is the first organic beer I believe I’ve ever had, and I’m very glad I decided on it. I think I’ll have to agree with Jon (the founder, in case you skipped the back story): natural ingredients lead to better brews. At $8.99 for a six-pack, it’s a fantastic craft beer for a very reasonable price. 8/10.

You can learn more about Peak Brewing Company and their other beers at their website, www.peakbrewing.com or on Twitter at @PeakBrewing.

This post written entirely to Bright Eyes. What, like you never experienced teenage angst?

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