We're still a week out from October, but I'm already seeing signs that Hallow's Eve is not far away. TV Channels are advertising horror-themed blocks of shows, commercials for costumes have started to air (dang it, why didn't they have those cool Spider-Man mask & web shooter combos when I was a kid?). Couple all that with milder temperatures (only going to hit the upper 80s for the next week, and might even dip into the low 80s!), and you'll find me with the urge to catch up on all things Halloween.
So, in addition to me digging out my old H.P. Lovecraft paperbacks and catching up on season two of The Walking Dead, you'll find me sipping brews that are appropriate for the season (and I'll be doing it all through October). This week, I don't feel bad about stretching the theme a slight amount. You see, Real Ale's Devil's Backbone Belgian Style Ale isn't named after the horned one, but rather the "scenic ridge that runs between Blanco and Wimberly" Texas (as it says on the label.).
More from the Pour
Opening the bottle delivered one of the better aromas I've encountered in a while. There were hops and alcohol present (the latter is not surprising when you consider the ABV is 8.1%, but I did not know this at the time). But there the first thing that really caught my interest was the hint of spices (various aromatics and a hint of pepper). I really liked what I smelled, but was leery of the possibility of being assaulted by hops. Cautious, I soldiered on.
The color in my mug was a bit of a surprise. Even though this was labeled as a Belgian Style Ale, I was expecting something darker than the clear yellow liquid that poured out. It's definitely one of the lightest, brightest beers I've seen in a while. I think what was really surprising was that, in spite of rather strong carbonation (it started heavy but quickly settled down to a consistent medium), it stayed remarkably clear and never got cloudy.
The head was also remarkable. I did a moderate pour and was greeted with a solid two-finger head that was pure white. Later I did a fairly aggressive pour (had three bottles tonight while chilling, reading and writing) and got a huge three-finger head. Honestly, it looked like I could sculpt a statue of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
In the open mug the aroma was stronger, but not different. Still, the presence of the hops and alcohol made me worry about the possibility of overpowering bitterness...
Fortunately, my fears were (mostly) unfounded. My first glass registered in at about 48 degrees (after it's photographed) and the spices and pepper were prominent over the hops. Oh, the hops were there, lurking below the surface like some kind of zombie mermaid, but they weren't at the top gobbling up the kids on bikini beach. I haven't mentioned it before, but there's also a faint sweetness to the aroma, and it's definitely present in the taste with sweet sugary malt playing with the spices (pepper, nutmeg, a few others suitable for autumn).
The Sweet Spot
This beer definitely has a sweet spot dictated by temperature. Served too cold (under 50 degrees) it's lifeless and the spices don't come alive (it's sort of like a vampire in torpor -- if you get the vague gaming reference; for the rest of you, think hibernation). The bitterness definitely hides from the cowers away from the forefront (kinda like Frankenstein faced with a mob carrying torches), but you can tell it's there waiting to unleash its fury.
The sweet spot for this brew is from 50-6 degrees, more or less. It's like Frankie tossing daisies into the water with that cute kid (right before he kills her -- hey, if you don't know what I'm talking about, do yourself a favor and watch the original 1931 film, Frankenstein). For this beer, the killing temperature is over 60 degrees. I actually found this to be undrinkable at that temp and put it back into the refrigerator to chill back down so I could finish it. Over 60 degrees, this beer is like The Monster running amok and smashing everything in its path. Heck, it's more like Godzilla smashing Tokyo -- the hops get so strong that nothing can stand in their way. The other spices hitch a ride (kinda like those little munchers falling off the Cloverfield monster), but it's the big hops smacking us around and destroying things. They are just too strong and I don't care for them when this warms up (I shudder to think what would happen if I let this hit 70 degrees).
As My Mug Runs Dry
I've mixed thoughts of this brew. There are parts of it (at the right temperature) that I like very much. It's actually quite smooth when you consider the high alcohol content. I think if the malt were stronger this could be one of my favorite beers. But, then again, it wouldn't be true to its Belgian roots, would it? Abby Ale doesn't usually feature such strong malts, and I think that's what I'm craving as the shadows linger long on the ground in the mid-day sun, umber paints the sky and the colours seem to go outside the lines and out of space. The spices are welcome hints of the Harvest Feast to come (whispers, really, of the solstice waiting in this epoch of a year, 2012).
But they are not enough.
I need something more from this ale, and it's just not there. I like it well enough and would not spurn it at the winter dance if it were offered to me in a lace-festooned chalice at the solstice dance. But nor would I seek it out from among the wallflowers meekly waiting to kiss the lips of their acne-faced prince. In short, I like it -- but not enough. It's good, and I wouldn't refuse it, but I won't seek it out again, either.
Thoughts from the bottom of the glass:
Type: Tripel Belgian Ale
Color: Clear Yellow
Aroma: Spices and aromatic hops with hints of citrus and pepper
Hops: Strong and provide a chaser that lingers without being too strong to enjoy
Malt: Hiding under the sheets from the scary monsters
Head: Two fingers of strong white, never went completely away
Lace: Very strong, as expected
Mouthfeel: Really good considering the light color and strong hops
Temprature Sweet Spot: 50 - 56 degrees
My Rating: 6.5 out of 10
NOTE: I actually considered creating a new category for this beer (and, retroactively, a few others): Okay. I still might do it to fill that void between Good and Bad. Even though I've already got six categories, I considered adding a seventh so there would be a mid-ground between Horrible and Favorite. I still might do it, but not tonight. Not while the moonlight shines so bright and autumn is waiting just around the corner...
I hydrated and even took an aspirin before going to bed, but this beer still left me feeling a little sluggish the next day. Nothing bad, but it definitely had a kick to it that, I suppose, was in line with its high alcohol content. I advise a little caution if you plan on drinking a lot of this in a single evening.