Saturday, September 29, 2012

045. Devil's Backbone Belgian Style Ale

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
Carbonation: Medium/Heavy
Mouthfeel:  Really good considering the light color and strong hops
Temprature Sweet Spot: 50 - 56 degrees
ABV: 8.1%
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.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

044. Wychwood Hobgoblin Dark English Ale

I wouldn't call it a chill, exactly, that has been moving through the air of late. No, certainly not a chill. But the dog days of summer seem to have settled down for a cat nap (so to speak) and although I doubt we've seen the last of temperatures in the upper 90s (history suggests that the beasts of summer will bark one last heat wave upon us before the end of the year), there is definitely something autumnal in the air.

The sun shadows linger longer on the walks as the days wane and the pine needles seem more eager to join gravity and air for their dance to the ground. So, although I wouldn't call it a chill, I would say that autumn has arrived to Houston and we are heading into the Witching month of October.

So, to celebrate the turning of the season, I'm going to devote the month of October to a single theme: Halloween and Autumn. Since there are only four Saturdays in October this year, I decided to go trick or treating a little early and dive into my theme a little early. Think of this as my...

Happy Hour With Hobgoblins
My first beer of this Halloween season is very appropriately named: Hobgoblin Dark English Ale. This brew is an import from the fog-shrouded shores of Olde England, appropriately crafted (probably in a deep cavern haunted by the souls of many a wayward drunkard) Wychwood Brewery.

Popping the top of this 1 pint 9 oz. bottle was like opening a cupboard in a Hogwarts cooking classroom: it delivered many faintly enticing aromas ranging from chocolate, toffee, malt and a hint of something exotic that I couldn't quite place.  After the exciting aroma, I was very disappointed by the pour. I started with a safe pour, but then got very aggressive near the end, but to no avail: I just couldn't get a good head out of the bottle I poured. The lace turned out to be equally disappointing. Perhaps it was trying too hard to fit into the Halloween theme because, like a ghost, I just couldn't see it.

The flavor, though, was something else. After the almost-sad pour I approached my glass with diminished expectations -- only to be wonderfully surprised! Like Sabrina the Teenage Witch popping in with a plate of cookies, I was gifted with a wonderfully malty ale that brought sweet notes of chocolate, toffee and a delightful undercurrent of exotic hops. This is just the sort of thing that could keep me warm while riding my broom on a moonless night.

My first glass was served around 45 degrees and I really like the way the cold mellowed out the hops and brought the sweet flavors to the forefront. Since this was an English Ale, I suspected I would need to drink it tepid to really enjoy it, but that was certainly not the case. As a cold beer this was refreshing, sweet and chock-full of malty goodness. It was something I really enjoyed.

How Sweet It Is
Of course, I'm never satisfied with one sip (and since this was a tall bottle, that certainly wasn't a problem). So I let it warm up a bit to find out what it would be like if I left it too close to the alter flames during the summoning ritual. It turns out that a few minutes of heat was not a bad thing. Letting it warm up to 60 degrees awoke the hops that had been slumbering beneath the thin foam like a certain creature from a certain darkish lagoon. However, if I let the ice caps melt completely and drink it at 70 degrees or warmer, then the hops run amok and the malt cowers like a Divorce Lawyer in a cellar during the zombie apocalypse (okay, even I admit that one was very stretched...).

For this beer, a nice chill will serve it well.

From the Label:
A strong, dark ale brewed by the UK‟s largest producer of organic ales. Full bodied and well balanced with a chocolate, toffee malt flavor.  Moderate  bitterness and a distinctive fruity character with a ruby red glow.
I bought this ale because it looked to be a nice dark ale (which is the sort of thing I like when the blazing summer sun wanes and gives way to the gentle warmth of autumn. And because it had a cool picture of a hobgoblin on the label. It turns out that this Hobgoblin is likely to hang around well past Hallow's Eve and become a permanent part of my winter larder. I'm surprised to say that I'm adding this British Import to my favorite's list, even though I've no idea how it will pair with food (if I run some food-matching tests, I'll let you know).

Thoughts from the bottom of the glass:
Type: Dark Ale
Color: Cloudy Dark Brown
Aroma: Enticing, malty, chocolaty with faint exotic under-notes
Hops: Understated at cold temperatures, but they come alive when it warms to the "sweet spot"
Malt: Delicious -- definitely the star
Head: A fingernail of thin brown, biscuity foam
Lace: None to speak of
Carbonation: Medium
Mouthfeel:  A nice biscuit-like lingering sensation that plays well with the carbonation
Temprature Sweet Spot: Under 55 degrees
Temperature Hops Spot: Hops come alive between 60 - 65 degrees
ABV: 5.2% in bottle, 4.5% in cask
My Rating: 8.5 out of 10

By The Way
These guys have a really cool Website. I discuss it over in my mid-week update, Mitchell's Beer Talk. Check it out.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

043. Fischer Tradition Amber

Heading off to Dallas for a romantic weekend, I chose to pack a few beers for a birthday party (Shiner Black & St. Arnold Summer Pils), but I also brought along a few for me to review while chilling at the family’s ranch Friday night (we hit Dallas tomorrow).

The first top to pop was one that’s been in my beer fridge since the start of summer: Fischer Traditional Amber. I'm not quite sure if this is French or German beer (or both), as the info on the Web is a bit confusing on this point. But I’m pretty sure I picked this up at the HEB in The Woodlands, but it’s possible it came from a Spec’s Liquor in NW Houston. I honestly don’t recall, but I doubt it cost more than $5 for the 1 pint 6 ounce bottle.

In the spirit of full disclosure here at “the Wild Side” (where I only review beers that are new to me), there is a chance I’ve had this before. The bottle looks very familiar… but then again, it’s so simple that it resembles many other beers with a flip top (that cool wire contraption that holds the top in place so it is re-sealable. Perfect for when you’re in the mood to sip and don’t want to finish a beer in one sitting.

Of course, that’s not the case tonight. This is a perfect size for relaxing after driving 2.5 hours.

Popping the Top
I love flip-top Euro Beers. I have fond memories of drinking Grolsch when I was in college. Back in the 1980s, by the way, they had ceramic tops, not cheesy plastic like they have today. Yeah, I’m a grouchy old man fond for the days of yore.

Popping this top rewarded me with a pleasant pop of carbonation and a strong malty aroma with a nice strain of yeast riding sidecar. I really liked it, despite the absence of hops or other aromatics.

Pouring the beer into a Mason jar glass revealed a nice brownish amber color and a moderate pour yielded the best head I’ve had in months (at least on a beer). The head was durable and provided an impressive lace that lingered even as I took my first sip and was rewarded with a nice taste of yeasty malty goodness.

I think the lack of prominent hops is the one area where some drinkers will get bitchy and dump on this beer. I would agree that I would prefer the hops to bring a little more to the party, but their absence allows the malt to take center stage and I think the faint bitterness I detected at warmer temperatures probably came from the yeast. This isn’t bad and the hops-whore haters need to chill out a bit: this is a solid beer worthy of some respect.

The Sweet Spot
Without the hops (which tend to breath at warmer temperatures), I’m not surprised that this beer is better served cold. The carbonation borders on being fizzy, but in a pleasant way delivering a very pleasant mouthfeel that stays with you after each sip. I enjoyed the malt and think this would be a good contender for an Autumn beer

Non-Kosher Side Note: I had a bacon sandwich with this, and the beer did not pair as badly with the salty bacon as I expected. It’s as though the salt brought some very welcome tang to the experience. And, as everyone who knows me will say, I’m a fan of the tang.

In Closing
This is one of the first French (if it is French) Beers I’ve had in a long time that I really enjoyed. It wasn’t perfect, but it was smooth and solid and I really enjoyed it. The tiny label lists the brewer as Biere D’Alsace and that they've been doing this since 1821. Dang, that’s almost 200 years. I guess it’s fair to say that they know what they’re doing, as I would definitely drink this again.

Thoughts from the Bottom of the Glass:
Type: Dark Larger
Color: Amber Brown
Aroma: Sweet malt
Hops: Not much to speak of
Malt: Strong and pleasing
Head: 2-fingers white, durable
Lace: Strong and foamy
Carbonation: Medium
Mouthfeel: Pleasant, good lingering results
Temperature Sweet Spot: Coldish (around 38-48 degrees)
ABV: 6%
My Rating: 7.5 of 10

Other Reviews Worth A Sip
The guys over at Beer Advocate and I couldn't disagree on this one more. They generally hated it, as you can see for yourself:

Sunday, September 9, 2012

042. Alamo Golden Ale

Since I'm heading up north next weekend to drink beer with my brother-in-law in Dallas, this week I decided it would be appropriate for me to imbibe of a local brew. Fortunately, there are a lot of mighty fine beers to be had here in Texas. This week I chose an ale from someone I've never heard of before: The Alamo Beer Company from San Antonio. Now, if you follow that link you won't find much of a Website: just a single page with some info that leads me to believe that this is their first beer released to the general public, which could explain why it's being distributed by the fine folks the Real Ale Brewing Co. in Blanco, Texas (that's kinda Central Texas, sorta betwixt San Antonio and Austin -- if you hit Kerrville you've gone too far west). My ale of choice was Alamo Golden Ale.

I picked it up earlier today whilst shopping up north (not as far north as Dallas is from Houston, but still a fair drive up to The Woodlands) and I mosied into the HEB at Kukendahl and Lake Woodlands Pkwy to take another stroll through their outstanding beer department. I do not know who runs that department (maybe I should try to get an interview with him... something to think about), but he is obviously a beer enthusiast. He keeps the common stuff along the back wall (Coors, Bud, Miller -- and this being Texas, 12-packs of Shiner), but there is an entire long cooler dedicated to cold goodness of local beers (Saint Arnold, Karbach, No Label, Southern Star and more) and a wide assortment of other goodies (including the German Konig Pilsner that I reviewed a few weeks back). Outside of a Spec's Liquor Store, it has one the best selection of bottle beers that I've found in the Houston area. Other contenders would include Central Market and Whole Foods.

I paid about $7.50 for the six-pack, which is about right for a craft beer in The Woodlands. I suspect you may be able to find it for a little less depending on where you buy it.

At First It Left Me Cold...
I loved the "frontier-style" packaging: simple & effective.
First, a note about the packaging. I really liked the simple brown cardboard six-pack case. It was appropriate for a beer bearing the name of our state shrine, The Alamo. I also appreciated its tagline: "Brewed with a Fiercely Independent Spirit." I also like the simple label: red & black on a basic orange background. Simple but stylish.

Popping the top I was met with an aroma that was nothing much to write about, to be honest. I detected a hint of yeast and some hops, but not much more. The pour was equally lackluster. I poured two bottles into my big mug (it's purely for artistic reasons -- a half-full mug just doesn't look impressive. That's my main motivation for pouring two beers... oh, the things I sacrifice for the sake of my art. Sigh, my wife doesn't believe me, either). I was rewarded with almost no aroma and had to pour aggressively to get even a one-finger head sitting atop a cloudy yellow ale. Honestly, it looked more like pee than "golden ale." I was not very impressed, as you can probably tell.

I then took the beer's temperature and it was 51 degrees Fahrenheit. Considering the beer had only been in the refrigerator for about two hours, that wasn't too bad. I took my first sip and got a good mouthful feeling -- it seemed heartier than I had expected -- but the flavors just weren't there. And there was no lace at all, either.

This seemed odd to me because I've enjoyed beers by Real Brewing Co. before. I can't swear they make any of my favorites, but they've never given me a dud, either. So I took a few sips as the beer warmed up, and then Alamo Golden Ale mustered up and delivered a good flavor and a pleasant drinking experience.

But Now I Will Remember THIS Alamo!
This is not a beer to be served cold (I bought a six-pack -- if the "ice cold" beer delivers a different experience, I'll report it later:  LATER: Had the last one "ice cold on Sunday night -- don't bother; it's much better at my Temperature Sweet Spot described below). The cold beer was uninteresting and did not deserve to be remembered.

But as it warmed up to around 60 - 64 degrees (which is still nice and cool), it came alive. The hops became apparent, providing a nice bitterness on my tongue with a hint of mountain aromatics (some might call it grassiness, but I don't). The hops were pleasantly counterbalanced by the malt (the label immodestly calls it an "Almost velvety finish," and they're right). And that yeasty taste I'd mentioned transformed into a medium to support the other complex flavors.

At this warmer temperature, this is a completely different ale. I even poured a third bottle (again, only as a sacrifice to my art and not a commentary on a long work week). This bottle was about 59 degrees when I popped the top and it delivered a nice aroma of aromatic hops, smooth malt and pleasant bready yeast. The head was also more impressive: two fingers of white, but it still faded quickly leaving behind a faint lace that also faded quickly. But quick is better than none.

Summing It Up
This is a great golden ale, and as you know, I don't love golden ales. This is smooth, aromatic with a strong carbonation that delivers a nice mouthfeel and is one of the highest-rated beers I've tried in ages. By most reckoning it should be a solid contender for being one of my favorites, but there's just a little something off with it that keeps it from achieving the hallowed ranks of my Favorites List (that thing in the upper-right-corner). Perhaps it's the narrow Temperature Sweet Spot (get it up to 68 and I don't much care for the bitterness that takes over the other flavors), or perhaps it's just that it's lighter than my usual fare (which ain't too bad for these dog days of summer). Nevertheless, this is a great beer and I will definitely remember THIS Alamo and I might even pick up a six-pack to share with my brother-in-law next weekend.

From the label:
Brewed with a fiercely independent spirit. Alamo golden ale, the brain child of Eugene Simor, is a full-bodied, refreshingly lither style ale with a smooth velvety finish.

Thoughts from the bottom of the glass:

Type: Golden Ale
Color: Cloudy Yellow
Aroma: Simple, yeasty, clear
Hops: Understated
Malt: Smooth and balanced
Head: One or two fingers white, faded quickly
Lace: None to speak of
Carbonation: Medium/Heavy
Mouthfeel:  One of the best things about this beer. heartier than expected.
Temprature Sweet Spot: 60 - 64 degrees
ABV: 5.1%
My Rating: 8 out of 10

NOTE 9/11/2012: The Alcohol content wasn't available online, so I sent Eugene an email and he reports that the ABV is 5.1%. 

Other Reviews Worth a Sip:
The Beer Advocate guys were somewhat impressed with this Golden Ale. Check it out:

A bit of fun with Eugene
I decided to look into the company a little more and a few minutes of google searching found this fun little video:

Saturday, September 1, 2012

041. JB Dunkelweizen

I'm not a huge fan of wheat beers. Although I've had a few that I've enjoyed over the years, in general they fall short for me. They seem to lack depth -- as though the wheat takes over the sweetness of malt and plays up the yeast and other earthy/fruity flavors at the expense of anything else. I find this to be particularly true at warmer temperatures.

Although these are generalities, I find them all to be true with JosephsBrau's Dunkelweizen Amber Unfiltered Wheat Beer.

Color: To come

Aroma: A hint of banana and brown sugar hiding under the wheat and hops. The caramel is probably coming from roasted malt, but I'm not sure.

Taste Impressions
The wheat is definitely the star, but it shares the stage with aromatic hops and a chorus of sweet malt and fruit flavors ably putting a "best foot forward" in the rear. In short, I get the "Weizen" (the wheat), but not the "Dunkel" (dark German beer).

I had high hopes for this, but they just didn't deliver. There's nothing particularly wrong with this beer (in fact, if you're just trying to introduce some friends to a new style and want something non-threatening, then this might just be what you're looking for. But if you're looking for an impressive Dunkelweizen (dark German Wheat beer), they you should probably look elsewhere.

My score: 4 out of 10
ABV: 5.2%