Thursday, March 31, 2011

Great Divide Claymore Scotch Ale

Scotch Ales are up there with porters and stouts on my style favorite list, which is fitting given my somewhat shady ancestry. Like all Rutledges, I am descended from 16th Century border raiders who enjoyed crossing into England and engaging in numerous acts of criminality such as the theft of farm animals and the burning of barns. So nefarious were the Rutledges that it took 500 armed men to drive them back to Scotland in 1528. Some of the expelled Rutledges fled to Ireland. Others absorbed themselves into Scottish clans. The rest found their way back to England, where they resumed their acts of illegality and eventually settled in Bewcastle parish. Notable American descendents of the Scots-Irish Rutledges include Edward Rutledge (youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence), John Rutledge (the only United States Supreme Court justice to ever be relieved of his duties- largely due to speculation he was insane), writer Archibald Rutledge (a poet laureate of South Carolina and a hugely popular American outdoors writer in the early 20th Century), and musician Edward Rutledge Hawn (father of Goldie Hawn). American descendents of the Scots-English Rutledges included the southern moonshiners to whom I can most likely trace my lineage. But far from emerging from the womb with a predilection towards the family specialty, I've never had much of a taste for the hard stuff. Beer, on the other hand, I loved from the first sip. Scotch Ale in particular tastes like I was born to drink it. Perhaps I was. I would kill a man for an Orkney SkullSplitter draught. And it's not just the Scots that know how to make a wee heavy. American craft brewers like Founders have got it going on.

If the Founders Dirty Bastard is my favorite American Scotch Ale, then Great Divide's Claymore is a solid #2. Named for a Medieval Scottish sword, this is a malt-forward wee heavy with a rich caramel flavor that won me over instantly. Super malty yet not overpoweringly sweet, warming but not boozy, this is definitely one of the "mildest" Scotch ales I've had. Yet in this case, mild doesn't equal bad. The malty flavor is a perfect balance of smoky and sweet, and a subtle hop presence adds a soft kiss of bitterness. You know I love a smooth beer, and this bad boy is really smooth. Formerly a winter seasonal, it has been graduated to year-round status. Thank heavens! This is one beer I would like to keep in stock at all times. It's no SkullSplitter, and it's no Dirty Bastard. But it's a damn fine ale in its own right - a delicious malt-bomb of a wee heavy like the Rutledges have been drinking for 500 years. Pure dead brilliant!

Photo Courtesy of Read the review here:

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Clipper City Heavy Seas Black Cannon Black IPA

I love to support regional beers, and I’ve already written about a number of southern Pennsylvania craft breweries. But I haven’t reviewed any beers from Baltimore - until now. Black Cannon is what they call a black IPA. Yes, I know: a “black” pale ale is a contradiction in terms. But it’s also a very delicious beer. Imagine combining the piny and grapefruit hop flavor of an IPA with the dark malts of a stout or a porter. That sounds pretty good on paper and tastes just as good crossing my lips. I like IPAs, and I love stouts. Combined, they make for one fine beer. The Heavy Seas Black Cannon is a variation of Clipper City’s flagship IPA, Loose Cannon. It’s got the pine and fruity (grapefruit, orange, pineapple) character of a good IPA plus the black color and defining malts of a dark ale - coffee, chocolate, caramel. Without a doubt, this is one of the most perfectly balanced beers I’ve tasted in a long time. Neither predominantly hoppy nor overly malty, this beer strikes a medium so happy you’d have to call it blissful. Perhaps it’s not aggressive or “extreme” enough to attain cult status amongst beer geeks. But as the sort of beer lover who finds amazing taste to be far more important than “daring” brewing, I give Black Cannon an A-rating without hesitation. Soon to disappear from store shelves for the year, this is a winter beer that won’t taste at all “out of season” as we move into spring. Buy it now if you can find it and enjoy it for a couple more months. This year’s batch will stay fresh ‘til June.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Smuttynose Baltic Porter

I have not always been a consumer of 22-ounce bottled beers. I used to think that you only bought a bottle that big if you were going to share it with someone else. And my wife does not drink - although she’s tempted to start given the daily tribulations of her profession. The idea of drinking that much beer by myself, in one sitting, seemed a little, um, excessive. But these days I suffer from no such inhibitions. If I order a draught beer at Outback steak house and they ask me, “Do you want the 16 or the 22?”, of course I ask for the 22. So if I’m willing to pay $5 for 22 ounces of some swill like Fosters, why not spring for an extra dollar and get the same amount of a really great beer? I was perusing the refrigerated section at Marino’s Beverage Depot in Sylvania, Ohio (a store I like to refer to as the Greatest Place in the World) and spotted a big old bottle of Smuttynose Baltic Porter. I knew right off I had to have it. It did not let me down.

Having enjoyed both the Smuttynose Baltic Porter and Victory’s extraordinary Baltic Thunder, I’m thinking the Baltic porter may be my favorite beer style of them all. The traditional porter has always been a huge favorite mine, but the Baltic porter is even better. It’s like porter on steroids! The Baltic porter has its origins in the 18th Century, when makers of British porter brewed a stronger version of their product that could endure the long shipment across the North Sea. Today the Baltic porter is a popular style in such places as Finland, Estonia, The Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. These porters are made with a lager yeast and taste of dark fruit. In keeping with this tradition, the Smuttynose Baltic Porter is bottom fermented with a lager yeast - giving it a different character than a British-style porter. And at 9 percent alcohol, this is definitely not your granddaddy’s porter. Down a whole bottle, and you’ll be feeling no pain. But man, oh, man, is this one delicious beer! It’s ultra creamy and ridiculously drinkable considering its ABV, the malty flavor full of coffee and chocolate notes, infused with dark fruit and raisin, and balanced by more than a little hop bitterness. It’s truly the best of both worlds: the roasted toffee taste of the classic porter meets the dark fruity notes of its Baltic cousin. It is, as advertised, a big beer. But it’s every bit as smooth - it ought to be illegal for a 22-ounce bottle to go down so easy! Like a lot of beers I’ve been enjoying over the past couple months, it’s a winter seasonal that I won’t see again until late 2011. Why did I only buy one bottle? Why?!!!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Great Lakes Conway's Irish Ale

If St. Patrick’s Day is a day when we’re supposed to drink too much and celebrate our Irish heritage, then that’s basically every day of my year. But for those of you who reserve your appreciation for all things Irish to just one day out of 365, I kindly ask that you at least make good choices in your alcoholic beverages. As the great beer columnist Joe Sixpack recently put it, Killian’s Irish Red ale is neither Irish nor an ale. Drinking Killian's on St. Patrick's Day is like listening to the Dropkick Murphys when you could be listening to The Pogues. Of course you can never go wrong with a Guinness, and I’ve been known to knock back a Smithwick’s or two or six at a St. Patrick’s get-together. But there’s an Irish red brewed right here in these United States that beats the pants out of Smithwick’s. And that’s Conway’s Irish Ale, made by the fine folks at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing Company. If you happen to live in an area where Conway’s is readily available, you can bet it’ll be fresher (and tastier) than any Smithwick’s you’ll find on the shelves. And it’s not like I don’t like Smithwick’s – but I love Conway’s! It’s one of my favorite beers, period, and the Irish red is one of my favorite beer styles. It’s kind of an underrated beer style. Irish reds are not particularly hoppy or in any way “bold” enough to get beer geeks worked up. But that is largely by design, as the style is meant to be mild. It’s a blue collar beer, ya know? But so what? There’s nothing wrong with a mild flavor if it’s done well. Irish reds generally have a toasted malt character that I really enjoy. They go down easy and pair perfectly with dishes like bangers & mash and shepherd’s pie (which I’d eat every night of the year if I could!). I always love craft brewers that are willing to make “better” versions of mainstream beers. Samuel Adams makes an outstanding Irish red, but the Great Lakes version is the very best I’ve had.

Named after Patrick Conway, a Cleveland police officer who directed traffic near the current brewery site for 25 years, Conway’s has that classic toasty flavor derived from lightly roasted malts. The use of Northern Brewer, Hallertau, and Fuggle hops, although very subtle, adds a slight bitterness that rounds out the flavor nicely. Irish reds sometimes get dismissed as “bland” or “boring”, but Conway’s is neither. Its caramel and bready malts are the star players, with the hops holding down a crucial supporting role. And I love the way that toasty flavor lingers in the throat long after the beer has been swallowed! Mmmmm! I award bonus points in two key areas: A) Conway’s tastes just as good straight out of the bottle as it does in a glass and B) my case came stamped with a “drink by April 2011” notice. You have to respect a brewery that respects fresh beer. Available only from January through April, this is one seasonal I’d like to see on the shelves year-round.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Bell's Hopslam

I don’t think I became a true beer drinker until I came to love hops. I still wouldn’t consider myself a “hophead” (I’m more of a malt man, if I had to pick). But I do like hops, and I don’t turn my nose up at IPAs like I used to six or seven years ago. Think of any top-notch craft brewery out there, and you can be pretty certain that one of their “signature” beers will be an IPA. Being a beer geek and not liking IPAs would be like being a Trekkie and not liking Captain Kirk. It’s possible, I suppose, but it just seems wrong. Hops are good stuff, man! Even something as tame as a Samuel Adams Boston Lager triumphs over the average beer precisely because it’s full of hops. There was a time in my life when I thought a Miller High Life tasted better than a Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA. Oh, how far I have come! Some of my favorite beers of recent memory – like Victory’s Yakima Glory and Founders Red Rye PA – are all about the hops.

The true test for me, though, was how I’d do with a double IPA. Taking on a sixty-IBU craft ale and genuinely enjoying it is surely a step in the right direction. But in the grand scale of hop bitterness, that’s nothing! The doubles separate the men from the boys, and I knew I was not yet a Jedi until I’d conquered a certified hop monster. It doesn’t get more monstrous (or delicious!) than the Hopslam. I tried it this week for the first time, and as a beer lover I have to wonder how I survived all these years without it! Without a doubt it rates as one of the greatest beers I've ever tasted. Bell’s may sometimes take a backseat to intrastate rivals Founders – perhaps the best of all American craft breweries. But here’s a case where Bell’s has Founders beat! The very excellent Founders Double Trouble is the Deron Williams to the Hopslam’s Chris Paul – a close #2, but #2 nonetheless. What a week for me: I get to turn 40, see Gary Busey on Celebrity Apprentice, and find a new favorite beer!

With all due respect to the likes of Victory’s Hop Wallop and Dogfish’s 120, I’d have to call The Hopslam the gold standard of the imperial IPA style. As the name implies, it delivers a knockout punch of floral and fruity hops. It’s made with six different hops in the kettle and then gets dry-hopped with an enormous dose of Simcoe, resulting in a finished product topping 100 on the IBU scale. That’s right: I said one HUNDRED! A hefty helping of malts and a finishing dash of honey provide balance, but by no means do they tame the beast. They don’t call it Hopslam for nothing! But while this beer is a hopped-up ass-kicker of the highest order, it’s not just about the intensity. It’s just as much about flavor, and the flavor is perfect. To draw a musical comparison, imagine the steamroller power of Motorhead crossed with the delicate craftsmanship of the Beatles. It’s ferocious but divine. Grapefruit dominates, backed by a firestorm of bitter hop notes running the gamut from citrus to pine to mango to flowers. The touch of honey adds one final, crucial layer of flavor complexity. Damn! It may seem odd to refer to such an overwhelmingly bitter beer as “drinkable”, but it totally is. Because its deliciousness is so very out of control, I want to gulp this bad boy down fast. But that would be an extremely dangerous thing to do at an alcohol by volume rate topping ten percent!

Unlike some doubles, the Hopslam is not available year-round. It’s one of Bell’s winter seasonals. How ironic that my least favorite season of the year offers all the best beers! I’ve got four bottles left – will I save them for a rainy day? Are you nuts?! I’ll be all out by next week, and that will give me a good ten months to get worked up for Hopslam 2012. What’s that? The world’s supposed to end? I better get my beer first!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Williamsburg AleWerks Coffeehouse Stout

The Coffeehouse Stout is the first beer from Williamsburg AleWerks I’ve ever tried. It’s also the first craft beer from Virginia I’ve ever tried. I will be trying many, many more of both in the near future. If a brewery can make one beer this good, my money is on all of its beers being worthwhile. I’m kind of a snob when it comes to stouts, and the Coffeehouse Stout is way up there with the best I’ve ever had. A milk stout made with Guatemala Antigua coffee, it’s sweet and creamy without subduing those strong, rich coffee notes. Some coffee stouts come off like bad gas station iced mochas - that’s not the case here. This is a stout through and through, with a great roasty flavor and an underlying taste of chocolate for added complexity. The milk component does have a creamer-like effect on the coffee taste - but not in an overdone sort of way. Sometimes milk stouts are enjoyable because the sweetness obliterates the bitterness. But here the sweetness works in perfect unison with the bitterness, actually enhancing the strength of the coffee notes. The flavor truly approaches perfection. This is an insanely drinkable stout and one of the most delicious beers I’ve had in quite some time. Too bad it’s a seasonal and I won’t see it in stores again until late fall at the earliest. Come summer, when I’m drinking wheat beers and saisons every night, I’ll be jonesing hardcore for the Coffeehouse Stout!