Monday, December 26, 2011

Beer of the Year!

Happy holidays to you all! If you’ve ever wondered what Christmas is like at the Rutledge household, I will tell you that this year’s family celebration began with a ghost pepper salsa eating throwdown, which quickly caused my dad to make strange screaming noises and go sprinting towards the bathroom in a panic. Upon his return, he announced that he ought to have this salsa on hand the next time he’s forced to give a urine sample at the doctor’s office. For the next several minutes we were all subjected to a detailed account of his recent doctor visit and how they “surprised” him with the unreasonable request for a urine sample - which he was unable to provide despite a most vigorous effort over a ten-minute time period (“I wasn’t prepared for that!). I am still unsure if there was any connection whatsoever between his consumption of the fire-hot salsa and his immediate need to urinate, but my father has never been one to let facts get in the way of a good story (or in most cases, a not so good story).

It seems that a precedent has been set wherein all future Rutledge holiday gatherings will be required to include some sort of eating challenge. I am a traditionalist at heart and will surely spend the next 51 weeks coming up with some way to up the ante. While we’re on the topic of holiday traditions, one new one I’m starting in 2011 is to end the year good and proper with my official beer of the year proclamation. I last posted a beer top ten in May, and there has been great chart movement in the ensuing months. Here, then, is the new list in all its glory:

1. Rogue Captain Sig’s Northwestern Ale
We have a new #1! Founders Breakfast Stout relinquishes the top spot to a mighty red ale brewed in honor of the coolest Deadliest Catch captain. Hoppy at 80 IBUs, yet defined by a mighty, malty backbone, this is the man’s man’s micro brew. BEER OF THE YEAR, folks!

2. Founders Breakfast Stout
A beer so amazing, I feel almost guilty bumping it to the #2 spot. And, yes, by all means I do recommend you have this for breakfast.

3. Troegs Mad Elf
Is it just me, or is this year’s batch of this cult classic Christmas ale even better than usual? Or maybe it took me all those years to comprehend its greatness! I’m convinced that actual elves make this beer and sprinkle it with magic dust. Or is it fairies that have the magic dust? No worries, Troegs has cherries and honey.

4. Brasserie Dieu du Ciel Aphrodite
A cocoa-vanilla stout from Montreal. Tastes heavenly!

5. Stone Brewing Co. Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale
There are big beers, and then there’s this! Not for the faint of heart.

6. Smuttynose Baltic Porter
I love regular old porters, but there’s something about the Slavic fruity notes and extra heartiness that gives Baltic porters the leg up. Perfection.

7. Founders Dirty Bastard
Scotch ales are a particular favorite of mine, and this one’s my most favorite.

8. Three Floyds Dreadnaught Imperial IPA
Remember when I didn’t like IPAs? My, how I’ve grown! Paid $13 for a bottle of this stuff, and it was worth every penny.

9. DuClaw Brewing Co. H.E.R.O. Chocolate Peanut Butter Porter
The winning entrant in DuClaw’s home brew contest, this beer sounds like the best thing ever…and tastes like it too!

10. Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout
There’s nothing like a Russian imperial stout in the cold weather months. This is the smoothest imperial I’ve had - which makes it hella dangerous!

On a side note, my wife asked me if the Captain Sig’s Northwestern Ale was so good that I would be willing to give up my left testicle for an unlimited supply. I have decided that no beer is worth my left nut, although perhaps that may change in 2012. I’ll pose the same question to my dad next Christmas. He may have some interesting opinions on the matter.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ridgeway Brewing Very Bad Elf

Ridgeway Brewing out of South Stoke, England gets into the Christmas spirit in a major way. In addition to brewing seasonal favorites like Reindeer Droppings and Lump of Coal, Ridgeway offers an entire line of Bad Elf beers that get progressively “worse” by degrees. There’s Bad Elf, Very Bad Elf, Seriously Bad Elf, Criminally Bad Elf, and Insanely Bad Elf (weighing in at a whopping 12 percent alcohol by volume!). Being a moderate sort of fellow, I went with Very Bad Elf. If you’re a bottle collector, you’re gonna want the entire line since the artwork on all of them is really freaking cool. But from purely a drinker's perspective, I feel like I made an excellent choice. Technically, Very Bad Elf is more of a winter warmer than it is a Christmas ale. I don’t taste a lot of holiday spices. What I do taste are the time-honored elements of an English Special Bitter, kicked up to 7.5 percent ABV for the cold weather season. This ale is based on a recipe going all the way back to 1795. It uses “an ancient pale malt” and a “rare variety” of Fuggles hops. So it doesn’t taste exactly like every other English ale you’ve had. It’s got a little uniqueness to it. All in all, though, it’s a classic tasting ESB with a nutty, sweet-roasted malt character and a balancing leafy hop bite. I enjoy beers that prominently feature caramel malts, and this one fits the bill nicely. The alcohol is well-hidden, so you get the “warming” features of a winter beer without the boozy taste. This is quite the tasty beer – sweet and roasty with a rich flavor and high drinkability. Very nice. Apparently certain states have banned the sale of these Ridgeway Christmas beers due to the artwork potentially appealing to children. Seriously? Do state legislators have nothing better to do? What a bunch of Scrooges!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Victory Brewing Company Otto

I love a beer with a story. Victory Brewing Company founders Ron and Bill first experienced smoked beers in 1987 when they visited Bamberg, Germany. The two have, for a long time, brewed their own smoked beer (rauchbier) called Scarlet Fire - which I love! Not long ago, Ron and Bill came up with an idea. What if they added the smoked malts of a rauchbier to a Belgian style dubbel? Smoky and sweet: wouldn’t that be an interesting flavor combination? And so the ale called Otto was born. It’s named after St. Otto of Bamberg – “father of the monks” and best remembered for his missionary work with the Pomeranians. The title of the beer has been somewhat controversial due to the fact that Otto’s is the name of another craft brewery in Pennsylvania. I don’t know if Victory will be forced to change the name, but I sure hope they don’t change the beer! Bottle-conditioned and made with German hops, Trappist yeast, Munich malts, Belgian caramel malts, and of course smoked malts, this “smoked dubbel” is one of my all-time favorite Victory ales. From a perspective of uniqueness, it’s pretty much unprecedented. More importantly, from a taste perspective the combination really works. Because of the rich, smoky flavor, this beer comes off more like a rauchbier than a dubbel. Yet it does combine elements of both. The nose is smoky, and so is the taste upon first contact. But the Belgian yeast and candied fruit sweetness really come through in the finish along with some nice balancing hops. I’d say if you’re the kind of person who dismisses plain old rauchbiers as “liquid bacon”, you might find this a more palatable smoked beer. The smokiness, while certainly the prevailing note, is far from overdone. As the beer warms, the dubbel-like qualities do rise from the background and make themselves known. All in all, Otto is wicked drinkable for its alcohol by volume (above eight percent!), and in my opinion it’s got one hell of a nice flavor. Then again, I’m nuts about bacon.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Schlafly Christmas Ale

I feel your pain, St. Louis. I really do. I went through this same thing when Reggie White left the Eagles. It’s a real bummer. It’s unthinkable that your boy left you. Your heart is broken. But let’s think positive. The Angels may have Albert Pujols, but you’ve still got the championship. And you’ve got Schlafly beer. Schlafly beer! Yes!

Having sampled a few underwhelming Christmas ales this week, I had my faith restored by Schlafly’s ho-ho-ho seasonal. This is what a Christmas beer should be: warming (eight percent alcohol!) and spiced out the wazoo. Schlafly uses orange peel, ginger root, cloves, juniper berries, and cardamom to flavor its Christmas Ale, while honey, caramel, and chocolate malts add an assertive sweetness redolent of a Belgian. Yet at just 30 IBUs and relatively light-bodied, this is one of the most drinkable Christmas beers out there. And like all of Schlafly’s brews, it’s nicely balanced. It takes skill to successfully walk the line between sweet and “too sweet”, but here is a case where the brewer really pulls it off. Spice is nice, but you don’t quite want it in your face. Hallertau hops come through in a big way to round off this brew. While this ale will never rival Troeg’s Mad Elf in my heart, it’s one of the few Christmas beers that I’ll look forward to purchasing again next year. Very tasty. Get in from the cold, have a seat by the fire, and savor the flavor. It sure ain’t snowing in Anaheim.

Monday, December 5, 2011

DuClaw Brewing Co. H.E.R.O. Chocolate Peanut Butter Porter

On paper, a chocolate peanut butter porter sounds like the greatest thing ever! But it’s the kind of beer that can go very, very wrong if it’s not 100 percent perfectly concocted. It could easily end up too sweet or way out of balance or terribly “fake” tasting. Nine times out of ten, a peanut butter porter is likely to be pretty awful. But one time out of ten, it’s gonna be amazing. And that’s what we’ve got with DuClaw’s H.E.R.O. Chocolate Peanut Butter Porter. Winner of DuClaw’s homebrew contest, this creation of Tony Huckestein and Doug DeLeo is no “gimmick” beer. It’s a delicious, drinkable porter full of tried-and-true roasted malts and chocolate/coffee notes. The addition of peanuts, while an unusual tweak, genuinely works!

Rewind to last Wednesday night. I tell my wife I’m almost out of beer. She surprises me be telling me that she’s going to take me on a beer shopping trek on Saturday. As a bonus, there’s going to be a side trip to the DuClaw brew pub. I immediately feel like a little kid on Christmas Eve. We look up the new arrivals at our beer store. The H.E.R.O. immediately grabs our attention. A chocolate peanut butter porter? I must have it! It goes to the top of the list I’m submitting to Santa Claus. On Saturday I buy two bomber bottles of the stuff. I drink one the very next day. Let me tell you- I wish I’d gotten more!

In all honesty, I’ve never been blown away by DuClaw beers. Their Oktoberfest is semi-ok at best, and their black ale is solid but nothing spectacular. I had their house porter and their seasonal Scottish ale on draught Saturday. I liked ‘em both, but they were “B” beers. I’m always looking for an “A”. I got precisely that with the H.E.R.O.!

Maybe it’s just because I’m partial to the porter style, but the H.E.R.O. might be one of my top ten beers for 2011. Porters always make me think of John Wayne in The Quiet Man, asking for “one of those black beers”. Man, was there ever a lot of porter being downed in that movie! I would have loved to have been a regular in that bar. And while porter purists might find it sacrilegious to add peanut butter to this classic black ale, Messieurs Huckestein and DeLeo have brewed up a porter that’s in most ways respectful to tradition. The addition of peanuts, while significant, is quite subtle. They didn’t just toss a ton of peanuts in there and call it a day. I drink a lot of porters, and this one’s top shelf. It’s smooth and robust with a creamy mouthfeel. The peanut butter element is discernible in the nose and upon the first sip, but it’s not overdone. Like any great porter, it gives you a nice mix of bitter, roasty, and sweet notes. The peanut butter is complementary to all of that. So while this is not quite a liquid Reese’s cup, it borrows a little bit of that sensibility. The novelty factor may be what grabs everyone’s attention, but it’s the amazing taste that will keep people going back for more. If you’re a porter geek like me and have access to DuClaw products, you need this beer. Really!