Taste Test: The Downside of Labeling?

cow-taste-test

Where the taste test happens.

For those of us who are curious about what goes into our beer beyond hops, malt and yeast, labels only tell half the story … or is it the full story?

A while ago, I wrote about the use of natural flavoring in beers, explaining what it means and how it benefits brewers. An important outcome of the use and how flavors are labeled, however, may have the impact of setting expectations for a consumer. “Natural flavoring” as opposed to listing a specific taste or flavor, allows some flexibility for a brewery:

Why the term “natural flavoring?” I’d guess it straddles a fine line between impacting a consumers perception of a product and the legality of what is required to tell a customer. If you put a specific flavor front-and-center on the label – perhaps “lemonade” on Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy – there will be no doubt in a customer’s mind what they’ll be tasting. For a summer-specific beer like that, it makes sense.

So what happens when we are presented with specific labeling and the expectations that come along with them? I held a small (unscientific) experiment this weekend to get a better idea.
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This is What Happens When You Visit Three Breweries and THEN Go to Dogfish Head: Beergrimage 2014

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Click to enlarge, if you dare.

WARNING: #Longread

I make no qualms about the purpose of this blog. The title is poking fun at the idea of hosting a beer blog – I’m not drunk when I’m producing content. I swear, mom. There’s a very real reason why I do this.

Part of that reason is my adoration for Dogfish Head, which launched what I assume will be a life-long love for all things beer. All the details are here, if you feel so inclined.

That said, sometimes it’s important to let yourself go a little. Sometimes you’ve got to have fun. Sometimes, you’ve got to go on a Beergrimage.

It’s a time for friends, but no time for check-ins. It’s a reason to be silly, but no reason to get stupid. It’s an opportunity to celebrate beer. For the third year in a row, that’s what a buddy and I did, this time accompanied by Friend of the Program Josh from Short on Beer, who also offers a recap on his blog.

This year’s trip wasn’t just to Dogfish’s Rehoboth Beach brewpub, as in year’s past. We put a new spin on the effort, turning it into a mini beer road trip. Fun abounds.
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From Taproom to Kitchen: A Taste Test with Hi-Wire Brewing

Woman walking on tightrope over cityscape, low section

Back in September, I made a trip to beer Mecca, Asheville, NC, to visit friends. During my stop, I made sure to check out one of North Carolina’s newer breweries, Hi-Wire Brewing, which opened up over the summer.

As you’d expect from any Asheville business, the place was cozy and friendly … but what about their beers?

Well, it just so happens that Hi-Wire recently began distributing three of their year-round beers to the eastern side of North Carolina. After finding them in my local bottle shop – an IPA, pale ale and brown ale – I decided to do a retroactive taste test.

What I’ve done is taken my initial impressions, as captured on Untappd, and separately taken notes on the bottle versions I bought last week. I was curious to compare and contrast my thoughts.

As I’m sure you know, getting beer straight from the source is always the best way to do things – a la my great Beergrimage of 2013 – but I figured this would be a fun way to offer up a few new NC beers in case you happen to pass through the state.
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Uncommon Brewers Lineup: Bacon Beer and Why You Shouldn’t Care

uncommon brewers bacon beer

Like any good American food product these days, Uncommon Brewers cashed in on the bacon craze and is perhaps best known for their “Bacon Brown Ale” due to press they received when it was released. The Santa Cruz-based brewery said they used some kind of innovative method to extract the flavor without fats and oils being included in the beer, which is a big no-no.

But did you know they make other beers, too? I was lucky enough to get my hands on the full canned lineup of Uncommon’s beers recently, which were brought down to North Carolina from Pennsylvania. How do these beers shape up? Well, it’s a very mixed bag…

Bacon Brown Ale

uncommon brewers-beer-baconAt the risk of sounding too clichéd for an American, this one could use more bacon.

Uncommon uses real bacon in the mash process (somehow) to try and derive meaty flavor into the beer. I’ll be damned if they managed that.

Brown ale is certainly a solid choice for that effort, but I never smelled anything resembling bacon and mostly just got a maple sweetness, which I suppose could qualify as “bacon-like.” Otherwise, the aroma was simply malty.

With barely any carbonation – perhaps from the oils/fats of the bacon – the beer felt smooth, but heavy for the style. It had light, smoky flavors and was a touch sweet, although normal for a malt-forward brown ale. If anything, it came off as a baby version of Rogue’s Maple Bacon Donut Ale.

I’m glad I tried this for novelty’s sake, but this is not a good beer.

Baltic Porter

uncommon brewers-beer-baltic porterThis beer certainly lives up to the “Uncommon” name, taking what is typically a straight-forward, warming beer and adding something extra to it that would make it or break it for a beer drinker.

Brewed with a whole licorice root, there’s no missing it’s pungent, spicy smell. A dose of anise essentially doubles down on this aroma, adding black licorice smells. I really wanted to find pleasant notes of malt that you’d normally get from a Baltic porter, but nothing was heavy enough to come through all the licorice smells. It just came off as muddled.

The beer was surprisingly light in body given its heavy, dark appearance. There was little acidity but a very dry finish. All I could taste was anise. Your call on if that’s good or bad.

Siamese Twin

uncommon brewers-beer-siamese twinLike the Baltic Porter, this beer takes a new spin on a classic style. This is a Belgian-style dubbel seasoned with coriander (not out of the ordinary) and Thai spices (out of the ordinary). This may be the first beer I’ve come across that is specifically brewed to be paired with curry.

I couldn’t get past the malt characteristics of this brew, with raisins and figs leading the charge on my nostrils. I picked up tons of bready smells that reminded me of a fresh mash of grain. At 8.5 percent ABV, there was a lot of booze on the back end of each whiff.

I can’t comment on the flavor of this beer other than it was disappointing. Candi sugar taste mixed with grape is what initially came to mind. If anything, all of the individual flavors that were supposed to come through were simply a muddled mess.

Womp womp.

Golden State

uncommon brewers-beer-golden state aleMight as well save the best for last.

This is a straight-forward golden ale that relies heavily on fruity aromas. The use of poppy seeds gives it a very herbal smell that works nicely with lemon citrus accentuated by pale malts. I’m not sure what “California yeast” strain Uncommon used, but it gave off light Belgian esters that included banana.

There was surprisingly little flavor, although I suppose you could argue Golden State Ale tastes exactly how you might expect – a light, golden ale with Belgian accents. Ripe fruit and herbs (poppy) dominate with jabs of dark nuts every now and then.

Is it worth it?

The real question is, would I recommend any of these? Simply put: no. These beers are fine to drink, but it just seems like there’s too much going on with every can. Maybe it’s a case where the brewers need to hone their recipes or maybe it’s a case where the beer just kind of sucks.

Either way, save your money and find some other new beer to try.

+Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

The Six-Pack Project: Beers from Around the Country

six pack-beerWith Memorial Day in the rearview mirror, we’ve entered the (unofficial) start of summer. Barbecues, beaches and vacations lie ahead.

But what’s a trip away from home without throwing beer into the mix?

Enter the Six-Pack Project. It’s a new, collaborative effort between beer bloggers from around the country to highlight a six-pack of our state’s native brews that we believe best represent what the beer culture of our respective states offer. If someone is coming to visit, what bottles or cans would we want to share?

Here are our rules:

  • Pick a six-pack of beers that best represents your state and/or state’s beer culture.
  • Beer must be made in your state, but “gypsy” brewers are acceptable, so long as that beer is brewed with an in-state brewery and sold in your state.
  • Any size bottle or can is acceptable to include.
  • Current seasonal offerings are fine, but try to keep selections to year-round brews as much as possible. No out-of-season brews preferred.

Welcome to the inaugural round of the Six-Pack Project. I hope to include bloggers from across the U.S. in future versions, so contact me on Twitter if you or someone you know may fit the bill.

Some quick notes to about selections for my state, North Carolina:

1. I approached this task as if I were building a flight of beers for you to try. Because of that, I’ve picked six different styles of beers that would (hopefully) take you through a great North Carolina beer experience, although subjectively selected by me.

2. All of these picks can be found year-round in NC beer shops.

Without further adieu, let’s find out what North Carolina has to offer…
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Founders Brewing Frangelic Mountain Brown

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If I were to ever want a boozy coffee that wasn’t Irish, this would be it.

While not a straight coffee beer in the vein of Founders Breakfast Stout, Frangelic Mountain Brown encapsulates all the warming and tasty parts of a flavored cup o’ joe that even non-coffee drinkers might enjoy. This is thanks to the beer having been brewed with hazelnut coffee (their website says “coffees,” the bottle says flavoring) which imparts lots of pleasant aromas and tastes. It’s got an 89 on Beer Advocate.

The most impressive thing about this beer is how welcoming it is right out of the bottle. Despite a 9 percent ABV, alcohol isn’t easily detectible as it hides behind amazing chocolate and hazelnut coffee aromas. There is no bitterness you might find from coffee beans, as Frangelic rolls one sweet smell after another with heavy cream, vanilla and caramel wafting out of the glass. I’d dare say cinnamon also had a seat at the table, which could simply be residual from the hazelnut flavoring. Just a heavenly nose on this beer.

There’s a dairy smoothness to this beer’s mouthfeel, only intensified a general lack of carbonation. Tastes of cream and hazelnut sit on the forefront of each sip with a solid roasted coffee-like finish. Jabs of chocolate nip at the tongue. Any alcohol taste never even stops by.

41A malt-forward brew, Frangelic still manages a slight hop-driven, earthy bitterness that rested on my palate after each gulp. That was easily replaced by the wonderful, sweet characteristics of the brew on my next sip.

The biggest downside of this beer? It’s part of Founder’s Backstage Series, which typically consists of one-off brews that may never be brewed again. Hope is not lost, however, as adventurous beer lovers can try beer trade forums like Reddit to find a bottle.

Frangelic Mountain Brown stats:

+Bryan Roth

Cigar City Maduro brown ale

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“Brown ale has never been the most popular beer, but there always seem to be customers for a beer that is a little toastier and less hoppy than pale ale.”
– Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer

Some beers are made to simply not offend and that’s OK. Some beers offer an array of smells and tastes, but nothing remarkable.

Sometimes that’s the point.

Cigar City’s Maduro brown ale is an expected malt-forward entry into the brown ale style, leading with a base of bittersweet chocolate malt aromas, brown sugar and molasses. It’s simplistic, straight-forward and easy. On the tongue, Maduro brings forth tastes of hazelnut, caramel, toffee and more of that chocolate malt. Light carbonation keeps mouthfeel smooth. Cigar City insists espresso is part of the package, but only as the beer warmed considerably could I get a sense of that.

This brown ale is easy-drinking and sessionable, although at 5.5 percent ABV, it technically isn’t British “Sessionable.” With it’s unoffending characteristics, it does, however, have potential to please a wide array of palates.

By Bryan Roth

+Bryan Roth

Widmer Brothers Kill Devil Brown Ale

Like I said, I’m a fan of beer series.

Widmer Brothers is no exception with their “Brothers Reserve” line of beers, which have included a Cherry Oak Doppelbock (meh), Prickly Pear Braggot (pretty solid) and Barrel Aged Brrrbon (home run), among others. Their Kill Devil brown ale is number six in their series, and could be argued to be at the top of the leaderboard for these seasonal releases. It’s only got eight reviews on Beer Advocate as of today and they fall in at about 3.75 out of 5.

I’d fall higher in that camp and even broke out of my (mostly) vegetarian diet to pair this beer with a bison steak. I figured an earthy, sweet meat would go well with the bite of an imperial brown ale. It’s worth noting that Widmer ages Kill Devil in Puerto Rican rum barrels to gain flavors of ingredients used by Caribbean distillers. I didn’t get any glaringly obvious barrel-aged flavors from this process (oak or vanilla), but it definitely adds to the overall complexity of the beer.

A first whiff of Kill Devil is exactly what you may expect from a brown ale – biscuity and some caramel, which gives it some sweetness. There are most definitely notes of brown sugar and licorice, which, after checking out the Widmer Brothers’ site, tells me that’s what they’re going for. So high five to them for nailing it.

When it comes to the taste of this beer, thank you sir, may I have another? The sweetness that you’re able to find in the smell most definitely carries over into the taste and has just a bit of a sting going down, which I assume is the molasses. I’d never had a beer brewed with molasses before (while I’m actually planning to homebrew one myself) and I really liked it. It reminded me of the same kind of flavor you find from Belgian candi sugars – something you obviously find in Belgian beers. The molasses was definitely sweet, but it was “blackstrap” molasses, which adds some bitterness to it. I didn’t get any hop bitterness from this beer (30 IBUs) so the bitter molasses is a wonderful addition. Honestly, it’s a perfect ingredient for brewing, if you ask me.

While Kill Devil sits at 9.5 percent ABV, the bite of the alcohol is very well hidden behind all the other flavors of the beer. As it warms, it becomes a bit more pronounced, but then it’s left to combat with an increasing sweetness.

*I should note that while I use the word “sweet” often in this post, Kill Devil isn’t some sugary concoction that’s going to give you a rush. It’s all incredibly well balanced to produce a beer that drinks smooth and leaves you wanting more.*

Hit the jump for my “Rate That Beer” sheet.
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Kissmeyer Brewery’s Denied Entry

This was a fun one. The bottle caught my eye in my local beer store partly because of simplicity of the label (some of the best foreign beers I’ve had specifically don’t have fancy labels) and partly because of what’s in it. Or, at least, what’s plainly stated on the label of what’s in it. Among other things Kissmeyer Brewery Denied Entry was brewed with pomegranate juice and orange peel. It’s listed as a Belgian-style brown all with a just over four out of five based on a only a few reviews on Beer Advocate.

What I liked most about this beer was you got more than you expected. At 6.5 percent ABV, smells and flavors come through more naturally and you’re not busy working your way through alcohol taste to get to the brew’s complexity. While no flavors truly knocked my socks off, they did balance each other well and offered something surprising. It’s one of those “sum of the parts is greater than the whole” kind of thing.

On the nose, the beer was very citrusy. At first it’s all orange, but sweet. The middle consists mostly of very light malt/bready and a finish of … strawberry? I was surprised at first, but I’ll take it. I needed a few more minutes to actually get the final note – ginger. Considering what’s on the label, I was pleasantly surprised to find these other aspects.

To note, the taste was very much the same. At first the beer comes across rather bitter – something I’ve found is common for me with beers that use orange peel – but that bitterness very easily gives way to fruit and some sweetness. It’s amazing how they balance each other out so fast. There’s definitely what I assume is the pomegranate flavor, which is just a quick flash of fruit.

The coup de grace, however, is that ginger … or whatever is providing that ginger flavor. As the beer warmed and more came out of it, the beer reminded me of pumpkin beers from the fall, as you’d definitely find that kind of spice note in those. At that point, it could’ve easily been a combination of the smell and taste that pushed me over the edge. Or perhaps just me wanting pumpkin pie.

Terrapin + Schmaltz Reunion ’11

Tonight I popped open my bottle of Terrapin and Schmaltz’ Reunion Ale ’11, which I bought a few months ago. I was waiting for some chocolate-related excuse to try it. It’s currently sitting at B+ on Beer Advocate.

This is a strange one – complexity in how simple it is. It pours like a brown with the head of a stout. Smells like a bock and tastes like a chocolate ale. Until the chili peppers come into play. Unique, to say the least. I had it with some chocolate cookies.

Most of my initial response to the beer was very similar to that of Sam Adam’s Chocolate Bock. It’s got a chocolate malt smell and the taste isn’t too far off. Although in this instance, you can sense the higher ABV (7.6%) and hops that are definitely more prevalent. It’s not hoppy at all, but this is the difference I imagine we get between a mass produced beer like Sam Adams and something, well, less mass produced. The taste is very smooth and very light on anything chocolate, but it’s the pepper that really took me by surprise. I didn’t get a taste at first, but after half a glass I could feel it on my tongue. It doesn’t come through while you drink it, but after you’ve swallowed the beer the feeling of pepper is left over. Very subtle. I’ve had a handful of pepper beers before, but this is the first where the pepper doesn’t come through on the taste. I like it, but I also wish I could have a version of this where the chocolate smell/flavor is balanced by the pepper.

It went well with the cookies, although the sugar from the cookies did seem to take away from the beer a bit. This might go better with something much more chocolate-based. I imagine it might help bring out some of the pepper more.