Beer Roundup #7: Three Midwest English Barleywines

Food and Drink, Health

Whole Hog BW

To Buy or Not to Buy?
1 = horrible
2 = bad
3 = average
3.5 = good (many better beers out there; won’t buy this again)
4 = very good
4.5 = great
5 = rare best 

A Note on the Style:  English Barleywine

I prefer the malty “English” style barleywine over the hoppy “American” style.  All barleywines have a stiff malt backbone and generous sweetness, but the hop-forward American-style is often so bitter as to be indistinguishable from a high-alcohol double IPA.  Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are double IPA’s; I love me a double IPA when it’s got intense sweetness to offset the high IBU, like Bell’s Hopslam, Dogfish Head 120 Minute, or Founders Devil Dancer.

Despite my preference for the maltier English barleywine, it’s curious that I’ve found way more good American barley wines than English ones.  

How to explain this?  Is the English style BW less common in the US?  Not really.  Nearly every brewery that produces American barleywines also produces English ones.  The more likely explanation:  brewing a good English barleywine is more of a challenge because it doesn’t have the pronounced hops to balance the jacked-up sweetness.  Hence, many are sickeningly sweet, like Anchor Old Foghorn or Weyerbacher Blithering Idiot.

But all three specimens below are really good.

Stevens Point Barley Wine Style Ale (Whole Hog Series), Stevens Point Brewery

Rating:  4.44 / 5

12 oz. bottle (4-pk)  10.2% abv, 73 IBU.

From a very reasonably priced 4-pack ($7), the first sip has me totally psyched.

It’s not a great looking pour into a tulip glass, with barely a half-finger of white head atop the opaque, red-tinged, brown murk. Sticky lacing, with legs.

Very little in the aroma, probably just too cold. But bready, mildly floral, and of course malty in the nose, plus a grape-like, mildly acid wine character. Even after it warms, the nose remains reserved.

But in the mouth, now this is a provocative surprise. Stevens Point Brewery, for those of you not from Wisconsin, is an old-time adjunct-lager outfit, one of the oldest breweries in the US. My Midwest beer friends rarely say anything nice about SPB, so I wasn’t expecting a lot from this brew. But this is right up my alley. It’s a complex sweetness, like that of my two favorite English BW’s,  JW Lees Harvest Ale and Midnight Sun Arctic Devil. The grainy biscuit flavor is what backstops the sugar-sweetness, not any bitterness. Some will call this cloying. I love it. The sweetness rounds out with an estery, mossy oak. The butter/caramel is of the burnt variety. There’s milk and coconut, too.

The mild to moderate carbonation is a welcome cleanser and leavener of the oily-sticky feel.

I’ve gone back to Riley’s Wines and snatched up the last two 4-packs. One goes in the cellar, the other down my gullet!

Schell’s Barley Wine (Stag Series), August Schell Brewing

Rating:  4.46/5

On tap,  9.5% abv, 80 IBU.

I wasn’t expecting a whole lot, thinking of Schell as merely an adjunct-lager outfit. What an awesome surprise.

On tap at Mason Lounge (Madison).  In a snifter, a handsome pour, a clear coppery amber with a finger of white head and good retention and lacing.

The aroma is a bit reserved.  There’s a diacytel caramel, dried fruit, piney hops, and a bit of sharp ethanol.

Flavor in the mouth offers sweet caramel, stone fruit, a bit of citrus, and a floral hop bitterness on the back end.  Finishes sweet, with a hint of grassy hops.  Alcohol is hardly there.

Upland Winter Warmer, Upland Brewing

Rating:  4.05 / 5

On tap,  8.5% abv, 47 IBU.

Pours a hazy, ruddy copper, topped by a fluffy, two-finger head.

A seriously complex aroma, the sweet swirls with the hops.  The hops come as white grapefruit and a bit of must.  The lovely roasted caramel struggles to dominate and ultimately does.

In the mouth the malt/hop tension from the aroma comes down solidly on the side of the malt.  Simple syrup on the front end, sweet butter and bread in the middle, plus fig and cinnamon-raisin ice cream on the back of the tongue. Goes down with just a rumor of bitter hops.  

Feels like a much bigger beer than it is, chewy, even.

Not nearly as good as the other two in this review, but it gets points for availability, as it’s pretty common to find on tap in Midwest bars in the colder months.

Cheesecloth? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Cheesecloth (To Drain Yogurt)

Food and Drink, Health
Coffee Maker yogurt

Coffee maker: the better yogurt strainer

The Better Way to Drain Yogurt

In the past when a recipe has called for strained yogurt, my wife and I have always gone with the conventional method, rigging up some version of the mouse-trap variety involving cheesecloth and gravity.  Hanging the yogurt-filled cheesecloth from a banana hook and draining the liquid into a bowl seems to perform well.  But it sure is a pain to set up.  The most commonly recommended method, fitting the cheesecloth inside a colander, simply doesn’t drain well; the larger surface area disperses the force of gravity, and the yogurt drains at a snail’s pace.

It finally occurred to us to try a Melitta coffee maker.  It sets up in a New York minute.  It drains the yogurt faster.  And it streamlines the task on the back end, as well:  after the yogurt fully drains, just tip the strained yogurt out of the filter, and finally squeeze what yogurt has stuck to the paper — like squeezing cake frosting from a pastry bag.  With cheesecloth, you’re left with a gooey mess that requires a spatula to salvage what you can, leaving wasted yogurt smeared in the woven fabric.

The finished product (drained yogurt)

The finished product (drained yogurt)

Beer Roundup #6: Three from My Cellar

Food and Drink

bourbon County brand Stout

THREE FROM MY CELLAR

To Buy or Not to Buy?

1 = horrible
2 = bad
3 = average
3.5 = good (many better beers out there; won’t buy this again)
4 = very good
4.5 = great
5 = rare best

A Note on My Cellaring Experience:

Two things had me feeling anxious about all the beer in my cellar.  First, my wife and I moved apartments last summer, and all the beer suffered a potentially bruising trip, jostled in the back of a moving van in hot weather.  Second, the storage unit in the basement of our new apartment building didn’t stay cool summer long.  In fact, for a period of at least a week or two, temps down there rose into the upper 70s if not lower 80s.  Thankfully, I didn’t detect any ill effects in my test samples at the end of the summer, nor in any of these three beers, here.

Brewer’s Reserve Bourbon Barrel Stout, Central Waters Brewing Co.

Rating:  4.88/5

12 oz. bottle (4-pk)  9.5% abv, 70 IBU.

This is the “2012” from my cellar, 13 months of aging.

Pours nearly perfectly black, with a rim of tanned leather at the 2mm of fast-dissipating khaki foam, plus bits of lacing and legs of running alcohol on the glass.

In the nose it’s an umami cocoa, first and foremost.  How choco-wonderous.  Then aromas of toast, burnt sugar, and bourbon, with hints of coffee and vanilla.  But one really has to work to get this complexity, as the aromas are whisper quiet.  (In fact, I’ve demoted the aroma score.)  The oak barrel is nice.  People talk about toasted coconut in the aroma, but that’s one note I’ve been unable to fathom.

In the mouth it’s a spumoni ice-cream cross of vanilla and chocolate.  It’s so good, one tends toward big mouthfuls to swish from side to side, front to back.  It’s nearly the vanilla heights of Southern Tier Creme Brulee Stout.  Perhaps it’s the aging, but the bourbon comes muted. (But my wife feels the bourbon is highly present.)  Roasty malt and charred oak walk with maple syrup, burnt caramel, and chewy biscuit.  Then the dried fruits come, some raisin or prune, and a candied cherry.  The merest suggestions of pine-hops and anise twist the thumbscrews of complexity.  It all washes down with coffee and cream on the backend.

Medium- to full-bodied, fabulously smooth, with a modest carbonation and a mild boozy heat.

Decadent, delicious.  It goes down fast.  Something this rich, you would expect it to be a one-and-done type of deal.  But I feel I could have several. Perhaps that’s the beauty of a sub-10% abv.

I’m just as impressed with this as I am BCBS or Mikkeler Black Hole or Midnight Sun Berserker.  It puts into perspective Tier 1 vs. Tier 2 imperial stouts.  Now relegated to Tier 2 are:  Stone Imperial Russian Stout, Founders Breakfast Stout, Southern Tier Mokah/Jahva, Weyerbacher Tiny, and Goose Island Big John.

Brewers Reserve Bourbon Barrel Barleywine Ale, Central Waters Brewing Co.

Rating:  5/5

12 oz. bottle (4-pk)  11.2% abv, — IBU.

This is a “2013”, so eleven months of aging.

A clear reddish-caramel in a tulip glass, with almost no head, even after an moderately aggressive pour (hence the 11.5% alcohol).  Lacing is sparse, but with serious stick-to-it-iveness and dripping legs down the glass.

How I miss this aroma.  Brings me right back to snowy April of last year.  Bourbon in the nose seems nicely muted compared to my memory of it.  I remember the bourbon being more pronounced in the aroma.  The vanilla, too.  Oak and char and melted butter bring further bouts of nostalgia.  Brown sugar and raisin, too.  Yeah, baby.

In the mouth the aging is instantly evident, with the hop bitterness knocked way back (though there’s still a ghostly, earthy pine bitterness on the back-end, for sure).  Pushing against the simple-syrup sweetness, the quiet hops present about an 80 or so IBU.  The flavor is wonderfully round:  soft sugar cookie, ice-cream-caramel swirl, fig and prune, then the bourbon.  I put more in the glass, and pie crust fills my nostrils.  Plus Juicy Fruit Gum and marshmallow.  It’s massively toffee sweet, and yet the mild hops and tannins from the oak–not to mention the brightness of the still-respectable boozey ABV–bring balance.  It drinks like Dogfish Head 120 Minute.

Despite a fairly significant carbonation, the smoothness makes me want to cry.  It gives the feel of a super-syrupy moscato di asti.  Definitely more an English Barleywine profile, at least after the aging.  How astonishing to experience true beer nirvana.  I feel like I did two years ago sipping a JW Lees Harvest Ale for the first time.

CW’s detractors denounce them as a one-trick (bourbon barrel) pony.  Not only is this wrong (duh, Illumination?  Exodus?  La Petite Mort?).  But even if true, this is bourbon-barrel aging at its very best.

Bourbon County Brand Stout, Goose Island Beer Co.

Rating:  5/5

12 oz. bottle (4-pk)  15% abv, — IBU.

This is a 2012 BCBS, so 18 months-old.  It’s much smoother, sweeter, with less astringency than it had last year.  There’s still almost no head to speak of, poured into a snifter.  It looks like soy sauce with some floating bubbles.  I might have said it also smelled of soy sauce, or at least chilled soy sauce.  Then I realized the aroma was tart plum, fruitcake, and moist spice cake.  Wow.  What eye-popping clarity in this complexity.  I’m beside myself (even if my less craft-beer-minded guests are non-plussed) with how amazing an aged BCBS is.  The most astonishing surprise here is a distinct peppermint stick aroma.

Can you say “Port Wine”?  My wife just asked me what I would think if tasting this without knowing anything of its provenance or vintage.  I tried to imagine it, and I think, yep, port wine.  Charred nuts, dried fig, and burnt raisins make for a thematic, seasonal flavor–it’s that fruitcake flavor from the aroma.  The bitterness resembles molasses more than it does hops.  Balance comes from the spicy alcohol.

Creamy and thick on the palate.

I can only say thank God I’ve got four more 4-packs in the cellar.  This is the shiznet, by all standards.

Beer Roundup #5: Three Midwest Strong Scotch Ales

Food and Drink

Image

To Buy or Not to Buy?

1 = horrible
2 = bad
3 = average
3.5 = good (many better beers out there; won’t buy this again)
4 = very good
4.5 = great
5 = rare best

A Note on the Style:

Regular Scotch Ales (5% – 7% abv) generally leave me unmoved.  Their watery, ambiguous malt profiles come off as enfeebled APA’s, without even the hops to save them from abject anonymity.  But boost the alcohol to 8% or more, and the complexity emerges as lucid, jumping layers of sweets and fruits and grains.

Louie’s Reserve, Lake Louie Brewing

Rating:  4.36/5

10% abv, 40 IBU, 12 oz. bottle (4-pk)

The bottle version of this brew isn’t quite as stellar as the draft version (which I gave a 4.6).  It’s a beautiful pour into a snifter.  Golden clean viscous motor oil.  The finger of off-white head dissipates quickly, and the tiny-bubble lacing slides down the glass from the slippery alcohol.

The aroma is really nice, moist zucchini bread, cookie dough, and a workaday flour malt.  It presents itself as a polite breakfast syrup sweetness, reserved in its hints of other character traits:  a faint grassy/grainy earthy aura that surrounds the grainy sweetness.

In the mouth the high alcohol gives a fruity zip to the sweet malt.  And the hop bitterness pulls it further ceiling-ward.  A diacetyl toffee smoke puts one in mind of breakfast and pancakes and burnt, buttered toast.

There’s a metallic tartness that I wish were less bright (something I don’t remember from the draft version).  Middle to high carbonation is somewhat of a drawback, for what otherwise would have been simple cream.

Still one of my favorite Strong Scotch Ales of all time.  Definitely rivals Founders Backwoods Bastard, which makes its own weather because of the barrel aging.  Beats my other two commonly found go-to’s, Oskar Blues Old Chub and Dark Horse Scotty Karate.  Much, much better than Skull Splitter or Sticky McDoogle.

Backwoods Bastard, Founders Brewing Co.

Rating:  4.54/5

10.2% abv, 50 IBU, 12 oz. bottle (4-pk)

Bourbon barrel aging gives this beer a leg up on the other beers in this roundup.

On tap at Dexter’s, Madison.  A Founders tap takeover is a beautiful thing!  Dexter’s serves its 5 oz. pours in these handsome little snifters.  I’m drinking this alongside a half-snifter of Devil Dancer.  What an awesome combo.

This pour is a beauty:  dark-coppery brown with high clarity and a fluffy off-white head.

In the nose you get ripe cherry–a big old waft of cherry that’s just really remarkable.  Then bourbon and buttery caramel and a bit of umami and vanilla that’s somewhat sickeningly sweet.

Surprisingly roasty-sweet malt first on the front of the tongue.  Then that stone fruit from the aroma coats the mouth, with booze and hop bitterness in the finish

Near-syrup viscosity, and a bit of alcohol warmth in the throat, with mild-to-moderate carbonation.

Scotty Karate, Dark Horse Brewing Co.

Rating:  4.26/5

9.75% abv, 30 IBU, 12 oz. bottle

A finger of khaki head fluffs up and dies readily, with almost no lacing on my tulip glass.  The fluid itself is a reddish-brown murk.  Caramel greets the nose assertively, along with topsoil and animal feed grain.  Wood and grass dry out the sweetness in the aroma, with a stone fruit twang.  The palate gets washed with buttery toffee sugar, pie crust, and wood barrel.  A surprising coffee and cocoa in the dry, acidic finish.
The medium body is a bit of a letdown.  It fills the mouth well enough, but could be longer in the finish.

ice storm

Food and Drink, Health

ice storm

We came out of Karaoke Kid and I had to ride home on my frozen bike.  For the two hours we were karaokiing, my bike was outside on a pole, getting sleeted to death.  On my way home, nothing worked.  Not my brakes, not my shifters.  Couldn’t hear the usual zippy-hum of my studded tires — they were encased in ice.

Beer Roundup #4: Three Midwest Imperial IPA’s

Food and Drink

Lupulin Maximus

THREE MIDWEST IMPERIAL IPA’s

To Buy or Not to Buy?

1 = horrible
2 = bad
3 = average (many better beers out there, won’t buy this again)
4 = very good
4.5 = great
5 = rare best

A Note on the Style:

Imperial IPA, a.k.a. Double IPA.  A friend of mine recently asked about the terminology.  Rather than referring to  increased ingredients  or number of fermentation stages, “double IPA” is a nickname for “imperial IPA” (from the acronym “IIPA”).

Lupulin Maximus, O’so Brewing Co.

Rating:  4.38/5

12 oz. bottle (4-pk)  9% abv, ? IBU.

From a bottle into a tulip glass, it pours a hazy amber, with a thin white head.

A reserved aroma.  Sweet and grainy, rye bread, molasses.  Pine needles, nuts, black pepper, and leather, all overlying the sweetness.  Plus some citrus — lime, actually.

Sweet and bready up front.  Some will call this cloying; I love it.  It’s an adamant sweetness that tugs against the grassy hops all the way through this long, complex ride through flavor land.  Brown sugar and biscuit, absolutely identifiable, here.  Plus some diacetyl that makes for a butterscotch candy delight.  Wood and grass shake hands with the sweet notes and introduce the hop bitterness.  The sweetness becomes tropical fruit in the presence of the hops, mango, I’d say.  Finishes dry and salty, a long finish of simple syrup and oak aging mellowness.  The alcohol says hello before it’s done.  And, yet, there’s something not quite great about this flavor.  Too busy, perhaps?  Still, totally impressive.

Wonderful in the mouth, viscous, syrupy, creamy, despite the moderate, cleansing carbonation.  Mouthfeel is the raison d’etre, here.

Wildly complex.  So many star turns for the various flavor profiles — bitter, sweet, spice, umami, salt, tart.  Will definitely divide audiences due to its uncompromising, disparate sensations in the mouth.  Cannot find IBU listed anywhere, but my guess would be around 70 – 85; probably on the higher end, to account for the intense sweetness.

Bell’s Hopslam, O’so Brewing Co.

Rating:  4.76/5

On tap at Maduro, Madison.  10% abv, 70 IBU.

A beautiful pour in a Bell’s tulip glass.  Inch of fluffy-snow head.  And glacial lacing on the glass.

It’s often more of a challenge to write a review in a bar, given all the distractions and working on a cell phone touchscreen keyboard.   That’s particularly true of a cigar bar.  Great aroma in this beer, though the cigar smoke in here is obstructing any and all nuance.   I’m getting generic concepts of high hop bitterness, a foundation of bready grains, and a syrupy sweetness that pulls it all together.  Gonna have to find a bottle of this to try it again at home, as this is blowing my doors.

In the mouth the piney hops and candy sweetness team up to beat back the tobacco smoke.  There’s only room on my palate for one alpha flavor.  If you’re bothered by tobacco smoke, have one of these!

It’s noteworthy to find my favorite of these three beers to be the one with the lowest IBU (international bitterness units).

Founders Devil Dancer, Triple IPA

Rating:  4.43/5

On tap at Dexter’s Pub, Madison.  12% abv, 112 IBU.

So lucky to have stumbled upon this Founders tap takeover at Dexter’s Pub.  Classic kid-in-a-candy store excitement going on in here.  Each of us have ordered three beers at once, all five-ounce pours:  Backwoods Bastard (bourbon barrel aged imperial Scotch ale), Curmudgeon Old Ale, and Devil Dancer.

Incredible.  Beautiful brown poor in a 6 oz. snifter with a finger of off white head.  The aroma is surprisingly tame (maybe just too cold).  As it warms, the bubblegum/juicy-fruit gum aroma gets enveloped by citrus and floral hop bitterness.

Triple IPA?  Yes, with its 12% ABV and 100+ IBU, this drinks like an American-style barley wine.  Listed at 112 IBU, the caro-syrup sweetness pushes the complex hop bitterness to the next level of palate phenomenon.  Butter-caramel and plum/raisin in the back end.  Very mild, fruity alcohol on the breath.

Intensely flavorful, like electroshock therapy to the mouth.  Not as refined or beautiful as the Bell’s Hopslam, but definitely one to remember.

Beer Roundup #3: Three Midwest Winter Seasonals

Food and Drink

Image

THREE MIDWEST WINTER SEASONALS

Just a word about the scale of my ratings.  I use the weighted average scoring system developed by Beer Advocate, http://beeradvocate.com/help/index?topic=reviewing_beers .  Also, here’s how I translate my numeric ratings into actionable intelligence.

To Buy or Not to Buy?

1 = horrible
2 = bad
3 = average (many better beers out there, won’t buy this again)
4 = very good
4.5 = great
5 = rare best

New Glarus Thumbprint Winter Warmer

Rating:  4.25/5

Pours an orangey-copper into a tulip glass.  Two fingers of light white rocky head that soon breaks down, showing a faint haze.

The aroma is a bit tame.  Raisin and brown sugar, with wood and grass and metal barrel.

Momentarily sweet on the front end, but only for an instant.  Mild hop bitterness accompanies the sweetness through to the throat.  A little smoke.  Sugary dried fruit of the fruitcake variety, think maraschino cherry and fig.  The grassy hops ride the significant carbonation up into the sinuses.  No sign of the 9% alcohol anywhere.

Wish this had more body, though the refreshing carbonation has its own appeal.  Finishes super dry.

If you’re looking for a syrupy/spicy sweet winter warmer, look elsewhere.  This is all imperial Scotch Ale.  Yet a very New Glarus take on the Scotch Ale–crisp and refreshing, fruity, earthy, with a bit of hop bite and sharp mouthfeel that dries the style.  Oh, man, as it warms, it drifts deliciously closer to the center of the Scotch Ale tradition.

Alaskan Winter Ale, Alaskan Brewing Co.

Rating:  4.25/5

Had this as a 10 oz. chaser to an exceptional Bloody Mary at The Caribou (Madison).  Bright amber, with a small white head and serious lacing.

Knowing Alaskan for the syrupy greatness that is their Pilot Series barley wine, I predicted this winter warmer would have a sugary persona.  Boy, howdy. Low in alcohol (6.4% abv) for what I’m used to in old ales, the aroma is quite mild, more like an amber ale, without much by way of spice or hops.  Definitely bready and nutty, to be sure, just a bit quiet in the nose.

Surprisingly thick and creamy in body.  High sugar content sweetness, even for an old ale, without the leather or sand of others in the style, like North Coast Old Stock or Founders Curmudgeon, which I’m glad for.  Surprising sugar-citrus, sweet-ripe mandarin orange.  I’d say apricot, green grape, too.  Wasn’t expecting all the fruit.  No hops to speak of, though the sweetness comes in balance, so there must be some bitterness.

Totally satisfying, though doesn’t touch the outer realms of my favorite old ale, Bells Third Coast Olde Ale (arguably more of a barley wine, anyway).

Bells Winter White Ale

Rating:  4.14/5

Somewhat unfair to be drinking this after my favorite witbier of all time, Hitachino Nest White Ale. But what are you gonna do?

Pours a Hazy straw color, with a lemon juice look to it.  Fast-dissipating white head with fluffy bubbles.

An aroma instantly recognizable for the style, it’s spicy and yeasty in the nose, with some wet cardboard.  Green grapes, other indeterminate fresh fruits, maybe pear, maybe melon.

On the tongue it’s grass and white pepper, first. Coriander, awesome winter spice profile.

Eminently refreshing, yet with seasonal fruits, including tart apple and a hint of banana.  I like the spices, which are admittedly on the subtle side.  Plus the wheat and yeast of Belgian whites that come off as comforting old patterns.

Moderate carbonation keeps everything bright and sharp.

Have I mentioned how refreshing this is?  The complexity is all in the fruits, which may sadly overpower the spice.  Not quite on par with Allagash White, but close.

Cooking Black Bean Soup “Together”

Food and Drink

Above is a photo of my wife handing off “Black Bean Soup” to me midstream, as she leaves for work in the morning. With me working nights, we’ve developed a system that leverages the benefits of tag-team cooking even when we can’t work on a meal together, and, as in this case, when we don’t even see each other in the morning because our waking schedules don’t overlap.

She and I each like to cook well enough on our own, but it’s way more enjoyable cooking together. Cooking together also allows us to take on more complex recipes, in part because the total number of tasks is cut in half. And since our cooking skills and preferences are so different from one another, I usually get to trade away my least favorite culinary chores in exchange for one’s my wife despises but I enjoy.

(Recipe from Cooking, Chic Simple)
black beans soup recipe

Beer Roundup #2: Three from New Glarus

Food and Drink

beer black top

THREE FROM NEW GLARUS

Just a word about the scale of my ratings.  I use the weighted average scoring system developed by Beer Advocate, http://beeradvocate.com/help/index?topic=reviewing_beers . Also, here’s how I translate my numeric ratings into actionable intelligence.

To Buy or Not to Buy?

1 = horrible
2 = bad
3 = average (many better beers out there, won’t buy this again)
4 = very good
4.5 = great
5 = rare best

I come to the New Glarus party a bit late. All this time I’ve labored under the misconception that New Glarus is a one trick pony, albeit the best in the country at their single trick (fruit beers). All this time I’ve pooh-poohed the several NG non-fruit beers that I tried early on, Spotted Cow, Fat Squirrel, Two Women Lager, Staghorn Oktoberfest. I’ve heard people defend these four beers as “true to style”, or that New Glarus has developed a following of both beer geeks and mainstreamers alike, and that that is no mean feat. And sure, their “Thumbprint” small-batch series has produced some very serious one-off brews (Anniversary Strong Ale; a very good barley wine).

Not until last month, at the urging of a friend whose beer vision I trust, did I come to these three NG brews below, all astonishing in their intense, complex flavor (i.e., without merely dry-hopping our heads off), and, what I find most impressive, doing so at low alcohol (just 5% – 5.3% abv in Moon Man and Stone Soup).

Black Top IBA, New Glarus Brewing
Rating:  4.34/5

Pours brown-tinged black from a bottle into a tasting snifter, with a khaki finger of head. Aleutian islands of lace stick permanently to the glass.

Surprise: an aroma of summer citrus fills the nose. With IBA (imperial black ale) in its name, the near-opaque abyss had me expecting roastiness. But there’s none, zero. No malt or grain or bread in the aroma at all. Maybe the slightest vague caro-syrup sweetness. The aroma is basically American IPA.

Flavor in the mouth is a shock of sweetness on the front of the tongue–the khaki froth itself is candy-sweet. Then of course the flavors of American IPA slide in and take hold with assertive hops. The profile fades into a molasses back-end. It’s all perfect, balanced, hop bitterness and bready sweetness.

This beer has cracked my top-five non-big-beer beers of all time.
—-
UPDATE: I’m revising my review after having tried another stellar IBA, Radio Free IBA, by Lake Louie Brewing. I totally loved Black Top when by itself. But next to Radio Free IBA, my malt-lover preferences assert themselves, and I have to downgrade Black Top from 4.58 to 4.34.

Also, Black Top seems to fight with a lot of different foods.

Still, amazingly flavorful, while remaining eminently refreshing.

Moon Man APA, New Glarus Brewing
Rating:  4.26/5

I’m totally amazed at this. Incredibly refreshing, yet with massive flavor for an American Pale Ale. It goes with more food than most beers, so bring it to a dinner party with confidence.

A beautiful pour into a goblet, an orangish-straw color with an amber refracting clarity, and, most of all, lacing with real stick-to-it-iveness.

Intensely pleasing aroma of grapes, honey, bread, et al.

Flavor in the mouth is kind of all over the place, but in the best way. There’s tropical fruit, sweet muffin, and bright-mild floral bitterness. Then more sweetness in the throat, Florida orange, ripe tomato, and faint shades of white gumball.

This has nearly cracked my Top 5 non-big-beers of all time, including Hitachino Nest While Ale, Saison de Lente, New Belgium La Folie, Rodenbach Grand Cru, and Monks Cafe Flemish Sour.

Update:
I don’t know what’s up with my taste buds, but I’ve got to downgrade this beer from 4.43 to 4.26. It’s still an exceptional small beer. But now that I’ve had the greatness of NG Stone Soup (see below), Moon Man pales somewhat.

Stone Soup, Belgian Pale Ale, New Glarus brewing
Rating:  4.44/5

Pours a viscous gold, with a huge fluffy white head that goes nowhere.

Sweet honey and malt in the aroma, with banana and pear.

First, two sweetnesses greet the tongue, honey and banana taffy.  The significant carbonation keeps it well away from cloying territory (unlike other lesser BPA’s, like Leffe Blonde, or Petrus Blond).  There’s then a flash of mild hop bitterness, white pepper, and lemon zest.

Incredibly crisp and light, while impressing with full-ish flavor. At first, because I’m more used to bigger Belgians (dubbels, tripels, and quads), I experience a confusing lack of body and phenols.  Once Im over that confusion, I like this a lot, the way I like Fatty Boombalatty, by Furthermore Brewing

Overall, this is the closest to the real deal that an American Belgian-style “single” can be, as opposed to weaker pretenders, like New Belgium 1554, or, egads, Blue Moon Abbey.  It also goes with most any foods.  This will hold a regular place in my fridge.

Beer Roundup #1: THREE RUSSIAN IMPERIAL STOUTS

Food and Drink

beer expedition landscape

THREE RUSSIAN IMPERIAL STOUTS

Just a word about the scale of my ratings.  I use the weighted average scoring system developed by Beer Advocate, http://beeradvocate.com/help/index?topic=reviewing_beers . Also, here’s how I translate my numeric ratings into actionable intelligence.

To Buy or Not to Buy?

1 = horrible
2 = bad
3 = average (many better beers out there, won’t buy this again)
4 = very good
4.5 = great
5 = rare best

Bells Expedition Stout

Rating:  4.49/5

look: 4.25 | smell: 4 | taste: 4.5 | feel: 5 | overall: 4.75

I seriously have to upgrade my previous 3.75 rating from last summer. Perhaps that bottle at the Come Back In (Madison) last June was oxidized. Even more likely, I simply drank it too cold, without a glass, and distracted by the Come Back’s legendary karaoke scene. Whatever the case, the specimen I’m now this moment holding in my hand is fabulous.

A fairly aggressive pour into a tulip glass gives a small head, w/ almost no lacing, the slippery solvent alcohol refracting on the glass.

The aroma is still remarkably tame, though subtly rich with burnt coffee, uncooked pasta,  maybe caramel, and faint woody alcohol.  And a bit of leather (but in a good way; I normally detest leather in beer).  There’s undoubtedly a quiet majesty, here, just a bit too quiet.

The flavor in the mouth, wow, now that’s a different story.  Incredibly complex. It oscillates between many different dyads of bitter and sweet:  burnt toast and milk chocolate, anise and  toffee, honey-baked ham and oatmeal-raisin. Wait, that last pair are both sweet. Plus an alcohol heat and an odd salt that help give shape to the mouth-expanding sweetness profile.

A fullish-bodied, slick-viscous texture, like warm maple syrup. Yet that syrup is leavened by a moderate carbonation, even as the pour in this tulip glass has risen to room temperature.

Update: several hours later, I’m getting more aroma, now, from the mouth of the empty bottle. Orange peel, black pepper, black cherry juice, unripe tomato, and dopplebock malt.

Founders Imperial Stout

Rating:  5/5

look: 5 | smell: 5 | taste: 5 | feel: 5 | overall: 5

This one has tipped the scales. It’s cracked my Top-5 list of all-time favorites, of all beer styles.

I should make special note, though, this beer has the unfair advantage of aging.  I somehow found this four-pack at a nearby bottle shop this week.  That means it must be 10 months old; the Founder’s release schedule for “Imperial Stout” is January. How this sat on a Madison store shelf in plain view for nearly a year is beyond me.  Elite beers don’t last long in this town.

One of the blackest beers I’ve seen all year (cf. Dark Horse Reserve Special Black). A chocolate meringue-like brown head chokes the neck of my tulip glass and leaves lacing plastered on the glass.

Dark chocolate and burnt coffee rise in the nose, first. Then a cascade of stone fruit, especially overripe cherry and prune.  Boozy vapor cuts what might have been cloyingly sweet.  There’s also a nice dark bread aroma.

I just the other day had their Founders Porter on tap, and I’m now struck by the same particular roasted coffee flavor in the mouth, here. Except this of course comes with an undergirding of overripe cherry and dried fig to replace the bright/tart hop bitterness of the porter. The massive, corn-syrupy fruit-cake and pecan flavors remind me of Southern Tier Mokha, another of my favorite double stouts. The alcohol politely makes itself known on the backend.

I’m cognizant of the mellowing effect the ten months worth of aging has imparted to this beer.  I had this on tap last spring during Mad Craft Beer Week and, sure, I was impressed, but this, this has rocked my world.

Narwhal, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

Rating:  4.26/5

look: 4.5 | smell: 3.75 | taste: 4.25 | feel: 4.75 | overall: 4.5

From a 12 oz. bottle into a tulip glass.  Black.  Oily.  Chewy brown head whose lacing slides off the glass via some obvious alcohol solvency.

Boozy aroma, w/ coffee, barely detectable chocolate.  Nice, but fairly simplistic.

Booze first on the tongue.  Then tart stone fruit, cherry, prune, or is it black plum? Cocoa’s next, along with bitter molasses reduction. Then more booze, which is an issue.

Thick, oily, despite the significant carbonation.

Very much like Old Rasputin, which isn’t my favorite RIS. I like them sweeter than this and with less alcoholic heat. The simplistic aroma is the weak spot, here. And one wishes there were more chocolate and/or vanilla involved. It’s still quite good.  And at this price point ($8.99/4-pack), I’ll drink this regularly.