Beer Roundup #3: Three Midwest Winter Seasonals

Food and Drink



Just a word about the scale of my ratings.  I use the weighted average scoring system developed by Beer Advocate, .  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.

Favorite Thing About My First Small Business?


Fotofest gallery empty

I’d be hard-pressed to pick one favorite thing about running old rentals business, Silver Street Studio, LLC. Working with photo crews? Tasty catering? Both, awesome. But our Fotofest Biennial exhibits really stand out for me.

Every two years we’d donate our space for a month to house one of the thirty Fotofest Biennial exhibits. The Fotofest Biennial, according to their website, is “the largest event of its kind in the world”. . . a “platform for ideas and discovery, combining museum-quality art with important social and aesthetic issues.”

In the photo above you can see why I loved temporarily transforming my workaday photo studio into an elegant, clean modern art gallery. There were always anxiety butterflies in that first hour of the gallery opening, when only one person would show up (above).

That one person was of course the advance guard of the army that would follow. Ever have 500 people hanging out in your house? (My photo studio was in my backyard.)
Fotofest gallery crowd

Said army out in the bar in my carport.
fotofest the bar

My wife and I enjoy throwing parties. It’s safe to say our Fotofest gallery openings were our best attended shindigs. And at the end of the night, as the last of the army would be marching out, and our volunteers could take their first much-needed break (below), my wife and I would smile at each another, a bit incredulous we had really pulled off an event of such complexity and magnitude, and had a thrilling fun time doing it.
Fotofest gallery blur

Beer Roundup #2: Three from New Glarus

Food and Drink

beer black top


Just a word about the scale of my ratings.  I use the weighted average scoring system developed by Beer Advocate, . 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.

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.


Food and Drink

beer expedition landscape


Just a word about the scale of my ratings.  I use the weighted average scoring system developed by Beer Advocate, . 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.