Category Archives: Beer

60 Second Beer Reviews — Allagash Curieux

Some quick thoughts on the Allagash Curieux Bourbon barrel-age tripel.

The Geekery

Allagash was found in 1995 by Rob Tod in Portland, Maine with the goal of producing traditional, Belgian-style ales. One of the earmarks of the brewery is their commitment to sustainability which includes decking out the brewery with solar panels, sourcing their materials locally and fanatical reusing of waste materials. In 2015, Allagash touted that they were able divert 99.75% of their waste away from the landfill.

In 2004, the Curieux was the brewery’s first foray into barrel-aging brews (a phenomena that has now entered the wine industry). The beer spends seven weeks aging in Jim Beam bourbon barrels before being blended with some fresh, unaged Tripel prior to bottling.

The Beer

Shy nose. Little straw but not very malt driven and no overt Bourbon notes. There is a little citrus but it is hard to pull out.

The lightness carries through to the palate and while there is some vanilla and spice with a little cereal malt, overall this taste far more like a lager than a tripel. It has some sweetness but it fairly balanced.

The Verdict

By Conrad.Irwin - Own work, Public Domain, on Wikimedia Commons

Lightness is the overwhelming theme with this beer. It makes me think of starting the day with a light cereal like Cheerios.

I was very surprised at how light it is for something with 11% ABV–much less something that is barrel aged. Coupled with the really shy and light aromatics, it’s not a beer that beckons my heart like other Belgian tripels such as Tripel Karmeliet, Westmalle or even Chimay Cinq Cents.

If I was at a bar that had it on draft, I would get a glass because I can see its light, lager-like character working well with certain pub fare. But at around $20-23 for a 750 ml, its not a beer I’d feel compelled to buy.

Are Americans Ditching Beer?

The Spirits Business is blaring the headline that “US alcohol consumption declines for second year”.

Yikes!

Well not so much. Digging a little deeper beyond the headline, The Spirit Business notes that the IWSR report attributes the 0.2% drop in alcohol consumption to a 0.5% decline in beer sales which represents 79% of the alcohol market in the US.

If you look at wine and spirits, we’re actually seeing positive growth of 1.3% and 2.3% respectively.

Phew!

Or is it?

There is clearly something going on with the decline of beer consumption with the mega-Goliaths of the industry like Constellation Brands and AB InBev struggling. Though while people may not be drinking as much Corona and Bud Light, the craft beer market is still seeing steady growth. Likewise, the cider industry has also been seeing positive numbers.

Could it be that more Americans are following the adage of “drink less, but better”?

Perhaps.

Why drink Corona when you could have some fantastic ciders from Elemental Cider in Woodinville, WA?


Instead of the light lagers of macrobrews, it seems that Americans drinkers are moving towards IPAs and seasonal beers that often have higher alcohol %. These tend not be brews that you can guzzle down a six-pack or do keg stand with. Indeed, part of the appeal of craft beers is that you can sit down and actually geek out over them, taking time to savor the experience.

And, of course, we know how Millennials are all about those experiences.

Plus with the growth in hard alcohol and cocktails, it is very likely that rather than ditching alcohol, Americans are simply trying to get more out of their drinking than just getting their buzz on.

I would say to my friends in the beverage industry not to fret about the headlines touting a decline in consumption. Americans are drinking plenty.

Drynuary be damned.

Duck, Duck, Bourbon County

While the trend of aging wine in whiskey barrels is still relatively nascent, the technique of barrel aging is firmly entrenched in the world of beer. Since 1992 (or 1995, depending on the source), Goose Island in Chicago has been releasing annually their highly anticipated Bourbon County series of beers aged in whiskey barrels.

After a disastrous 2015 release that saw several beers infected with lactobacillus acetotolerans and a truncated 2016 release that had at least two offerings pulled back because they weren’t, in the eyes of brewmaster Jared Jankoski, “where I wanted them to be”, in 2017 Goose Island released a staggering 7 offerings in their Bourbon County series.

Released the day after Thanksgiving, these highly allocated beers quickly flew off the shelves at many accounts. I was able to snag a couple–the original Bourbon County Stout, the Barleywine and the Northwoods Blueberry Almond Stout.

2017 Goose Island Bourbon County Stout

I will preface my reviews of these with the same confession I made in my review of my top beer of 2017–the Firestone Walker Anniversary Ale–I’m not really a stout fan. I love big malty Scotch Ales, Barleywines, German Dopplebocks and Belgian Dubbel and Quads but most stouts and porters come across as too bitter and in-your-face coffee for my taste. Perhaps it is the coffee notes that turn me off the most. Despite living in the coffee-mecca of Seattle, I buy hot chocolate when I go to Starbucks.

So take these reviews with a grain of salt and keep the subjectivity of my personal taste in mind.


That said, I actually liked the 2017 Goose Island Bourbon County Stout namely because it wasn’t very “stouty”. Right off the bat you could get some oak spice, smoke and maple vanilla notes on the nose. The mouthfeel was very smooth and creamy without the bitter edge I associate with a lot of stouts. While I got some chocolate latte notes, the amount of coffee flavors itself was rather muted.

The beer was aged in a combination of 5-7 year old Bourbon barrels from the Heaven Hill distillery–makers of such well-known Bourbons as Evan Williams and Elijah Craig as well as Bernheim Straight Wheat and Rittenhouse Rye.

While I don’t feel that the Bourbon County Stout is necessarily worth, for me, $10-13 for a 16.9 oz bottle, it was an interesting brew that I’m glad I tried.

2017 Goose Island Bourbon County Barleywine

Obviously with my prejudices and affinity for Barleywines noted above, this was the brew that excited me the most to try. Some of my favorite Barleywines have been AleSmith Old Numbskull, Firestone Walker Helldorado and Dogfish Head’s Olde School. While technically not a Barleywine, I also had fun with the 28% ABV Sam Adams Utopias.

The Bourbon County Barleywine clocks in at 14% ABV and was aged exclusively in second-use Bourbon barrels.

The nose was exceptionally sweet, very vanilla and port-soaked raisins. It reminded me of Black Raven’s Old Birdbrain which is just a bit too sweet for my taste. The palate had a little more balance with the weight of the high ABV and more of the oak influence from the barrel coming out. I can appreciate how smooth and silky the mouthfeel is which seems to be a consistent trait among the Bourbon County series.

Again, a tasty brew but at $15-17 for a 16.9 oz, it still doesn’t wow me enough to want to get another bottle (not that I could get one easily). It’s always hard to ride that fine edge between malt, weight and sweetness with Barleywines (like it is with Quads) and everyone’s threshold for sweet is different. This one is just a tad too sweet to make it a “must find” for me. If it was around $10-12, and didn’t involve calling around stores to find, I would be far more excited about it.

2017 Goose Island Bourbon County Northwoods

A Blueberry Almond Stout with 13.2% ABV just screamed weird so I had to try it. And it was pretty damn weird.

Brewed with fresh blueberry juice and almond extract, this beer smelled like chocolate covered blueberries. I didn’t immediately get the almond note on the nose–much more vanilla from the barrel. It smelled like a dessert which was priming me to expect something a bit sweet.

And lord was it sweet. It didn’t have the “coffee stouty” notes I dislike so that was a plus but it still didn’t jive with me. Instead of rich dark chocolate, it was more sweeter milk chocolate and instead of fresh blueberries, this beer had me thinking of Welch’s jam instead. The almond finally came around towards the finish but this, again, veered more towards the sweeter marzipan side of almond instead of a nutty, roasted almond note I was hoping for.

Needless to say, this was my least favorite of the bunch. It’s definitely a pass at $15-17 but I’m not sure I would be tempted even if it was under $10. If I’m craving sweet, I feel like there are tons of better made Quads like Boulevard Bourbon Barrel that comes in a 4pk of 12 oz for around $13-15.


They do make damn good Mac & Cheese

While the Barleywine and Northwoods were limited 1 per customer, there was no limit on the regular Bourbon County Stout so I bought a couple of them. Even though I liked the stout, tasting it didn’t excite me enough to look forward to opening up the other bottle I had.

But my work was doing a Mac & Cheese contest and I struck upon the idea of going hard core to win. Taking a riff on this recipe for Guinness Mac & Cheese, I decided to use the Bourbon County Stout with some aged Cougar Gold. Boy did I hit pay dirt!


The lack of “coffee stouty” notes really was a plus here with subtle smokiness in the Bourbon County playing off the umami goodness and tang of the aged cheddar exceptionally well. This was by far the most expensive mac & cheese I ever made but it was definitely one of the best things that I’ve ever tasted.

You better believe that I won the mac & cheese contest.

And for that, it may be worth grabbing a bottle of the 2018 release.

Cheers!

My Beer of the Year


There is still 28 days left but I’m going to be hard-pressed to find a beer more utterly scrumptious than the 2017 edition of the Firestone Walker Anniversary Ale. With all apologies to the Samuel Adams Utopias, which I’ll continue to enjoy well into the next year, this beer hits it out of the park and is actually something that I would call beer.

First some geekery.

The Anniversary Ale is a limited release done each year by Firestone Walker that blends together several of their vintage barrel-aged brews into a unique expression. I couldn’t find the exact amount of cases produced but the 2009 edition had around 1000 cases and the 2016 edition was around 3500 cases. However, all those previous editions were bottled in 22 oz bomber size bottles with the 2017 edition following the pattern of the other 2017 vintage-series releases and now being packaged in smaller 12 oz bottles.

Being located in Paso Robles, a well known wine-making region, the brewmasters at Firestone Walker invite local winemakers to help participate in the blending process. The 2017 blending committee featured an impressive cadre of winemaking talent including Justin Smith of Saxum Vineyards, Neil Collins & Chelsea Franchi of Tablas Creek Vineyards, Fintan Du Fresne & Mike Callahan of Chamisal Vineyards and Kevin Sass & Molly Lonborg of Halter Ranch.

The blending was done as a competition with the winemakers and brewers split up into teams with the winning blend for the 21st Anniversary Ale being crafted by Anthony Yount of Denner Vineyards and Jordan Fiorentini & Kyle Gingras of Epoch Estate Wines.

Info sheet that came with the Anniversary Ale detailing the blend and winemakers that took part in the blending.


The final blend for the Anniversary Ale XXI included:

42% of the Velvet Merkin, an Oatmeal Stout aged in bourbon barrels with 8.5% ABV and 32.5 IBUs.
18% of the Parabola, a Russian Imperial Stout aged in bourbon barrels with 13.1% ABV and 80 IBUs.
17% of the Stickee Monkee, a Central Coast Quad aged in bourbon barrels with 12.5% ABV and 45 IBUs.
14% of the Bravo, an Imperial Brown Ale aged in bourbon barrels with 13.5% ABV and 35 IBUs.
9% of the Helldorado, a Blonde Barley Wine aged in rum barrels with 13.5% ABV and 32.5 IBUs.

The Beer

Now I must confess that I am not a big stout fan. I love malty Belgians, dopplebocks, scotch ales and barley wines but many stouts I encounter often have too much bitter roasted coffee or burnt chocolate notes on the nose that turn me off. Often when I smell a stout, I feel like I’m trapped inside a burning Starbucks.

Looking at this blend with with the Velvet Merkin and Parabola being the majority components, I wasn’t optimistic about this beer being my style. But pouring the beer into the glass, I was entranced by the smell of fresh Mexican chocolate with its subtle smokiness and cinnamon and nutmeg spices. From the bourbon barrel components, I could also get noticeable vanilla but it wasn’t a syrupy sweet vanilla like you get with Bulleit bourbon but more of a robust spicy vanilla like with a Basil Hayden bourbon. Around the edges there was the slightest twinge of coffee but it plays a very minor role. What I loved about the nose is that the savory components of spice and chocolate were at the forefront with the sweeter elements wrapped underneath as a cushion instead of blanketing it.

Photo from Nsaum75 at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

This ain’t your momma’s Hershey chocolate.

On the palate, the intermingling of savory and sweet continued. The beer is downright mouthwatering!

The vanilla morphs a little more into caramel in the mouth but unlike with the Utopias, there is not really a salted element, but rather its the spiced Mexican chocolate flavors that compliment it.

The flavors from the rum barrel of the Helldorado make an appearance with a dried citrus fruitiness and more exotic spices that really persist throughout the finish. Relatively low in hops, there is just enough there to add a balance of freshness and structure.

But the star of the beer is truly the mouthfeel. Silky, creamy and very sexy, this beer rolls around your tongue and continues to tease you all along the way. It begs you to immediately want to take another sip even though you want to wait to savor the long, lingering flavors on the finish. It becomes a bit of an internal battle between wanting to intellectually enjoy and unwrap all the flavors the beer can provide (especially as it warms up) and it being so irresistibly delicious that you just want to indulge your inner hedonist and chug. Despite being a hefty 11.8% ABV, the beer is inimitably session-able.

Verdict

Delicious. Scrumptious. Mouthwatering. Smooth. Complex. This beer delivers in spades and is bloody fantastic. Yeah, it is a bit pricey at around $13 for a 12 oz bottle (though that is a fraction of the price of the Utopias) but it is a treat and would make a great stocking stuffer for a beer lover.

Samuel Adams Utopias 2017– Is it worth the money?

It’s Fall which means it is “trophy hunting season” in the beverage world. While bourbon fans are salivating over the release of the Pappy Van Winkle line and Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BATC), Beer Geeks have been waiting for their own fall time “cult releases” like the Bruery Weekday Stouts, the Goose Island Bourbon County line-up, Deschutes’ The Abyss and Surly Darkness. While there are anticipated beer releases throughout the year, every two years the fall release season gets a special kick with the release of the Sam Adams Utopias.

At around $200 for a 750ml bottle, the Utopias is far and away the most expensive of the “cult beers” and the question follows, is it worth the money?

The answer: It depends.

First, let’s talk about the 2017 Utopias itself. The 2017 release is a blend of several brews including a batch of Triple Bock that has been aged 24 years, a 17 year aged batch of Millennium, some of the previous releases of Utopias and bit of their Kosmic Mother Funk brew.

The assortment of batches are aged in various barrels including bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace, Ruby Port barrels and white wine barrels from Carcavelos. A unique twist added to the 2017 release is the use of Akvavit barrels which previously held the Scandinavian herbal liqueur that is characterized by their caraway and dill flavors. After blending, the entire batch of the 2017 Utopias was finished in what the Sam Adams’ website described as “Moscat barrels, a wine known for its slightly smoky character”. Since usually Muscat and Moscato wines are not barrel aged–I’m going to take a guess that they are referring to Moscatel from either the Sherry region of Spain or the Portuguese region of Setúbal. Both are fortified wines that are barrel aged and, while “smokey” is not necessarily a primary note in their profiles, can see some subtle barrel influence.

The end result of all this work is a mere 13,000 bottles of 28% ABV “beer” that truly deserves the scare quotes around the word. With no carbonation and the ability to be nursed and savored in small pours over many years, it is hard to compare it any other beer.

And that’s were the question of Cost and Worth come in….


The peers to the Samuel Adams’ Utopias are not Russian River’s Pliny the Younger, Bell’s Hopslam, Boulevard’s Scotch on Scotch, Alchemist’s Heady Topper or other highly sought after brews that have folks driving for hours, camping outside stores and breweries just get a highly allocated bomber or pack. Rather, it is more apt to compare the Utopias to some of the bourbon trophies–the Pappys, BATC, Michter’s 10 yr Rye, the Orphan Barrels, Four Roses Limited Editions, Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, High West’s A Midwinter’s Night Dram, Elijah Craig 18 & 23 yrs, etc.

And make no mistake, while many of these bourbons are tasty drams, for most people acquiring these is far more about the hunt than it is for the innate quality of what is inside the bottle. When something is made in such a limited qualities, the economic laws of supply and demand give way to the human desire for exclusivity and lust for Veblen goods. If only 1,461 bottles of the Eagle Rare 17 was made for the 2017 BATC release then only around 1,461 souls are going to get that “trophy”. How much is it worth to you to be one of those souls? How much is it worth to you be one of the folks who can share that trophy with friends and family?

That was my mindset when it came to the Pappy 20 year that I was able to “bag” a couple years ago. I was able to get it for around $230. Took it home, tried it and was…well underwhelmed. My notes from that night:

“Good but not life changing” is the most apt description. It has a very lovely nose–candied apricots, vanilla, orange blossoms and some baking spices. In fact, I would say the nose is the best part. But the mouthfeel and complexity on the palate is just meh. The vanilla (LOTS of vanilla) carried through and takes on a sort of orange creamsicle character. But that’s pretty much it.

It has a fair amount of bite and heat for something that is only 45% especially when I compared it to how smooth the Old Pultney 21 and Glenmorangie Signet are at 46%. Last night after I had the Pappy, I tried the Girvan’s Proof Strength Grain Whiskey that was 57% and even that was smoother and more balanced.

Again, the nose is A+ but if I was having this blind and trying to guess the age and price point, I would be thinking a good quality 8-12 year American bourbon in the $60-80 range. In my honest opinion, it is no where near the $230 price—especially when you consider the vastly superior quality and complexity you could get in Single Malt Scotches for the equivalent price.”

That was over a year ago and even after sharing it very liberally with friends and family, I still have about a third of a bottle of the Pappy 20 left. Even after it is all gone, I honestly don’t see myself going through the effort to hunt for another bottle. Still, I don’t regret getting it or spending the money. It was a trophy and I can say that I’ve experience the success of the hunt at least once in my life.

So…..are you trying to say that you were underwhelmed with the Utopias, eh?

Seriously, Fran’s is the best

Actually, no. I quite enjoyed the 2017 Utopias. I was blown away with how much it tasted like a salted caramel–like Fran’s Chocolate level good. From a geeky and foodie perspective, it had my thoughts racing about what kind of interesting and delicious food pairing possibilities that one could do with the interplay of sweet and savory that is very well balance in the brew.
My notes:

The nose smells like a 20 year Tawny Port. Very rich and caramel with spices. The palate is oily and silky. Salt! It totally taste like a salted dark chocolate caramel.

Rolling it around your tongue you get a mix of both black cherry and tart red cranberries. There is a toastiness underneath almost like a baked graham cracker crust. It holds it heat fairly well for 28%. You can feel it with the weight and mouthfeel but there really isn’t any back end heat.

It was certainly a unique experience and, for me, being one of the 13,000 people that get a chance to experience that uniqueness and share it with friends and family make its worth the price. Will I be rushing to get another bottle when the 2019 release comes out? Maybe. It will honestly all depend on if I still have some of the 2017 left at that time.

But that’s me. I can’t answer the question of whether or not it is worth it for you or anyone else. Just like with the trophy bourbons. Some are worth it. Some may not be. But if you like the hunt and want that exclusivity then, by all means, Happy Hunting.