Category Archives: Beer

Millennial Math — Where’s the value in wine?

A few days ago I wrote about the “Boredom Factor” that is sapping Millennials’ enthusiasm for wine. But engaging Millennials with things that are new, interesting and authentic is only part of the battle. The industry also needs to reframe the discussion about value and pricing.

Photo by Ecole polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Let’s face it, wine delivers horrible “bang for the buck”–especially compared to other alcoholic beverages. This is true at all price points, but particularly at the low-end (and ironically titled) “value wine” segment.

For smaller boutique wineries, worrying about “value wine” might not seem like a big deal. But the issues impacting the top shelf take root on the bottom.

If you want to know why $100+ bottles of Napa Cab are in danger, head to your local grocery store and look around.

Millennial Math in the Grocery Store

I’ll get to our boutique and more premium wine brands below. But let’s start with a cash-strapped Millennial who want to spend less than $10 for something to drink. You could go to the wine aisle and find stuff like this.

Yellow Tail and other under $10 wines

Then there are other options as well–like Barefoot, Arbor Mist, Cooks, Andre’s and more. At this one grocery store, I estimated that around 40% of their wine selection was sub $10. So, diversity, yeah?

But they all fall into the same “sameness” of sweet, simple or boring Cabs, Chards and Red Blends. Sure, you have the occasional gimmick of things like the “living labels” of Treasury Wine Estates’ 19 Crimes. However, after the novelty of a cute label wears off, it’s still the same boring juice in the bottle.

Now right next to the wine department in many stores is a beer department which has likely been greatly expanded thanks to the craft beer boom.

Let’s see what under $10 options our Millennial shopper has there.

22 oz Beer bomber singles

These are 22 oz “bomber” sizes of beer which is only a tad smaller than the standard 750ml (25.4 oz) bottle of wine. In this one Albertsons grocery store, I counted over 80 different SKUs of at least 20 different styles of beer among under $10 bombers. And this was a rather small grocery selection for the Seattle-area market.

If you think of beer styles (Belgian Tripel, New England IPA, Oatmeal Stout, etc.) like grape varieties, the beer department has the wine industry smoked when it comes to answering the “Boredom Factor.”

Even among the same style (like IPA), you are far more likely to find distinct personalities and differences (hoppiness) among various brews than you ever would dream of finding among under $10 Cabs, Chards and Red Blends.

I have a fair amount of industry folks who read this blog so I’m going to ask you to step back and take off your “wine hat” for a moment. If you were a young post-college Millennial shopper with no personal connection (like having visited a winery) or long-term relationship with drinking wine, what would you spend your $10 on?

Are we just waiting for better times?

Yeah, things suck right now for the broke 20-something Millennial. But can we really predict their future buying potential based on the habits of their 20s?

It’s true that most Millennials have not entered their peak earning ages. Likewise, most have not reached the ages when previous generations started embracing wine.

Jason Haas, of Tablas Creek, makes that later point particularly well as he points out some of the silver linings amidst the gloom and doom assessments about Millennials.

The median age of a Millennial is 30, but the Millennials at the peak of the demographic bubble are just 24. Were many Baby Boomers drinking wine at age 30, let alone 24? No. How about GenX? Not much. Millennials are drinking more wine than preceding generations were at the same age, which should be a positive enough trend. — Jason Haas, Are the gloomy messages about the state of the wine industry warranted? I say not for wineries like us. 2/4/2019

I concede Haas’ point and appreciate his optimism. I’ve certainly not hidden my affection or admiration for Tablas Creek’s business acumen. Though Haas is a “proud Gen Xer,” he pretty much runs Tablas Creek like a Millennial with a brand that embraces transparency, authenticity and sustainability along with pushing the envelope for new and exciting wines.

Without a doubt, if more wineries followed Tablas Creek’s example, the Boredom Factor would almost be a non-issue.

But what I fret that Haas’ optimism overlooks is the habits and perceptions that are being ingrained into Millennial consumers right now. Haas’ generation (and the Boomers) had the benefit of a promising economic outlook before them–where there was the potential for growth in earnings and career development.

That is a luxury that many Millennials don’t have and this is something that we are all too aware of. Even if things get a little bit better into our late 30s and 40s, it’s going to be very difficult to shake the mindset and spending habits of our formative 20s and early 30s.

Valuing “Value”

While things are not as bad as they were during the Great Depression, social scientists and economists are already drawing parallels to the spending habits and mindset of Millennials with those of the Silent Generation born between 1925-1945.

Even though the Silent Generation benefited from the post-war boom, many kept the spending habits imprinted on them during the hardship of the Great Depression. Prominent among those retained habits was the idea of stretching your dollar–even when you had more dollars to stretch.

Millennials certainly like to be entertained. We want experiences and to feel connected. And we avoid boredom like the plague.

But we deeply value “value.”

The $15-25 Sweet Spot

Let’s go back to the grocery store and look at the more premium $15-25 “sweet spot” range of wine pricing–with emphasis on the sweet.

Meiomi & 7 deadly with cheaper spirits

Usually, Meiomi is not over $25 so, for the sake of argument, I’m including it here.

When you get up to the higher price points, wine’s competition is not just beer (with many interesting six and twelve packs available in this price range) but also spirits as well. But spirits adds another dimension because they’re far less perishable and the servings are much smaller.

With wine and beer, you ideally want to enjoy it the same day that it was opened. But a comparably priced spirit can last weeks or even months.

Now I can hear wine folks scoffing at the idea of Captain Morgan or Deep Eddy taking away throat share from anyone older than 23. Yeah, I get it. The “Fireball crowd” eventually grows up. But for those folks who lose the sweet tooth and want something with more complexity, the spirits department still offers numerous options–especially among whiskeys.

Plus, because of how long a bottle of whiskey last, a Millennial could even stretch their $25 drinking budget to $40 and still get some very compelling value.

Old Forester and Woodford reserve

Personally not a fan of the Redneck Riviera but I’d take it over Meiomi any day of the week.

Granted, you have to sometimes deal with the inconvenience of getting the product out of lockup. Also, in some states (like Washington) there are crazy high liquor taxes to account for too.

However, this is all part of the sum-value Millennial Math that we deal with on every trip to the store. What the wine industry needs to concern itself with is how all these figures are adding up.

Banking on Premium Spenders

I want to embrace the optimism that as Millennials feel financially secure, they will turn to wine and start spending in the premium category. That means not only a strong wine industry but also a strong economy overall.

But I can’t shake the feeling that even if Millennials have more money to spend, that they’re not going to be impressed with the value they see in high-end wines. This is something that I’ve personally experienced myself. I’m very fortunate in my financial situation to where I can occasionally splurge on bottles like Opus One, Silver Oak, Cristal and Petrus.

You know what? I’d rather drink Pappy.

I feel this way even though I’m a highly-engaged wine drinker with a personal connection to wine. I’ve been bitten hard by the bug and have a healthy cellar to show for it.

But if you ask me for my brutally honest choice of whether to spend another $2600-4000 on a bottle of Petrus or something like the 1981 Glenmorangie Pride, I would choose the Glenmorangie every time.

And this is coming from someone that keeps a picture of Petrus as their background banner on Facebook!

However, when I step back and let my Millennial nature take over–when I think about the sum-value of what I’m getting compared to what I’m paying–whiskey beats out wine.

If that’s the case with someone like me, then how do you think the math is playing out with my co-horts?

The Petruses of the World are not the ones that need to worry.

Petrus is not going to have problems selling their wine. Even if Millennials aren’t spending at levels of past generations, wineries like Petrus make so little at such high prices that they only need a few folks to bite the bullet each vintage. There is always going to be enough people like me who shell out thousands to attend our Super Bowl–even if it ends up being a 13-3 snorefest.

The real hurt is going to be felt by all the wineries making NFL regular-season and playoff-type wines. They’re the ones that are going to have to convince Millennials that their wines are worth the price of the ticket.

Let’s go back and look at our supermarket shelf at some of the $50-100 options.
$50 to 100 wine vs spirits

That is an excellent price on the Grgich. The only thing that kept me from pulling the trigger was wondering how long it had been standing upright under the supermarket’s harsh lights.

Again, why spend $50-100 for something that needs to be enjoyed mostly in one night (unless you spend another $200+ for a preservation system like the Coravin) over something you could stretch for months?

Wine’s saving grace has been that only a small segment of drinkers have developed a taste for brown spirits like whiskey, tequila and rum. But those categories are growing–especially among Millennials and women.

If the boredom factor doesn’t kill off the $100+ Napa Cab, brown spirits certainly will.

But it all starts back in the beginning, with the spending habits and perception of value that Millennials are developing now with their under $10 and $15-25 options. Here is where wineries are losing the battle before the war even begins.

Yeah, Millennials wanderlust is great and can definitely help wineries that are offering different and exciting wines. But that same wanderlust also fuels our openness in trying other beverages like craft beer and brown liquors. The more we try them, the more those other options become players in the “sum-value” game of Millennial Math.

And, right now, that math is seriously working against the wine industry.

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60 Second Beer Review — New Belgium Oakspire

A few quick thoughts on the New Belgium Brewing Oakspire barrel-aged ale.

The Geekery

New Belgium Brewing was founded in 1991 by Jeff Lebesch and his wife, Kim Jordan, in Fort Collins, Colorado.

The goal of the brewery was to make Belgium-style ales and in 1996 Peter Bouckaert, a former brewmaster at Brouwerij Rodenbach in Belgium, was brought on. When Lebesch left in 2009, Kim Jordan took over management of the brewery. Bouckaert would later leave in 2017.

The Oakspire was fermented using Pale, Munich, Caramel 80, rye and roasted barley malts with ale yeast. The idea was to use a mashbill similar to high-rye bourbons. However, this is a bit different than the typical Knob Creek mashbill of 75% corn, 13% rye and 12% barley with “high-rye” bourbons often having 20-35% rye.

The beer was hopped to 20 IBUs using Nugget (a “Super-Alpha” bittering hop) and HBC 472 (an experimental flavoring variety) hops.

The beer was then aged in barrels with oak “spires” and barrel char that were soaked in Knob Creek bourbon before finishing with 9% ABV.

The Beer

Medium intensity nose. Lots of sweet vanilla has it smelling almost like a cream soda. Not much whiskey character.

Photo by Glane23. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Plenty of vanilla but not much else with this beer.

On the palate, the beer is surprisingly light for its ABV. The vanilla carries through but the beer isn’t as sweet as the nose would hint. Noticeable malt with subtle toffee flavors. Again, the whiskey character is not showing outside of the vanilla. Short finish ends on that same one-dimensional vanilla note.

The Verdict

I usually adore Belgian strong ales and barleywines as I really dig the heft and fuller-bodied flavors from higher ABV brews such as the Firestone Walker Anniversary Ale.

However, with bourbon barrel-age beers (and wines), my experience has been more mixed such as with Goose Island Bourbon County series–often finding them underwhelming.

You can add the New Belgium Oakspire to the “mixed pile” as a rather simple brew that doesn’t offer anything exciting for $12-15 for a 6 pack.

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Pink Washing in the Booze Industry for Pride Month

“You know you matter as soon as you are marketable.”

I found that quote scribbled in the margins of a used copy of Wine Marketing & Sales I purchased from Amazon. I have no clue about the original author. However, a cynical corollary to that proverb often gets bantered about during Pride Month.

“Businesses start paying attention when they realize you can be marketed to.”

The origins of Pride is about the LGBT community overcoming obstacles and affirming our right to live openly and without fear. It’s something that is still needed even today. Yet every year there are concerns that the significance of Pride is lost in lieu of having a big ole party.

But this conflict isn’t unique to Pride. Many religious and secular holidays such as Christmas and Memorial Day have drifted far from their original meaning.

Far from sitting on the sidelines, the alcohol industry is often at the forefront in this crass commercialization of holidays with producers and retailers banking on the uptick of sales during the winter holidays to make their financial year–which is why things like “reindeer wine,” boozy ornaments and whiskey advent calendars exist.

Likewise, every Memorial Day will prominently feature large liquor displays at stores–not necessarily to help people remember the sacrifice of service members but rather to “toast the beginning of summer” with a packed cooler and a 3-day weekend.

Eat, Drink and Be Gay

Even with the many challenges we still face (especially globally), the LGBT community has indeed moved beyond being universally shunned and shuttered into the closest. We’re now a very marketable demographic that businesses eagerly seek. With an estimated purchasing power of nearly $1 trillon in the US, on a global scale, the LGBT community would have the 4th largest GDP of any country at $4.6 trillion.

Photo by puroticorico. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

A pride float in Chicago featuring Absolut Vodka

Is it any wonder why businesses see Pride Month as “Gay Christmas”?

Again, you can look and find examples of the alcohol industry leading the way with vodka brands like Absolut and Smirnoff developing ad campaigns for the LGBT community since the 1980s and Anheuser-Busch being a fixture at Pride events since the 1990s.

In the wine industry, Clos du Bois (now part of Constellation Brands) began donating in the mid 1990s to LGBT causes like the AIDS Memorial Quilt project and highlighting their involvement in print ads. Over the next decade, more wine brands would regularly sponsor Pride events and advertise in LGBT publications. These included Beaulieu Vineyard (Treasury Estates), Domaine Chandon (LVMH), Rosemount Estate (Treasury Estate) and Merryvale Vineyards.

Travel and wine events catering to the LGBT community emerge such as Out in the Vineyard that started in Sonoma in 2011 with sponsorship from Boisett Family Estates, DeLoach, Gary Farrell, Iron Horse, J Vineyards, Jackson Family Estates, Lasseter Family Winery, Muscardini, Ravenswood, Sebastiani and Windsor Oaks among others.

It’s not just wine, it’s GAY WINE!

Most of these early marketing campaigns were based on promoting existing products. However, soon producers began developing exclusive products targeting LGBT consumers. Kim Crawford (Constellation) takes credit for creating the world’s first “gay wine” with its 2004 launch of a rosé named Pansy. Though not necessarily claiming to be a “gay wine”, Rainbow Ridge Winery in Palm Spring, owned by LGBT owners, may have beat them to the punch with their 2001 Alicante Boushet. They certainly win on the merit of having a far less offensive name.

In Argentina, the Buenos Aires Gay Wine Store partnered with a local Argentine winery to produce Pilot Gay Wine in 2006. While debates about gay marriage was carrying on globally, Biagio Cru & Estate Wines created a sparkling Cremant de Bourgogne named Égalité (meaning “equality”) in 2013 to celebrate the crusade for marriage equality.

Lest other segments of the industry get left behind, in 2011 Minerva Brewery in Mexico released what they called the “World’s First Gay Beers” with two honey ales–Purple Hand Beer and Salamandra.

Be cynical or celebrate?

I understand the instinct to chafe at the “Curse of Pink Washing” and the sense of being pandered to by corporate interests. That is my initial response to a lot of gay marketing. But I can still celebrate the meaning of Christmas while putting up snowmen and Santa decorations. Likewise, the solemnity of Memorial Day can still be observed while BBQing burgers and brats.

For me, I won’t begrudge any business for creating special “Pride packaging” or products. However, I won’t give them a free pass either. The quality still needs to be inside the colorful wrapping to merit a positive review or a second purchase.

In that vein, I decided to try Fremont Brewing Pride Seattle Kolsch and House Wine’s Limited Edition Rosé Bubbles Can and review them below.

The Beer

I’d definitely buy this even outside of Pride month.

Medium intensity nose with fresh wheat grain and some subtle lemon pastry notes.

The mouthfeel is refreshing. Very well balanced with the citrus notes more pronounced. Extremely session-able with low hops and plenty of malted grain flavor.

The Wine

Sourced from “American Grapes” of unknown variety or origins.

Medium-minus nose with faint and not very defined red fruit. There is also a tropical rind note that vaguely reminds me of cantaloupe rinds.

While certainly not “bottle fermented”, it’s very likely that this wasn’t made via the Charmat method or tank fermentation either.
Most likely Precept made this with straight carbonation like soda.

On the palate, the bubbles are very coarse and almost gritty. Slightly bitter phenolics brings up more of the rind note from the nose. It segues into apple peel with just a little bit of unripe strawberry representing the faint red fruit.

The Verdict

The Fremont Pride Kolsch was a very enjoyable beer in its own right. Even beyond Pride, it’s worth $8-10 for a four pack of 16 oz cans.

The House Wine “Rainbow Bubbles”, however, was very reminiscent of Cook’s or Andre’s. It honestly seemed like someone took a light rosé and put it through a Soda Stream. At $4-5 for a 375ml can, I’d much rather spend $3-4 more to get a bottle of Spanish Cava.

That would be something worth toasting Pride with.

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60 Second Whiskey Reviews — Jameson Caskmates IPA edition

A few quick thoughts on the Jameson Caskmates IPA edition Irish Whiskey.

The Geekery

Jameson is a brand of whiskey produced by Irish Distillers which is a subsidiary of Pernod Ricard. The whiskies are distilled at the massive Midleton Distillery along with Paddys, Midleton, Powers, Redbreast and contract distillation for Green Spot, Yellow Spot and Tullamore Dew.

The Caskmates IPA edition follows the 2013 release of the Jameson Caskmates Stout Edition and continues the distillery’s “barrel exchange” program with Franciscan Well Brewery in Cork.

Barrels that initially held new make Jameson are sent to the brewery where they are used to barrel age their Irish Pale Ale. After emptying, the barrels are sent back to Midleton where a new batch of Jameson is aged in them.

The Whiskey

Medium plus intensity nose with lots of citrus and floral hops notes. It really does smell like an IPA. Underneath you get some of the tell-tale Jameson apple notes.

On the palate I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t anywhere as sweet as Jameson normally is. In fact, it was actually salty and mouthwatering. The citrus, particularly grapefruit, carries through but it doesn’t taste hoppy or piney at all.

The Verdict

By Will Shenton - https://bevvy.co/cocktail/moscow-mule/gsp, CC BY-SA 3.0, on Wikimedia Commons

I’m intrigued at how the saltiness of the Jameson Caskmates IPA would play with an Irish Mule but not enough to keep a bottle regularly in the bar.

This whiskey doesn’t have enough complexity to be a sipping whiskey. Howver, it certainly has a lot more going for it than your typical Jameson. I always look to Jameson as a mixing “well whiskey” that works great in things like Irish Mules where the ginger beer and lime balance the sweet apply notes. The saltiness of the Jameson Caskmates IPA really stands out and may give those mules an interesting twist.

With this Caskmates edition being around $30, its about $10 more than regular Jameson. Its worth trying for the curious. If you’re like me and use Jameson as a mixer, this is not worth it for a sipper.

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60 Second Beer Review — Allagash Curieux

A few 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 to 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 before bottling.

The Beer

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.

Shy nose. Little straw but not very malt-driven with no overt Bourbon notes. There is slight citrus, but it is hard to pull out.

The lightness carries through to the palate and while there are 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 reasonably balanced.

The Verdict

I was very surprised at how light it is for something with 11% ABV–much less something that is barrel aged. Coupled with the shy and faint 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. I can see its light, lager-like character working well with certain pub fare. But at around $20-23 for a 750 ml, it’s not a beer I’d feel compelled to buy.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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. I 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.”

Seriously, Fran’s is the best

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?

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.

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