Saturday, June 18, 2011

Going Rogue: The LCBO's Rogue Brewery June Release

Every once in a great while, a release happens at the LCBO that more or less makes up for all the annoyances and stupidity we've had to endure over the previous several months.   I sometimes see the LCBO as being the dopey, lazy husband sitcom character - means well, generally is a good person, but nevertheless is incredibly stubborn and prone to colossal fuck-ups.   But, thanks to some sage advice from its rarely-seen neighbour, he will inevitably produce some sort of well-meaning make-up gesture that saves the relationship for at least another week.   In the past few months, we the beer-sloshing masses have had to endure the same basic beer lineup with minimal changes, and when it looks like things are changing for the better, what follows is the kind of tragic dumb-fuckery such as what was seen with the "Smashbomb Affair." (which looks like it has finally been resolved!)  At this point I was ready to go full on Tea Party and campaign for the abolishment of this governmental interference in our private lives. The market will fix itself, and all that. Fortunately, the stars did align and the LCBO graced us with a lovely little bonus release from on the United States' classic craft breweries, and all was forgiven. That is, at least, until the next time the LCBO forgets our anniversary and goes drinking with his buddies.

Rogue Brewery from Newport Oregon is, as I have said, one of the big names in the American West Coast craft brewing scene.  One of the first biggies out of the gate (brewing ales since 1988, and their waterfront brewpub opening a year later), Rogue has always been a major player in the craft brew revolution with its bold flavored brews utilizing West Coast hops and local barley and yeast.  So far, it has been quite the success story, as its products are available across the country, and occasionally, if it's okay with Mom and Dad, in Canada as well.  Their bottles are certainly hipster-friendly, usually sporting some variation of the image of long-time Rogue drinker Justin Fisch, who I must say looks a great deal like the boss from Weekend at Bernies except if he wore thick-rimmed glasses and was only interested in underground indie bands "you've probably never heard of."  Other important folks in the Rogue/Oregon family will also find their way onto their bottles, a trend that helps give the brewery a real community-oriented feel.  Although the "we're different, zany and a little bit out-there" company ethos is nothing new to the craft brewing scene, from the looks of things I really get the sense that Rogue is a brewery that doesn't force attitude as an advertising gimmick - it's just the way they are.
The old: Rogue Brutal Bitter...

The LCBO Rogue release features six different brews, but so far only four seem to have made it out of the starting gate.  Nevertheless, these four are all interesting-looking characters to say the least.  Their flagship brew - Brutal IPA - has made it up to Canada before, but was marketed as "Brutal Bitter" back then and now has a slightly different bottle design.  It's a flavorful, strong IPA, although the website insists it's a bitter - if so, they really should call it an "American Imperial Bitter."  There is also a Chipotle Ale which looks all kinds of intriguing (no prize-money for guessing what the extra ingredient in that brew is); a well-hopped red ale called Captain Sig's Northwestern Ale, and finally Somer Orange Honey Ale, a pale wheat ale with local honey, orange peel and chamomile tea - should be great on a summer's day. 

Let's get right to it!

Beer: Rogue Brutal IPA
Type: American IPA* (see above)
ABV: 5.8%

Might as well start with the classic Rogue brew.  Though I've had this before, it's been about a year and a truly loved it the first time round - let's see if the new branding and a year of craft brew drinking have done some good!  Poured into a nonic glass.  A lovely apricot orange hue, slightly opaque, and with a good inch and a half of head, that receded into a sturdy, 1/4 inch head that creeps along the sides of the glass. Lots of lacing in patches. Brilliant.

...and the new: Rogue Brutal IPA.
Nose is a malty, earthy, hoppy affair, with notes of pineapple, apricot and grapefruit. About what I'd expected from a West Coast IPA.

Taste is superb, very enjoyable. Earthy and malty up front, with a touch of toffee or caramel. Not horrifically bitter; a good balance with a malty, fruit backing. The finish, in particular, is surprisingly citrussy, with notes of orange, pineapple and peach.  Finishes slightly dry, which certainly invites you back for more.

Mouthfeel is slightly creamy, with steady, thorough carbonation. The longevity of the head is doing wonders for this brew.

Wow; great stuff, highly enjoyed sipping on this one.  Not nearly as bitter as I'd expected, but I rarely go for brews whose sole marketing feature is their IBU count. Rogue's put together a fine product here; I'll certainly be back for more bottles of this, and whatever else I can get my hands on. A tip of the cap, and a great start to the Rogue lineup! (Grade: A)

Beer: Chipotle Ale
Type: Chili Beer (beer with peppers added to the boil; this one happens to be an ale, though the same process can also be done with lagers)
ABV: 5.5%

Poured into a nonic. A nice amber brew, slightly murky, a good frothy head that displays nice retention and makes some fine lacing. A good looking brew.

Nose is surprisingly mild. Malt, a bit of cascade hops, and what I assume to be the peppers, but had I not known what the beer's ingredients were beforehand, I would have just called it a 'astringent smokiness'. 

Chipotle Ale tastes...interesting - not in that patronizing sense of "that piece of modern art with its use of boiled panda spleen is...interesting", but that this beer is demanding my interest because there's a lot going on and I'm not sure what to make of it all. Starts off slightly malty and with a bit of an IPA feel to it, before the chili peppers rush in. The chipotles give the brew a nice peppery southwest character, with hints of smoke and leather, with the sweet malts and west coast hops cleansing the palate. Not a spicy brew; it just possesses a mix of flavors that seem to work fairly well together. As you get used to the taste, the chipotle becomes a little less predominant and it starts to taste a bit like a "southwestern rauchbier", in this observer's humble opinion.  Assertive carbonation, medium bodied, oily.

Do I like it?  I guess so.  I mean, it's not bad, but it's probably not something I'd have too often.  I tend to agree with another online reviewer that this might be a great cooking brew. While it mercifully didn't taste like someone dumped pepper juice into a beer tun and called it a day, the pepper flavor is only mild - I had expected a bit more zing to it.  Still, an fine effort. (Grade: a tentative 'B-')

Beer: Somer Orange Honey Ale
Type: Pale Wheat Ale
ABV: 5.2%

I should mention one other thing that Rogue is doing that I really appreciate, and that's their listing of the beer's ingredients on the side of the bottle.  This isn't a simple "Ingredients: Barley, Hops, Water, Yeast" sort of pithy list.  I hate when breweries have to do that, because that's what beer is.  You might as well have a winery post their ingredients as "Crushed Grapes, Water, Time."  Rogue, on the other hand, goes into far more detail, telling you exactly what kind of malt, hops, yeast strains and additional spices and flavorings have gone into their brew.  A lot of this information is probably more than any but the most dedicated beer geek would need (Rogue, for example, goes so far as to post the beer's gravity in degrees Plato* - if you aren't a brewer or supreme beer nerd, this information is pretty useless) but it still is nice to see a brewer go the extra mile.  For instance, if you find that a brew has a particular hop flavor you like or don't like,  it would be good to know exactly what it is so you can adjust your future purchasing.  Rogue has you covered on that front.

According to the bottle, Somer Orange Honey Ale, in addition to the usual wheat malts and local yeast strains, contains what should be some pretty tasty flavorings: wildflower honey, chamomile tea, coriander and orange peel.  Should be quite enjoyable. 

Poured into a fluted pilsner glass, just cause that's what I'm rocking today.   While initally a pale golden brew, my secondary top-up pour yielded a great deal of sediment, which allowed for some golden-straw murky goodness.  Some sediment patches on the bottom of the glass, good frothy head and decent retention, some lacing.

Despite all I said before about the ingredients, the nose on this brew is, I'm sad to say, surprisingly tame.  Wheat malt, honey, a bit of citrus (grapefruit and lemon).  Mild, though still quite pleasant. 

A decent wheat malt backing with a bit of crisp cracker to the finish, and surprisingly subtle notes of of honey, flowers, lemon and tea.  To be honest, such bold and exciting brews as the Brutal IPA and Chipotle, I have to say I was a little let down by the Somer Orange.  Though, refreshing, tasty, and certainly enjoyable, the flavors were pretty underwhelming - I really expected a lot more from this brew.  All the flavor notes I so anticipated from the label were barely present, and involved some genuine hunting - and hopefully nothing imagined or made up - on my part to detect them.

Tasty, yes, but certainly nothing worth getting as excited about as the girl on the label seems to be (although based on the label, it looks more like she's drinking a stout or dark IPA, which I think would be much more worth celebrating).  Perhaps the pale wheat ale is a style that I don't really care for, or maybe my expectations were too high.  In either case, this was my least favorite of the four, but don't take this point too far - it still is a decent brew.   (Grade: B)

Beer: Captain Sig's Northwestern Ale
Type: American Red Ale
ABV: 6.2%

Finally, we come to Captain Sig's, a brew named after the Sig Hansen, the deep-sea crab fishermen whose exploits are the subject of the Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch. 

Poured into a conical Flying Monkeys glass in honour of the hoppy communion I am about to receive. A sludgy, muddy coloured brew, not entirely unlike the underwater silt in which one might possibly sift for crawfish. Sandy sediment on the bottom of the glass. Not the most visually appealing beer, but certainly a quality head and excellent lacing and retention.

And thus end my criticisms of this beer.
The nose is a brilliant mix of juicy, leafy, citrussy West coast hops and delectable caramel malts.  Outstanding stuff.

Northwestern Ale tastes like a citrussy and bitter IPA, but possesses the earthiness and richness of a red ale; the dark murky colour firmly places this brew in the Red Ale camp.  Each sip yields caramel malts up front, transitioning to that lovely blend of earth and citrus, leaving a long, citrus and biscuit finish.  Lighter carbonation, thick bodied, slightly gritty or silty from the sediment.  A beer you can really gnash your teeth on.

A highly enjoyable brew, hearty and full of West Coast goodness. Will be back for more of this ere the release is complete. Great stuff! (Grade: A-)

All in all, an excellent lineup that provides a solid introduction to the Rogue brewing tradition.  Diverse as these brews might be, a look at the brewery website or the Beer Advocate listings shows that this is but a small fraction of the brews that are currently available from Rogue, though it is unlikely that we'll see too many others in Ontario, unless the ones that are part of this release start to fly off the shelves.   Definitely the price point might seem a bit daunting (around $6 for a bomber at the LCBO), these brews are certainly worth a try, especially if you're looking to satisfy your West Coast hop cravings until Smashbomb makes it onto the shelves - according to the Flying Monkey's facebook group, they are brewing their LCBO batches as we speak!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Owl Beer

Like many a country, Japan is not one that is typically well known for their beer brewing expertise.  If you're like most North Americans, I'm willing to guess that your only experience with Japanese brews are those pale "rice lagers" like Asahi and Sapporo that are available at every sushi restaurant to provide that authentic Japanese experience, and I would certainly be in that boat.  I'm not averse to a nice dry brew when eating raw fish, but there really isn't a whole lot to distinguish these beers from anything else.  For a country so well-known for its cuisine, tea and distilled spirits, surely one can expect better things from Japan.  One would be right. 

Mercifully, this spring the LCBO has brought in this lovely little witbier from Kiuchi Brewery, giving those of us a mere sampling of the potential for greatness one should expect from a Japanese craft brewing industry, small though it might be.  According to Kiuchi's website, the brewery began in the mid-19th century just prior to the Meiji Restoration, when Japan centralized its economy and social structure around the emperor, rather than the loose confederation of shogunates.  As one might expect, Kiuchi was originally a sake brewer; a close alliance with the new Meiji emperor and smart business practices at the time of the post-Second World War economic boom allowed the brewery to carve a nice little niche (or "nest"?) for itself.   Check out the website; the brewery looks like something out of a Kurosawa film - it really must be beautiful to visit.  In 1996, the brewmasters turned their attention to the brewing of ales as well, and not of the pale rice lager variety.  Hitachino Nest White Ale was first off the shelves, a wheat ale brewed in the Belgian tradition using coriander and orange peel, and with an adorable little owl character on the label.  Other brews in the Hitachino line followed, flavored with American-style hops but staying true style-wise to their Japanese roots, such as their Hitachino Rice Ale and Ginger Ale, the latter having among the most bizarre beer labels I've ever seen (though it's par for the course for general Japanese weirdness...)

The Hitachino Nest White Ale remains their most popular brew, and certainly has been among the more readily-available of Kiuchi's brews outside of Japan since they began distributing to North America in 2000.  (Indeed, many beer lovers living in Japan have lamented that it can be easier getting Kiuchi brews in the United States than in Japan...good old distribution logic...)

Thanks to Jay and Lori for picking up a bottle of this for me - I really enjoyed it, though sadly, I was unable to determine what kind of owl they used in the brewing process...

Beer: Hitachino Nest White Ale
Brewery: Kiuchi Brewery (Naga, Japan)
Type: Witbier
ABV: 5%

Sorry for the poor pic - it was in the evening and the glass was a bit dirty.  Hitachino pours a pale, hazy yellow-golden, almost the colour of white grapefruit juice. The head didn't last too long, unfortunately, but based on others' reviews I've encountered online, this clearly was my fault.

Nose is a lovely citrus blend of orange, grapefruit and lemon, some herbal and floral hops, and a nice yeast/wheat malt backing. One of the better aromas I've encountered in a wit, and that includes brews from Belgium proper.

Very juicy and remarkably flavorful. Truly, this is one of the most satisfying witbiers I've encountered in some time. Ridiculously thirst quenching, and certainly a prime candidate for the ultimate breakfast/brunch brew. Citrus (orange, sweet grapefruit) and malted wheat in the front, some splendid hopping (floral, herbal) to the finish. Great stuff.

Thin bodied, tart, zippy carbonation.

If I ignore all those big-name rice lagers, I can fortunately claim this to be my first real beer from Japan, and what an entry this was. Were the price a touch lower, I'd drink this all summer; as it is, I'll at least try to keep coming back to it.  Pound for pound, this is one of the best witbiers I've ever encountered - truly great stuff! (Grade: A)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

More Australia Brews!

Sorry for the long delay in posting guys.  Going through a long stretch of home renovations and trying to get the house in order after being gone for a month.   To keep things rolling, here's a few of the more interesting beers I encountered in my Australian travels:

Beer: Barons Lemon Myrtle Witbier
Brewery: Barons Brewery (Woollahra, New South Wales)
Type: Witbier
ABV: 4.5%

A single bottle picked up at a Canberra liquor store.  Certainly picked this one up because of the name; anything smacking of lemon myrtle can't be all bad, right?  Talking to folks later, I found out Barons is a bit of a style-over-substance type of brewery.  Although they have some interesting-looking stuff on tap, there's nothing overly exciting, save for this fellow.  Ah well, let's give it a go anyway!

Poured into the closest approximation to a beer glass I could find in our Canberra apartment.  Poured a pale golden straw colour, which was initially clear and sparkling but the swirling of the sediment yielded a nice opaque consistency. Good frothy head, lots of lacing.

Nose is lemon, herbs, grass, a bit of soft wheat malt.

A good beer rule of mine is that whenever a brewery goes out of its way to identify the dominant flavors in the beer's name ("chocolate stout", "orange peel ale", "ginger wheat ale"), it usually means that those flavors will be overly potent, and will probably crush the beer's delicate balance.  This was certainly the case here. Although this was a fairly tasty brew, and would no doubt enjoyable on an autumn patio, the lemon flavor is a bit artificial tasting, and was far too overpowering.  Still, lemon is a nice flavor to have in a beer, so I still enjoyed it.  Finishes with a grassy hop kick to cleanse the palate. Slightly creamy, zippy carbonation.

A decent witbier, a bit heavy-handed with the lemon flavor, but still nevertheless a good warm weather drinker.  (Grade: B-)

Beer: Feral Hop Hog IPA
Brewery: Feral Brewing (Perth, Western Australia)
Type: American IPA
ABV: 5.8%

The second brew from my excellent Australian beer trade (cheers again, David!), enjoyed on a quiet evening in Sydney before we headed out to sample the night scene.  When my Aussie friend asked me months ago about what kind of breweries I wanted to try for when I arrived, I responded that I'd be game for anything - although I have to say I certainly was hoping for something from Feral.

Feral is one of a several exciting new microbreweries from the state of Western Australia, which offers a wide variety of ales and lagers with a distinctly American bent (in the brewing world, this is very much a good thing), as well as a respectable sampling of Belgian and English styled ales.  Of their list, Hop Hog is among their most sampled and highest rated (according to BA and RateBeer), so you might safely call this their flagship brew.  It certainly tasted like one, as we shall see!

Poured into the handy hotel room tumbler glass, which served its purpose admirably. An amber-russet brew, slightly hazy, with a lively head, great retention and lovely icicles of lacing. First rate appearance.

The nose is solid American citrus hops, brown sugar, pale malt. Some orange, lemon and other tropical fruits kicking around.

A maltier American IPA, with the hops coming to my attention only later in the sip. The hops have a nice earthy character with the citrus only mildly poking its head above the surface. Quite flavorful, although the hops lack that juicy punch I come to expect from any brew with "Hop" in the name.  Still, quite tasty and enjoyable.   Effervescent carbonation, medium feel.

With a bit of tweaking, this IPA could hold its own quite nicely against other brews of the style.  I guess you could say we're pretty spoiled with IPAs in North America (less so in Canada), so our expectations can run a bit too high; I certainly thoroughly enjoyed this brew!  Hop Hog is a highly drinkable, approachable IPA and is well-worth seeking out - if you can find it, that is... (Grade: B+)

Beer: Knappstein Reserve Lager
Brewery: Enterprise Brewery/Knappstein Winery, (Clare, South Australia)
Type: German Pilsner
ABV: 5.6%

For all my drinking exploits in Australia, I have to say I really didn't spend much time sampling their world-famous wines and visiting their undoubtedly scenic wineries.  Which is a shame, really, because I'm sure a winery exploration of southeastern Australia would have been fantastic.  Now I likes wine and I likes it fine, I've just never been able to distinguish one wine from another enough to really worry about which wine to have, so I've never really progressed beyond the confines of: "I like that wine.  That one is too dry.  I detect berry and oak, possibly some booze.  Further sampling is know what, just leave the bottle."   That, and as a dedicated quaffer of the ale, I tend to harbor a bit of resentment towards wine, because it has so nicely weaseled itself into a position of primacy in the alcohol-drinking world, becoming a far more cultured, sophisticated and socially-acceptable beverage than the blue-collared barley juiced swill we Delta-Epsilons so enjoy.  But I certainly have a strong respect for the vintners; indeed, anyone whose vocation is providing the lot of us with intoxicating beverages is fine with me.  And my wife and I do enjoy our yearly drive through the Niagara region, stopping by whatever winery comes up next on the GPS (there are a lot of them) and buying a random bottle or two, so I do know a little bit about wine.   I also know that those who make wine tend to also make some pretty damned good beer as well; I've sampled many brews from places whose normal produce is wine, and I've been satisfied if not ecstatic with the result.   Knappstein, being the formidable vintners that they are, have certainly succeeded in this front.  In fact, I can safely say that their brew was my absolute favorite of the trip, and once again I owe this drinking privilege to my Aussie beer-trading comrade David.

Poured a light hazy golden, clear and effervescent, sturdy inch of frothy head. Not much lacing, but excellent retention.

The nose is simply fantastic: truly, this stuff smelled like the holy matrimony of wine and beer.  Sweet white wine (Cabernet Sauvignon, I've been told), fruit (apple, passion fruit, melon, orange, grape), honey, mild grain, a bit of light hops.  The sweet alcohol smell reminded me a great deal of mead or ice wine.

Knappstein Reserve is truly an excellent lager, fresh and fruity, but with a clean hop finish to maintain its overall "beeriness." The wine flavors are terrific, nice and sweet, complimenting the malt quite nicely.  Finishes with a dry white wine kick, slightly astringent.  The beer was mildly under-carbonated, but that was probably my fault, as I subjected the bottle to a 25 hour flight back to Canada before I got around to sampling it properly.  The mouthfeel is nice and light, refreshing, with a dryness lingers on the tongue.

Simply brilliant.  Knappstein takes the best parts of a German Pils and an Aussie Cab-Sauv, making an end product that is greater than its sum.  A must try!  (Grade: A)

Beer: Seeing Double
Brewery: Brewboys (Sydney, NSW)
Type: Scottish Ale / Wee Heavy
ABV: 8%

The last brew of the trip, which, like the Knappstein, I ended up saving until I got home.  There just wasn't a great opportunity to really savour these two brews while there, and I wanted to extend the wonderful Australian brew-experience a little while longer.  I could have even aged this one a little, but lets face it, I can't risk this guy going foul without having sampled it.  A good aging rule of mine: only age stuff you've tried before, first so that you have a frame of reference to compare it to, and secondly, I could keel over before having tried it.
"Well, good night!"
I'm totally serious: I have no intention of dying in a freak leopard accident with unsampled beer in my cellar, dammit.  Beer is for the living!  Fortunately, since my current status pegs me at "alive", I guess it's beer time!

Scottish Ales or Scotch Ales - sometimes known as "Wee Heavies" - are exactly how you'd imagine an ale from Scotland would be: strong, malty, peaty or leathery, and totally incapable of qualifying for the World Cup.   While hops are there (mostly as a preservative), the flavor is really all in the malt, not entirely unlike a fine lowland scotch whisky.  Wee Heavies are boiled extra-long to caramelize the sugars, which makes for some strong, sweet, malty goodness; as Randy Mosher observes in "Tasting Beer", a Wee Heavy is really just a Scottish barleywine.  They were also the most expensive of the ales, using the antiquated shilling method of pricing ales.  You may have seen Caledonian 80 Shilling (80/-)on tap or in the LCBO, a nice standard Scottish Ale, which traditionally went guessed it, eighty shillings; Wee Heavies on the other hand, being a more complex (and stronger brew) typically marketed for a hefty160/-.   A pretty penny, indeed, but certainly worth it.   Though not too well-known outside of Scotland, fortunately many craft brewers have the Errol Flynn approach to brewing: they'll do anything.

Poured into a nonic glass, and enjoyed on one of the more humid days I've encountered since getting back.  Not really the ideal beer for a day like this, but I really wanted to finally try it!  A rich, sludgy, murky brown brew, toffee-coloured when held to the light.  Left behind a nice sturdy off-white head, with some lacing flecks.

The nose is a pure malty delight: caramel, toffee, fresh bread, cracker, a touch of peat and leather.  Smells exactly as one would expect.

As complex as a mid-range bottle of scotch, Seeing Double sports an impressive flavor profile.  It opens with a nice malty blast of caramel, bread, biscuit and dark fruit, before settling in to a lovely dry peaty-leather finish, with only the faintest traces of hops.  The alcohol, which is quite high, is nearly imperceptible, which is a very dangerous thing indeed.  No doubt one would certainly be seeing double after a few of these bad boys.  The leather/peat character lingers long on the tongue.  Slightly creamy, light but spritzy carbonation, thicker bodied.

A great example of the Wee Heavy style, in fact I'd happily rank it alongside some of the better Scottish offerings.  A study in malt, but with a nice diversity of flavors to make for an interesting and enjoyable sipper.  Not something I'd recommend more than a bottle or two of at any given time, but certainly well worth seeking out if you're Down Under.  Great stuff indeed! (Grade: A)


Well, that about wraps things up from my Australia Beerventure.  Though I was a bit stymied in my attempts to try some of the more obscure brews the country has to offer, a successful grocery-store haul, some exciting brewpubs and a fortuitous trade with a fellow Quaffer of the Ale has shown me that Australians not only love their beer, their craft breweries are off to a cracking start.  From this small sampling of brews, I've seen Australia's brewmasters' reverence for the ale traditions of the British Isles, their superb ability to utilize the newer hops and brewing styles from the United States, as well as a great passion for experimentation.   Foster's and VB be damned; Aussies can brew beers as good as the rest of us - it just sucks that I have to travel so damn far to get my hands on them!