Saturday, May 19, 2012

Smuttynose "Big Beer" Series

 Keeping things rolling with our Knightly Spirits haul is a dynamic duo from Smuttynose Brewing of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  I've been interested in sampling some brews from these wonderful folks since I first really got into craft beer.  My first resource for all things brews was an Eyewitness Companion guide to beer, edited by the late "beer hunter" Michael Jackson, which provides an excellent overview of the many different beers to be had around the world.  It was here that I first became enamoured with the American craft beer scene - its scope, diversity, its potential for growth, and the subculture that surrounded it.  I also feel in love with the unique and spectacular artwork and bottle designs that many of these breweries incorporated into their lineup, especially those who employed the services of artists local to their communities, and whose brews reflected the local character and history of the region.  Smuttynose is a prime example of this trend, and was one of the breweries featured in Jackson's work that really appealed to me.   Possibly because their brewery logo is a seal, and seals are awesome.

Smuttynose Brewing was founded by Peter Egelson in 1994 in the city of Portland, New Hampshire, and has since become one of the giants of the New England craft brewing scene, quickly surpassing the maximum output to be considered a "microbrewery."  It now is able to ship its brews in various markets on the Eastern Seaboard, including - of course - Florida.  The brewery is named after nearby Smuttynose Island, one of the Isles of Shoals located a few miles off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine.  The island itself is home to pods of Common Harbor Seals, which are the inspiration for the company's logo.  The brewery has long called the city of Portland its home, but for most of the past decade it has been attempting to move its facilities elsewhere.  Credit of course to the brewmaster, whose brews have been so popular that the brewery's output has skyrocketed to over 300,000 cases a year, and the old brewhouse is simply too small.  After two unsuccessful attempts to move its operations, Smuttynose has finally chosen a location for its new home.  The location is just south of Portland in the town of Hampton, and the property is an old farmhouse.  The farmhouse itself was in a less than ideal location, and so as part of the brewery's plans for moving into the lot, the house needed to be moved.  You can see the process of moving the house here.   It looks like the brewery's new digs will be operational by the end of this year - I wish them the best of luck in getting some quality brewing underway!

The brews of the standard Smutty lineup include a Belgian Pale, an American IPA, a Brown Ale, and a Robust Porter.  Thus far, I have only had the pleasure of sampling the Old Brown Dog brown ale, and it was pretty scrumdiddlyumptious.  In my wanderings through the well-stocked aisles of Knightly Spirits, I was recommended by one of the staff to give some of Smutty's "Big Beer Series" a try.  This special series of brews, like Uinta's "Crooked Line", are seasonal offerings that explore some of the more complex styles of brewing.  Because of their popularity and limited release times, these beers are sometimes - according to the website - "maddeningly hard to find."   Not so at Knightly Spirits!   At the specific recommendation of the staff member, I went with their Imperial Stout, whose bottle design shows the island of Smuttynose in an olden style nautical map.  My wife, a huge barleywine fan, opted for the Barleywine Style Ale - no info about the label I'm afraid, but the peasant girl imagery is quite appealing.  Let's dive right in!

Beer: Smuttynose Imperial Stout
Type: Russian Imperial Stout
ABV: 9.8%

Poured into a small conic glass.  This brew, like most RIS's is inky black, with only the faintest hint of chestnut around the edges.  The head is a sturdy mocha cap, and it leaves a hefty amount of lacing around the glass.

When a Russian stout is done right, you can tell right from the first whiff.  Though I've often found that a great many examples of the style have a similar nose, because that combination of flavors is so appealing to me (coffee and chocolate is one of my favourite food-drink combinations), I rarely mind in the slightest that there can be a lack of diversity between brews.  Smutty's stout falls squarely in this camp - it's not a unique nose, but damn is in impressive.  Delectable dark chocolate, fresh coffee, cream, toasted bread, more chocolate, a bit of grape.  Just lovely.

Truly, this is one tasty stout.  The combination of chocolate and rich coffee does not disappoint, as this brew is both sweet and bitter, rich and smooth, and an absolute pleasure to drink.  A light grape flavor lingers in the back, which is augmented by a touch of smoke.  Finishes dry and roasty.  Superb stuff.   Silky mouthfeel, with only a slight booze character to the tongue.  Medium low carbonation, coats the tongue well.   Long dry finish.

Gotta hand it to the dude at Knightly for setting me up with this brew - very impressive.  Again, there's a lot to be said for doing something that's been done, but doing it extremely well, and Smutty has certainly delivered on that front.  (Grade: A)

Beer: Smuttynose Barleywine Style Ale
Type:  American Barleywine (i.e., uses American hops)
ABV: 10%

A brew shrouded in mystery.  In addition to not really understanding the bottle label, I'm not sure why this brew is called a Barleywine "Style Ale", as if barleywine was one of those Eurozone protected names like Cognac and Stilton.  It's listed on BA as being a barleywine, and it really tastes like one.  Walks like a duck, talks like a duck, I guess.  But rest assured, unless there's a technical reason for the naming, I can say to Smuttynose that there is no need for this lack of confidence - this is very much a barleywine, and a damned good one at that.  Name it with pride!

Poured into a goblet.  A hazy, amber brew, with some visible sediment that settles at the bottom of the glass.  Clearly a brew that could very well be aged.  A thin head is all that survives the pour.  Not the most attractive brew, I'll admit, but then again, few barleywines are.

The nose is quite inviting, with notes of caramel, toffee, malt, doughy bread, peach, a touch of booze and citrus from the hops.  Like the imperial stout, Smutty's Barleywine smells very much like you'd expect a barleywine to do so, but it really hits the mark well.

An excellent barleywine - flavorful and complex.  The citrus hops added a nice counterpart to the sweet malty blast that opens this brew.  A dry grain flavour to the finish.  Subtle notes of peach, apricot, and white wine.  Nice chewy mouthfeel, medium bodied, excellent carbonation.

A stellar barleywine that is far bolder than the innocent farmer girl on the label suggested that it would be.  Highly recommended!  (Grade: A)

Two solid brews from Smutty, which gives me all the more reason to want to explore the rocky shores of the Granite State.  Glad to see the brewery's upgrade going well - hopefully a new brewery means greater output and greater chance of seeing some of these excellent brews Ontario-way!

Next up - a sampler from Bell's Brewery of Michigan!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Florida Beer Haul: Stout, Stout, Let It All Out! These are the Brews I Can't Do Without

Well, we're back!

It's been a long year, but it looks like my weekly sojourns out of the city are pretty much over, and I can get back to a regular routine, and hopefully some more frequent postings.  I also vaguely remember that I said something like this about two weeks ago.  Though my time in teacher's college is over, I still have another block of in-school volunteering to complete, but fortunately I can complete in my hometown which has made things far easier to handle.  This also means that I'm trying to get used to a new school....and new germs.  So even though I returned from a wonderful vacation in Florida about two weeks ago and have had ample opportunity to resume posting, I've been fighting a nasty cold for almost that entire time that has left me a broken shell of a man.   But I'm on the mend and eager to take you guys on a tour of some of the great brews I had in Florida, so let's get started!

First off, I have to say that the trip was fantastic. The weather - as shown in this photo from Wekiwa State Park - was sublime, holding steady at 23 degrees and sunny for five out of the seven days.  The hotel was decent and the crowds at the Disney/Universal parks were very manageable, allowing us to do all the rides and attractions we didn't get a chance to see last trip.   And the simple fact that I was able to take a break from a long year of studying, teaching and commuting was very special.

Of course, no trip to the Orlando could be complete without a stop at my favourite beer store of all time, Knightly Spirits.  Two years ago, I made my first trip to the store and was absolutely blown away by the selection available in this nondescript store in an out of the way location.  From the moment I walked into the store, I was in awe by the sheer number of American and Belgian craft brews lining almost two full aisles and dozens of feet of refrigerator space.   Fortunately, in the two years since, very little has changed.

Pictured: Happiness
On our second evening in Florida, we made the trek down the delightfully-named South Orange Blossom Trail to the beer store, which again is situated in what could only be described as a boring outlet mall.  When I walked into the store, however,  I was once again blown away by all the brews, and spent the better part of a half hour weighing my options and chatting with the staff  to get the greatest diversity of brews while keeping my budget in mind.  (the staff, I have to say are fantastic, and recommended some great brews when my mind drew a blank) As I've mentioned before, most brew stores that I've encountered in the US are very lax about taking individual bottles from a six-pack, a policy that I take full advantage of whenever possible, allowing me to really explore the possibilities (to be fair, it seems as though the LCBO is relaxing their "rules" as well, or maybe I just haven't noticed).

The end result was a great haul of American craft brews, as well as a couple of glasses on sale that I happily snapped up.  The great thing about this trip to the store was that in the two years since my last visit, my wife has become even more passionate about craft beers - especially IPAs and barleywines - and was able to find some great stuff to try as well.  Double win!

Despite the Florida heat, we're going to start things off with some terrific American stouts.  Brace yourselves - the dark beers are coming....

Ladies, control yourselves.

Beer: Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout
Brewery:  North Coast Brewing Co. (Fort Bragg, California)
Type: Russian Imperial Stout
ABV: 9%

As one who has read his history I know full well that Rasputin was a certain man in Russia long ago.  Apparently, this individual could preach the Bible like a preacher, full of ecstasy and fire, but historical records indicate that he was the kind of teacher women would desire. He was a cat who clearly was gone, and I have to say it was a shame how he carried on.  That and something or other about Anastasia.

Point being, as the confidant of Tsar Nicholas the II and healer of heir to the throne Alexei's haemophilia, "holy man" Rasputin had a tremendous influence over the royal family, so much so that he convinced the Tsar to take command of the armies in the First World War.  And we all know how that turned out.  Russians, fed up with the Romanovs and the nation's fortunes in the war, turned against the royals, first directing their wrath on Rasputin.  And to be honest, I'm not surprised, because there isn't a photo or painting of Rasputin that exists where he doesn't look batshit insane.

Naturally, this is a figure that would serve as a great inspiration for one of the world's most beloved imperial stouts.  I had a barrel aged version of Old Raspy two winters ago and loved it so much that it quickly rose the ranks to become one of my favourite brews, certainly cracking the top five.  This brew was absolutely phenomenal, and I've been looking forward to sampling the original recipe.

Poured into a conic glass.  This brew is as black as deepest darkest corner of hell, as unforgiving as a Saskatchewan winter.  Or so I'm told.  The pour left a thick blanket of light mocha head, which coated the top of the brew for the duration of the glass, leaving behind splendid sheets of lacing.  Terrific looking brew.

The nose is rich and complex, boasting such flavours as ground coffee, espresso, cream, toasted malt, marshmallow - all the usual wonderful suspects.

Wow, this brew is truly exceptional.  It starts with a lovely sweet chocolate entry, followed by a tasty espresso burst and the faintest of hop bitterness.   The finish is long and bitter, lingering on the tongue for quite some time after each sip.  A hint of dark chocolate as the brew exits.  Old Rasputin has a velvety feel, with light carbonation, and is somewhat creamy.  Coats the tongue with every sip.

Pound for pound, this is one of the very best stouts to be had.  The kind of brew that inspires revolutions.  (Grade: A+)

Those with a lactose allergy, best skip to the next review, because this brew was delicious, but you can't have it.

Beer: Terrapin Moo-Hoo Chocolate Milk Stout
Brewery: Terrapin Beer Company (Athens, Georgia)
Type: Milk Stout
ABV: 6%

Now for a bit more local fare, from the folks at Terrapin Beer Company.  Terrapins are, according to wikipedia, turtles that live in "fresh or brackish" water, so there you have it.  Though I did not see a terrapin on our journey, I did see my fare share of Floridian turtles on our canoe trip in Wekiwa State Park, lounging about on logs and river banks and not doing anything to stop the Foot.  Upon returning home from our swampy adventure, I felt a brew with a turtle theme would be most appropriate.  That, and chocolate milk stouts are damned tasty concoctions, and it had been a while since I had one.

Milk stouts are exactly what they sound like they should be: stouts with milk added.  Well, not exactly milk, but rather lactose - extra sugar that give the brew some added sweetness and creamier texture.  Throw some chocolate in there and you've got the makings for a fantastic breakfast brew.

Poured into that same nonic glass.  Even when held to the light, this brew is utterly light-repellent, yielding nothing but a deep chocolate-brown hue.  Cream coloured head started at about an inch thick, before receding to a thin but sturdy layer that produced some patchy globs of lace.

Nose is sweet chocolate, cream, lactose, caramel and a hint of toasty malt.

Let me summarize how this brew for you.  If you were ever in a social situation where you had an equal hankering for chocolate milk and English stout, but for whatever reason - possibly a broken or missing hand - you could only have one, this is the brew for you.  Nice milk chocolate, a hint of lactose, cream and a mild bitterness.  Indeed, far sweeter than the Rasputin, but for those situations when the need arises, this milk-chocolate flavor is quite enjoyable.  Medium bodied, carbonation is a touch hot.

A sturdy, dependable milk stout that is neither complex, nor boring.  The chocolate flavour is quite good, and the mild roastiness prevents the brew from being cloying.  Terrapin Moo-Hoo has much going for it in its simplicity.  (Grade: B+)

Now the last brew in the list is a bit of a cheat, because I did not actually have this in Florida.  To be sure, there were lots of other fantastic stouts and dark ales on the trip, but I made an executive decision to discuss these beers in a separate posting because A: this post is already verging on Dostoyevskian in its length and B: I have to tell you about this beer.  Before leaving for Florida, I was privileged to have been invited to an excellent beer tasting recently that featured some terrific American craft beers, and this was head-and-shoulders my favourite of the bunch.  And considering the company (Allagash Bourbon-barrel Curieux, Founders Breakfast Stout, Great Divide Belgian Yeast Yeti Stout), this is saying something.  It also features some excellent artwork, and happens to be my first brew from Utah.

Beer: Labyrinth Black Ale
Brewery: Uinta Brewing Company (Salt Lake City, Utah)
Type: Double Imperial Stout
ABV: 13.2%  (!)

Uinta is a craft brewery from Utah that is developing a terrific reputation in the United States, and a great deal of this attention can be attributed to their mastery of two of my favourite aspects of the craft brew industry: a passion for experimentation, and engaging, attractive bottle design.  Uinta's brews have both.  In their impressive line-up of brews, there is hardly one in the bunch that doesn't possess some unique characteristic that sets it apart from its competition.  Whether it be local honey in their Hyve Honey Ale (Utah, of course, is the Beehive State), added hops and  umph in their Tilted Smile Imperial Pilsner, or oak barrel aging in Oak Jacked Imperial Pumpkin Ale, Uinta's brewers seem to love experimentation and trying something new.  Then there are the labels, which are unique, effective, and celebrate the local culture (and are the work of terrific local artists).  Check out Dubhe Imperial Black Ale's label, with its gorgeous rendering of a Utah sunset over the iconic buttes of Monument Valley.  Or the seductive and simple face that adorns the bottle of Tilted Smile.  Classy, effective.

Then there is the Crooked Line, where Uinta really struts its stuff.  Borne out of a desire to take the "crooked path" towards "brewing outside the lines", the four beers of Uinta's Crooked Line are unique characters indeed, which include an Imperial pilsner, a double IPA, a vanilla-bourbon barelywine, and this monster.

Labyrinth is an imperial stout that has been amped up considerably.  The ABV is at a whoppin 13%, making this one of the second strongest beer I have ever had (Dogfish Head's World Wide Stout holds the honour at a massive 18%).  It is brewed with anise for some added black licorice flavour, and aged in oak rye barrels.  The label, which looks like Mr. Game and Watch and Tintin's clone escaping an Escher painting, is intriguing and just a bit wacky - the work of Utah artist Trent Call.

And it is bloody fantastic.

Poured into a wine glass at the tasting night, and paired with some terrific anise-flavoured dark chocolate.  A black hole of a beer, from which no light can escape.  Light  mocha head of foam that settles into a thick ring.  A swirl of this brew shows that it has the viscosity of motor oil.  Can't wait.

Rich and hearty to the nose, with notes of dark roasted malt, vanilla, licorice, coffee, dark chocolate, whiskey, oak and a mild hop bitterness.

This is one flavorful, enjoyable stout that gives absolutely no indication of the massive alcohol content as you taste it.  In fact, I had no idea the ABV on this beer was that high until I looked at the label halfway through my sample.  I was simply too busy enjoying the chocolate, coffee, anise and vanilla flavours and thick chewy body to notice.  There is a nice hop bitterness to the finish to cleanse the palate and prep you for more.   Labyrinth is thick and silky, and coats the tongue perfectly. (Grade: A+)

Uinta really hit one out of the park with Labyrinth.  As the label proudly proclaims, this brew was the winner of the 2010 North American Brewers Assn. Gold Medal for Imperial Stouts, and despite the truly impressive competition, this doesn't surprise me at all.   I couldn't find this in Florida, but rest assured that if I had, I would certainly have brought back one or two bottles for my own nefarious purposes.

Once again, American craft brewers have impressed me with their fantastic stouts, and I'm already planning my next trek state-side to pick up more brews to sustain me in the restricted beer environment I find myself living in.  

Hope you enjoyed this (lengthy) overview of some of the highlights of the great beer drinking month that was this April.  Coming soon, a look at the "Big Beer Series" from Smuttynose Brewing, and round-up from Michigan's Bell's Brewery!  Stay tuned!