Archive for April, 2012

Fun With Beer: Smoked & Oaked

Smoked and Oaked

Smoked and Oake

 

In the beer world, one of the main states that produce more than their fair share of really interesting brews is surprisingly, Utah. Out of this group of fermented entrepreneurs, there are a few that really stand head and shoulders above the rest. One of these is the quite aptly named Epic Brewing Company. While they have quite a few very impressive styles, I would like to focus on one that blew my mind recently, their Smoked and Oaked Belgian-Style Ale.

Technically, a Belgian strong dark, (and, might I say, handsome), ale. This is one of those rotating beers they release every few months, with some slight variations in each. The one I tried was bottled in February 2012, and was aged for about two months in bourbon barrels. Ah, good ol’ bourbon barrels. If that is the Oaked, where is the Smoked?

For each iteration of this beer, there is a veritable laundry list of malt varieties. The one identified in the website blurb was the smoked Cherry Wood malt, certainly an alluring name. Now, this may be just me reading too much into these things, but I’m imagining that this particular malt will lend some sweetness to the beer, perhaps like cherries. The alcohol by volume for this particular bottle was nine percent, but collectively they appear to come in around 8 to 12 percent. The price came to just a dirty dozen of American dollars, but you can bet that the older versions are commanding more than that.

So, after a quick initial chill, (just below a ‘red wine’ temperature), I poured my portion into a snifter. The first thing I thought was, “Wow, I can see why they put ‘Smoked’ first.” It isn’t too overpowering, like being at a wood-burning barbecue, but it was definitely there. Giving it a few good whiffs, I got notes of the caramel malts, a bit of a boozy air, and some fruity Belgian yeast. The color was a bit like maple syrup, very clear and an amber brown. Much thinner than syrup of course, but with a kind of foamy carbonation. At first taste, I got notes of stone fruit and bourbon-vanilla sweetness. The bourbon was rather permeating, actually, but along with the smoky flavors, it gave me an interesting idea of a bourbon that was peated like a scotch. Oh, if I had a distillery…

Okay, enough daydreaming. In further tastes, you start to parse out the hops, but just barely. You get a slight earthy bitterness among the boozy heat, but neither linger for very long. One interesting trait was the mouth-feel. I say interesting because usually when the mouth-feel is anything worth noting, it is either because the carbonation is too strong, or it’s just plain ‘creamy’. This, however, had an altogether different effect, in that it differed on the size of sip you gave it. A good mouthful of this ale really lets the bubbles grow and open up much more oak and sweet malts. Quite interesting, and I suspect a feature of the Belgian yeast strain.

This is a good beer for sweet, strong ale lovers. Usually beers touting their smoked status are a one-trick pony, but this one doesn’t let itself stop at just ‘smoked’. Heck, even being smoked and oaked doesn’t quite do justice to the masterful mix of malts, hops and yeast that Epic has been bottling. I’ll be checking for the next release of Smoked & Oaked, and I’ll be purchasing one to drink, and one to age. Maybe I’ll write a review on that one in a year or two? Maybe.

 

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Fun With Beer: Aprihop IPA

Aprihop IPA

Dogfish Head is one of the breweries that has maintained their status as a great craft brewer through some really explosive growth. Even the most snobbish of beer lovers will look forward to one of their new releases or a seasonal batch of something bearing that familiar silhouette of the Dogfish. Naturally, I was exited when I heard that Dogfish Head was doing a tap takeover at my local brew-shop. They were pouring 120 Minute, Red & White and Aprihop. While any of these three would have made an excellent choice for a column, I felt that there was a very unique complexity and energy about the India pale ale, Aprihop.

On the Dogfish Head site, it states that Aprihop is brewed with pilsner and crystal malts, and has apricot added in the brewing stage. It is then continuously hopped in the Dogfish fashion with a heaping helping of Amarillo hops. The alcohol by volume is simple and respectable, at least for an IPA: seven percent. A six-pack of this will set you back a good 10 spot, like most other good six packs.

In keeping with the suggested serving, I had mine in a pint glass. One might view this selection as kind of a large portion for someone planning on doing a big long tasting, but it was reasonable for such an excellent and refreshing drink. It poured out a reddish orange, with a big wet head on top. You could see the carbonation bubbles through the hazy light, but only just so. There was a great big hoppy scent, but not as aggressive as something that touts itself as being dry hopped continuously. Not a problem with me, but I did find myself searching in vain for a hint of the apricot. However, I can’t really say I expected it to win when pitted against hops. Pressing on, I thought that I would find the elusive fruit in the taste.

I was immediately hit with a very refreshing floral hop, while the pilsner malts gave a good smooth background. You very clearly get the apricot right after, giving just a hint of sweetness. It isn’t an overbearing or even major flavor in this beer, but it supplies a much needed uniquely vegetal flavor. It is almost like the addition in this beer was just the pulp and skin of an apricot, where you get all the oils, rather than the juice. I actually prefer it this way.

Sweet additions in an IPA really show their best colors as a backup to the hop profile. This is especially true when it is a refreshing and well-balanced IPA such as Aprihop. There was a bit of a dry, sticking finish from some of the earlier-added hops. It didn’t really cut down on the drinkability too much, but I felt it would have been better complimented by some food.

Speaking of food, the Dogfish Head website was kind enough to give some food pairing recommendations. Salads, swordfish, Mexican cuisine, barbecue and hummus. I can see each of these selections working well with this beer, but the list is almost a jumble for ONE magnificent dish! Consider, if you will, pairing Aprihop IPA with a cilantro and lime marinated blackened swordfish salad, with pine nuts, Pico de Gallo, and a side of hummus and pita. Dang, that sounds like something I’d eat whether I had a good beer or not.

This is a solid, refreshing beer that stays interesting. I’m glad I could be there for Dogfish Head taking over the taps, because now I know of a great beer for the spring and summer seasons. I’m going to have to buy a six-pack or two and match up their food pairings. This is a solid, refreshing beer that will maintain your interest.

 

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Fun With Beer: John Henry 3-Lick Spiker Ale

 

I assure you that it is not my usual patriotic vitriol speaking when I say that some of the best whiskey on earth is smooth Kentucky bourbon.  Sure, I enjoy a single malt scotch or Irish whisky as much as the next guy, but nothing matches the sweet caramelly flavors of corn, malted barley and charred American oak.  Naturally, one of the things I like to see in a beer’s description is “aged in bourbon barrels”.  So, looking for something that fit that bill, I picked up a bottle of John Henry 3 Lick Spiker Ale.

The 3 Lick is an American strong ale brewed in a comparatively simple style.  No fancy adjuncts, just a blend of hops, roasted and pale malts and top fermenting yeast.  Put it together, then condition it with bourbon oak for an undisclosed amount of time, and “Bob’s your uncle“.  Now, I should preface that the bottle says aged ‘ON’ Bourbon oak chips.  Is there a difference between being aged ‘on’ or ‘in’?  Either way, the nine percent alcohol by volume in this 12-ounce little bottle is an exceedingly striking drink.

I poured the ale into a tulip glass and immediately noticed how thick it appeared.  It is almost like a stout type brew with both a viscous pour and an appearance almost as black as coal, just a little shimmer of red comes through, near the light brown head.  The nose is just TONS of cocoa and vanilla coming off the head.  There is a little bit of toffee and booze in there, but with all those sweet flavors, some candle company better get on this hotcake-train.

The first taste was more of the same, but greatly enhanced by the subtle carbonation and silky smooth texture.  There was a certain creamy consistency to it, which was kind of strange when you pair it with the idea of drinking bourbon.  However, the flavors that don’t really go along with bourbon, such as espresso, dark fruits and bittersweet chocolate, actually balanced the beer out very well.  There is a bit of a lingering taste of caramel and molasses after drinking a 3 Lick, like an amazing dessert wine or rum would leave.  Sampling this ale is a great experience that doesn’t tire itself out by being too heavy-handed or sickly sweet.

Now, normally I would like to find a good food pairing, in case you wanted a meal that complimented your beer, or vice versa.  This particular beer, however, was a bit of an odd duck as far as choosing a meal to go along with it. It has flavors that don’t usually pair with high-fat ingredients.  But wait, what was that word I said just a second ago?  That’s it, “Duck”!  It is comparatively fatty, very rich and full in flavor, and pairs well with sweet or dark fruit flavors.  I wasn’t going to run down to some fancy food place so I could provide a novice version of roast duck in plum sauce, so I did the next best thing.  I looked at French cookbooks while sipping and enjoying a glass of John Henry 3 Lick Spiker Ale.

 

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Fun With Beer: The Beast Grand Cru Ale

Avery Brewing Co. - The Beast Grand Cru Ale

I’ve been mauled by a Beast. A Grand Cru Ale named The Beast, by Avery Brewing Company, to be exact. There are many surprises that come in this little 12 ounce bottle, one of the biggest being the 16.83 percent alcohol by volume. The actual percentage may vary according to what year, as a batch is made every August. With such limited quantities, it makes some sense to only dole it out in 12 ounce singles. For this particular variety, as well as some other amazing beers from Avery, I had to travel a little bit further than usual. After tasting though, I knew it was well worth it.
I also knew with something so rare and so high in the ol’ ethanol, it wasn’t going to be cheap. I picked mine up for about one Xander Hambone, ($10), which is pretty reasonable, considering. Heck, quality over quantity is my creed, and this is 12 ounces of pure quality.
The information on this beer on the Avery website promised aromas of honey and pineapple, with sweet, sugary flavors like date and molasses. Being technically a Belgian strong dark ale, the dark candy flavors are expected. However, this is being touted as more fruity and tropical, so I prepared myself for one heavy complex drink. I poured mine into a little tulip glass, and got one heavy note: BOOZE.
I realized though that at this temperature, the high alcohol content is going to evaporate pretty heavily, so I let it slide. Beyond that though, I got plenty of woody and roasted malts, and a very distinctive brown sugar. Not so many fruity notes, but I would imagine something like that would come out more in the taste. So, I dug in.
WOW. It hit me, and I was absolutely amazed. Just a whirlwind of unique and clear flavors. The heavy alcohol and malts didn’t burden the rest of the drink, as I could clearly pick out apricot and that pineapple they mentioned. There was something that, at first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but I realized it reminded me exactly of those coffee flavored hard candies. The ones that, as a child mistakenly lead me to believe I liked coffee.
I assume this nostalgic flavor was linked to the honey malts and 2-row barley malts. These, and the Belgian malts and yeasts, gave a very interesting baked bread aftertaste, almost appetizing in itself. Certainly warranting another taste, at least. Each taste would reveal another interesting little combo like honeyed raisins, or just a touch of citrus and tea-like hops over a creamy, sweet turbinado sugar background. Just an absolutely amazing journey.
I can only imagine how this would be aged. The website says that it is cellar-able for over 10 years. Imagine the unruly command a bottle will take in 2023, if any ever last that long. Personally, I couldn’t imagine being able to keep my hands off this delicious little number for even a week, knowing what Beast lies inside. Just bring a friend, because a little bit of this goes a very long way. In fact, I would say the small size is a blessing in disguise. Even split with friends, 12 ounces is more than enough to get a long and hard look at an amazing annual tradition of Avery Brewing Company.

 

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Fun With Beer: Blaecorn Unidragon

Blaecorn Unidragon - Clown Shoes Beer

Clown Shoes Beer is one of the breweries that I have been meaning to write about for some time now.  So much wonderful and interesting stuff is coming through their doors that the big clown shoes on the bottle have become a real indicator of a quality beer.  So I thought, “I’m just not doing my readership a service unless I encourage them to get to know a Clown Shoes beer.”

I was perusing one of the larger liquor stores in town, and noticed a Clown Shoes beer that had a very unusual name, “Blaecorn Unidragon.”  The picture wasn’t one of their usual visual comedy bits, but rather like something out of a Dungeons and Dragons book.  The story on the side promised “monstrous amounts of dark malts and aggressive hops”, as well as a fierce 12.5 percent alcohol by volume.  All this and still under $10?  SOLD.

So, one question remained: What would pair well with such an aggressive Russian Imperial Stout, something so bold, with a notably high alcohol content?  Tiramisu would be an excellent complimentary dessert, but I’d prefer a flavor contrast.  I busted out the ol’ meat grinder and made a half and half lamb and beef burger with feta and spinach.  This would be one bold taste for one bold beer.  Before digging in, I cracked the top on the Blaecorn Unidragon and poured it into my snifter.

As expected from a Russian Imperial Stout, it poured pitch black, almost like a black hole black.  Put some light in there, those photons are going nowhere.  On top was an event horizon of solid brown head, quickly reducing to a little ring.  The aroma of roasted coffee malts and strong chocolaty scents absolutely pour out of the glass, no doubt intensified by virtue of the snifter.  Along with these tasty notes was a subtle but present nose of alcohol.

I gave it a good little taste, and was immediately surprised at just how bold it was.  I was expecting a Russian Imperial Stout, and I knew that Clown Shoes never does anything halfway, but I was pleased when I started getting notes of tobacco and anise after the immediate espresso and creamy chocolate.  There was also a noticeable smokiness, which combining with the hops almost reminded me of a peaty smoke from an Islay scotch whiskey.

The boozy quality of it gave a bit of a metallic dry finish, but that’s where the big tasty lamb burger comes in.  The dry finish is good to freshen up your palate as well.  Generally, it’s good for food and drink to complement each other in a way that makes you want to go to both, just somewhat unfortunate that one will have to eventually run out.

After the burger, I was left with just a little under half of the bottle, but that almost-half was enough to share with another and nurse on well into the evening. Besides, with a 12.5 percent alcohol by volume, I wasn’t planning on even drinking that first half by myself, without at least pacing myself heavily.  It was another exceptional experience with a Clown Shoes beer as I earnestly work my way through their catalog of first-class brews.  If you haven’t already, go check one out, especially the Blaecorn Unidragon.  Just be prepared, this is one beer that you’ll want some friends to help you finish.

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Side by Side Reviews: Le Cirque and Olive Garden

In retrospect of my last birthday fun-times, I realized the potential for an interesting article comparing the two dinners and dining establishments I made merry.  So I thought I’d parse out my thoughts, pull one together, people read it and laugh, I become rich and famous overnight, retire in the Bahamas, you know, that old chestnut.  So, that private nude beach is waiting – let’s get cracking.

Pictured: Palace of woes

I thought the best way to compare the two is to set up some kind of metric that would compare their common features.  What do they share?  How do they differ?  What are all those Michelin Stars and Forbes ratings REALLY about?  Well, I decided on the categories of decor, service, and food.  I couldn’t properly compare some things that the Olive Garden has a monopoly on, so there is no category for senior discounts or all you can eat deals.

 

DECOR

Le Cirque is an absolute institution.  The fun, old-world styled paintings of circus performers, bauble-adorned chandelier, and billowy canopy make for a wonderfully relaxing dining room that doesn’t become boring after the first course.  Not to mention the overlook to Bellagio Lake and the fountain show every few minutes.  Even the plates they have at seating, which are painted with an impressionist monkey, are amazing (they sell them now for the plate-ophiles among us).

Le Cirque Las Vegas Dining Room

The Olive Garden is styled after something that must, I assume, exist somewhere in Italy.  At first I thought that the building must be very old and in great disrepair, but upon closer inspection I saw that the exposed bricks were painted-on, as was the ivy and windows.  Continuing their unending passion for visual drama, directions to the restrooms were painted on nearly every visible wall in the typeface Papyrus, known to adorn the business cards of new-age healers and flower shaped fruit arrangement designers.  I assume this over-signage was especially important here at the OG, where most patrons are either under 12 years old, or over 70.  One feature I was taken aback by was a false terrace with a small cafe table for two overlooking the main dining room.  Legend has it that the ghosts of patrons who die of a massive intestinal obstruction or lungs filling with alfredo sauce dine there, overlooking the grim dance of the dead known as “The Olive Garden.”  Also I saw a guy pay for a drink with mostly pocket change.

 

Going to have to give this one to Le Cirque.

 

SERVICE

I imagine if there was a PHD program for dinner service professionalism, the Le Cirque staff would be the tenured professors.  Everyone is efficient, courteous, and sharp as a tack.  From keeping glasses filled to your wine pairing perfect, everyone knows their part perfectly.  Even special requests and allergies are petite frites to these fine masters of comfortable dining, all under the watchful eye of Ivo, the GM.  If you ask, “Will they bring me (whatever sick boorish thing you need, like ketchup or a Coke zero)?”, the answer is most likely yes.

 

Lord help the poor souls who I assume live as well as work at Olive Garden.  I cannot imagine the sins committed in a past life that would anger a cruel Mayan trickster-god to curse them so.  They are easily tackled down if you need your glass refilled, you just have to pick out the persons wearing the worst ties in human history.  Our hostess, who I believe was about 16, had at least improved hers by dipping the bottom few inches into recently-microwaved pasta sauce.  I choose to believe this was self aware irony at the level of Andy Kaufman.  Their Sisyphean task to forever grate cheese onto every single dish is only relented by the joy they feel for placing plates and letting you taste their pink melted popsicle wine.  At one point, there were over four plates per person at our table, and that was counting a baby and NOT counting sub-plates and other complicated plate/bowl strata.

 

Let’s just chalk this one up to Le Cirque.

 

FOOD

I could go on about how Gregory Pugin is, for lack of a proper term, a pretty big damn deal in the food world.  I could go on about the AAA Diamond rating, the Michelin star rating, etc.  Let me just let you know the courses I went through vs. their Olive Garden counterparts.  You can guess which is which.

  • Fresh baked bread, including bacon onion, rosemary lemon, cranberry wheat, and others.
  • Lubricated and salted “Bread” “sticks”.

 

  • An amuse bouche of butternut squash soup with carbonara cream.
  • I think it was a salad with a sea-water vinaigrette.

 

  • A fresh and rich Lillet marinated Foie Gras torchon, paired perfectly with an almond and orange blossom bavaroise and chocolate nougatine.
  • Just big bowl of melted cheese.  This is seriously a menu item.

 

  • Tender and full-flavored Wild venison loin, chartreuse sauce, poached quince and cranberry compote, roasted beets millefeuilles.
  • Chianti braised shortribs and portobello mushroom “rissoto”, garnished with 107% the lethal dose of sodium.

 

  • Green apple degustation, lemongrass mousse, sorbet muscat de Venice, served in a hand blown green glass apple.
  • Mints and bicarbonate of soda to ease my roiling, ulcerated stomach.

 

Let’s tally the final scores:

Le Cirque: 3/3

Olive Garden: intestinal pain/3

Well, there you have it folks.  My only regret is that my monumental and hypnotic influence over the literally tens of people who read this will not crash the microwaved pasta based economy Olive Garden has created.  I’m sure the city streets will be lined with former employees reflexively grating cheese when the car horns of commuters rouse them from their pasta-withdrawal-induced nightmares.

I suppose this is where I say, “Let’s all be serious people, blah blah you get what you pay for blah”, but I’m not going to insult your intelligence by assuming you won’t secretly think me a boob for finding any comfort in an OG experience while nodding your heads in stony agreement.  Let’s just suck it up and go there when our pre-teens and flyover state acquaintances come to town, hit up the ER on the way home for a quick stomach pump (tell them Mitchell sent ya!  Mad Di$count$), and never speak of this again.  Then go to Le Cirque and realize that dang, this is like the best place ever.

 

Some more humorous links on this palace of woes.

Andrew Hussie “Land of Souls and Olives, A Conclusion: Pasta la Vista, Motherfuckers”  Pt. 1 and Pt. 2

John Curtas “Olive Garden Comes On Strong”

Le Cirque (Bellagio) on Urbanspoon

Fun With Beer: Old Viscosity

Port Brewing Co, - Old Viscosity

This week I was lucky enough to find something of real quality and almost universal acclaim.  Introduced to me by way of a fellow beer lover, I tried one of Port Brewing Company’s flagship brews, Old Viscosity.  As the name implies, this San Marcos, California beer, is known to be one of the thickest, chewiest, darkest beers around.  In fact, the name the brewers use to refer to it is “The Big Black Nasty”.

The mix of six types of malts, German Magnum hops, and their own proprietary yeast blend come together to make a very dark beer.  It’s not made in a specific style, but it is closest to a porter, a barley-wine and an Old Ale.  This one is actually a blend, using 80 percent of the brewed beer itself and 20 percent of the same beer from a previous batch that was aged in bourbon barrels.  The alcohol by volume of this one is a hefty 10 percent, but it doesn’t affect the drinkability one bit.

The first thing you notice with this one is just how dense it is.  You pick it up, and it’s almost like syrup.  Well, it may be pretty viscous for a beer, but not that viscous.  I popped this one and poured it into a tulip glass for closer inspection.  There is a good sized creamy brown head. It dissolves slowly with good lacing left behind.  The aroma it gives off is noticeably woody, but a kind of wet wood.  The bourbon comes along with this too, but it may be from the boozy head bubbling off and the barrel-aged portion.  Either way, I was pleased with a note of some earthy hops and roasted malts.  Just the nose of this was already so complex, I was raring to dive in and start giving this beer a good once-over.

The first thing that hits you is the obvious carbonation.  For such a strong, thick, heavy beer, I thought it was going to be nearly flat.  It serves the beer well in that it really opens up those chocolate and roasted notes of the malt.  The taste moves into a sweet coffee flavor, hinting to just a bit of the alcoholic properties.  The mouth-feel of it is the real winner; just as smooth as silk, but nice and chewy.  Kind of a milky mocha when considering the chocolate and coffee tastes, but still an unequivocally full bodied beer. The hops kick in to remind us of this fact, ending with their earthy, vegetal bitterness, combined with a bit of oak. This brew finishes off great, really prompting for another taste.

This isn’t just a great example of a stout, or whatever you would like to characterize this as; this is one of the most interesting and unique all-around dark beers I’ve ever come in contact with.  Like the name says, Old Viscosity is nothing if not thick.  One could go so far as calling it a beer erring towards a meal.  Truly an enjoyable experience, and one I hope to relive soon.

 

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