Welcome to the Mashtun

Here we discuss everything that is Craft Beer: from exciting tastings and style guides, to homebrewing and close looks at different ingredients. Tune in weekly for articles dripping with beer geekery as my colleagues James Otey, Carl Crafts, and I explore the fascinating world of Craft Beer.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Excelsior! : A Taste of Ithaca Brewing: Le Bleu

Sorry for the Absence, Oh Faithful readers,
It's been a busy month, but lets embark again on a beer adventure.

Recently I was visiting my girlfriend's parents in Ithaca and I stopped by the Ithaca Brewery and tried some of their beers on tap, including a smoked porter that was really tasty.  I've had many experiences with this brewery before, all of them good.  In my cellar right now lies a Brute, a Golden Sour ale, that has won acclaim from beer critics around the country.  Ive also had the good fortune of trying their 10, 11, and 12, all anniversary beers, as well as numerous other limited releases from this outstanding, yet small brewery. 

   But Ithaca is a 6 hour drive! How and why would you go to such lengths to get a few bottles of beer?!?

Since I'm lucky enough to have people in the area that are willing to pick up some bottles, I didn't have to drive all the way form NH to Ithaca.  This is an excellent way to expand your reach when it comes to beer.  Not everyone has the luxury of being able to drive across the country for every limited beer release.  If you have in-laws or friends or relatives in the area of a brewery that you like, see if you can get them to go and grab you a bottle or two at limited releases.  This way not only are you able to expand your cellar but you are also able to share the experience with others.  A perfect example is Ithaca's newest release, Le Bleu.  My girlfriend's parents were able to go to the brewery and buy a fair amount of bottles.   I tasted the Le Bleu in Ithaca with them the next time I went to visit and it was a great experience.  Here are my tasting notes for that night:

Le Bleu pours a light rose with Tangerine edges, capturing the light.  Bubbles rise up in a champagne-esque effervescence forming a fizzy head that foams up and then settles to a film, never to leave.  The aroma explodes out of the bottle with plumes of sour funk, overripe berries, equine balls, and a fresh earthiness that excites me olfactorily.  Mouthfeel is bubble, light, and appropriate, very refreshing.  The Sourness immediately hits me, first on the tongue, then filling my whole mouth.  Its not an over powering sourness, more a subtle tartness with earth, mineral notes.  The berry ismore subdued than in the aroma but comes alive in the center, adding some sweetness to the sour.  What really makes this beer pop to me is the woody barrel flavor.  It reminds me very much of Allagash Vagabond in this sense.  A nutty woodiness with loads of lactic sour funk that emanates outwards and fills the mouth till the finish, which is a bit dry and woody.  While this beer is fantastic now, I cant wait to put one down, wait for the brett to dry out a bit, and see how much the sourness evolves.

Overall, an awesome beer experience - great beer and great company.   Does it get any better than that?   Not Likely.
  Remember, think about people you know around the country who could have access to beers that you don't.  Even if they aren't into beer, ask them about it.  Who know, you might start them on the road to Beergeekdom.

James Blauvelt

Barrel Aged Beers

Over the past decade, the world of craft beer has exploded to become exponentially more integrated in the life of a common United States citizen. On the way home from work or out of town for the weekend, one can walk into nearly any gas station or corner store and find several offerings available from micro-breweries hailing from across the US, Canada, and even Europe. Even five years ago, that person’s options would have been limited to products from macro-breweries like Anheuser-Busch and Miller. If lucky, a small array of Sam Adams or the like would be stuffed into the corner cooler. Beers commonly available now from breweries like Rogue, Sierra Nevada, and Unibroue would not have been so widely distributed, and for many other examples, the brewery itself may not have even existed. With the dramatic increase in popularity there has come a massive influx in new breweries like Cigar City, many of which have already garnered an impressive level of respect in the beer community for their accomplishments. In correlation with this spike in craft beer production and popularity has come a number of fads and new tactics in production of these beers, most notably the use of barrel aging to alter the facets of a particular beer.
Barrel aged beers are far more common in the craft beer world than many realize. While it would seem logical to deduce that barrel aged beers will be advertised as such, often this is not necessarily the case. Many times, beers like North Coast’s Old Rasputin XII or Brooklyn’s Black Ops have a version of the beer available in a form that was not submitted to such an aging process (regular Old Rasputin and Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, respectively). In fact, lambics, an entire category of beer, are aged in oak barrels by definition. Other beers, like Lost Abbey’s Angel’s Share, go so well with the flavors imparted by barrel aging that the original versions need not say “barrel aged” on the front label (look up “angel’s share” on Wikipedia if you don’t know the reason behind the name).
This imparting of flavors is the crucial element that barrel aging adds. Firstly, barrel aging allows for a gradual oxidation of the beer. While Mr. Otey’s article below discusses the pros and cons of oxidation on a more scientific and detailed level, when done right, notes of sherry, various dark fruits, and other qualities can greatly enhance the drinker’s experience, both on the nose and the tongue. Often the barrel’s wood can influence the flavor, even conveying a tannic quality. Finally, the liquid that was originally in the barrel can have a profound effect on the liquid being aged; this is the most versatile way to change a beer. Not only can a brewer vary by the liquid involved (scotch, bourbon, wine, champagne, etc.), but the vintage of the original liquor can also make a big difference (see Harviestoun Ola Dubh 12, 16, and 30). With all of these variants and permutations thereof available, it is easy to see why barrel aging has become so popular as the accessibility and recognition of the craft beer world has skyrocketed in recent years.
One style of beer that utilizes the effects of barrel aging frequently and effectively is sour ales and lambics. As mentioned earlier, lambics are aged in oak barrels by definition. Within the style, however, the consequences of barrel aging can be very different. To observe this, one need look no further than one of the giants of lambic production: Cantillon. With beers like their Crianza Helena and Saint Lamvinus, the brewers at Cantillon create some lambics that have prominent flavors stemming from the liquid that originated in the barrel, such as cognac and Bordeaux or Burgundy grapes. The Saint Lamvinus even pours a dark pink hue, displaying the true effect the Burgundy barrels had on this beer. Other Cantillon offerings, like Fou’ Foune and Lou Pepe Kriek, are marked more by the fruits added and an astounding acidic funkiness. Brilliant examples of barrel aged sour ales hail from breweries far from Belgium as well, with some notable examples being Lost Abbey’s Isabelle Proximus and Cable Car and Russian River’s Consecration and Temptation, all from California. All of these beers I would consider in my personal top 50 or so, displaying the positive effect barrel aging has in the world of sours.
The style with the most hype surrounding barrel aging is undoubtedly the imperial stout. Many of the most discussed and sought after beers in the world are barrel aged stouts, such as Deschutes’ The Abyss, Bruery Black Tuesday, and Cigar City’s Barrel Aged Hunahpu. There is certainly reason for this. Though I am tempted to cite beers such as Alesmith’s Barrel Aged Speedway and Founder’s Kentucky Breakfast Stout as well, I need only look to my favorite beer of all-time to make my point. Dieu du Ciel’s Peche Mortel en Fut de Bourbon Americain is the perfect example of an exquisite barrel aged beer. While I absolutely adore the original Peche Mortel (and make a point of buying a pint every time I’m in Montreal), the bourbon barrel version is even better. The barrel aging added another level to every single aspect of this beer, even considering the impressive complexity of the original brew. On the nose, the smooth cream, coffee, roasted malt and chocolate of the original were evident, but there was a complimentary addition of bourbon, booze that tingled the nostrils, and a touch of vanilla sweetness from the oxidation that made this beer truly heavenly to smell. This translated to the flavor as well; to quote my rating from RateBeer: “Vanilla and caramel mixes with the bourbon to create an entire second tier to the flavor that pairs extraordinarily well with the first tier of cream, coffee, and chocolate.” This level of balance between the basic bouquet of the beer and the notes imparted by the barrel aging is exactly what should be sought after when using this incredibly popular tactic in brewing today.
There is a reason the bulk of this article has taken on such a positive voice; barrel aged beers are generally excellent, and should be celebrated as a brilliant addition to the world of craft beer. There are, however, examples of mistakes, and I want to conclude by making sure people realize that. Perhaps the most egregious example of a poorly made barrel aged beer is Southern Tier’s Oak Aged Unearthly. I have no intention of slandering Southern Tier; they make great beer, including their regular Unearthly, which is a great Imperial IPA. The oak aged version, however, is cloyingly sweet, and completely takes away from the great hop character of the original beer. Another negative example is White Birch’s Barrel Aged AKA barleywine, which tasted basically of yogurt. This probably resulted from some sort of lactobacillus infection of the bottle. What I am trying to note is that there are hundreds of phenomenal beers out there that are not barrel aged; don’t submit to the trap of buying barrel aged beer because you think that makes it inherently better. Many prefer Regular Alesmith Speedway Stout to the original; same with North Coast’s Old Rasputin. Don’t go buying a beer like Weyerbacher Heresy just because it’s barrel aged; do some simple research, and you’ll come out finding another beer, barrel aged or not, that’s much better bang for your buck.

-Carl Crafts