Wednesday, November 28, 2012

[A Beer a Day] Labyrinth Black Ale | Uinta Brewing | Salt Lake City, UT

Despite there being blue skies in my city today, despite this fickle Austin summer emulating Karl Rove like an 85° quest to deny the victory of autumn, despite being a half-dozen beers deep inside of a courtesy craft keg gifted from one of this city's premier artisinal breweries -- of which I was enjoying with the sincerest gratitude and enthusiasm -- I decided to splash the pot with my sobriety-currency in order to play a monster hand of Uinta's Labyrinth.  What a motherfucker.

Prior to this whim, I have had no history with Uinta Brewing.  I hadn't sampled any of their commodities.  I hadn't studied their brewing history between banal bites of lunchtime offerings.  I haven't really even uttered their name in a way that would suggest I'd like to get real friendly with them at all.

And the ultimate truth is, I picked up this bottle in a heavily-stocked Denver booze depot thinking it was the encumbrance of another brewery -- Crooked Stave -- due in part to me being 1) a dumbass 2) wholly unfamiliar with the absolute genius of Uinta Brewing 3) flimflammed by a neck-sticker that read "Crooked" on it, unknowing that this represented Uinta's Crooked Line, a series of unusually and epically brewed liquids using big-beer methods, like barrel-aging and innovation from magical gnomes from the 67 confirmed moons of Jupiter.

So, upon return from the cold cellar, flopping back down on the yard furniture with bottle in hand, eager to share with company, I scantly recited the customary details of its labeling to the participants: beer-style -- check, brewer -- check, ABV ... ¿¿que el fuck??  13.2% alcohol?  I then announced that my guests should prepare their anuses.  And to get their popcorn ready.

I can understand why Uinta decided to go with a very prosaic distinction of labeling Labyrith as simply 'Black Ale'.  It is disarming.  It sounds harmless.  Its like Holly Gennero suggests to John McClane in Die Hard, 'Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs.'  But dubbing this just simply a Black Ale is like saying Tim Tebow doesn't like sex.  No, he's a nutless celibate.  And Labyrinth is a not a Black Ale.  Its is a walloping, huge, falcon-punching stout.
We sat in our chairs, all like, 'Haaans, bubbie. I'm your white knight', and then we got our asses capped by this enormous beer like a smarmy 1980s widget trader.

When Labyrinth is properly defined, it is labeled as an American Imperial Stout, ready to carpet bomb your face with F-22 air-to-ground malt-rocket precision and 13.2% infra-red search and track alcohol.  Labyrinth was SEAL Team Six infiltrating my inner compound to extract any remnants of wishing I had grabbed Crooked Stave, sobriety, and any other discounts of Uinta as a brewing organization.  Wow.  Fucking wow.  This was absolutely both excellent and deadly.  You see, being a beer scribe can be fraught with danger.

Despite wearing my ass like a hat, Labyrinth captured my interest almost immediately, and, like other darling artifacts that get passed on from one generation to the next, I also almost immediately felt regret sharing it in such an unremarkable fashion.  This beer deserved to be compared horizontally with the other barrel-aged greats that were still sub-letting space in the cellar: Goose Island's BCBS,  Brooklyn's Black-Ops, New Holland's Dragon's Milk, Deschutes' The Abyss, etc.  Yes, as sexy as The Abyss.

This was not so much an American Imperial Stout as it was -- what I just now made up -- a Cabaret Stout.  The origins of my categorization are obvious: dark, smoky, boozy, flirtatious, and, well, ready to bone.  Otherwise stated, extremely entertaining.

Sure, in the very recent past, I was discussing the dregs of vanity projects like the well-funded karaoke act called 'barrel aging'.  However, Labyrinth's trademark isn't in the oaking of the beer, nope.  It is Uinta's actual adherence to clever ingredients which ultra-forgiving whiskey casks can't help to elevate: molasses, anise, cocoa, espresso, and yes, the very subtle rye itself.  The result is a sweetly spicy beer that smells like a conversation with your anti-prohibitionist grandfather and a dense gravity that tours and branches through all of your sensory receptors like a stout maze -- or better yet, a Labyrinth.  Oh shhnap!  A moment of total realization and cognizance.  I better keep beating myself over the head with it. 

ABV 13.2%
Acquired Argonaut Liquor (Denver)
Can I Find This in Austin? Uinta is not distributed to Texas
Album Radiohead | In Rainbows (Expanded disc) (2007)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

[A Beer a Day] Biere de Garde {w/ Brewery Vivant} ✦ Frambozen Raspberry Brown Ale ✦ Imperial Coffee Chocolate Stout | New Belgium Brewing | Fort Collins, CO

Americans love a good theme.

Themes allow us lazy thinkers to summarily place caveats cleanly into categories with a very gentle curve that our slow-footed brains can maneuver.  Lately, I've been getting a bit more theme-y with the blog and its because I kind of like the smash-bang infusion of beer culture into society's common rituals with obvious things like what beers to drink on Halloween, or more subtle ones, like how to narrow the spectrum of holiday pumpkin beers so that valuable gastric real estate isn't wasted on hasty, eye-level decisions at the supermarket.

The blatant tenor of this week has been the impending arrival of the Greatest Holiday on Earth, and that is Thanksgiving (for our international visitors from the Russian spam sites).  Indeed this holiday is considered by so many as the anti-Christmas, as it centers around the affable and completely voluntary assembly of friends and family in the name of food and football; void of the dickery of gift-exchanging -- although the public profession of thank-yous across social mediums has become the new immaterial of unwanted stocking stuffers (so, stop that shit before you ruin my holiday). 

Anyway, until recently, the defacto accessory to dinner was inexpensive table wine poured into mismatched stemware, primarily due to the fact that very few people have access to 20 matching Burgundy glasses in a guest room closet somewhere in the house.  So, it was an amusing ritual for the family to pretend to be these big wine apostles, when in fact, drinking dinner wine was a lot like going to church: only on major holidays.  And although great wine has a very respectable spot at the table, the culture behind wine itself, really does not.  Wine is gossipy and exclusive.  And it seems to only really be able to make it as far as the second course before closing up shop at dessert, save for the one, biscuit-arsed, port drinking, effete Times-reader in the group.  But fuck that guy.

The second of the Big 3 of Booze -- craft cocktails -- have almost no shot to overtake wine as the Beverage of Thanks.  I like cocktails very much, but I never quite seem to fall in love with them despite thinking they are excellent.  I think that many just have a difficult time engaging with them at the culinary consumption level.

I was at a competitive cocktail event just the other night, and I was genuinely surprised by the juvenile culture surrounding its ideals: good hair, great sport coats, faux-ethnic tats, and biting criticism of their own.  Cocktail culture might possibly be the exact opposite of Thanksgiving's thesis -- and through my very scientific sample size of one event, seems to have cultivated competitive conflict instead of inclusive fellowship.  These provocateurs use too many adjectives and appear to be invested too personally in their craft so that things like collaboration between equals and celebration of the art itself is solidly rejected.

Therefore, what is left to fill the a very large beverage void left by $10 Australian varietals and the non-starters of Old Fashions and Manhattans, is ... well, beer.

If wine is allegorically the catering of booze, and cocktails the booze world's version of cooking, then brewing is comparatively the baking of the alcoholic triumvirate.  And in every community across the planet, congregation and collaboration is celebrated with bread.

Beyond the general ridicule I have for my fellow beer nerds and the utmost respect for the brewers, the message of beer culture is clearly one of accessibility, comradery, objectivity, and collective goals.  The underbelly of beer culture is in fact a simile for Thanksgiving celebration itself: doughy enthusiasts (and soon-to-be-enthusiasts) hunting and hoarding kills of rare and rare-ish beers, then amassing in a coven to show off their skins, either publicly in what is called a beer-share, or privately, in what is called Instagram. The mutual interests between Thanksgiving dinner and beer culture is a natural fit, and because so, beer must customarily become the liquid feature at America's Feast for the future.  Building bridges and all that shit.

And because New Belgium essentially wrote the doctrine for beer culture, and ultimately has saved Thanksgiving from Trader Joe's infiltration, I present to you three of their beers that should grace your table tomorrow evening.

First Course

Thanksgiving dinner is typically a salt-bomb.  A delicious, delicious salt-bomb.  But typically the first course of the annual feast prepares our sensors with a light, green salad or a mild soup to coach the palate.  A farmhouse biere de garde, specifically this Biere de Garde, which was brewed in conjunction with beer-savants, Brewery Vivant of Grand Rapids, would be the perfect compliment to greenery and muddled goards.  Biere de Garde enriches the flavors of these starters by presenting a subtle citrus profile and yeasty baked bread notes, just before you bomb your guts with gravy.

ABV 9.o%
Acquired East 1st Grocery
Can I Find This in Austin? It's a fairly common sight around town, HEB, Spec's, and various shops.
Album Beirut | The Rip Tide (2011)

Main Course 

Something on your plate is gonna have to balance out the savoriness of roasted turkey and mashers, but too often, cranberry sauce and candied yams are neglected by feasters.  Therefore, I would suggest adding your daily intake of fruits and veggies -- not on your plate -- but on your coaster in the form of New Belgium's Raspberry Frambozen.  The tart-y sweetness of the fermented berry beer balances the umami impressed upon the gullet by the bird.

Since we're no longer 14, Mountain Dew is no longer an option, unfortunately -- and because we're not 80, we don't even know where Spec's stocks the Riunite.  A raspberry fermented brown ale does the ploughman's job of tilling your innards in preparation for salty seconds.

ABV 6.5%
Acquired Spec's
Can I Find This in Austin? Every grocery and liquor store in town. Even some corner stores.
Album Polica | Give You The Ghost (2012)

Dessert Course

If you've made it all the way to pecan pie, than obviously you have the capacity to indulge yourself with a dessert beer to complete the finishing touches on shamefulness.  I don't think that New Belgium has even made a stout before -- and if they have, I can't think of it -- but they pull this one off masterfully.  This beer is rich, sweet, and creamy -- mimicking the Euro tradition of dessert coffee -- but since this is mf'in American, we're gonna go down swinging with a big stout.  This version, however, is not as thick in the palate as an imperial stout, leaving just enough room to clear the regurgitation space when Tony Romo leads the Cowboys offense out on the field.

ABV 9.o%
Acquired East 1st Grocery
Can I Find This in Austin? More elusive than BdG. Specs and various smaller shops should have it.
Album Other Lives | Tamer Animals (2011)

Friday, November 9, 2012

[A Beer a Day] Bishop's Barrel #1 Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout | Saint Arnold Brewing | Houston, TX

If you were one of the 49,000 that trod the avenues of the Colorado Convention Center four weeks ago, you will have noted that bourbon, wine, and rum barrels appear to have doubled up on their chores and are now serving as placeholders for alcohol beyond their initial duties of making 12-year-old whiskey and Bordeaux more delicious in the mouth.

This Zeitgeist of alcohol flavored alcohol, brewed and aged by nearly every participant at the festival, finally brought to my attention that whiskey innoculation is probably on its unofficial downward trajectory -- something I find remarkably unfortunate because barrel-aged beers are a fucking ride, man!  But as per the protocol of all things faddish, these modifiers of the good into great have to eventually diminish towards its lonely exile, where it has to keep the TV on at night for company.

The beer industry is notorious for beating dead horses into field hamburger -- even after as the fresh-face kink of the latest extreme brewing technique has faded into banality; everyone is doing it, so why aren't we?

I'll answer that one for the people in the industry: Because you don't run the triple option when you don't have an offensive line, or, you know, three running backs.  The talent, discipline, or personnel isn't always there for an undertaking of such methodical precision, and one that has lots of moving parts.  With so many breweries feeling obligated to barrel age, literally anything, it has led us to a point where ordinary beers are tainting the beer wall with the instrumental versions of your favorite songs. 

I will say, however, that there is usually a Marshal Plan in place for most brewing trends -- and this sort of reconstruction will begin with the masters of its style rebuilding the bombed-out reputation of beer in barrels.  Nationally, those are places like Russian River, New Belgium, Goose Island, Jolly Pumpkin, and Deschutes, while at the municipal level, places like (512) and Hops & Grain (their Baltic Porter on Cherries was one of the best things I've tasted this Fall) are tilling the garden of rejuvenation.

So, generally, the previous few paragraphs was my attitude and internal response when I learned that Saint Arnold would be doing yet another vanity project based entirely on barrel aging beers.  This series they would be calling Bishop's Barrel, and the first of the series would be -- are you sitting? -- a bourbon barrel aged imperial stout.  I nearly fell out of my chair with boredom.  The same brewery who made Santo?

My buddy Mike likes to say things like, Santo is necessary because it keep the lights on, meaning that Saint Arnold couldn't be sustainable as a brewery making densely-constructed, small batch, pet-project beers like Bishop's Barrel #1.  And he's right.  People need to keep buying Santo and Elissa IPA for whatever their reasons they might have to waste their money, so that Saint Arnold will have the resources to continue targeting what they are best at, specialty craft beer.

Saint Arnold's spectrum of beers is like a wife utilizing her women senses:  Sometimes you just don't know what kind of shit your gonna experience in that moment, but realize that each of these encounters has the potential for unbridled awesomeness or the potential for temple-rubbing confusion.  Sometimes the look on your face is of incredulity about how something grew into a mature and sustainable entity all by itself.  Santo?  Santo should have sunk the battleship.  But Pumpkinator was its Marshal Plan, an emphasis on big, reputation-saving beers that give impression that they are bound by financial restraints, but their true passion lies in small batch.  I can't really fade 'em for that.  Its like a line from a favorite song of mine by The National, " Karen, believe me, you just haven't seen my good side yet".

For having little experience with barrel aging, it appears that Saint Arnold just wanted to get in the cockpit and mash the gears until they made something incredibly viscous, boozy, and sweet.  And after one lap around the course, I would say that they steered this beer with remarkable fucking pace.  There is delivery around all corners, vanilla up front, bourbon down the straights, and candied confection through the finish.  And, and.  Its powerful as shit, straight fucking metal.  The imperial Russian stout was matured in Kentucky's Woodford Reserve barrels for 10 months, bottled in remarkably ballsy 12 ounce bottles, shipped to a handful of bars/restaurants ONLY to the tune of 1,000 measly cases, and the hype did the rest.  But hype is only called hype when it disappoints.

This did not.  Not at all.

Go build your rocket, boys.

ABV 10.o - 11.o %
Acquired Friends. How many of us have them?
Can I Find This in Austin? Yes, but extremely rare, and only in bars. Unless, y'know, friends.
Album The National | Alligator (2005)