Apparently, I’ve been far too depressing. Fine. Forget the collapse of the dollar, hyperinflation, exploding debt, moribund economy, etc., etc. I mean, why be so down? In the long run, we’re all dead, anyway, right? So why worry? Let’s talk about something we can all enjoy, then: Beer.
Actually, not beer, as such. I generally don’t drink plain old beer. If you enjoy the watery, bland flavor of of your Michelob Light or Miller Genuine Draft, then knock yourself out. I wouldn’t touch any of that stuff, though. I like to go deeper into the catalog, and enjoy the stout, the porter, and the fantastic subset of beer known as India Pale Ale, commonly known as IPA. I’ve actually been on a tasting rotation of several different IPAs in the past few weeks, and I thought I’d jot down a few notes about them. And, living in what is probably the epicenter of craft brewing in the United States, I have lots of choices.
Stone Brewery, which is conveniently located several blocks from my house, has an excellent reputation, and they have some great products, particularly the Imperial Russian Stout, and the Oatmeal Chocolate stout. and they’re probably best known for their Arrogant Bastard Ale. You’d expect the Stone IPA to be similarly enjoyable, but…I dunno. It really seems like a bland and uninspired IPA to me. It has just enough hoppy bitterness to be an IPA, but considering the premium price, and the quality of Stone’s other offerings, it should be better. There’s literally nothing about the Stone IPA that sets it apart.
Ballast Point Sculpin IPA
Ballast Point is another San Diego brewery, and the Sculpin IPA is very hard to find. If you do find it, I suggest you grab all of it you can, as it’s produced in small batches, and anything other than the 22oz singles are hard to find. As are the 22oz singles. This is a very complex IPA. The hoppy bitterness has a hint of pine, and the finish is complex and spicy. This is an recognizable IPA in flavor, but with lots of extra complexity and character at the finish. Highly recommended, if you can find it.
Widmer Brothers X-114 IPA
Widmer is just now getting into IPA brewing, and are starting off a "Rotator Series" IPA which will eventually consist of four different IPAs. The first release is the X-114 IPA. I imagine that the primary motive for brewing this was the thought, "You want hops? You want bitterness? Then stand by!" This is a very bold IPA. The nose is very redolent of pine, as is the taste. It’s just pure hops. I call it "Christmas Ale" because that’s what it reminds me of. It’s the smell of a clean house with fresh Christmas tree in the living room. The flavor is similarly crisp. I’d say you really have to love a bitter, hoppy ale to enjoy this, but if you do, this is the one for you. [UPDATE: I had another one after writing this post. This is an enjoyable brew if you're an IPA fan, but if you're just starting on IPA, you should stay away from it. It really has a strong character of hops, and newbies will find it far too astringent to enjoy.]
Sierra Nevada Torpedo Double IPA
This is one of the most balanced IPAs I’ve run across. Everything about it is just good. It’s not as complex as the Sculpin, and not as bitter as the X-114. It’s balanced, crisp, and refreshing, without going overboard in any direction. It has a nice, clean nose of hops, and just enough bitterness to bite. There’s no single element of the Torpedo IPA that’s outstanding. Instead, all of the elements are in balance, resulting in a marvelous IPA that’s more bold than, say the Stone IPA, without being overpowering. If you can’t find the Sculpin—and you probably can’t—then the Torpedo Double IPA is equally good.
New Belgium Ranger IPA
Ranger IPA is very close to the Torpedo in fine balance, strong, but not overpowering bitterness, and a clean, hoppy nose. I’d put it between the Stone IPA and the Torpedo for complexity of taste. At the same time, it seems lighter, crisper, and more refreshing than the Torpedo. It’s like an extra bitter summer ale.
And, finally, not an IPA…
Deschutes Obsidian Stout
This one is hard. Try it back to back with a Guinness (Extra Stout, not Draft), which is a dry stout, and you’ll hate it. Try it by itself, and you’ll love it. It’s an unusual stout, in that it has these flavors of malt and barley sweetness that the bitter hops overcomes at the finish. Lots of dark chocolate and coffee notes as well. It’s a much bolder stout than usual. I wouldn’t use it as a refreshing summer drink, because it isn’t. This is a sipping stout that’s very robust and substantial. I’d think that you’d really need to be a porter or stout fan to truly enjoy this, as it’s definitely not an introductory brew. Also, it’s available no further east than TX.
New Belgium Summer Ale and New Belgium Fat Tire Ale
Both of these ales are very close in flavor. They are much more lightly hopped than an IPA, and both have a fuller, more malty hint of sweetness in taste. The Summer Ale, however is a bit lighter, and crisper, and is an excellent, refreshing hot-weather beverage. Both are very good pale ales. I was drinking the Summer Ale a few weeks ago when we were having a heat wave here. You can drink it like water, but I wouldn’t recommend doing that, unless you don’t need to operate heavy machinery. Or stand up.
I went to BevMo this weekend, and picked up a couple of six-packs of some British imports: Fuller’s London Porter and Extra Special Bitter and Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout, so I’ll be trying those out for the next several days. I’ll let you know how that goes. I’m especially keen to try the Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout. This is the original modern oatmeal stout. First brewed in the 1750′s, Smith’s produced it until after WWII. They resurrected this type of stout in 1980, and were quickly followed by others in the UK and US.
I put the two different bottles of Fuller’s in the fridge this afternoon, and I couldn’t wait to taste it this evening.
Fuller’s ESB (Extra Special Bitter)
It pours a dark amber, with a thin, tan head. The nose is filled with hints of apricot and dried fruit. The taste comes on with a very slight hint of bitterness that is quickly overcome by a full malt flavor with hints of toffee and caramel, and finishes with a taste of whole-wheat bread sweetness. it’s got slightly more carbonation than I remember from pub draft bitter in the UK, which is only to be expected from the bottle, which dissipates after the glass has been sitting for a few minutes. Other than that, it’s very much in the tradition of a draft pub bitter. Probably a good choice for people that find the bitterness of an IPA is too much, and prefer the milder, sweeter ales. Or people, like me, who just like to try different ales. Even The Lovely Christine, who hates beer, tasted this and pronounced it drinkable. It’s that good, and that mild.
Fuller’s London Porter
Oh. My. God. It pours black with a red flare. Before you even sip it fills your nostrils with a strong essence of earth and wood smoke. The taste attacks with strong notes of coffee and chocolate and toast. And it finishes with the bitterness of roasted malts, rather than the astringency of hops, followed by sweet toffee aftertaste. It has a thick, substantial mouth feel, and is smooth and creamy. Under it all is this sweet, malty, richness. I’ve had a number of American "Smoked Porters", but nothing like this. The coffee and cocoa notes are so pronounced! It’s lightly carbonated. This is just absolutely fantastic. Rate My Beer gives this a perfect 100. Now I know why.