Tuesday, February 21, 2006

It comes but once a year...

By day three, 19 of the 50 taps had been drank empty. Stories of intensely bad hangovers circulated, and the temperature was dropping. Beyond that, a snafu at the bread bakery rendered the only source of anti-hangover sustenance, Rosemunde Sausage Grill, closed for the night. But still, we plowed onward into the night to experience yet another Toronado Barley Wine Festival. Of course, I've already made enough of an ass of myself taking photos in that bar, so this report will have to rely on artist renderings.

Accosted by the "I've had
everything on this list" guy.

Thanks to 3-ounce tasting glasses, one can conceivably move quite swiftly through the list of 31 barley wines still available, and it was obvious that many folks were trying their very best. Of course, one might recognize the severe spare tire damage one could do if one were to do the math: 3 oz. x 4 = 12 oz. 1 regular beer = 4% alcohol, whereas 1 barley wine = 12% alcohol. Therefore, 4 x 3 oz. barley wine = 3 x 12 oz. regular beers. 39 x 3 oz. barley wines = gonzo freakin' mayhem.
As usual, the kindly folks at the bar had jukebox crosshairs centered squarely on metal, with the typical mission of ridding the place of all but the most hardy of beer hunters - unfortunately, the joy of being surrounded with kindred spirits and great libations resulted in a unusual amount of what could only be called "rocking out". Amazingly, we were able to keep our editorial focus and pay attention to at least a little of what we got to sample.

I hope being exposed to Alice in
Chains this loud isn't ruining my
chances to ever have kids.

First off, I have to disagree with the guy who found out I had a pen and decided to keep coming back to our table whenever he wanted to make notes on his tasting sheet and proclaimed Unita the hands-down winner. While it may have some secrets to reveal once it's aged a bit, it currently tasted a bit one-dimensional in its bitterness. Of the ones we sampled, "Alexander Gunn", by San Francisco Brewing Company really caught our attention with its subtlety and nuance - two words that haven't been used often to describe barley wines, I imagine. (In fact, we all noted the high level of quality across the board, something we attributed to the experience of being pitted against each other in competition for so many years now. If you find that you started liking barley wine recently, you probably owe a bit of thanks to Toronado for giving these brewers the opportunity to raise the bar.)

My years of racetrack
betting finally paid off.

"Hops on Rye", by the Carlsbad outlet of Pizza Port, was a nice example of a brew that stretches the definition of what barley wine can be. Lighter, somewhat oily and bready, it was miles from the cloying and hop-bitten barley wines of the past. In fact, the appearance of some bourbon barrel-aged and biscuit malt-mashed specimens showed that there's a new breed of experimentation in the style - and for the better, too.
Lastly, we saw the return of a favorite from last year, Deschutes' "Mirror Mirror", which is essentially a doubled batch of their classic pale ale, Mirror Pond. It's a classically balanced West Coast ale that just happens to deliver twice of what you're expecting with every sip in terms of body, resinous hops, and grainy maltiness, kind of like drinking it through a magical beer hat. All in all, it was worth the mediocre burrito. And by now those barley wines are gone. And the sun's come back out, and soon it will be Belgian beer month all over again - the cycle of life continues.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Tasting notes - St. Bernardus Prior 8 and St. Bernardus Abt 12

There is another. Much like the Leia to Westvletern's Luke, St. Bernardus labors in near obscurity behind the beer world's focus on the yellow cap. But as a close sibling linked by Westmalle genes, its Prior 8 and Abt 12 deserve a spotlight similar to the former, and are certainly a force to be reckoned with on the dark side of winter.
Why yes, Yoshi, I think you're correct: The 8º does appear to be brewed from second runnings from the 12º.
Is it *as* good as the yellow cap? Yes, but since it's just that much harder to get one's hands on the holy grail of illegally imported Trappist ales, it's hard to convince folks that it could be true. I mean, they sell it at Whole Foods, fer cryin' out loud, and it isn't $15/bottle! I suggest that people heed the advice given in the weirdly titled but stunningly revelatory "Brew Like A Monk", wherein Stan Hieronymus warns people to be leery of the implied quality of the six named Trappist monastery breweries in comparison to abbey breweries who don't qualify for the fancy appellation label "Trappist" - much in the way one mustn't avoid California sparkling white wines méthode champonaise simply because they can't be labeled "champagne" (*cough* Navarro brut *cough*). [Sidenote: My thoughts on appellations are too tangential even to include in a blog (!), but I'm not hesitant to admit that I just enjoyed a glass of a "lambic" style barrel-aged, wild-yeast fermented, sour cherry-infused, pale ale that just *happens* to be from Santa Rosa, California, and could easily shame many of its saccharinene-influenced relatives from the true"lambic valley". And I'm eagerly eyeing another one from New York in my fridge. Nuff said.]
Gee, thanks a lot, autofocus.
These are both big beers of the "dried fruit and rum" persuasion, thick with luscious yeast aromas of plum and raisin and spice, best enjoyed somewhat on the warm side (55º at least), and just beg to be enjoyed slowly after dinner on a cold winter's night. One could speculate that like the brewers employ a technique used at Westvletern whereby the two beers are drawn from the same mash in a system similar to parti-gyle brewing. It would make sense, as the two seem quite closely linked in character (probably just one or two grains with sugar added?), yet varying in strength and body.
Perhaps the greatest joy in drinking a glass of the St. Bernardus Abt 12 is in realizing that Westvletern isn't alone. It even makes one believe that with a little homebrewing creativity (not to mention learning how to cook your own brewing sugar), you might actually be able to do something similar yourself. Fantasy, I'm sure. But with the snow level dropping and the winds picking up, it's a tempting fantasy to indulge in.


Monday, February 13, 2006

Best... map... ever.

That's right, kids - beermapping. com. So if you're planning on coming into town next weekend for Toronado's barley wine festival (and realize once you get there that you can't even squeeze in the door) you won't have much trouble finding somewhere else to get your malted fix. The one thing you can't do is overlay a topographical map to see how many hills you need to scale to get to your next destination...