Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Robinsons - Old Tom Strong Ale

Hello all, I know it has been quite some time since my last update, my apologies. I had another one queued up and ready to go, but wasn't satisfied with the quality of the beer (not to mention I accidentally recycled the bottle before I could get a photograph). In any case I am here with a fresh review of a high quality ale. This time it is Old Tom Strong Ale from Robinsons. It is classified as an English Strong Ale and if my memory serves me correctly, this is the first time we've reviewed an English Strong (we've seen Bitters and Strong Bitters, but never a Strong Ale). This ale won the award for best ale in the world in 2009 at the World Beer Awards, so this brew has a bit of weight behind it. Like the Espresso Stout from Dark Star, I read about Old Tom in a magazine and had never seen it in the Seattle area. Leave it to de Bierkoning to come through here again because that's where I found it and immediately purchased a bottle. As for the brewer I'll give you a little background information...

Robinsons Family Brewers first opened in 1838 and the first record of Old Tom Ale is from 1899. They are based in Stockport, England, in greater Manchester. The current commercial brewery: Old Unicorn Brewery, derives its name from the first location purchased and operated by William Robinson in 1838: The Unicorn Inn, which also housed the first brewery. Robinsons owns a few other smaller breweries; Federation, Hartley, Marks & Spencer, to name a few, and under these names and their own, they brew many different kinds of beer ranging from Ginger Ales to Blondes and ESB's to Porters.

Moving on now to a brief discussion of English Strong Ales...the typical flavor profile will be somewhat fruity (dark fruits), and malty sweet. Hops may be noticeably present, but this is not always the case. These beers are sometimes found unfiltered and unpasteurized (this offering is neither) and may be bottle conditioned. Other excellent examples of the style: Fullers 1845 and Samuel Smith's Yorkshire Stingo (you may be able to find those back in Seattle). Now without further adieu, I give you Old Tom Strong Ale...

Name: Old Tom Strong Ale
Category/Style: English Strong Ale
ABV: 8.5%
IBU: Unknown
OG: Unknown
FG: Unknown
Malt Type(s): British Pale, Crystal, Chocolate, & Caramel Malts
Hop Type(s): Goldings & Northdown
Yeast Type: Unknown
Special Additives: None
Bottled: Unknown
Bottle Size: 330 mL
Location Purchased: de Bierkoning, Amsterdam, Netherlands

The Pour: The head dissipates quickly, cream colored, fizzy carbonation. Color is transparent and medium to dark brown. Slight ruby hue to it.

The Nose: Sweet and bready, malty, yeasty, sweet caramel, chocolate and dark fruits, maybe some dried fig, slight roasted character to it. Smells a bit earthy. I can only imagine what it tastes like. Swirling reveals a bit of wet earth, wet moss, a bit of alcohol, and maybe the faintest hint of hops & a nutty
almond-like aroma....ok going for a taste!

The Taste: Carbonation is low to medium, medium body. Lots of bready yeasty notes. A bit of spice and earth. Roasted malt on the finish, nice warming of the throat. Dark fruit hits the palate, a little caramely sweetness. A little nutty. I detect a bit of bitterness on the finish also. A very delicious English Strong. Earthy, flavorful, and dry ;]

The Verdict: A very delicious English Ale indeed. Easily one of the best I've ever had. Roasted, dry, spicy, bitter, lots of depth to this one (must be why it was named the best ale in the world). I think my favorite English Ale is still the Black Sheep Ale. But focusing on Robinsons Old Tom, I've got to hand it to them, this beer is high quality. Given the chance, I would buy it again in a heartbeat. Drinkability is high, it's not heavy or overly alcoholic (even though it's 8.5%). Track down a bottle and you won't be disappointed :]

Thanks for reading!


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Hanssens Artisanaal - Oude Gueuze

Heya, how is everyone? Today I've got a fresh new beer up for review and to most, this style will be a complete mystery; It's called: Gueuze (pronounced: Hoze-uh). In order to fully explain what a Gueuze is, we'll first need to discuss a different type of beer called a Lambic (maybe you've heard of this style before?). I do apologize as this entry grows rather long. But I can assure you it provides a step-by-step description of the process (something I had no substantial knowledge of before this). Hope you'll enjoy.

Alright so rolling up our sleeves now let's get to the bottom of Gueuze's and Lambic's. A Lambic is the base component of a Gueuze. A Gueuze contains at least 2 different Lambic's. So what's a Lambic? Glad you asked. Let's find out...

Lambic's were first produced in Belgium (more specifically in the Senne Valley) located just south of Bruxelles along the Senne River. This region is widely known for its wild strains of unique seasonal yeasts that make Lambic's and Gueuze's what they are. These beers depend on spontaneous fermentation, this is fermentation that occurs when yeast floating in the air starts fermenting the sugars we find in wort (the sugary malty mixture we call beer before fermentation). Unlike the brewing I've done at home where you're instructed to cool the wort as quickly as possible and seal it up without allowing any potentially hazardous contaminants to fall in, brewers of Lambic's allow the beer to cool slowly in large, shallow open-air vats (this goes against everything I've learned about making beer, because cleanliness and good sanitation is king when it comes to brewing, or so I thought). As you can imagine, not only is there yeast floating around in the air but lots of other micro-organisms and goodies I won't delve into, but just know that this is what lends a Lambic such a unique flavor, everything is spontaneous. If you remember my mention of the famous Senne Valley and its seasonal yeasts, we'll note here that traditional brewing of Lambic beers takes place between the months of October to April. The temperature during the winter months lends itself to Lambic production because bacteria and other microbes can't thrive in cooler temperatures. It's a win win situation. Ok so now that's out of the way, continuing on with the Lambic process; the wort is allowed to cool in large shallow open-air vats and is then transferred to large tubs. Eventually the unfermented wort finds its way into oaken casks where primary fermentation from the airborne yeasts is allowed to take place. The initial vigorous fermentation of the easily fermentable sugars is over within approximately 2 weeks.

Now from there, these young beers will be allowed to lager (or age/mature) in these casks at cooler, most likely cellar temperature (about 55 - 58ºF or 13 - 15ºC). These Lambic's will remain in cask for at least one year, other's will remain in cask for two or three years. Now this is where we bring the term Gueuze back into the light. As I stated earlier Lambic's and Gueuze's are directly related. You can think of a Lambic as the father of the Gueuze because what the brewers then do is take Lambic's of different vintages (as I was saying: one, two, or three years old) and blend them together. I've no idea in what proportion a brewer will do this at; I'm assuming according to a recipe or some kind of strict code, something unique to that particular brewery or maybe even to taste, given the fact that wild yeast is unpredictable and will produce beers that vary in flavour year to year. But the journey of the Gueuze does not stop here. As some of you already know fermenting a beer is only the first step in beer production. Beer must be carbonated. And so to carbonate the Gueuze brewers will utilize the unfermented sugars still present in the young (one year old) Lambic. When they combine the other vintages the yeasts still present will consume the sugars from the young Lambic. Thanks to the bottle-cap (or in this case the cork) the CO2 remains in solution and ready to dance upon your tongue when you crack it open. Post-bottling, the beer will be kept on location for a period of approximately seven to eight months to allow for full carbonation and further development of flavour. Long process eh? And an even longer entry. What was my aim when I started? Oh that's right to explain the process of making Lambic and Gueuze, which is incredibly complicated, not to mention painstakingly long.

The flavour profile on Gueuze is quite unique and unlike any other beer you've ever tasted. Flavours will range from cidery to musty, from very sour and vinegar-like to woody, reedy, and even old barnyard-like flavours (If you have yet to taste this barnyard flavour in a beer, let me tell you, you'll know when you do). And as for the name: Gueuze, its origin remains a mystery. The most plausible theory suggests that it comes from the old Norman word for wheat, which ironically enough is gueuze. Lambic's are known to contain a fair amount of wheat in their grist (the grain that will later be boiled to produce wort). And now, if you're still with me and haven't completely lost interest or fallen asleep, we have the beer. The actual living form, embodiment and culmination of this long age-old process: the Gueuze. And this one is from Hanssens Artisanaal.

Quick background on Hanssens, only because I found this bit of information quite interesting. They first opened in their present location in 1896 and can be found in the small city of Dworp, Belgium down in the Senne River Valley. Hanssens Artisanaal does not actually brew the Lambic's necessary for a Gueuze. Instead they "assemble" a Gueuze (they are called Lambic blenders). They actually purchase the Lambic from outside sources and then blend it to produce a Gueuze. Thirty to forty years ago the art of blending Lambic was more popular and done by nearly forty independent blenders. But flashforward to present day and there is only one independent blender left, and that is Hanssens Artisanaal. It has been done the same way in their family for the past one-hundred years; using almost the same material, which as I've just outlined, requires a massive amount of skill, knowledge and effort. Hanssens is directed by Sidy Hanssens, the fourth generation in this family's tradition. Kind of incredible. Still with me? First off, allow me to applaude you for making it to the end of this entry. Like the neverending entry, sheesh. I hope you're still reading and I hope I was able to shed a bit of light on a lesser-known style of beer. Alright then, onto the tasting notes of Oude (old) Gueuze....

Name: Oude Gueuze
Category/Style: Gueuze
ABV: 6.00%
IBU: Unknown
OG: Unknown
FG: Unknown
Malt Type(s): Unknown
Hop Type(s): Unknown
Yeast Type: Wild Belgian Yeast, Brettanomyces
Special Additives: Unknown
Bottled: Unknown
Bottle Size: 375 mL corked
Location Purchased: de Bierkoning, Amsterdam, Netherlands

The Pour: Pale golden yellow, a very quickly dissipating fizzy
head. No lacing. Looks like low carbonation to me.

The Nose: Sour, acidic, wood, and vinegar. A bit of sulfur and dust.
Is that a slight hint of malt? Some spicy sour funk. Kind of sweet and beguiling. Champagne. White grapes, and white wine. A little green apple and lemony citrus. Maybe some floral hops...swirling the glass releases some hidden aromas. Guess they had to be shaken free. More of the same beguiling nose. Sweet and light but dense and heavy at the same time. This one has many layers. Fruity and attractive. Time for a taste...

The Taste: Initially sweet, fruity and very inviting, but deceptive and the facade falls away and the sour character comes to the forefront. Sour, spicy, a very nice bite that surprises you a bit. Very acidic and lots of vinegar. Carbonation hits all at once, in one nice explosion, then it's gone and midway through near the end I'm hit with a nice mouth filling bitterness. Body is light and airy. It finishes very clean and leaves me wanting more. Wow this one is really quite something. Sweet, sour, bitter, and clean. Nice woody reedy notes distributed throughout as well. A slight warming of the back of the throat. Quite surprising for a 6%. Finish is very dry. Leaves your mouth devoid of any moisture.

The Verdict: This beer really is something else. Complexity-wise, this one is on another level. Each sip is very clearly defined as sweet, sour, bitter, clean. This beer is a combination of apple and white grape juice, sparkling wine, sweet tarts and IPA. It really does make your lips pucker. It's crazy also that the side of the bottle says it is preferable to consume this before 2030. I'll be bald and over the hill by the time 2030 rolls around. Maybe I'll buy a bottle,
and keep it until 2030 and drink it when I hit 45. This one is definitely top notch. Really so many layers, I'm sure I didn't even scratch the surface. The flavor on this one is very unique and distinct and I feel that it's got a little bit to offer each kind of beer lover out there. Distribuation-wise I hear this one is difficult to come by outside of the region, so best bet is to call around to the specialty beer shops in your area and see if they're carrying it.

Thanks so much for reading this one all the way through!


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Dark Star Brewing Company: Espresso Stout

Just a side note: I wrote this review during earth hour, by candlelight and later transferred it to this site. Thought it would be a nice way to support earth hour by using no electricity for the entire hour :] Anyhow, down to the beer. A little bit of background on the brewer just so you know where the beer comes from. Dark Star Brewing Co is based in Horsham, England, just south of London. The name for the brewery comes from the song from the Grateful Dead, Dark Star. They first opened their doors in 1994 and initially operated from the basement of The Evening Star Pub in Brighton. They have 6 core brews as well as Seasonal and Monthly Releases. The beers range in strength from 4 - 7% and this very Espresso Stout won the best Specialty Ale in the world award in 2009.

I also believe this may be my first time reviewing a coffee beer on the blog. And for those of you that just perked up, "Huh? Coffee beer?" Yes. Coffee beer. The two go hand in hand, that I can assure you. There are many different kinds of coffee beer out on the market today. Straight coffee beers, coffee porters, coffee stouts, beers brewed with actual coffee beans, freshly ground espresso, fresh brewed coffee and even some with coffee extracts. The one thing that is true, is that the world of coffee beers is quite large and a very popular style of beer today.

But coffee in beer? Really this one is a no brainer. Take a look at your next cup of coffee, and then take a look at your next stout or porter. See the resemblance? Both are very dark, sometimes with a nice foamy cream or tan colored head. The flavours of coffee and dark beers are synonymous. The process used to produce both are very similar if not exactly the same. The length of the roast will determine how strong or dark the flavour of the coffee or the beer will be. The bitterness from coffee is welcomed as well. I will take an excerpt from tasting notes on the Pike Place Roast from Starbucks (because everyone knows Starbucks, and Pike Place Roast is the first thing that came to mind): "With a smoother finish and subtle flavors of cocoa and toasted nuts..." Oh yeah, sound familar? Of course, it could be a beer. So yes, next time you purchase a nice bag of coffee have a look on the side of the bag. Most likely they'll have tasting notes and you'll see that in fact, the flavours in coffee and dark beers do align. Now to the tasting notes of the Dark Star Espresso Stout...

Name: Dark Star Espresso
Category/Style: Stout
ABV: 4.2%
IBU: Unknown
OG: Unknown
FG: Unknown
Malt Type(s): Roasted Barley
Hop Type(s): Challenger
Yeast Type: Unknown
Special Additives: Arabica Espresso Beans
Bottled: Unknown
Bottle Size: 500 mL
Location Purchased: de Bierkoning, Amsterdam, Netherlands

The Pour: Black. Tried shining light thought this, & it doesn't work. At the very edge it is dark crimson, but straight through nothing penetrates. Head is cream colored, not thick by any means, some lacing.

The Nose: Incredible. Lots of dark roasted notes, black pepper & coffee. Charred burnt character shines through. I'm picking up smoke, ash, cacao nibs, dark chocolate and a bit of acidity. Slight malty sweetness and a bit of bread crust, but dominated by coffee (as it should be). Ok enough torture, going for a taste.

The Taste: Smooth, low carbonation. Roasted, burnt notes; coffee bitterness, slight astrigency, dark chocolate, cacao nibs, a touch of smoke midway through. A hint of spicy black pepper and earth. Finish is coffee bitterness & cocoa powder, needless to say it's a rather dry finish. Tough to distinguish hop bitterness from the roasted malt and coffee. The body is light, low on the carbonation, and smooth, but extremely rich and full flavored.

The Verdict: Ahh the verdict. Yes yes, so the Dark Star Espresso won the award for best Specialty Ale in the World Beer Awards in 2009. And that's when I first read about it, but before coming to Amsterdam, never had the privilege of trying a sample. I do love my Coffee Beers. And when I saw this sitting on the shelf at de Bierkoning, I had to buy a bottle. I have come across a handful of delicious coffee beers throughout my journey through the world of beer; to name a few of my favorites: The Arctic Rhino Coffee Porter from Midnight Sun, incredible, and Cafe Frog from Rogue Ales (brewed in Issaquah). So how does this Espresso Stout stack up to my favorites? Pretty well actually. I would need a side by side comparison to see which one was my ultimate favorite, but I liked this beer quite a bit. It was much more rich than I would have predicted; it was perfect for savouring. A slight hint of smoke, and lots of coffee. I recently had a coffee stout from another brewery (not going to mention names here) that promised loads of coffee flavor and aroma. It was overly rich, and the coffee was masked and not able to dominate the brew. If I buy a coffee beer, I want to taste a beer dominated by coffee, and Dark Star has achieved exactly this. Back home in Seattle you might check Bottleworks and see if they're selling this. It's definitely worth a try if you're into coffee or dark beer or both :P

Thanks for reading!