Breaking News: Bigfoot Sighting!

OK, I really like big beers. Belgian Tripels, Imperial Stouts, Old Ales, I enjoy contemplating the complexities of life through the huge flavors, over-the-top hops and higher alcohol content of the brewer’s extreme offerings. ‘Tis the season for the annual release of Sierra Nevada’s Barleywine, “Bigfoot”. I got my hands on a six-pack today and enjoyed one as a reward for grinding the grains with which I am going to brew tomorrow, and another while watching my favorite TV show tonight, “Leverage”.  Gotta tell you, I don’t remember as good a vintage as this 2010.

First contact: Gorgeous reddish-amber, crystal clear, and a well-developed off-white head.

Aroma: Hops dominate, but there is a lot of caramel/burnt sugar/general maltiness plus a wave of alcohol. The label says 9.6% abv. I believe it.

Body/mouthfeel: this is a rich beer, full-bodied and smooth. Not syrupy by any means, but definitely more of a mouthful than average. The carbonation levels not only make it “lighter” in body than it could be (and thus more eminently drinkable) but also really help bring out the hop bite. You get fizzy bubbles, but when they burst you get an awesome hop flavor.

Flavor: More hops than malt, but almost as much alcohol as hops. It’s bitter, as it should be but it’s also sweet. And  bitter again, and malty and sweet again… Folks, there’s so much going on in this beer you can lose track. Bread, raisins, bitter hops dueling with caramel,  molasses, not at all fruity, and seriously bitter… Did I mention that it’s pretty bitter? But in a good way….

Go get yourself some and see what you think.

Tasting Notes – New Lagers

So what does a home brew guru do in between brewing sessions? Well, there’s racking and bottling, cleaning and organizing, of course, but I also get to try out new beers. Since I brew more or less weekly, I get a new beer “on-line” almost as frequently. One of the things I like about home brewing, especially the way I do it, is that I always have a variety of brews to taste. Variety is my ideal, and if I have two or three beers in an evening, it’s always two or three different styles.

Last night I decided to compare my three latest brews. Since the weather turned cold, I have been brewing mostly lagers. I have a room at the back of the house which is shut off and not heated during the winter (Yankee frugality or Scottish cheapness? or home brew guru cleverness? You decide…). In the dead of winter, when the rest of the heated house is between 60 – 65°F, and it’s anywhere from 20° down to -10°F outside, my back room stays a pretty constant 40 – 45°F. Perfect for lagering the way I do it.

First, a note about tasting. I am a BJCP-certified National Beer Judge. You laugh, but there’s actually a fairly rigorous training and educational program, culminating in a 3-hour exam. You need to know a little micro-biology, a little physics, a little chemistry, some math, some history… and you have to train your taste buds to pick out certain flavors, aromas, etc. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. You can get more information on the program, or see the style guidelines we use to judge in competitions on the BJCP website.

There are basically four tangible components to tasting.

  • Aroma – does it smell right? do you smell malt, hops, yeast, something else?
  • Appearance – is it the right color? is the head the right color and consistency? is the clarity or lack of it appropriate?
  • Mouthfeel – can be thick, thin, anywhere in between, but this also refers to carbonation level and certain texture factors.
  • Taste – there are lots of different flavors potentially in any given beer – with the style guidelines in front of you, do you taste what’s supposed to be there, and are the off-flavors and inappropriate tastes not there? aftertaste? bitterness and sweetness?

Generally speaking, the method is:

  • Pour an appropriately-chilled beer into a clean, clear glass. Different beers are served at different temperatures for optimum flavor. A dirty or greasy (or soapy) glass will interfere with carbonation level, head retention as well as aroma and flavor.
  • Swirl the beer gently, place the beer under you nose and inhale.
  • Look at the beer, with a light source behind it. Note the color, clarity, head, carbonation in the beer itself.
  • Take a sip. Let the beer sit on the back of your tongue for a few seconds. Note carbonation, mouthfeel in general; allow the aroma to rise up into your sinus passage. Is the beer sweet/ bitter? Note all the flavors, good and bad, you notice. Now swallow. Is there an aftertaste? a different flavor or aroma after the liquid is gone?
  • Repeat the last step to confirm your impressions.If tasting another beer, cleanse your palate with a cracker or piece of bread.

So, in the order in which they were brewed, going back to November, here is what I thought of my three newest offerings.

Hellespont Munich Hell (brewed November 5 2009)
In the tradition of the original Munich golden lagers (“hell” in German means “light”, as opposed to “dunkel”, “dark”…) such as Spaten, Hacker-Pschorr, Paulaner and Löwenbräu.

Dark gold (possibly too dark for style), pale head, thinnish – not fully carbonated yet, perhaps. Aroma is malty, sweet, no obvious hop aroma, mildly alcoholic. Medium-to-full-bodied, slightly lacking in carbonation. Nice bitterness on the back of the tongue. Rich malty flavor, some alcohol. Will improve with age, more carbonation. B / B+

Innsbruck Vienna Lager (brewed November 12 2009)
This style is no longer really brewed in Austria, or if it is, it is not exported. Instead, the best known examples are from Mexico – Dos Equis and Negra Modelo. These breweries date back to when Mexico was part of the Austrian Empire.

Deep amber, vaguely reddish, crystal clear. Light beige head, well-developed and persistent. Caramel malty nose, slight toasted notes. Full bodied and smooth. Sweet malty finish, background bitterness in balance, mild hop flavor up-front. Very clean beer, no notable alcoholic flavor or aroma. no diacetyl. B+/A-

Black Bridge Schwarzbier (brewed November 24 2009)
Also known as a Schwarzpils, this style is dark (“Schwarz” is “black”), but more crisp and clean, like a good Czech Pilsner. Not many good examples known in the US. Ayinger makes one, Köstritzer is probably the most revered. Saranac’s Black Forest Lager is quite good.

Dark brown, not quite black. Slightly cloudy/muddy appearance. Beige head, full and thick. Much diacetyl in the nose – not appropriate for style, maybe, but yummy butterscotch and roasty notes. Flavor is roasty/malty, grain bitterness but also well-balanced hop bitterness and flavor. Alternating bitter / sweet / bitter flavors. A little out of style, too sweet, too much diacetyl, but a delicious beer. May dry out and be more in line after a few more weeks in the bottle. B / B+