Category Archives: Beer Tasting

A Firestone Walker Night at the City Beer Store

Dropped in on The City Beer Store and the taps boasted more than a few annual releases by Firestone Walker. Ok, maybe I’ve been laying in wait for this and I bolted over when I got wind of it. And it went a little like this…

Abacus: The barely wine nose was loaded with a lot of fun sugar. A great, traditional granular intensity defined the body with a bitterness seeping through the sweet, barrel aging. A mature barely wine that manages to be intense and robustly sweet but not cloying.

XV: The bourbon flavors were cloaked but unveiled themselves midway, wood notes were subtle but solid, lush fleshy, peachy fruit nose combined with a wish of vanilla in the body, and curious nutty note somewhere. Solid heavy mouthful, brown sugary, vanilla, bourbon roasted into a near endless tail. And the bourbon and malt flavors were more prevalent as it warmed up. Where can I find a cask…

Sticky Monkey: A true rarity, mid-sweet nose, both carmel and lightly vegetative, the intense sweets of the abacus are rained in with british or reserve. That is, the sugary nose and body quickly crashed into a wall of complex and satisfying malts. And the lingering wreckage is a pleasant way to pass the palate, a bit of plum and hops drowned in darker, deeper tones. But there is no lack of liquor. You may call it boozy, I call it home…

Black Xantus: Roasted and yummy. I have written this up and it often ranks as my beer-at-the-end-of-the-world, so I won’t get too poetic here. As for the 2010 served on tap in 2012… The bourbon intensity has been cashed in for chewy, stout taffy forged in a roasted malt forge and layers of char. And yet you can still taste that insidious, vanilla bourbon somewhere. Dark and pleasing.

Firestone Walker’s expert use of barrels and even more brilliant approaching to blending barrels without smothering flavor (indeed, they seem to be able to accentuate flavors but blend the edges into a well knit medium) works well across there lineup. I love this time of year. City Beer’s current lineup satisfies in every way… so long as you have a little pocket money, a penchant for 11%-plus beers, and a palate thoroughly addicted to quality, thoughtful barrel maturation and blending. Kudos to Firestone Walker. –Nate

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The Dissident and The Sinner

Deschutes’ Dissident (Batch 1, Circa 2008): This beer does not last long on tap, so it was a bit of good fortune that I got wind of it with time to savor a few pours.  This Flander-style ale is Dechutes’ contribution to the pantheon of West Coast sours.  Setting it apart to a degree, both figuratively and literally, is its use of the wily and wild Brettanomyces yeast.  This wild strain of yeast, often maligned for infecting and undermining other beers, is reigned in and put to a great purpose in the Dissident.  A beautiful, dark copper.  A fruit-laden nose with a touch of ground grain.  And a taste to follow these openers.  This beer has a well-earned reputation.  Lush-but-not-extravagant, the sour nose turns up the tartness and the tastiness on a bed of crimson-malt flavors.  There is an almost-but-never-quite overpowering tension between the bright and the liquor flavours that integrates in the end and is much appreciated.  The use of pinot and cabernet barrels play a part in amalgamating the flavors, and the wood notes balance, but don’t blunt, the resilient and welcome sourness of this beer.

Brasserie Dieu du Ciel’s Peche Mortel:  I am always pleased to find their beer on tap.  Meaning Mortal Sin in English, this coffee stout wrestles the purposefully-crafted high levels of char and alcohol and succeeds in merging the two into a bold-yet-cultured beer.  This beer has a tight, dark nose that matches the tap color that gives up  little besides a brown edged obsidian.  Roasted, and it is a dark roast.  Still, there is also a curiously clear focus in the nose juxtaposed with the brooding, reserved darkness.  One big sip and the roasted note steps up, clothed (armored) in no mere facade of char.  This has an honest and indefatigable charcoal note that isn’t a note, it is a personality disorder that I would like to take to the races.  There’s cream and wonder, coffee and malts, and still a char of a capacity oft associated with Isla whisky that defines each moment to the next.  The roast-and-coal flavors guide you with an ebon hand through the shadows of maltiness and a respectable current of alcohol.  Not a beer for the meek, and that is why it is aptly named.  This is one of those sins I am more than happy to pay for.  Again and again.

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Equinox du Printemps: It isn’t just for spring…

A vibrant Scotch ale with a richly sweet nose.  A chardonnay note is there… and is that cake I smell?  The sunlight is reflecting of a window strategically placed to impart my drinking experience in my arm-less, leather armchair.  Malty, dark-to-creamy with a bubblegum nitrous before settling into a balance and thick but delicately sweet malt with a chewy remainder.  The thick maltyness of it holds through the mid-body and gives way to touches of maple on an increasingly ruddy froth of toasted malt.  Brasserie Dieu du Ciel has done some fine work here, now if I could only find it on tap… –Nate

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Double Jack… and then some…

Firestone Walker’s Union Jack is an IPA that could easily pass as a double IPA, even if you were paying attention.  So, being a fan of extremes in the realm of fermentation, I knew I would like Double Jack before I ever tried it… and I did.  And that was at a festival, that was fun, and that was judgment at its best… judgment impaired by a really good time.  But let us crack a bottle under slightly more controlled and analytical circumstances. Always an eye for the borderline between stayed, traditional motifs and a bit of an edge, the label was a bill of lading for a beer you definitely want to take possession of.  Opened and into the glass.  A small glass, yes, but a glass ready for focused flavors and refills.  A bouquet of tangerine, traces of pink grapefruit, malt, fresh cream, and a touch of green about to bloom.  Raise that glass and drink.  The expected blast of bitter almost gets started on the gums and tongue but instead first sublimates before the peak into a full mouth-feel of fine, creamy hops slightly darkened and restrained.  Instead of delivering a novel burst of ephemeral verdancy, the hops make their rounds  closely in thrall to a lingering sweetness as the ghost of that grapefruit peeks from behind the ajar doors of your palate.  And malts and the faintest twist of candied orange are slowly subsumed by a solid but subtle aftermath of competing (in a friendly sense) flavors.  You have a word with a friend, and then you realize it is pretty damn hoppy and fundamentally satisfying… and that is all you remember until the next sip.

And no, that is not a bottle of Bulleit Rye in the background.  And even if it was, there wasn’t a decent dose of it drawn upon to pave the way for a well-paced beer tasting.  And if there was, certainly it would have come off particularly bright in the nose with atomized pepper and loads of rye followed by a trace of sugar on the back-end among notes of drier woods.  And maybe the palate would have continued that rye-forward experience, smoother than expected until the tale-end tingle of rye-spice and a dash of heat reminded you of where you were and what you were drinking.  But I wasn’t here… and you didn’t read this. –Nate

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Continuing the Beer Trend – Beer Tasting!

Well it was SF beer week recently so we continued the trend and had a beer tasting this month at the City Beer Store instead of whisky.  In truth though the planning for this get together had been a couple months in the making.  Saying that I spend a little time at the City Beer Store is a bit of an understatement. Saying Nate spends a little time there passes the boarder and drives straight into the heartland of ridiculous.  Sometimes getting a seat in the quaint shop is difficult and competition can be fierce.

The City Beer Store is a great, no, fabulous beer store that stocks a great selection of craft beers from all of the country and all over the world.  In addition to selling bottles of beer, Craig and Beth, owners of the store, have a few taps working so you can enjoy while you are there.  Of course you can always pop open one of the bottles and have a drink for an extra $1.

Beth had planned out a great menu of beers for us to try on Wednesday night.  She knew we are a whisky crowd so she chose primarily barrel aged beers.  We also were treated to some great chocolate to snack on during the tasting that went great with these deep rich beers.  I didn’t take any pictures and I didn’t take any notes on the beers.  I was there to enjoy the experience and the company of 15 other friends, so any impressions are only from memory.

The first one in the lineup was the Allagash Curiuex a tripel Belgian aged in former Jim Beam barrels.  The Curiuex was a deep yet crisp fruity Belgian with lots of spices (not the chili kind).  There was also a lot of sweetness to it – but not cloying.  I personally, had a hard time picking up the whiskey notes from the barrel aging.  While others identified it almost immediately.

The second beer of the night was the Ballast Point Sea Monster – the only non-barrel aged beer of the night.  Don’t be fooled though, this stout packed a whole lot of flavor.  Great roasted notes with bitter chocolate made me thirsty for more!

We jumped back into the whiskey barrel again with the third beer, Old Viscosity from 2009.  This is a bourbon barrel aged blend.  Although the color was dark and brooding the blended character of this beer actually helped to smooth it out.  It didn’t have the sharp sweet tones that are usually present in bourbon aged beers.  It initially had a little too much carbonation for my liking and was too cold.  However, after letting it sit for awhile and warm up it became a lot more drinkable.

The last beer of the night got right back to our whisky background, Brewdog’s Paradox Isle of Arran.  I really was expecting to have my tongue blown out of the water knowing Brewdog’s background.  However, it wasn’t as “out there” as I was expecting.  There were nice chocolate and roasted notes in there and a touch of the oak.  I could have used a bit more of the Arran cask influence.  A good beer nonetheless though!

Everyone seemed to have a great time.  For some this was there first foray into craft beers.  It was a bit of a turn off of our normal whisky path to the displeasure of some but to the great delight of others.  About 8 of those that came out had never been to the City Beer Store before – as a result of this event Nate and I now have an additional 8 other people we have to compete with to get a seat.

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A Combination of Things I Like

Nate touched on the barrel aged beer event earlier this week when he posted about his 3 day beer crawl.  Relying on my sense of self-preservation I opted out of embarking on such a treacherous beer journey.  I did decide to attend one event though…

I think it is pretty obvious that I like whisk(e)y.    Maybe slightly less obvious, I also like beer.  However, in my more than likely misguided logic I try not to drink too much beer for the safety of the last hole in my belt that is already feeling the pains of being stretched.  But I could not turn down the opportunity to try a combination of these two things that I like.  And this opportunity came in the form of a barrel aged beer tasting at the Jug Shop in San Francisco.  If you haven’t visited the Jug Shop, they have a great range of craft beers as well as a fairly decent spread of whisky.  More importantly though, a very knowledgeable staff.  This tasting was one of the numerous events around town as we are right in the middle of San Francisco Beer Week.

The tasting was starting at 6:30 and I made my way down there with 5 minutes to spare.  And to no one’s surprise Nate was already there reserving some real estate in the tasting area.  After picking up the tasting menu and perusing it to see what beers were being poured, I confirmed that using the hall pass to escape some kid duty was well worth it.  It was a solid event but a little slow moving for the number of beers we were trying to get through.  I was also happy to see that there were a lot of other beer enthusiasts in attendance to experience these beers.  The interest in craft brewing is in full swing here!  Here are some brief, very brief notes on the beers I tried.

Sierra Nevada 30th Anniversary Oak-Aged Ale:  Lots of hoppy bitterness, a little oak sweetness but not a whole lot of oak influence.  Probably why it was the first one in the line-up.

JW Lees Harvest Ale Calvados Cask: Probably one of the most intriguing casks of the night. Big sweetness on the nose, fermented fruit, peaches? The initial sweetness gave way to an interesting herbal concoction.

The Lost Abbey Angel’s Share Brandy Barrel: Syrupy, molasses, chocolate, velvety smooth. Needs some more carbonation I think.

Widmer Brother’s Reserve Brr:  I really wasn’t expecting anything from Widmer to be here.  They are known for their Hefe – which I really don’t like.  Watery, overly carbonated, pretty boring actually.  This felt like a half-hearted attempt to jump on the barrel aged beer train.  Sorry guys I think you missed it.

Firestone Walker 14: I have had this before and loved it.  It is a blend of several different barrel aged beers and the depth of flavor highlights this.  The combination and layers of flavor are amazing. I got the burnt qualities of a porter, bitter chocolate, a little fruit as well.  A great beer!

North Coast Brewing Co’s Old Stock Ale:  This was actually the oldest aged beer in the line-up at 18 months.  With that being said, it really surprised me with how fresh and lively it was.  It didn’t have as much of the heavy, dense, over the top bourbon flavor I was expecting.  The carbonation really helped this one.

Mikkeller Barrel Aged Barley Wine:  I really haven’t liked much from this brewer from Denmark.  This one is definitely not for the feint hearted.  Barley wine aged in bourbon barrels.  Big alcohol and super sweet, dense flavors.  There was some oak char and was really boozy.  Not a bad beer at all.

FiftyFifty Eclipse Imperial Stout Aged in Evan Williams Cask:  Getting into the really heavy stuff now: imperial stouts.  The bourbon was fairly subtle and not over powering.  Nutty, vanilla, roasted notes and oak char with a little back end bite.

FiftyFifty Eclipse Imperial Stout Aged in Four Roses Cask:  Creamy, less vanilla then the Evan Williams cask, more pepper and spice, not too sweet, chili flake chocolate, a little astringent.

FiftyFifty Eclipse Imperial Stout Aged in Heaven Hill Rye Cask: This one had similar rich flavors as the other two, but what stood out for me was some of the spiciness at the back of the palate.  Really interesting stuff.

Port Brewing’s Santa’s Little Helper:  Super sweet nose, caramel, molasses, brown sugar.  Really boozy as well.  This is an over the top bourbon aged beer!

North Coast Brewing Co’s Old Rasputin XII:  Sweet, but not overly sweet, lush, chocolate, some toasted notes, vanilla, the carbonation is perfect for me as it helps clean the palate out.  This one was the winner for me of the night.  Time to stock up!


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Beer Week Takes its Toll

Frankly, this article was supposed to be written and published a day or two ago.  The events that the article chronicle were a little too fun, however, and the Robert Burns plan went agley (as they oft do).  As some of you might be aware, the San Francisco/Bay Area is currently in the throes of Beer Week.  Beer Week features a variety of special brews, more than a few of which are noted for being strong.  I, to put it mildly, enjoy strong beer.  I, to put it slightly less mildly, found this week-end really enjoyable.

Things kicked off with the 11th Annual Double IPA Festival at the Bistro in Hayward.  This is one of my preferred festivals and I look forward to it year-round.  The beers start pouring at 11:00 AM and I like to sample beer as the classic voting protocol dictates: early and often.  With 58 beers on tap, there is ample opportunity to sample.  I barely made it to the 11:00 AM start after being stuck a-train-station away due to a little police activity somewhere on the BART line.  I hadn’t planned on spending the beginning of the festival on a train platform with a disparate group of increasingly agitated beer aficionados.  Thankfully only 10 minutes were blown in this fashion and while they were a length ten minutes, they were up by 10:50.  An excellent spread of beers quickly cleansed me of the experience, in any event.  Imbibed from under the bower of a shading tree and in the company of good people who had had the foresight to get there early enough to reserve a few extra seats, I savored my double IPA.  Sierra Nevada’s Hoptimum, Firestone Walker’s Double Jack, Lagunitas’ SF Fusion, and Midnight Sun’s Cohoho Imperial IPA stood out.  Perhaps Kern River’s Citra DIPA stood out just a little bit more.   And if the hordes of afternoon drinkers slowed the pours down, I am not one to complain.  The pours were better (read “to the rim”) than years past, the weather was clement, I was viewing the sky and sun from the safety of the shade, and the myriad of bitter and citrus notes I adore abounded.

And then I was off to It Came From the Wood Barrel Aged Beer Night at the Jug Shop in San Francisco.  Revitalized by near-daily curry transfusion, I scored some space at the counter.  Considering that many revelers were reduced to drinking in the aisles, I was pleased.  The line-up involved 12 barrel aged beers poured from the bottle and it did not disappoint. Among the contenders were The Lost Abbey’s Angel’s Share (brandy), Firestone Walker’s 14, North Coast’s Old Stock 2009 and Rasputin 12, and three flavors of FiftyFifty’s Eclipse (Evan Williams Bourbon, Four Roses Bourbon, and Heaven Hill Rye barrels).  I confess to have gotten a bit antsy while waiting for the next in the queue to open.  Still, any residual impatience was eventually quelled by the last leg of the tour with the Rasputin 12, which, in addition to being yummy in an insidiously satisfying way, gets that balance of stout, bourbon, and sugar just Goldie-Locks-right. Each intense in their own right, but never dominating the palate.  A formidable line-up well-presented and tended by Eric Cripes of the Jug Shop.

And then it was Sunday.  It hadn’t been twenty-four hours since the beginning of the double IPA festival and I was lined up and ready to partake of the greatly anticipated barrel aged and sour beer festival at Triple Rock and Jupiter in Berkeley.  Ended up standing in an increasingly long line with the sun beating down on my baseball cap.  Except I hadn’t brought it so my baseball cap was the beer list from the double IPA festival.  While it got a late start, spirits appeared generally good and were buoyed in particular by a short, explicative-laden political debate between one of the revelers and a passing bicyclist.  Again scored some good seating thanks to people with better timing than myself.  The beer list was somewhat cryptic and included some pages upside down (best navigated when sober, which wasn’t exactly the case ) and there were serious tap issues for the first few hours.  Once all was straightened out, though, it was an unqualified blast.  A tasty variety of flavors from bottles to taps, from the shockingly sour to the bawdy and boozy (and those are good things in my book).  Lots of experimentation, something I love about this festival… envelope and taste bud pushing.  I would love to deliver more coherent notes on the contenders but you will have to be left with all I still possess, the vague, gestalt expression of a beer festival that should not be missed.  And they have given out my favorite glass two years running. -Nate


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Beer of the Rising Sun

The Jug Shop put on an impromptu Japanese bottled beer tasting last week.  While the notice was short … very short … I still found a way to show up first (not without a little help from a friend).  With so many exciting and potent beer-related events just around the corner this turned out to be a pleasant way to get into the swing of things.  And I don’t get a lot of opportunities to try Japanese microbrew beers because I tend to spend my money on reliably devastating stouts, double IPAs, and all manner of barrel-aged beast.  So a hefty flight of Japanese beers all in one place seemed like a rare opportunity.  And, yes, I felt like a drink or eight.  The tasting covered the three better-known (read actually imported) microbrewers of Japan: Hitachino, Baird, and Ise Kadoya.  All contributed some respectable flavors to the tasting but there were a few stand-outs.  Hitachino’s White Ale, easily the most accessible of Japanese microbrew beers, showed why its distribution is quite far flung: the beer tastes good.  A honied hue suited its classic, light Belgian style.  Refreshing and delicately flavored, the beer had presence and you didn’t need to sacrifice the majority of your taste buds to appreciate.  Ise Kadoya had two I worked in room for some extra pours.  First was the Genmai Ale.  This ale has some roasted brown rice thrown into the mix and it works.  The orange/amber beer takes on a pleasantly roasted note that enhances-but-does-not-detract from the overall malty, pale ale profile.  Ise Kadoya’s other stand-out was their IPA.  A solid amber, this seasonal release started out with a lightly sweet maltiness that opened up onto a lusher, barleywine-like brew.  The bitterness of the hops was mellowed in the bottle and this played to the strength of a satisfying beer with curious hints of sugared hops and fermented rice.  If I had to pick one out of the line-up this is the beer, I would have settled into for the evening (but the night was young and there were places to be).

Eric Cripe’s captaining of the tasting was reliably solid and educational (I had no idea microbrewing had been illegal in Japan up until the late ’80s).  A little non sequitur, but he tipped his hand about the contents of a few of February’s events and let it suffice to say that I am looking forward to spending a little more time at the Jug Shop in the near future.

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Scarface makes the jump from screen legend to beer…

Dropped into City Beer and, what a surprise, another special release was on tap. Coincidence? I think not. Ok, so maybe I got a heads-up… but I probably would have ended up there anyway. Speakeasy’s special edition stout, Scarface was pouring. Speakeasy can brew up some good beers and I drink a fair share of their Hunter’s Point Porter. Scarface, however, I would say is their best expression. A solid, traditional stout with Speakeasy’s no-nonsense flavor profile. Roasted malts – dark and satisfying – and not a gimmick in sight. And then the special edition was tapped for all’s drinking pleasure. This was what the doctor order…and daddy needed his medicine. Dark black. Very dark… bordering on pitch-dark. Dense bourbon in the nose but not all at once… something held the spirit in check so as not to be overpowering. Enough olfactory foreplay. The body was roasted with chocolate, and coffee/caramel. Roasted… and smoothly tied together. The whole thing ended on a satisfying stout palate of dark and simple hues. A respectable melee of flavors… front-loaded with bourbon but conquered by stout.

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Stone Brewing’s Arrogant Bastard kicked-off my on-going love-affair with beer and mircrobrews in particular.  I had enjoyed a fair share of decent beers prior to stumbling upon Arrogant Bastard but nothing had really stood out.  Then, while perusing the beer selection in a liquor store one day I saw a bottle with the caricature of a gargoyle on it.  I thought it looked cool, even a little bad-ass.  And the name was comfortably over the top.  I noticed the now-signature text on the back of the bottle and read.  The text was a balance of decidedly arrogant and erudite posturing.  Obviously a lure, but it was a lure I could relate to so I bought the beer, drank the beer, and really enjoyed the beer.  I found that my growing contempt for run-off-the-mill beers put me in good company.  Or agreeable company, anyway.  I spent the next decade as an unpaid and unrecognized advocate of Stone’s endeavors.  I unveiled one of those massive magnums of the oaked edition of the Bastard at a New Year’s party I hosted.  Stone’s Imperial Stout played a part in developing my appreciation for stouts in general… and potent ones in particular.

But enough background… my relationship with stone could fill volumes, not to mention several recycling receptacles, but I am writing this increasingly wordy review simply to address Stone Brewing’s latest release: Lucky Bastard.  No surprise, I really liked the label the moment I saw it.  I didn’t even  know what the beer was supposed to be, but like my initial Stone experience, the label was enough to hook me.  Where I landed the bottle, City Beer, happened to have it on tap… so I was already feeling lucky, but was I worthy?

The beer was a copper and slightly foggy auburn with creamy, dark and pleasantly sour hops somewhere in the nose.  The first sip was a big sip… I couldn’t see any reason in beating around the bush (and the tap was excellent, more like half-cask).  An initially light mouthfeel quickly gave way to a dense savory cream/oak  with late-blooming hops that lingered vegetatively with fleeting bitterness.  The overall palate was solid, bold and a little edgy, which I expected.  I found the oak notes integrated particularly well, producing a more difficult to parse, and therefore more intriguing, flavor.  This wasn’t muddled, it was well-knit… not an easy task for a beer with a reputation for an obstreperous and magniloquent approach to beer. Tasty.

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