Beer: Mikkeller “Six Pack” Direct From Denmark

crookedmoonI’m smitten with the beers of Mikkeller, a so-called “gypsy” brewer based in Denmark. Though my enjoyment rate is somewhere around 75% when it comes to the actual flavor of the beers, it’s hard not to flip completely for a brewer doing so many wild and different things with so many ingredients. Naturally, not all of the beers, which are brewed at various sites (hence the unofficial “gypsy” designation), make it to the USA. So I was overjoyed when a family friend arrived from Denmark, and equally stoked to receive six Mikkeller beers, only one of which I’ve ever seen around home.

Crooked Moon Tattoo (Double IPA) – I love it when the world’s best brewers take a big swing at something simple, and this DIPA fits the description. What better way to get to know a brewer than through this style? Gargantuan amounts of hops will greet you, and even if your palate has grown more tolerant of hop flavors, you won’t miss the in-your-face tropical fruit and pine notes.

spontanaleJonge Spontanale Four Month (Lambic) – One of the most fascinating things about Mikkeller is the lineage of the beers. It doesn’t get more interesting to hardcore beer geeks than to read about, for example, this lambic: “First released draft as 2 months old at Copenhagen Beer Celebration 2012. Later released carbonated at 4 months old.” The story adds flavor, even to a beverage as funky as this one. Sour grapes in particular, along with yeasty funk and a broader vibe of sour fruit dominate.

Spontankriek (Cherry Lambic) – Lambic is not my favorite style, and I doubt I’d return to any variety that I tried. But I’ll always remember this one and how it provided the feeling of biting directly into a wild, dark, ripe, firm cherry. It has a bit of the same funky presence as the Jonge, so it is hard not to draw comparisons between them. The slightest hint – and I mean very slight – of sweetness peeks though the tartness and carbonation, distinguishing the flavor. The color is incredible.

mexasMexas Ranger Tequila Edition (Chile Beer) – Adventurous drinkers may not blink at the mention of beer brewed with chiles anymore, but Mexas Ranger is bound to become a memorable name nonetheless. This is my favorite chile beer out of the six or so I’ve sampled. I wasn’t a fan of the Texas Ranger (a chipotle porter), so I was skeptical. But the tequila aging rounds out the spices so nicely, the slight twinge of heat becomes a welcome sensation instead of a hindrance. Chocolate and herbiness in the back make this a complex and unforgettable beer.

Piscator (Sour/Wild Ale) – Brewed as a tribute to Danish fishermen and meant to be paired with fish, this beautifully carbonated, remarkably amber beer introduces itself with a massive head and an aroma of banana and spice. An undeniable flourish of alcohol pokes through Belgian elements like brett, sour funk, caramelized sugar, and dark fruit.

nelsonNelson-Sauvignon (Biere de Champagne) – Another Mikkeller brew with a dazzling appearance, this impossibly amber beer is fermented with ale yeast and the ever-popular brett yeast, then aged in white wine barrels for three months. Nelson hops add flavor, and drinking this 750 ml bottle was an experience. At first, it’s like champagne – bubbly and fruity, followed by dry. Then, a hint of yeasty funk creeps through, and as the beer warms the hops begin to assert themselves. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience.

The gospel of Mikkeller seems to be spreading, with global expansion in the works for Mikkel and his brother. Get your hands on a few of these outrageous creations and you’ll be converted as well.

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The One In My Hand: Olde Hickory B’s Nuts

The label on bottles of B’s Nuts might lead you to believe that there’s something not quite right about Brian Pesci, who won Olde Hickory’s 3rd Annual Pro-Am brewing standoff with this beer. It’s true, for all I know. But there’s nothing wrong with his work, that’s for sure. In homage to his outstanding English Brown Ale brewed with many, many pecans, the brewery decided to make it themselves as a limited release. I scored mine at Carrboro Beverage Company. Slightly translucent and boldly brown, like deep south river water, B’s Nuts hits your nose with a sweet, sugary nuttiness. The creaminess of the mouthfeel carries the flavor of molasses, caramel, brown sugar, and the faintest bitterness. There’s a woody essence to the smell and taste as well. This is highly drinkable, if a bit sticky, and you shouldn’t hesitate to grab any bottles that linger on the shelves around the Triangle area.

The One in My Hand: Bell’s Hopslam

Hopslam.  It has become the beer to have when you can get it, and since most everyone seems to want it, most folks will have to jump through some sort of minor hoop to get some.  In the interest of keeping their ballyhooed Imperial IPA as fresh as possible, Bell’s Brewery releases the honeyed nectar just once a year and in limited quantities.  It is quite an amazing beer, but I don’t think the experience of drinking it would be quite so special if it was always around.  The scarcity stokes appreciation when the beer is finally in your glass.  The color is like a clearer version of the honey used within, a muted golden orange.  One could imagine that the aroma is the product of a tropical fruit grove growing larger and larger in the middle of a pine forest.  The viscosity of the liquid is like soapy water, and the beer itself, not the head, has a nifty way of coating the glass in a honey-like sheen.  The bottle warns of blasting bitterness, but the taste is quite the opposite.  The bitterness emerges gradually, growing on the palate with each sip, arriving exponentially like subsequent bites of grapefruit.  Honey isn’t markedly present in the smell or taste, but its presence is detected in the balanced nature of the beer.  It smooths out the hops and folds the fruit and resin notes into nothing less than a world-class flavor profile.  It’s absolutely worth seeking out, but at 10% alcohol, you should save and savor this beer.

The One in My Hand: Captain Lawrence Imperial IPA

Rather than kid myself into thinking I can really schedule a weekly beer review, I’m going to start this frequently occasional beer post about whatever I’ve got in my hand at the time I’m able to write a review.

This time, I’ve just poured a Captain Lawrence Brewing Company Captain’s Reserve Imperial India Pale Ale.  And, now I’m finished!  Seriously, despite the long name, it’s a pretty simple brew.  I acquired this bottle during a recent trip to NYC.  It pours a bit more pale and clear than some DIPA’s, with a sunny orange-yellow hue.  The head is robust and capable of seriously sweet lacing at first.  A slight must in the aroma is offset by a clear zip of fruit and hops.  The mouthfeel is pretty standard for an Imperial IPA, but the taste is not.  It’s somewhat astringent and bitter, not at all reminiscent of the tropical fruit on the nose.  Alcohol is very prevalent in the aroma and flavor.  This beer is not the sense-shaker that most DIPA’s are.  It’s not a surprise to me that there were cases and cases of this at the Bowery Whole Foods, given the availability of many more remarkable versions of the style.  This one is pretty average.

New Year’s Stout Summit

Stout lovers are never restricted by weather when it comes to enjoying their favorite versions of the style, but few would argue that Winter is the finest time to crack open a big, black monster beer and savor it slowly.  Stouts are my favorite style, so I thought I’d gather some and see how they stack up against one another.

There’s not much color comparison, obviously.  Slight variations in the hue of the head exist, but these stouts are black, black, and black, with minute variations when held directly to light.  Conversely, the robust constitution and strong yet malleable flavor of most stouts make them particularly accommodating to strange ingredients.  There’s a wild side to this traditional beer, and brewers have tried just about everything to set their special stouts apart from the crowd.  Perhaps no bottles provide more interesting reading than Mikkeller’s, a “gypsy” brewery out of Denmark.  Aside from a specialized pub, the brewer has no brewery, completing his experiments at various other breweries.  That fact, coupled with their unrelentingly interesting beers, gives the product a certain mystique.  Who could resist the call of their barrel-aged Black Hole, a Russian Imperial Stout done up with all manner of flavors?  I tried the version made with coffee, vanilla and honey and aged in tequila barrels.  Firstly, it’s almost too beautiful to drink.  A grand mocha colored head leaves exquisite lacing behind, and the aroma is as complex as one could want.  When I finally got around to drinking it, words actually failed me.  The tequila finish is bolder than I expected, and by the time I was done contemplating the maze of flavors in the initial taste, the tequila took over.  There’s dark fruit, a silken texture, and a befuddling interplay of coffee, vanilla, honey and tequila that simply must be tasted to be understood.

Coffee is a common flavor in stouts, and there are a ton of great bean-forward examples to be had.  American breweries have mastered the style in a variety of ways. Even Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams to you and me) has gotten in on the growing style, releasing their Black and Brew as part of their mixed winter pack.  It’s a good one, but it can’t match the outright deliciousness of Founder’s Breakfast Stout or Terrapin Coffee Oatmeal Imperial Stout (also known as Wake and Bake).  Those beers sit at the head of the coffee stout table with good reason.  In both instances, the coffee flavor is warmer and richer and the overall taste more complex than that of the Black and Brew.

Imperial Stouts are a prized possession for many beer lovers, and the abundance of easily obtainable, quality versions has been a blessing.  Brooklyn Brewery Black Chocolate Stout is one of the most well-regarded and widely available imperial stouts, and it has been known to go on sale for as little as $5.99 per four-pack.  At 10 percent alcohol, and with a viscous feel and indulgent flavor of chocolate, molasses, and alcohol-soaked dark fruit, it’s the perfect companion to a chilly night and a bargain even at full retail.  The high alcohol content of Imperial Stout makes it perfect for aging, and a couple of years can work wonders for smoothness.  Terrapin released The Dark Side Belgian Style Imperial Stout in 2009, and I found it drank nicely two years on.  Rather than alcohol, the taste is of roasted coffee and tart dark fruit with a yeasty Belgian zing and a warm finish of chocolate liqueur.  I’ve never been a fan of Rogue Ales, but when they released bottles of their 2008 XS Imperial Stout a couple of years ago, I had to pick one up.  I held on to the imposing porcelain bottle for nearly two years before opening, and I was rewarded not with a complex aged beer but an average, somewhat chalky stout.  I don’t think any more Rogue products will be found in my fridge any time soon.

For those who crave a more traditional stout, the options are practically limitless.  If regular ‘ol Guinness isn’t adventurous enough for you, step up to their Foreign Extra Stout, which offers not only more alcohol but a hoppier overall experience while still retaining a nice creaminess.  The canned Butternuts Moo Thunder Stout is one of the most drinkable stouts around, with a creamy consistency and subtle roasty notes in front of a bitter flourish.  Wild Onion Brewing, out of Illinois, makes a fairly average canned stout simply called Jack Stout.  There’s a smoky aspect that keeps it interesting, but nothing overtly remarkable.  For a stellar example of an oatmeal stout, one can do no better than St-Ambroise Oatmeal Stout by McAuslan Brewing out of Quebec.  For the style, it is perfection, hitting all of the familiar chocolaty, roasty stops along the way to a fine beer.  Ipswich Oatmeal Stout by Mercury Brewing takes a more balanced approach, cutting out some of the roasted quality but perhaps landing even closer to a perfect style representation.  In the same vein, Sprecher’s Irish Dry Stout is a flawless representation of a timeless style.  This Wisconsin brewery knows how to set itself apart, and not just with their solid beer lineup and amazing sodas –  they bottle in 16 ounce bottles as well.

North Carolina’s capable breweries are no longer ignoring the style, and right now Duck Rabbit Milk Stout and Foothills Sexual Chocolate are the clear torchbearers for stouts in our state.  Olde Hickory Brewing has also inspired nationwide interest with their line of stouts, including the fantastic everyday drinker Hickory Stick Stout and the prized Event Horizon, which is aged in bourbon barrels (look for my report on all four of Olde Hickory’s 2011 stouts soon). Pisgah Brewing’s stouts, like Valdez and Nitro Stout, are arguably the strongest part of their lineup, though they’re nearly impossible to find in bottles, even near the brewery.  I’d like for Roth’s Dark Construct Sweet Stout to be better, but after many tries on tap and one bottle purchase, I’ve yet to be significantly impressed, and the widely available Highland Black Mocha Stout is consistently average.  Of recent and very disappointing note is the limited release of Kind Beers Coffee Oatmeal Stout, contract brewed at Thomas Creek.  If you can get to the beer, which is guarded by a beastly synthetic cork and heavy duty caging, the smell will turn you on.  Overall, though, it’s “kind” of a letdown, thin-bodied and unremarkable.

A Bunch of Beers of Christmas Compared

Playing the seasonal beer game can be a daunting and pricey proposition.  Holiday beers are as pervasive and unpredictable as Christmas music.  Choosing one that you and your comrades will enjoy can be as difficult as rigging up the lights.  I gathered a few of these beers, adhering only to the policy that the beer must explicitly champion Christmas, or “the holidays” in some way on the packaging.

The definition of a “holiday” beer has certainly expanded.  Hoppy offerings are now just as plentiful as winter warmers and spiced ales.  It’s well known that Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale is not to be missed, year in and out, and the relentlessly hoppy and fruity Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Ale by Lagunitas Brewing Company has rightfully created quite a buzz in its first year.  But there’s adventure to be had as well.  Full Sail Brewing Company even went so far as to merge styles.  Their Wreck The Halls IPA merges the brisk bitterness of Centennial hops with plenty of robust malt, making for a war between citrusy hops and the sweet breadiness of a winter warmer.  Everyone wins in this case.  The aroma is an undefinable mix of citrus and bread, while the taste balances malty alcohol warmth with bright hops and low carbonation.  It’s a smooth sip fit for Santa.  From Brouwerij De Ranke in Wevelgem, Belgium comes the “Hoppy Christmas Ale” Pere Noel, named for a legendary French gift-giver.  Hop aroma leaps out of the bottle, but upon pouring, the smell transforms into sweet, funky and yeasty.  The taste is remarkably subtle, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.  I was hoping for some funk and a big hop flourish, but everything about this beer is sort of muted.  Alcohol and bitterness come across, but not much else.  There’s nothing muted about Ridgeway Brewing’s Reindeer Droppings, which has the hoppiest finish of them all and a superbly fruity presence from scent to sip.

The country of Belgium is certainly not to be ignored in the holiday beer conversation.  There are some truly exquisite offerings to be had, and the strong dark ale Gouden Carolus Noel by Brouwerij Het Anker may be the most beautiful of them all.  But the taste can’t stand up to something as delectable as St. Bernardus Christmas Ale, which I consider to be the best Belgian holiday beer I’ve had.  Bush de Noel from Brasserie Dubuisson Freres is also a strong, dark ale seen in the United States as Scaldis Noel.  Most beer lovers are familiar with the glittering blue foil wrapper that adorns the 8.5 ounce bottles, which are pricey but wholly worth it.  This is a beer to be savored, to stand on its own as an experience or as an indulgent nightcap.  The smell is full of typical Belgian elements – bubblegum, banana, alcohol – with an extra layer of nutty spice.  The mouthfeel and carbonation are perfect, and a warming alcohol rush announces the beer’s 12% ABV with gusto.  It is quickly replaced by a sugary, candied fruit taste that produces a brief moment of delectable cinnamon sweetness followed by a warm, spicy, boozy finish.  Lost Abbey’s Gift of the Magi is an American-made Biere de Garde produced with Belgium firmly in mind, but it is too sweet and laden with alcohol taste, falling well short of the examples named above.  The Bruery’s 4 Calling Birds is a better result of an American brewery gone Belgian.  It’s strong, dark, and delicious – a dangerous combination.  it’s as drinkable as any high alcohol beer I’ve encountered.  The alcohol warmth is countered by a thick sweetness.  It’s not syrupy, but maple and molasses definitely come to mind among a fantastic forest of flavors like cinnamon, cherry, chocolate, and sweet bread.

Among the many UK, Belgium, and Belgian-influenced offerings, the U.S. certainly has its own cache of diverse holiday beers.  Abita Brewing Company changes the recipe for their Christmas Ale every year.  The 2011 edition was my first experience with the beer, so I can’t compare past versions.  It’s a fairly thick brown ale that comes across as a porter in some ways.  Coffee is present in every aspect of this beer, and it doesn’t really strike me as a Christmas Ale in that respect, but that is the brewery’s take on the style and that’s fine.  It’s a pretty involved beer with many nuances to consider.  By contrast, I found Goose Island Christmas Ale 2011, which is also slightly different each year, to be somewhat heavy, sweet and bitter all at once.  All of Goose Island’s beers do better with a little time on them, and I bet Christmas Ale would benefit at least a little.  As it is, having recently returned to shelves after a brief hiatus, it’s a fairly standard brown ale with the requisite ambiance of caramel, brown sugar, raisin, and vanilla, but with an unpleasant finish.  Shiner Holiday Cheer is similar, though fruitier and perhaps too sweet.  Even sweeter but better balanced is New Belgium Brewing’s Frambozen, which borders on lambic due to its tartness, carbonation, and mouthfeel.  Deep within the beer’s world of raspberry lies a coy sweetness that is quite enjoyable to seek out as the beer warms.  Great Lakes Christmas Ale is one of the more balanced examples of the style, and Olde Hickory Christmas Ale brings to mind the bready spice of a Christmas cookie.

Some of these beers might outrank other that weren’t part of this group, but here’s how I’d rank this random selection of beers on taste preference alone:

1.  St. Bernardus Christmas Ale
2.  Full Sail Wreck the Halls IPA
3.  Brasserie Dubuisson Freres Scaldis Noel
4.  The Bruery 4 Calling Birds
5.  Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale
6.  Brouwerij Het Anker Gouden Carolus Noel
7.  Lagunitas Brewing Company Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Ale
8.  Ridgeway Brewing Reindeer Droppings
9.  Olde Hickory Christmas Ale
10. Great Lakes Christmas Ale
11. New Belgium Frambozen
12. Lost Abbey Gift of the Magi
13. Abita Christmas Ale 2011
14. Shiner Holiday Cheer
15. Goose Island Christmas Ale
16. Brouwerij De Ranke Pere Noel

Goose Island Sofie Showdown

Goose Island Beer Company’s Sofie is, in my experience, one of the most loved niche beers in the midwest.  I’ve seen it flow freely at Chicago weddings, fly off the shelves at Twin Cities stores, and even make a dedicated beer drinker out of a hardcore wine snob.  Sofie, like many Goose Island beers, sports a proposition on the label that encourages the owner to allow the beer to develop in the bottle for up to 5 years.  I’m rarely able to let things hang around for that long, so it was a stroke of luck to find a couple of different vintages of Sofie during a recent Chicago trip.  The earlier edition, bottled on December 12, 2009, came from the often gem-filled shelves of Sal’s Beverage World in Rolling Meadows, and the recently bottled (August 3, 2011) 2011 iteration was found at the venerable West Lakeview Liquors in the Northcenter neighborhood.

I started with the 2011 version, hoping to get a better base upon which to discover the variations in the older beer.  Poured into a tulip glass, the beer is gloriously carbonated, with a vibrant white head and clear countenance that presents shades of gold and apple green.  In reading the beer’s malt profile, one can clearly taste the influence of both Pilsner and Wheat, right in line with the crisp flavor and fruity tartness that bring champagne to mind.  There’s a dry fruitiness imparted by the wine barrel aging as well.  I’ve always found the fresh version of Sofie to be a complex but widely accepted brew – crisp and powerful yet lush and perfectly balanced, as ready for a toast as any champagne.

The late 2009 edition poured a much cloudier, pale gold with deeper hues than the fresh version, though the head was practically identical.  The smell seemed markedly fruitier and the taste and mouthfeel were more akin to a traditional Belgian Ale than the dry, champagne-like experience of the 2011 vintage.  The dominant flavor is deeply fruity and less tart, and the overall experience is smoother and much more robust.  The carbonation is tamed ever so slightly and the finish is much longer, making for a truly exquisite sip.  I was amazed at the difference just two years made in the entire profile of Sofie.  Count me among the converted when it comes to bottle-conditioned ales and the possibilities offered by a little patience on part of brewer and drinker.