Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Session: Independence Day Two-Fer

[Note: We have been remiss in contributing to The Session for a while, so I decided to throw one out there regarding two decidedly un-summer beers I had on the 4th of July.]

I spent the 4th of July with a fellow beergeek by the name of Bruce. In the course of the weekend, he introduced me to two beers to which I had not previously been exposed. (Naturally, we were not confined to only two beers for the day, but two really stood out.) One of these beers was a tremendously nice surprise, the other was a crushing disappointment.

Early on in the day, Bruce forced me to down a beer that he had been trying to convince me to have for months: Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine. It's not exactly barleywine season, but it really didn't matter with this beer.

First, let's see what the folks at Sierra Nevada themselves have to say about this beer (courtesy of

Gold Medal Winner, Great American Beer Festival (Ales: Brown, Bitter and Pale 1987, Barleywine 1988,1992,1995). Sierra Nevada Bigfoot is an award winning example of the English Barley Wine style. It boasts a dense, fruity bouquet; an extremely rich, intense, bittersweet palate; and a deep, reddish-brown color. This ale is superbly balanced between an almost overpowering maltiness and a wonderfully bittersweet hoppiness.
Bigfoot is a strong beer, to be sure. It's got all the usual trappings of a barleywine: it's thick (the color of mahogany, in case you were wondering), it's got a major alcohol aroma and flavor, a hard liquor-like burn on the way down and a juice-like thickness. But to me, what sets Bigfoot apart are (and if you know me I'll bet you could have guessed this) the hops.

Where most barleywines are content throwing a bunch of burnt malts and alcohol percentages at you, Sierra -- as they always do -- makes an overture toward those of us who need balance in our beers. The hops make this beer, and they make it one of my new favorite barleywines (Brooklyn Monster Ale, you've got company).

There is a major citrus and grapefruit quality to this beer that I found not only surprising but necessary. The beer has a very high alcohol content (just a smidge below 10%) and strong liqueur and malt flavors. But the hops, while adding a bitter respite, also add a needed sweetness that takes the edge off. It makes a man thankful that the United States expanded to the west coast to get dibs on those wonderful hops. I don't think I could have more than one in a row of this one, but the one to be had is outstanding.

After spending the rest of the day sampling various other offerings (including some nice choices like Wychwood Hobgoblin, Victory Whirlwind and Erie Brewing's Mad Anthony, among others), the time was nigh to get ready to go to sleep. For most sane people, beers at the end of the night are mild and easy to drink, so as to send one off to bed with a pleasant memory.

Of course, my friend Bruce is not at all sane, so he decided -- after midnight, mind you -- to break out the Samuel Adams Triple Bock. I had seen this beer, with its strange rubber-looking cork and 8-ounce bottle but never thought much of it. I have been drinking a few bocks lately but had never really been too familiar with this particular beer.

Again, let's have the fine folks at Sam Adams tell you what they think:
Triple Bock is complex, elegant, and has the depth and complexity of a fine cognac, vintage port or an old sherry. Non-carbonated, ruby-black, and very special, Triple Bock should be sipped from a small snifter in a two-ounce serving. This is a beer to savor, and sip slowly. Triple Bock has a brandy-like warmth and a complex melange of fruity, woody, and toffee-like flavors. Let the aroma fill your mouth and nose with rich malt and fruit overtones. Savor and appreciate its enormous character. Serve Triple Bock as you would a fine sherry, at room temperature, in a small snifter. One bottle generously serves two or three. Recork and store standing up. Once poured into a small glass, the layers of aroma and flavor will continue to evolve as the deep ruby brew warms in the hand.
Before I tell you what I think, let me tell you a few things I read about Sam Adams Triple Bock after the fact:
  • It is considered by some to be one of the first "extreme" beers.
  • It's one of the 25 strongest beers by ABV in the world, at 17.5%.
  • It was brewed in only three batches, in 1994, 1995 and 1997.
  • It's one of the most controversial beers on

Okay, so what could be a better idea than cracking open this baby at quarter-to-one to ease into sleepytime land? Nothing, that's what. The beers were poured into two 4-ounce tester glasses, which was perfect for two servings. I noticed a couple of things.

First off, there was no head; apparently this beer is not carbonated at all. The look of it is black as midnight. It was very clear that this beer is deep, murky and thick. It is completely pitch black, as if someone poured roofing tar into a sippy-cup.

The smell is what shocked me. There is a scene in the film Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, where Brian Fontana wears a cologne called Sex Panther. Ron Burgundy eventually tells him, "I'm gonna level with you, that smells like pure gasoline." Had this beer come out after 2004, it may well have been renamed Sex Panther. Never have I taken a whiff of a beer that actually dared me to take a sip of it. I don't drink liquor because I don't like the harshness of the flavor. (Any beverage where you have to wince after you have you have a 2-ounce shot of it is not for me.) But this smelled like brandy or bourbon or whiskey. A lot of reviews say it smells like a port, so I'll take their word for that.

But there is one common trait that this beer has in both smell and taste, and it's been noticed by beer drinkers throughout the nation: Soy sauce.

The taste of alcoholic soy sauce permeates every sip, as does some hints of dark raisin and burnt fruit. It's not a pleasurable combination to my taste buds. I know that I'm probably supposed to like this, and admitting that it's not for me, is going to make me look like a bit of a pansy, but my taste buds don't like what they don't like. I hated it. If I had to describe it in one sentence, I would say the following: It's like drinking soy sauce mixed with blood.

One note: about a year ago I reviewed the Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA, and while I didn't really care for it, I was able to sort of appreciate where it was coming from, and why it existed. My taste buds didn't enjoy the complexities of that brew, but it did understand them. I cannot say the same for Sam Adams Triple Bock; it does not seem to me to have many complexities, but rather a "everything but the kitchen sink" ethos. I just can't pretend this beer is good to me.

The epilogue is that Bruce and I had considered going halfsies (or thirdsies or fourthsies or however many people we could get on board) on a $170 kettle of Sam Adams Utopia, the most alcoholic beer in the world. But after having this concoction, I can't see shelling out that much money for a beer, even if just to say I've had it. Nothing against Sam Adams -- and I'm sure Jim Koch could care less what I think, since he has said that he's sold every kettle of Utopia that he's produced -- but that Utopia plan has since been scrapped. (I am a frequent drinker of Sam Adams products, by the way, so this in no way a criticism of the brewery as a whole.)

Not that I need to mention this, but these are strictly my own opinions. Feel free to agree or disagree and leave a comment if you'd like. Am I brave for having the courage to admit I didn't like something that beer geeks everywhere should enjoy? Or was that bad smell I detected simply my own head being wedged where the sun don't shine?


Bojangles said...

God I miss you.

Bill said...

Right back atcha, JB.

vgrid said...

Utopias is nothing like the Triple Bock. I was afraid they'd be similar, but Utopias has absolutely none of the soy sauce characteristics of the Triple.

Triple bock is actually ok on top of rice or other Chinese food.


Bill said...

Thanks for the insight about Utopias, V. The more I read about Utopias, the more I'm tending to rethink my extreme beer moratorium. And I can imagine that the beer might be okay poured on food, but I wouldn't drink soy sauce right out of the bottle.