Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Beer O' the Moment: Middle Ages XIII Anniversary

Around these parts, we are enormous fans of Middle Ages Brewing, an absolute local treasure located at 120 Wilkinson Street in Syracuse, NY. For thirteen years, the brewery has been English-style ales (and no lagers) to the region. Most of their beers having a very distinct ringwood yeast flavor.

Since their tenth year, they have been releasing "Anniversary" ales around this time. Their first of this series, the Tenth Anniversary -- now known as "Middle Ages Double India Pale Ale," but known as "The X" to my friends and me -- is a triumph of intense bitter hops and thick English malts. The Eleventh Anniversary, a double wheat, was not quite as successful commercially, but a fine, thick beverage nonetheless.

The Twelfth Anniversary is an outstanding, roasted porter with mocha and caramel notes that goes down almost in an almost unfairly smooth manner. And this year, they unveiled the Thirteenth Anniversary, which they bill as an Imperial Wheat. At 9.5%, it's certainly got some pop.

I have mixed feelings on this particular offering. First of all, what is it? It's not that I need every beer I drink to be precisely defined, but I do like to know what I'm getting into. The Beer's creators call it an imperial wheat. Beeradvocate calls it a "Herbed / Spiced beer." To me, it feels like an incredibly thick hefeweizen.

First let's discuss both the look and the beer's thickness. It's very very thick looking. Cloudy as all get-out, and dark orange, like a thick apple cider. Any head that was there disappears almost immediately, and it leaves no trace of its existence on the glass.

The feel of the beer is no small matter. I had this out of a half-growler. (Having had the sample at the Middle Ages tasting room, I wasn't so sure I could finish a full jug.) The beer is very thick and milky like a hefeweizen, but it also has some fizzy and bubbly qualities, like a typical Belgian ale. The issue here, however, is the beer's staying power. Hefeweizens are a dicey lot to begin with, since they can range from fresh and banana-y to overly thick and swampy.

I had good luck with this one. Since it is relatively fresh and not much-traveled, I was able to finish the entire 32 ounces with little incident or change to the viscosity of the beer itself. However, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that a friend of mine who bought the beer at the same time at me reported a bad turn of the beer into a syrupy, sap-like texture, which doesn't lend itself well to the beer. Take that for whatever it's worth.

As for the aroma, the banana/clove smell that we all associated with hefeweizens are all there. There is, however, a citrusy fragrance as well and the wheat comes out in a later sniff. The scent would tend to indicate a half-hef, half-wit concoction. (By that I mean half-witbier, not half-witted attempt at beermaking; the Middle Ages folks are as good as it gets.) But there is also a certain pungence to the smell. It's not bad, but it's tenuous.

The taste is where we get down to brass tacks: it vascillates between a strong hefeweizen and an extra thick witbier. The girl pouring at Middle Ages found it curious that I would say it was "sour," but I sense a certain Belgian ale sourness. There is, as the website says, plenty of orange and coriander, and the spices that come along with them. But I also detect a certain amount of cinnamon flavor. It's strength alone is impressive, if not thirst-obliterating.

From top to bottom, it's a solid beer, but not necessarily one I crave, nor one I would necessarily purchase again. This is certainly not an indictment of Middle Ages itself, as that particular company has taken thousands of dollars of my money, and I wouldn't take a penny back. (I've got a full growler of their Old Marcus sitting in the fridge right now.) But it's only fair to say that this beer isn't for everyone, especially those who are iffy on hefeweizen-style beers.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Reminiscing on Labor Day

How best to celebrate a day that marks the unofficial end of summer but was also created as "a day off for the working citizens"? Well, for starters, it should probably include outdoor activities, and it had better involve little to no work. Got it! The deck at Brown's brewpub should fill the prescription nicely (sometimes it's rough being the Hannibal of the family). A couple of great local beers, maybe some steamers - yup, that'll do. Now to convince the wife... How does a hike at Peebles Island State Park sound? Don't worry, I'll haul the baby around. We could stop at Brown's afterwards.

It was just that easy; she's pretty cool sometimes, the wife. We stopped on the way to take a gander at the majesty of Cohoes Falls. After a short hike at Peebles Island, we gazed at the scenic vistas created by the confluence of the mighty Mohawk and Hudson rivers. We watched a pair of feuding squirrels. We even saw a deer, although the little one was more interested in the girl with the light up sneakers if front of us. Sure, we had our fun. It was pretty great, actually. And then it was time to go to Brown's and enjoy the fruits of our labor.

We started off with an order of steamers and a couple of beers, fresh and spicy IPA for me, nice banana-y Hefe for the lady. The steamers are a dozen fresh Littleneck clams steamed in the brewery's own brown ale with butter and fresh garlic. By thunder, those little buggers are delicious! I have it on good authority that a bit of Italian bread dipped in the steamy juices ain't bad neither.

We followed it up with Troy's Pulled Pork Sandwich, tender pork coated with Brown's signature Cherry-Raspberry Ale based barbecue sauce, all piled on a kaiser roll and topped with melted cheddar jack cheese. I paired that tasty little number with a crisp, Saaz hopped, Tomhannock Pilsner, while the lady enjoyed her first Hefe enough to order up another. Simply delectable, scrumpshalicious. Brewer's fries dipped in Cherry-Raspberry barbecue sauce are also a taste sensation.

What's the point here? I'm not sure there is one, other than I had a kick ass Labor Day and Brown's is a wonderful place. We had a great time without even going inside! Sorry for all the personal tripe, suffice to say that nature is pretty sweet and Brown's is even better. My crazy little cutie of a baby girl even got at least eleven compliments for every time she vomited on the deck! Better than her old man's career ratio, I assure you.

Monday, September 01, 2008

River Horse 12 Pack

Every time I had ever bought River Horse Hop Hazard, it has been an older bottle, and has gone a bit soft. Although liquid butterscotch doesn't sound like all that horrible a beverage, the Hop Hazard incarnation is not exactly the best way to experience such a confectionary delight. I blame the distrubutors and stores from which I had picked it up rather than the brewer themselves.

So when Wegmans started carrying left-of-center beers, one of the surprising offerings was a twelver of River Horse, which I had not seen any specialty beer store in the area, let alone a grocery store.

The four beers in the twelve-pack are a Special Ale, Tripel Horse Belgian tripel, the aforementioned Hop Hazard and River Horse Lager. Each was given an interrogation by Officer Taste Bud, whose office is in my mouth. I apologize for that last sentence for several reasons.

First up to bat was the SPECIAL ALE, which they call and ESB but seems to be a bit more than that. The color is a light cranberry red. It's clear except for that hazy fog on the glass. A half-finger of foamy off-white head sits atop the bubbly brew. Nice to look at.

Though the label categorizes this beer as an ESB, it smells like a barleywine, with that strong aroma of alcohol, as well as lots of dark berry and raisin. It has that "leathery" quality that so many darker beers give out. In a blind sniff-test, I wouldn't have pegged this as an Extra Special Bitter.

The taste is strong barley malt, and also gives a puckery sour flavor. Some leathery malt in the flavor here as well, almost like a porter in how dark the malt is. There is some sweet-n-sour dark berry here as well, as well as hints of roasted caramel. The hops are of the English variety and very subdued. The malt is strong and thick, as is the consistency; it's full-bodied on the palate like a cream ale.

So far so good, this is a "special/select" ale with some bite, but it's quite drinkable. It's substantial for just one but okay if you feel like snagging another one.

The next one came up a little later in the evening, and in retrospect was probably not the beer to finish off with. It's not that it isn't a fine beer, it's just that the TRIPEL HORSE packs quite a wallop. I mean it's only 10%, so who wouldn't have thought it's the one to have right before nighty-night time.

Out of a tall weizen glass, this beer pours a massive puffy head. It's clear and glassy, but ... there are some wonderful chunks of yeast (I hope) floating about. The head goes down eventually, but the floating sediment and carbonation remain.

Ironically, the thick head hides some of the aroma by blocking it from escaping. What little I am able to extract from it nasally is that of a trademark spicy Belgian yeast and malt. There is a tad of chlorine in the aroma, but I'll pretend I didn't smell it.

The first sip gives some sharp crystal malts but that come handcuffed to some sharp crystal malts with some caramel. There is a strong alcohol bite that I probably should have expected. Otherwise, it's actually deceptively mild. It doesn't at all fetishize the spicy Belgian aspect of it, which also makes it easily drinkable. It's very smooth for a Belgian tripel, especially one that's 10% abv. The feel is butter and honey, rather than champagne or orange juice pulp.

This one surprised me, a really easy-drinkin' Belgian, and though it's strong, it's not at all extreme. Nice curve-ball.

Ugh! I'm only halfway through this difficult slog? I decided to save the remainder for a few days later. I finally decided to give a shot to the beer which I had always previously caught at a bad time -- HOP HAZARD. The look, to paraphrase the Talking Heads, is the same as it ever was: nice, very cloudy dark orange. The head does disappear almost immediately, which is a bit of a downer. It is the color of apple cider, and would be gorgeous if it could just retain a little bit of head.

The aroma gives off some decent woody hops, and with the dual hints of butterscotch (not overwhelming this time) and sour apple. This is how it's supposed to smell. The smell is actually pretty complex, because further down the line, we get some nutty, toasted malts, as well as alcohol-soaked raisin, and all under the woody pine hops.

As for the taste, the first sip gives a nutty bitter malt, similar to a dry amber ale. Hints of raisin and black licorice (I'm not usually a fan but it works here as an accent). It's a darker brew than expected. Some caramel comes out when it's about half gone, and warmer. And there is the most unusual aftertaste of peanut?

Hop Hazard feels dry and a little bit ashy, but the thickness is nice. It's a very nice, toasted and complex ale. Sure it could be considered a pale, but a dark one -- if that's even possible.

Last but ... well, least, is the RIVER HORSE LAGER. I don't mean to crap on this beer, but when are brewers going to realize that there is really only so much you can do with lagers.

I must say, it seems that a lot of brewers are trying to have it both ways, in that they load up their mixed 12-packs with nine solid offerings, and then add one for the "non-beer drinker" or commercial beer drinkier. Magic Hat does it with "#9," Ithaca Brewing does it with the (in my opinion) undrinkable "Apricot Wheat," and Dundee does it with "Honey Brown."

Well, it's here so I might as well pound it. It pours a decent sunny golden color with a mass exodus of carbonation bubbles. There is a thin layer of head that resembles Italian ice. It's very clear, as is typical for the so-called "lager" style.

The aroma is lagery, but clearly made with real barley and not adjuncts. It's a fresh, biscuity malt, with just a touch of that sour apple. It's middle of the road, but inoffensive as many lagers can often be.

The taste is a very solid lager flavor, and we all know what that entails. It does have a slightly citrusy taste, but not from the hops, oddly enough. The malt is slightly bready. The sour apple and butterscotch that were present in the Hop Hazard also make an appearance here. And there is a welcome, tangy bubblegum flavor toward the end. It's actually quite pleasant for a summer lager.

The consistency is pretty predictable, with a thin and watery body. It's not unpleasant but there's not much to say about it. All told, it's not a bad lager by any stretch, it's just kind of run-of-the-mill with some extra flavors thrown in. Highly drinkable but not a skirt blower-upper.

At any price below $15, this is a pretty decent twelve-pack, with two very good beers, and two other good ones. Do what I do and bring it to a party and give the lagers out first. But do see that you make sure to get it somewhat fresh as it seems to go bad quicker than most.