We tried a little experiment some three months ago pitting two similar beers against each other and determining which had the superior brew. We know, of course, that beer is not a competitive enterprise, and should be seen as an artisinal endeavor. But then again, films have the Academy Awards and beer has the Great American Brew Fest, so we might as well just go ahead and have some fun with it.
Today, we explore two very hoppy amber ales: Cascazilla from the Ithaca Brewing Company in Upstate New York, and Roxy Rolles from the Magic Hat brewery in Burlington, Vermont. We had always considered these two beers somewhat equitable, since they were two of a a kind; both are amber ales with an inordinate amount of hops, eschewing the idea that an amber/red beer should be malty, with a bitter, German-style edge to it.
When we tried them side-by-side, however, we found them to be a lot more different than we had anticipated.
- The Look:
There is a striking discrepancy between these two beers in their appearance. The Cascazilla has the color of cherry juice, and is clear and glassy; Roxy is a deep mahogany reddish brown, and is as cloudy as a dirty martini. The head on the Cascazilla is pure white, while the head on the Roxy is a rose-tinged off-white. The head on the Roxy sticks around longer and is thicker, and Roxy also has more lace.
Advantage: Roxy Rolles
- The Aroma:
Again, these brews that we had heretofore considered fraternal twins show that they have deep differences. Roxy smolders in the nose, with the smells of oak and mahogany. Its hops are those of pine and cut grass. More of an "East Coast" hop aroma here. The hops on Cascazilla, on the other hand, are closer to a traditional West Coast variety, with sweeter citrus notes. Cascazilla's malt is more roasted, but also has some nice sharp crystal malt characteristics. Roxy's malts are more lightly toasted, in that bready English way. They are both very strong, bold aromas, but due to the balance between the bitter and the sweet, we have to say...
Advantage: Cascazilla (by a nose-hair)
- The Flavor:
Here is where the proverbial rubber meets the hypothetical road, and where the character of each of these two brews comes out. We cheated a bit and looked up the types of hops that each of these beers use: Cascazilla uses Cascade, Chinook and Crystal (aka "The Three C's"); and Roxy uses Simcoe. The hop character is what really sets these two apart. Having had them in different settings, we had always considered them step-brothers of sorts due to their hop strength in the amber/red style. But upon further examination, the hop character really differs between them.
Cascazilla is much more citrusy in the hop, but is also balanced by a wonderful roasted caramel malt quality. As it exhibited in the smell, Roxy continues its arboreal streak with a rich oak flavor over lightly toasted malts. Those grassy Simcoe hops pop right out at you. If this makes any sense, Cascazilla has more of a "bouncy" flavor, and Roxy has more of a "flat" flavor. Cascazilla is very American; Roxy is very English. And though the Roxy tempers and improves with warmth, the balancing act that Ithaca pulls off means...
Advantage: Cascazilla (but just barley)
- The Feel/Drinkability:
These beers are really different on the palate, further proving that they are hardly relatives, but rather two sides of the same coin. The Roxy is dry, ashy, chewy and coarse. You almost have to have another drink to wash it down. Cascazilla is buttery and smooth, milky and fizzy. They are both very drinkable, but because of its substantial texture...
Advantage: Roxy Rolles
- THE VERDICT:
These are both two excellent brews. Cascazilla is bittersweet and balanced, smooth and highly quaffable. Roxy Rolles is deep, rich and woody, rough around the edges and a very rich session brew (only 5.1% compared to Cascazilla's surpising 7%).
But we have to have a winner and so, we declare, by a split decision and one of the closest taste-tests we've ever had the pleasure of doing, the winner is....
Now, this is to take absolutely nothing away from Roxy Rolles, which is also an excellent beer, and one that, maybe on another day, we might have given the slight advantage to. It's a choice between smooth and balanced, versus rich and coarse. There are no "losers" in this competition, except those of you still drinking Coors (all due respect).