Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

03 February, 2016

Taste the Depths of Winter: Yodo Con Leche by 5 Rabbit Cervecería

Ooh! Two brews from 5 Rabbit in a row. It's my lucky week.

5 Rabbit Cervecería co-founder Andrés Araya is originally from Costa Rica and he tells us gringos on the label of his Yodo Con Leche that "yodo" is Costa Rican slang for coffee and, more generally, means "something rich, dark and intense". This beer will be quite different from Huitzi, a Belgian pale ale infused with floral flavors and named after a hummingbird god who battles winter to allow the return of spring. No avian heroes flaunting their flora to be had here. This is an imperial porter (doesn't that make it a stout?) laced with Costa Rican coffee which means it's an Orphean descent into the Stygian gloom we denizens of boreal climes know all-too well.

In addition to the coffee, Yodo Con Leche is brewed with milk caramel. I will also admit to being quite pleased to read that amongst the grains used was chocolate rye. Being enamored of both dark malts and rye, I had very high hopes for this beer.

Yodo Con Leche looked as I expected – black. While it is really a very deep brown, in a glass it looks positively pitch. No hint that the rebirth of spring is anon to be had. I think that the beer was clear but it was basically opaque and so difficult to tell. My pour produced a moderate light brown head that was gone all-too quickly. The beer's opacity meant I could not tell if there were any bubbles inside.

The aroma smelled very boozy to me. This caught me by surprise as the beer is "merely" 8% A.B.V. and not barrel-aged. But it had an earthy, astringent kind of smell which was alluring. Coffee was also prominent and, being from Costa Rica, had a certain brightness to it, a certain sharpness that I generally don’t taste in African varieties. From the aroma alone I knew that, as the Dave Bowman simulacrum said in 2010, something wonderful was going to happen.

As befitting an imperial porter, Yodo Con Leche has a medium-heavy body. Not motor oil but definitely not a brew to be quaffed. I immediately tasted coffee on my first sip but not the coffee. The rich, roasted flavors of the dark malts hit my tongue first so that coffee flavor was joined by dark chocolate. The coffee coffee then made itself known. While not a big flavor, it gave a nice earthy bitterness underneath the malt. As the ebony elixir made its way to the back of my tongue the rich, creamy sweetness of the milk caramel appeared from out of the gloom. It added just enough toothsome caramel flavor to balance the earthy, roasted flavors of the malts and coffee.

While there was a little lingering sweetness on the finish, a modicum of bitterness from the dark malts joined with some grassy-tasting hops for a surprisingly dry ending. I think I caught just a hint of the spiciness of the rye here too. Sadly, there was no lacing to be had on my glass.

I believe that the 2015 batch of Yodo Con Leche was released in July. I bought my bottle here in Madison later in the summer or perhaps early in the autumn. The bottle sat in my cellar during the interval until last week. I am just not that keen on drinking imperial porters in the heat of summer. February proved to be the perfect time for this beer. Still, while not fresh, it was filled with wonderfully rich flavors. I was surprised that the dark malts contributed relatively little bitterness yet the roasted grain taste shone through. There was just enough coffee and milk caramel to get all of the flavors to harmonize into an exquisite gestalt.

Junk food pairing: Try Yodo Con Leche with some Reese's Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups. The dark chocolate will complement the roasted grains of the beer while the peanut butter's sweetness will do the same with the milk caramel. The overall effect is to amplify the already big and rich flavors of Yodo Con Leche and take them to a new level of goodness.

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02 February, 2016

A Midwinter's Ale: Huitzi by 5 Rabbit Cervecería

Chicagoland's 5 Rabbit Cervecería really seems to be feeling its oats. They have a shiny new webpage and have revamped their marketing with new beer categories. And they have no shortage of new beers either. I have said it more than once but I will repeat it here that I am a big fan of 5 Rabbit. The cervecería penetrated the Cheddar Curtain and began distribution here in Wisconsin last year. Unfortunately they don't appear to be shipping their core annual – The Fives – here yet. That's too bad because I find 5 Lizard, a "Latin-style" witbier, and 5 Vulture, an "Oaxacan-style" dark ale, to both be outstanding beers.

Instead we are getting the more limited brews with bottles of their ChocoFrut beers, fruit-flavored stouts, gracing store shelves. Today, however, I am reviewing Huitzi ("wee-tsee"), a self-styled midwinter ale. It's a Belgian golden ale by style that was brewed with hibiscus, ginger, chamomile, and honey. The beer is no longer brewed and it seems that early batches omitted the chamomile. My bottle was purchased in the autumn of 2014 and has been sitting in the dark in my cellar ever since. It's 8.7% A.B.V. and I felt it a suitable candidate for a gentle aging regimen.

I promise that, once warmer weather returns, my photos will get better. Either that or I'll take some time to backlight my pictures. Until then you'll get a thousand words and I will start off by saying that Huitzi (short for Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war) pours a lovely dark gold with a pronounced reddish tint from the hibiscus. It was rather cloudy but this may be the result of aging as my last pour was rife with sediment. Huitzi was nicely effervescent. My pour produced about a ¼" of light tan head that hung around for a little while and there were lots of bubbles inside working their way up.

The aroma was intriguing with the hibiscus and honey standing out. But there were also those fruity Belgian yeast esters and a touch of malty sweetness. Huitzi had a medium body that was flush with the typical tasty Belgian ale fruity flavors from those esters/phenols along with the accompanying dryness. Atop this were the botanicals. The chamomile stood out here but the hibiscus wasn't too far behind and they gave a slight bitterness. Ginger was relegated to the background where it added a little bit of earthy flavor along with just a smidgeon of that malty sweetness that I caught in the aroma.

The finish had the floral tastes lingering and joined by some alcohol heat as well as a moderate amount of grassy hop bitterness. Sadly, my glass was left with no lacing.

Truth be told, I do not drink Belgian ales very often. And so Huitzi was something of a treat for me in that sense. I really enjoyed the herbal/floral taste here from the hibiscus and chamomile. They are nice flavors but here they tacked a course that complemented the fruity flavors as well as the dryness that the yeast provided while still standing on their own. The small alcohol burn in the finish certainly helps in midwinter and those hops offered more botanical tastiness. Huitzi is a fine way to chase away Jack Frost while also offering hope that spring is not that far off.

Junk food pairing: If you are lucky enough to still have a bottle of Huitzi around, be sure to have some Chicago mix popcorn with it when you pop it open. You'll get the saltiness and mellow cheese from the cheesy popcorn that will enhance the botanical in the beer while the caramel corn will add a little sweetness and body.

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01 February, 2016

The Bier That Makes Your Tongue Approve...It's: Infectious Groove by O'so Brewing Company

I recall back in 2008 or so drinking my first beer by a shiny new brewery up in Plover (that's in central Wisconsin, for any non-Cheeseheads) called O'so Brewing. It was a Duzy Piwo, tasty blonde ale that seemingly disappeared from shelves as quickly as it had arrived. Hoppier pastures beckoned, I guess.

O'so has been around for about eight years now and recently introduced a couple of new beers. Liquid Soul, an imperial stout, is the brewery's latest winter seasonal. Infectious Groove, a Berliner Weisse and polar opposite of the big, black stout, has been added to their year-round line-up. The Berliner Weisse is a sour wheat bier and, while Wisconsin breweries have had sour brews available all year long, I think Infectious Groove may be the first native one in six packs. It would appear that sour beers have truly gone microbrewing mainstream here in Wisconsin.

Infectious Groove is made by what's known as kettle souring. Instead of the bier becoming infused with bacteria from the air or some kind of storage vessel as it ages, lactobacillus bacteria are added to the boil kettle – the kettle in which grains and water are boiled – without the heat and allowed to sit for anywhere from one to several days. During this time the bacteria, like their brewing yeast brethren, eat some of the sugars from the grain. But instead of pooping out alcohol and carbon dioxide, the bacteria give us lactic acid which gives the Berliner Weisse its trademark tartness. With their job being done, heat is applied once more and the bacteria are killed.

This method of souring beer is relatively quick, easy, and easy to control. I'm sure any brewer out there will also tell you that this is a vastly oversimplified description or at least a very incomplete one of how brewers sour their beers without resorting to lengthy aging processes. While I am certainly no expert nor a particularly experienced consumer of sour beers, I think the big takeaway from this is that when you sour a beer by adding a particular bacteria from a packet purchased from a lab, you get a clean kind of sour. You're limiting things to a single strain of bacteria instead of the being at the mercy of what the wind blows your way or what lurks the pores of wood in a barrel. It's a trade-off, I guess. Ease, quickness, controllability, and a narrower band of flavors vs. the lengthier time, more difficulty, and the wider band of flavors of stochasticity.

OK, let's get back to Infectious Groove.

It pours a dark yellow and is quite turbid. No filtering here. I got a medium white head that dissipated rather quickly and I noticed only a few bubbles going up my glass. It didn't look like a champagne of the North.

The aroma had a really nice lemony tartness which I'd expect from a Berliner Weisse. But I also caught an unexpected berry sweetness which was quite pleasant. Would I taste this fruitiness? Not initially, at least. Infectious Groove proved to be a very sour bier with a big lemony/citrusy tartness. I find that most sour brews taste extremely tart at first but that my tongue acclimates itself to the acidity and so the beer tastes less sour as the session goes on. The same is true here but Infectious Groove lost less tartness than most sour beers I've had. As my sipping continued I noticed a sort of vegetable-like funkiness reveal itself. It was not fruity and it was not a moldy, barnyard, wet blanket kind of thing either. I'd never tasted anything like it in a bier. It was pleasant, pretty mellow, and complemented the familiar lemon tartness well.

Behind all of the tartness I caught a rather pronounced bit of wheat/grain. A welcome surprise as the grains are usually quite subdued in my experience with this style. Lastly there was some carbonation that added to the general acidulousness of the bier.

The finish was lemony and funky with the tanginess lingering. There wasn't much in the way of Schaumhaftvermoegen to be had aside from a few small spots of foam.

If we here in Wisconsin are to have a year-round Berliner Weisse for the first time (or at least the first time in 100+ years) then we are lucky to have Infectious Groove. It has a nice light body and, although it may not look like a champagne of the North, it has a nice fizziness to it which will no doubt be welcome in the dog days of summer. It does come in at 4.8% A.B.V. which is a bit higher than traditional dictates, though. What really makes it stand out to me is that the graininess is not buried underneath all the tartness (really couldn't taste hops, however) and that it maintains a good, solid sour throughout. The initial blast of sourness lessens but not greatly. And I should mention the other funky tart flavor which, although unidentified, added some depth to the overall flavor as well as a nice complement to the citrus sour.

I also want to mention that I also drank some Infectious Groove mit Schuss – some waldmeister (woodruff) syrup in my case. The tartness held up really well as I was able to produce an admixture that was both tart and slightly sweet with a pronounced waldmeister flavor. Most impressive.

I've read that Infectious Groove is replacing Memory Lane, a pilsner, in O'so's line-up. As a lager lover I am saddened to hear this. But Infectious Groove is a worthy and very tasty bier and it eases my sadness. Greatly.

Junk food pairing: I personally like potato chips with my Berliner Weisse. Plain works fine but lemon & pepper or lemon & rosemary ones are great as they complement the bier's tartness well.

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29 January, 2016

Admirable Restraint: German Pilsner by Great Dane Pub

I recall the opening of the first Great Dane Pub. It was a dreary, rainy November day in 1994. A friend and I stopped in after class and found ourselves packed in like sardines and surrounded by middle-aged office workers. It was as if the G.E.F. buildings downtown had all emptied into the place. My companion and I seemed to be the youngest people there outside of staff. The beer was excellent but the massive crowds and the very naughty wandering hand of a woman who had probably worked at DWD for a few decades had us out the door after only a couple.

In the intervening 20+ years, the Great Dane has become a Madison institution with three more outposts having been added in the area and one up in Wausau to boot. Being our first brewpub, it became the template for those that followed. The Great Dane's lobbying efforts begat the so-called Brewpub Bill or Brewpub Tourism Development Act in 2007. Great Dane brewmaster (current?) Rob LoBreglio is friends with Kirby Nelson of Capital/Wisconsin Brewing Company and the pair have collaborated on beers over the years. And I'm sure there have been brewers at the Great Dane who have gone on to careers in the industry.

The Great Dane is a cornerstone of the Madison-area microbrew/craft brew scene and it continues to evolve. Last summer the brewpub began canning two beers and six packs of Hopsconsin Red Ale and German Pilsner began adorning store shelves.

Also known as Verruckte Stadt (German for "Mad Town"), German Pilsner and has been pouring forth from Great Dane taps for ages. Sadly, the last time I was at a Great Dane the big board didn't actually say Verruckte Stadt for some reason.

German Pilsner pours a nice straw color. In my glass it had just an ever so-slight haziness to it. I got a nice, big, frothy, white head which was happy to stick around for a while. And true to form, there were plenty of bubbles inside the bier making their way upwards. Pilsners are truly amongst the prettiest of beers with their brilliant color and effervescence. They make you thirsty by just looking at them.

The aroma was a lesson in modesty with some moderate grain and grassy hop scents. Nothing extravagant, but it was like putting blood in the water. Except it was the air. And grain & hops instead of blood. Like IKEA's furniture, German Pilsner's taste was clean and simple. It had that light pils crackery graininess with just the barest malty sweetness. I found that those grassy hops had taken on a spicy/peppery flavor. The carbonation was evident and the bier was bubbly and slightly dry.

On the finish, the malt flavors faded while the hoppy ones kicked in a little bit harder. And so the bitterness was a bit more pronounced as was the dryness. There was some really nice Schaumhaftvermoegen left in my glass with webbing everywhere.

I must admit that German Pilsner/Verruckte Stadt is the bier I drink most often when I'm at a Great Dane. It is not a big bier (5% A.B.V.) and can go well with just about any food that you'd order there. I really like the malt flavor which kept the sweetness at bay, something I appreciated. Being a German-style pils, the hops don't knock your socks off though they do more than simply play a supporting role. While there are times when German Pilsner/Verruckte Stadt tastes a little too laid-back and I wouldn't mind if there were just a bit more malt and hop flavor, it is, overall, a nice, easy-going brew.

Junk food pairing: Verruckte Stadt is a light-bodied beer that shows gustatorial restraint so take it easy on the food. Try some French Onion Dip Pringles or some light, poofy Cheetos Puffs with their fine, moderately sharp cheese flavor.

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28 January, 2016

The Surprising Transmogrification of Berghoff Beer: Pilsner (Hop Forward Lager) by Berghoff Beer

Berghoff has been around since the late 19th century and I have been drinking their brews since the early-90s and have memories of buying it at the Pinkus McBride convenience store. Back then Berghoff held a middle ground between the swill of macros and the fuller-flavored microbrews of Capital, Sprecher, New Glarus, and their ilk. Berghoff's beers were much better than a Miller or Bud but not as good as a Capital Amber, an Edel Pils, or a Black Bavarian. And the price of Berghoff reflected this.

Flash forward to 2013. Ben Minkoff, whose family owns Berghoff, had taken the company reins and the fruits of his plan to revamp the brewery's beers and reputation began to be realized. New brews appeared on store shelves while the old staples were reformulated. I reviewed one of the former, Germaniac, a Kotbusser-style ale, that summer. Then last year Berghoff continued its transformation with the introduction of two new beers: an IPA and a pilsner.

Pilsner says "Hop Forward Lager Beer" on the label in nice, friendly letters. Such bragging gave me the impression that the bier was an IPL or some other American neo-lager style undreamed of by the mid-19th century brewers of Plzeň. But I decided to try it out anyway. Besides, "Forward" is the Wisconsin state motto so perhaps that's what lured me in.

Berghoff Pilsner pours a moderately dark yellow and had the expected crystal clarity of the style. My glass had about 1/2" of creamy white froth on top and lots of bubbles inside going up looking for a place to live.

A very pretty bier, to be sure. But would it beat my tongue into submission with a citrus/pine hop flavor or the latest pretender to the hop throne, tropical fruit?

The aroma was quite surprising as my nose took in a really nice, potent floral/herbal hop aroma. This was not going to be a big, spicy Saaz-y Czech-style pils nor was it going to be a West Coast grapefruit, spruce, mango smoothie, and lime chutney American take on the style. A pleasant surprise. There was also a bit of grain/cracker scent to be had. Pilsner had a medium-light body with a clean grain flavor with a slight malt sweetness to it as well. The hops kept the floral aspect of the aroma into the taste but took on more grassy notes. For a bottle boasting hop forwardness, Pilsner did not boast a lot of hop bitterness. It was there but not overwhelming as I had expected. And there was some bit from the carbonation.

Pilsner finished with its malty flavors fading which allowed the hops to step forward, so to speak, after having transmogrified yet again. Here the hops took on some spiciness and along with that a more pronounced bitterness. That and the carbonation made for a fine, dry ending.

I was pleasantly surprised that Pilsner in no way attempted to mimic an American IPA and that Berghoff instead hewed to tradition by making what I would characterize as a German pils. While I mean no offense to Minkoff and company, I am also surprised to be able to write that my tasting notes say, "Great!" This is a fantastic German pils. Berghoff hit my sweet spot here with the perfect malt taste. There's just the right amount of clean crackery grain along with just the right amount of malt sweetness. After a spate of imperial pilsners with a rather more pronounced sweetness, it was so good to taste just a hint of that honeyed malt flavor.

This bier is hop forward insofar as all pilsners are that way. Pilsner was hopped very well and I enjoyed very much how the hops change from aroma to taste to finish. The hops are always pronounced but never assertive and find harmony with the malt.

Junk food pairing: Berghoff Pilsner is 5.7% A.B.V., a little more than your standard pils, so you'll need something to chow on while drinking it. You cannot go wrong with pretzels but try some Steakhouse Onion Funyons. Frito-Lay didn't go overboard with the roasted root vegetable flavor which will complement Pilsner well.

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27 January, 2016

A Nice Pair: Sumatra by 3rd Sign Brewing

As I mentioned last month when reviewing 3rd Sign's Madagascar, the brewery's motto is "Dually Brewed" and its logo is the zodiacal symbol Gemini, the Twins. And so they take on beer styles in pairs. Madagascar is a vanilla mild ale and its companion brew is called Sumatra, a coffee mild ale.

As I also noted last month 3rd Sign Brewery is the in-house label of Octopi Brewing. Octopi is located in nearby Waunakee (the only Waunakee in the world, mind you) and devotes itself to contract brewing. 3rd Sign allows the crew at Octopi to flex their muscles and showcase their talents for prospective customers; it gets a product on store shelves and gives thirsty patrons of Octopi's tasting room something to drink.

The beer pours a lovely medium dark mahogany that is quite clear. I managed only a small tan head that went away rather quickly which seems to be typical of the style. There was a medium amount of bubbles inside going upwards.

Sumatra contains cold pressed coffee from the eponymous Indonesian island by way of Madison's JBC Coffee Roasters and you can't miss it in the aroma. Taking a whiff my nose was struck by the big rush of fresh, strong coffee. There was a little malt sweetness in there as well but the nose was all about the coffee which smelled wonderful.

The coffee was right there to greet my tongue too. While I generally like African coffees the best because of their earthy, chocolatey tastes, I also enjoy Sumatran coffees. They tend to not be as earthy tasting as African ones, but more so than South American coffee which often have brighter, vaguely fruity flavors. In this beer, the coffee tasted fresh and the brewers did not skimp on the joe. While there was plenty of coffee flavor, it was complemented by some light toffee from the malt as well as just enough grassy hop flavor to let you know it's there. The hops didn't give much bitterness but the carbonation added a hint of acidity and tanginess. The beer had a pretty clean flavor overall.

The wonderful coffee flavor lingered on the finish while those grassy hop flavors swelled and added some bitterness to the picture. My glass was left with a moderate amount of lacing including some nice thick strands of foam.

Sumatra emphasizes the coffee a bit more than Madagascar did its vanilla. The coffee comes on very strong at first but it mellows out as you continue to drink. It remains out front but find eventually the other flavors find complementary spots on your tongue. While the balance of the flavors is shifted a bit, you do get a fantastic fresh coffee taste full of earthy and nutty tones that are simply delicious. I also really enjoyed the grassy hop flavor. It was a nice contrast to the coffee as well as the toffee flavor of the malt. This beer is 4.5% A.B.V. and is very easy drinking. The coffee never overwhelms so you can quaff a few Sumatrans in your next session.

Junk food pairing: The coffee means that Sumatra will go well with some sweets such as dark chocolate-covered pretzels or a Take 5 bar. On the savory side try some Extra Toasty Cheez-Its. Those additional Maillard reactions will play well with the coffee on your tongue.

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26 January, 2016

From the Frozen Tundra: Packerland Pilsner by Hinterland Brewery

Pilsners are trendy these days, I guess. Green Bay's Hinterland Brewery resurrected their Packerland Pilsner in 2014 after a hiatus of 17 years. Demand for the beer just went away back in the late 90s. But now the pils is popular again with many brewers who primarily traffic in ales adding a one to their repertoire.

Sadly the Packers' season is over but fans who cannot get enough of the green and gold can always reach for a Packerland. After having had a bad experience with a brew that wasn't Packerland recently, I've been checking dates on beers. My bottle of Packerland dates back to around Guy Fawkes Day. So, while not born yesterday, I think it should be suitable for a sampling. This was the first time I'd had the bier so I didn't know what I was getting into. Would it be a Czech-style pils with a generous dose of spicy Noble hops? Or more like its German cousin with a hint of asceticism?

Packerland poured a light gold color and was quite clear. I only managed to eke out a small white head that went away rather quickly. However, there were lots of bubbles inside going up which made for a rather pleasant looking glass of bier.

I caught a crackery grainy smell as well as a little corn when I took a whiff. Quite frankly, I was surprised to not catch any hops in the aroma. Considering the bier's flavor, I wouldn't be surprised if I simply had a stuffy nose (it is January, after all) and was unable to detect some hoppiness. That light graininess was also caught by my tongue as was a little doughy malt sweetness in a clean overall taste. There was some hoppiness present here with a bit of grassy/spicy hop flavor that gave very little bitterness. Packerland certainly leaned towards the German version of the style in its restraint.

The finish was fairly dry with the malt flavors fading to allow some spicy Noble hop flavor to emerge along with (finally!) some bitterness. While my glass was not overcome with Schaumhaftvermoegen, there was some decent thinly-streaked webbing to had along with a lot of foamy specks.

While Packerland seemed to be aiming for German pilsner status, the hop flavor wasn't just moderate, it was nearly MIA. Packerland has a nice, delicate maltiness, but it sat waiting idly to host a party of Noble hops but only one or two of them showed up. Believe me, it is not often that I will proclaim that a beer needs more hops but this is definitely one of those rare occasions.

Junk food pairing: Keep it simple with Packerland and have plenty of pretzels and potato chips on hand. French onion dip would also be welcome.

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