Fearful Symmetries

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01 December, 2015

No More Oak Oppression: Heart of Oak by the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company



The Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company began in 1867. Over the years it developed into a prosperous regional brewery. In 1988 it went from craft to crafty before such a distinction was ever thought of when the Miller Brewing Company bought it. In the mid-90s the brewery began to establish its reputation of the maker of beers that taste like Froot Loops/Fruity Pebbles, a bit of renown that remains today. Berry Weiss was introduced in 1996. Ten years later came Sunset Wheat with its big Tang-y orange flavor. The following year saw Summer Shandy hit shelves and the brewery has since made its fortune with shandies. In 2012 the brew went national and by 2014 accounted for 50% of the brewery's business.

Having achieved such great success with Zima: The Next Generation with a new flavor of shandy seemingly introduced annually (watermelon is next), it's easy to forget or not even know in the first place that Leinenkugel brews more than fruit-flavored concoctions. Microbrew fans are attracted to the Big Eddy series of high octane and intensely flavored beers. But Leinies has been (relatively) quietly rolling out beers that are neither fruity nor imperial. For instance, they introduced a new winter seasonal a few years ago called Snowdrift Vanilla Porter which I found to be horrible but gave us a new annual IPL which is pretty good.

This past summer Leinies introduced a new beer as part of its Autumn Explorer Pack called Heart of Oak, an "oaked Vienna lager". Aging beer on oak to imbue it with the wood's distinctive flavor is a fairly new trend in microbrewing and not particularly widespread although it is gaining in popularity. How did Leinenkugel's foray into the world of arboreal aging turn out?

Heart of Oak pours a beautiful amber hue. The beer was clear and adorned with a big frothy head that was…ecru. There were a lot of bubbles going up the glass. I found the aroma to be quite inviting with the mellow earthiness of the oak coming up front with a bit of bread behind it as well as some malty sweetness that was plum-like to my nose.

I realized that, while I've noted the oak, I've not said anything about the Vienna lager. We here in Wisconsin are blessed with three amber lagers that are either Vienna lagers or are based on the style: Sprecher Special Amber, Capital Wisconsin Amber, and Wisconsin Brewing Company's Golden Amber Lager. The first two have been around, to the best of my knowledge, since the 1980s and are cornerstones of Wisconsin microbrewing. Wisconsin Amber seems to trail only Spotted Cow as the top Wisconsin microbrew to be found in non-microbrew establishments around the state.

The style dates back to around 1840 and one Anton Dreher, a denizen of – quelle surprise – Vienna. I'm not sure that anyone knows what his beers were like exactly but I tend to think of the style as being a lighter take on the Oktoberfest/Märzen. The emphasis is on the malt but the Vienna lager isn't quite as malty as its Bavarian cousins.

My aside aside, it was the oak which really stood out in the taste. While it didn't have the forest-in-a-bottle taste of Atom Smasher you couldn't miss it. But the oak's relatively moderate flavor didn't hide the malt which had a nice Maillard reactiony breadiness. There was also a little bit of malt sweetness that tasted like stone fruit to my palate. A hint of vanilla was subtle but its sweet-yet-savory flavor worked well with the oak and malt while carbonation added a little bite and some dryness. Lastly there was a bit of peppery "heat". I have no idea where it comes from but it's that same kind of "heat" that Capital's Autumnal Fire has but milder in this case. It tastes less like pepper than it does alcohol but Heart of Oak is not a big beer. Perhaps this is just my tongue tasting hops in an odd fashion or some such thing.

The beer finishes dry but moderately so. The oak flavor lingers a bit as does some carbonation. As they slowly dissipate, they're replaced by a mild astringency and an equally mild dose of grassy hop bitterness. Schaumhaftvermoegen consisted of two large splotches.

Heart of Oak benefits greatly from having just the right amount of oak. It complements the malt rather than overpowering it. The brew had a smooth mouthfeel and a medium-light body that belied its 6% A.B.V. which I think of as being rather high for the style. I also liked the dry bite given by the carbonation. All those bubbles helped balance the flavors here.

I thoroughly enjoyed this beer. It has a clean lager taste yet it has a complex set of flavors led by the oak. It managed to walk a fine line between being light & refreshing and hearty & warming. My only complaint is that it is generally sold as part of a variety pack that includes one of Leinenkugel's ubiquitous "shandies".

Junk food pairing: Heart of Oak pairs best with crackers and cheese. Try some Cheddar 'n Bacon Easy Cheese on Vegetable Thins or Cheddar Easy Cheese on Chicken in a Biskit crackers.

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|| Palmer, 11:55 AM

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