A recent trek to Chicagoland meant a visit to a local bottle shop. Off Color
is a Chicago brewery that intrigues me because, until quite recently, they had managed to avoid brewing a hoppy pale ale. Co-founder and brewer John Laffler once quipped, “Everybody else makes IPA, so why would we?” Instead they populated their line-up with the likes of a Kotbusser
, a Gose
, a Berliner Weisse
, amongst other styles. And they don't necessarily brew their beers strictly according to style. For instance, their gose is actually a blend of two beers, one sour and one not. Generally speaking, Off Color, in the words of Neil Peart, deviates from the norm.
And so I was happy to have finally found a four-pack of their Bare Bear, a "Finnish style sahti", after my last few visits yielded none. The sahti has a special place in my heart for a couple of reasons. First is that it is brewed with rye and I love rye – in beer, bread, breakfast cereal – wherever I can find it. Second is the tasty juniper with its piney aroma and flavor. Yeah, it is best-known as a flavoring in gin, but it also is used in pickling spice, hassenpfeffer, and many more culinary recipes. I simply enjoy its sharp, earthy taste and think it complements rye very well.
I've read the sahti referred to as being part of a "folk tradition" of brewing and a "farmhouse beer" and such descriptions conjure images of drunken Finns emerging from saunas with blue alcoholic gleams. And so the style grew out of the practice of Finns in various parts of their homeland brewing beer with what they had at hand. Today it tends to refer to, at least here in the United States, an ale brewed with rye in addition to barley and seasoned with juniper berries. Plus the modern sahti has a banana flavor from esters produced by the yeast. It may or may not contain any hops. Presumably the grain bill has varied over the centuries and I've read that the branches of the juniper bush were involved instead of simply the berries. Also other herbs and spices have apparently been used at different times and places.
As far as I can recall, I have only had three sahtis: Joulupukki
by Vintage Brewing here in Madison, Sam Adams' Norse Legend, and Lammin Kataja Olut from Finland. Finding one is a rare treat.
Bare Bear has a lovely amber hue and very cloudy. After reviewing four pilsners in a row it was really nice to have a beer before me which was not yellow and clear. When I tried Off Color's Scurry
last year I found that my bottle was over carbonated. Well, memories of that brew came flooding back as I poured Bare Bear. I got a solid, tan head that was ginormous. The din of the fizzying and the bursting of the bubbles could be heard a foot away from the mug. Inside the glass was a veritable horde of bubbles charging upwards. Crap.
Shaking off my disappointment, I made to give the beer a whiff and caught the smell of banana wafting to my nose before it was even near the glass. Once at the glass, I smelled a pleasant earthiness which I thought was the rye and the juniper, although I can't rule out a bit of the Nugget hops in there as well.
It should come as no surprise that the carbonation was quite prominent. Tasting beyond that I found that wonderful rye earthy spice, a little caramel, a hint of plum, and bread. The juniper was pretty mild with it being a piney taste in the background. And of course there was banana. It was a big estery wave accented by a little clove. I loved it! Well, except for the carbonation which, if I may paraphrase Ralph Wiggum, tasted like burning.
On the finish all those tasty yeast and malt flavors faded quickly leaving some resiny juniper flavor and some hoppy bitterness too. Plus the ubiquitous carbonic bite which made the finale quite a bit drier than I think was intended. All the foam slid down into the glass so there was no lacing to be had.
How sad. Underneath all the fizz and behind the carbonic bite is a wonderful brew that juggles several flavors at once quite deftly. The banana and clove from the yeast jockey for your tongue's attention alongside the earthy/spicy rye and juniper (and hops on the finish too). Underneath this tantalizing mixture is solid malty foundation that has a little sweetness and a little savory. Just fantastic. It's such a shame you have to wade through so much carbonation to get to this gustatory wonderland.
Junk food pairing: Pair Bare Bear with a bag of smoked gouda potato chips. The smokiness adds another earthy layer of flavor. Cape Cod and Lay's both make this flavor chip.
Labels: Beer, Off Color Brewing, Sahti