Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

29 April, 2016

The Honeymoon Is Over: HoneyMoon Brackett by Viking Brewing Company



Has anyone out there ever tried aging brackett, a.k.a. - braggot? I have, and let me tell you, it was an utter failure.

Brackett/braggot is a beverage that is reputed to have originated in medieval times and is either mead made with malt or beer made with honey. Either way you're getting fermentable sugars from a mix of honey and malt. But I suppose you can just add finished mead to finished ale and have brackett too. How much beer should you taste in a brackett? How much mead? Everything I've found to read on the subject leans towards bracket being an art rather than a science. Does it taste like mead and beer simultaneously? If so, then you've got a brackett.

I recently opened a bottle of HoneyMoon, a brackett from the Viking Brewing Company which is now Valkyrie Brewing Company. If you look at the old Viking website, it says that HoneyMoon "Ages well for years". Perhaps two years. My bottle was purchased in 2009, I believe, and I figured that I'd try aging a 10% A.B.V. wine-like brew/brew-like wine. Tempus fugit and here we are seven or so years later.

HoneyMoon poured a lovely light gold – even if the photograph doesn't portray this. It was quite clear. I didn't get much of a head when I poured it into my glass. But there was no small number of bubbles in the elixir. Are fresh bracketts effervescent? Meads comes bubbly and non-bubbly so you'd think brackett could very well be stillish. I think the last time I had a fresh brackett outside of The Great Taste was about 11 years ago when I had some from White Winter Winery so I remain unsure.

The brackett definitely had a mead-like smell – that dry honey scent – but the aroma also had a rather prominent vinous smell too. There really wasn't anything beery here.

Taking my first sip, I didn't have high hopes. The brackett had a light body and I caught a little carbonation as well as some really nice honey taste. However, that vinous quality was here in spades. It tasted a lot like vermouth to me. As my HoneyMoon warmed up, it took on a strong boozy heat - 10% may have been on the low side – and a pronounced astringent flavor.

The finish had what must have been the very last remnants of hop flavor with a faint grassiness just barely perceptible and more of that vermouth flavor. My glass had no lacing.

Well, my little aging experiment was a failure and you can blame it on me. (We're just sugar mice in the rain.) I should have consumed this bottle years ago. Live and learn. This just means that I need more bracketts to make up for my failing.

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28 April, 2016

Maybe you'd like it back in your cell, your Highness: Escape Route by Sam Adams



The Boston Beer Company, brewers of Sam Adams beers (and other adult beverage brands), made the news recently for all the wrong reasons: sales, profits, revenues – the whole shootin' match, basically, went down in the first quarter of this year. No doubt there is a goodly amount of schadenfreude in some circles over this news. I have read various people unleash streams of invective against the company, its beers, and its founder, Jim Koch, and I just don't understand the ill will.

While I am certainly not inviting anyone to feel sorry for Boston Beer Company, I must admit that I have something of a soft spot for Sam Adams. Having been formed in 1984, Boston Lager was a prominent fixture of my formative microbrew landscape back in the early 90s and I still enjoy it today, though not often. But there are times when I'm at a chain restaurant or perhaps in a city that isn't overly attached to microbrews yet Sam Adams is there.

Beyond earnings statements, Sam Adams has been in the brewing news as of late for its Rebel IPA series and its line of nitro brews in cans. I've not tried any of these beers and, as you see from the photo above, I have been drinking a rather different Sam Adams beer - Escape Route, an unfiltered Kölsch-style bier. Sam Adams bills it as being a "Limited Release" but, for a company that brews 2+ million barrels of beer annually and distributes nationwide, how limited could it be? I suppose it refers to the bier not being available year-round and instead released only in the depths of winter. Presumably the release of a light, easily quaffable brew when it is cold and dark outside in Boston and most of the rest of the country is simply Sam Adams getting a jump on seasonal releases.

As I said, Escape Route is a Kölsch-style bier that is unfiltered. My understanding is that such a bier in Cologne, the style's home, could not legally use the "Kölsch" appellation. And so, while Escape Route's lovely brilliant gold is quite Kölsch-like, its slight haze is most certainly not. Sadly, I had no stange for this review as mine are all packed away. I think that if I'd have had one, my ¼" head would have become a bit taller. Still, my glass had a respectable loose white topping of foam that hung around for a little while. On the other hand, with all those bubbles in the bier, a stange would have gussied up the presentation a little bit.

Escape Route's aroma was delightful and had everything that I expected. There was a really nice crackery maltiness to it that was accented by that characteristic fruity aroma from the yeast which was berry-like but with a touch of citrus. A faint bit of grassy hop lingered in the background.

The bier was light-bodied with a fairly delicate biscuit flavor that nonetheless managed to be big and up front. I absolutely adore this flavor and it's one that golden ales that try to pass themselves off as Kölsches usually don't have. The bubbles I spied earlier added a fizzy bite yet it was not so harsh as to obscure the rather subtle fruitiness from the yeast. It had a nice crispness to it too which complemented the mostly clean flavor.

Those biscuity malt flavors lingered on the finish until they were greeted by a moderate dose of hoppy flavor of the grassy/herbal kind and their attendant bitterness.

This is a very tasty bier. I believe that Sam Adams says the name refers to an escape from winter to spring. But it's also an escape from trendy barrel-aged sour double IPAs. This is not a big bier however you approach it. 5% A.B.V. is a moderate strength; the Strisselspalt and Aramis hops don’t assault you with tropical fruit tastes and are not particularly bitter; the malts give a light, biscuity flavor just as the yeast gives a light fruitiness to the proceedings. My bottle indicated that it was best buy June but I think the hops suffered a bit due to age. They just seemed a bit flat and lacked a fresh sprightly character which would have been nice to have tasted.

Still, Escape Route was, for me, a solid, flavorful Kölsch. It hit the right notes and just needs to be available fresh in the summer.

Junk food pairing: Because the Kölsch is not a big, bold brew, try something lighter with Escape Route such as Classic Ranch Fritos.

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26 April, 2016

I keep drinkin' malted milk, tryin' to drive my blues away: Malted Milk Shake Lager by Stevens Point Brewery



Last year Budweiser aired a commercial during the Super Bowl which mocked the perceived pretensions of craft beer brewers and drinkers alike with a narrator intoning, “Let them sip their pumpkin peach ale. We’ll be brewing some golden suds.” Part of me felt affronted by Bud's disregard for flavorful beers and brewing creativity while another part laughed because I know that I roll my eyes whenever I see a Rogue Voodoo Doughnut Lemon Chiffon Crueller Ale.

While I've never had one of those Voodoo Doughnut beers, I did have a watermelon brew this past weekend – a double IPA from Ballast Point, my first ever beer from them. It tasted like someone had brewed an IPA and then aged it on a bed of watermelon Jolly Ranchers. Not my thing, really, but I am glad that I have experienced a trendy fruit-flavored beer from a trendy brewery. Anderson Valley's Briney Melon Gose suffered from the same candy-like taste. And going back to the second half of the 1990s, I recall The Great Dane being in media res of a fruit beer binge and releasing a really awful watermelon brew. (The blueberry one was good, however.) Watermelon is just a problematic fruit when it comes to beer.

What about beers made with oysters or bull testicles? At what point does novelty lose its original Latin meaning and descend into doing something unusual for the sake of doing something unusual? This is definitely a grey area and I am loathe to think that brewers who brew novelty beers are, to paraphrase Severinus in The Name of the Rose, tempted against nature. Taking the long view, brewing a pastry-flavored beer is, to my mind, another entry in a long history of playing with foods to make them different, amusing, et al. I mean, medieval royalty were presented with whole cow skins stuffed with cooked meat, pies containing live birds (frogs, etc.) just like a certain nursery rhyme, fish prepared to look like a roast, and so on.

Admittedly, bull testicles in beer must violate various ontological categories that our brains use to understand the world. Beer is over here with grain, water, yeast, and herbs/spices while Rocky Mountain oysters are over there with tripe, pig bung, brains, and the like. Surely Pascal Boyer can enlighten us on this matter.

Which brings me to Point's Malted Milk Shake Lager. The beer was one of four in a variety pack released for the first time this past late autumn or winter called Long Nights. These are sweet beers enhanced with flavors that complement the malt. To achieve the desired effect, Malted Milk Shake Lager is brewed with malted milk powder and aged on cocoa nibs. Note that malted milk powder was invented by an English pharmacist and the company he founded with his brother, J & W Horlicks, would produce the stuff here in Wisconsin – in Racine.

Malted Milk Shake Lager pours a lovely dark copper due, no doubt, to the chocolate malt. While not as dark as some porters, it looks almost opaque in the glass. If you maneuver your vessel around, you can catch the color as well as the beer's clarity. I got a small ecru head on my pour which lasted what I think of as an average amount of time – 30 seconds or so. While not effervescent like a pils, there was a fair number of bubbles in the bier heading upwards.

Point advertises this as a sweet bier and this was confirmed by the aroma. It was sweetly scented with the evaporated milk giving it a luscious dairy air. The malted part of the malted milk was also rather prominent. Topaz and Tettnang hops are used here but in the aroma I could only detect a faint bit of grass. To be fair, I don't think this bottle was the freshest example of the bier.

This is certainly a sweet bier. A prominent sweetness was the first thing that I tasted which was a mixture of lactose and bread dough. The former helped give the bier a really smooth feel. Again, the malted part of the malted milk powdered came through loud and clear while there was a touch of bitter chocolate in the background. I tasted a little carbonation as well.

On the finish the malted milk flavor lingered a little and was joined by some of those hops that were in the aroma. While not a big flavor, they helped lay the sweetness to rest with some grassiness and a little bit of bitterness as well. There was no Schaumhaftvermoegen to be had.

Upon her first taste, my wife said, "It's not as bad as it could be." True enough. Malted Milk Shake Lager does taste disturbingly like malted milk. It has a smooth feel to it and a not-unpleasant sweetness which never became cloying. As weird as it sounds, the bier had a clean taste with the flavorings taking center stage with the malt flavors taking on a supporting role. While there's nothing wrong with lactose in beer – see the milk stout – or any of the other flavorings here, Malted Milk Shake Lager just didn't cut it for me. On the one hand, it's a nice middle-of-the-road brew. Not too sweet, no big flavors, 4.8% A.B.V. But it violated those ontological categories too blatantly. The added flavors here are nice but overshadow the natural bier taste rather than complementing it or playing off of it in some way.

Junk food pairing: Keep the dessert theme going. Try pairing Malted Milk Shake Lager with some dark chocolate malted milk balls or turtle cookies.

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22 April, 2016

There's smoke on the porter, it's brewed up in Juneau: Smoked Porter by Alaskan Brewing Company



Back in January I vowed, well, I didn't really vow – it was more of a prediction – I predicted that I'd try Smoked Porter from Alaskan Brewing Company. And what do you know? My prediction has come true! If I had written that post as a quatrain, I'd be Nostradamus.

One thing I discovered in preparing to write this post was that Alaskan has been around since 1986, which makes the brewery an elder of the microbrew tribe. The brewery's website says that it was founded that year by Geoff and Marcy Larson up in Juneau, Alaska. The text is accompanied by a period photograph of the Larsons that sends a shiver down my spine as it triggers the smell of hairspray and the sound of Thompson Twins in my mind.

I write this or something akin to this much too often: Alaskan is a brand that I don't know much about and that I tend to pass over while checking out the shelves at the beer emporium. I think I'd had their Summer Ale and found it to be plenty tasty. It's just that I get shelf fatigue wandering down the aisle at Woodman's. Unless I'm looking for a specific brew, it just becomes a big blur of IPAs and barrel-aged this-and-thats. Alaskan seems to be a stalwart of the scene quietly doing their thing instead of trying to garner the attention of those who crave novelty by using hops that haven't even been christened yet.

Which brings me to Alaskan's Smoked Porter. It was first brewed back in 1988 which makes it one of, if not the, granddaddies of American microbrewed smoke beers. Some of the malt is smoked using the wood of local alder trees. Exactly how the taste of something smoked with alder differs from that of, say, oak or beechwood I don't know. But I was willing to try to find out.

Smoked Porter is deceptively dark in the glass where is appears to be jet black. Upon closer inspection, however, the beer is really a very deep copper color and clear. I got a moderate tan head that stuck around for an average amount of time but couldn't see any bubbles inside the beer itself.

As expected, that wonderful smell of smoke was quite prominent in the aroma. If I hadn't known it was courtesy of some Alaskan alder trees, I would never have been able to tell you what tree sacrificed itself for the cause. Actually, I may have been able to tell you it wasn't a cherry tree. In between and behind all of the smokiness were some typical porter scents – dark chocolate and roasted grain.

I found that the beer had a nice medium-light body as I let the succulent smokiness swirl and eddy around my tongue. Madisonians may be familiar with Karben4's NightCall, a porter which has just a kiss of smokiness to it that accents the lovely dark malt flavors. Well, that's a peck on cheek in contrast to the full-on, sloppy, tongue-down-the-throat, guaiacol-laced, osculatory explosion in this brew. Alaskan was not messing around here.

When not enjoying the smoky goodness, I also tasted a decent amount of other flavors from dark roasted grains: bitter chocolate as well as a hint of coffee and tobacco. I could taste the carbonation too but it was very mild.

The smoke would not quit and hung around through the finish where it was joined by some herbal hop flavor and a touch of bitterness. My bottle is dated 9/8/15 so I'd imagine that the hop flavor was bigger when the beer was fresher. Still, they managed to make the finish slightly dry and an easy come down from the smoky high.

My glass was left with some really nice lacing. A band went around most of the glass and there was just pretty lacing all around.

As someone who loves smoke beers, I will testify that this is a great brew. You get the blast of smoke initially but the flavor mellows out enough to allow the bitter chocolate and other flavors from the dark malts to step up and they all combine for a wonderful flavor. I'd like to grab a few more of these to cellar to find out how the smokiness changes over time. It would also be interesting to compare alder smoked malt to malts smoked with other woods.

Junk food pairing: For a savory snack to accompany your Smoked Porter, get some soft pretzels and smother them with a sharp cheese food product sauce. If you have a sweet tooth, deep fry some Oreos.

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21 April, 2016

For the May Day is the Great Day: Bonfire Maibock by House of Brews



Earlier this year House of Brews proprietor Page Buchanan announced that he'd be brewing four lagers here in 2016. Back in the depths of winter he released the tasty Jailhouse Bock, a doppelbock quite adept at keeping the winter chill at bay. And last month saw the release of Bonfire Maibock to help ease the transition from having Jack Frost nipping at your nose to having mosquitoes suckling at your skin in oppressive heat and humidity.

I have a special place in my liver for maibocks, those malty brews that are lighter in color and in body than their other bock cousins and generally a bit hoppier than them too. With Lententide fasting over, they are not charged with sustaining life alone and so, while hearty, they are not as heavy as the doppelbock. It was through the maibock – a Capital Mindblock, er, Maibock, specifically – that I became introduced to seasonal beers back in 1991.

Full disclosure: I know Brewmaster Page personally but I will be brutally honest for your benefit, dear reader. And, besides, he's not paying me.

Bonfire pours a lovely clear gold. This is one of those biers that makes me wish I had the ability to take nice photographs and/or use Paint.net with something resembling skill because it is really pretty. My pour produced a small white head that dissipated quickly. There was, however, a goodly number of bubbles in the bier going up.

The aroma was sweetly scented and wonderful. Honey came first followed by a light, berry-like fruitiness, which I did not expect. I don't mean to imply it was fruity like one would expect from a Ballast Point Bilge Water Strawberry Maibock, but the malts just had this mild, non-specific berry scent. There was also a trace of grassy hops.

Bonfire had medium-lightish body and a rather rich taste. A nice honeyed sweetness was first on my tongue and, while it took pride of place, it was by no means cloying. Jailhouse Bock was brewed with three sweet malts; by contrast Bonfire only has one caramel malt, Carahell, with Pilsen and Vienna malts filling it out. And while not overflowing with decocted Maillard reactioned melanoidin flavor, the bier did have a really nice toasted malt taste behind the sweetness. Some of those grassy hops were to be tasted in there too.

On the finish the malt sweetness faded as a spicy/herbal Nugget hop flavor ascended. Both the flavor and the not insubstantial bitterness they brought made for a really nice contrast to the malts. Schaumhaftvermoegen was nowhere to be found.

Bonfire is a mighty fine maibock. While I thought it was just a touch on the thin side, I loved the malt sweetness. It had a really nice taste which was almost floral and was neither overpowering nor syrupy yet it was dominant. Some toasted flavors were complementary while a nice dose of carbonation and hops added contrast which helped keep the sweetness in check. Bonfire is smooth and goes down easily. Too easily, perhaps.

Junk food pairing: Have a box of Baby Swiss Cheez-Its on hand when you've got a Bonfire in hand.

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20 April, 2016

Septemdecies Pro Cheeseheadibus: 17UP by Pearl Street Brewery



I recall making a trek to La Crosse while in high school and seeing the World's Largest Six Pack wondering all the while just how much beer the massive tanks could hold. At that time they were still painted to look like Old Style cans, Old Style being my starter beer back when I was a pre-teen. You see, the father of a couple friends of mine kept a refrigerator full of it and some of those cans made their way into our grubby little hands. While the glory days of G. Heileman Brewing are long gone, the Pearl Street Brewery is celebrating 17 years of microbrewing this year on the banks of the Mighty Mississipp.

I tend to think of Pearl Street as being a small brewery that generally flies under the radar. I've reviewed a couple of their beers and enjoyed them but they don't have a signature beer whose name transcends mere trends and is known throughout Wisconsin. Pearl Street doesn't have a Spotted Cow or Hopalicious. Or perhaps it does and I just don't know it.

Regardless, Pearl Street is doing quite alright. Indeed, it is looking to expand their business. And to celebrate the big 1-7, they've brewed a selection of special brews: Wakin' Bacon Breakfast Beer, Stressed & Bitter Belgian-Style Pale Ale, Citrye IPE, Haggis Barrel Aged Scotch Ale, and 17UP Anniversary Gose. That's my understanding, anyway. I've seen only Citrye IPA and 17UP in bottles, however, and I gave the latter a try recently.

It was perfect weather for a light-bodied, tart, citrusy beer, i.e. – perfect gose weather. But 17UP is no ordinary gose. Instead of the usual salt & coriander, this bier was brewed with "natural lemon and lime essences". As far as what constitutes "essences" with regards to food labeling, I'm not sure, but it doesn't appear that the brewer, to paraphrase Taggart in Blazing Saddles, went and got a shitload of lemons and limes.

17UP pours a very turbid yellow. I got a nice, albeit small, frothy white head which, sadly, went away rather quickly. There was a middling number of bubbles in the bier heading upwards. Unfortunately, my fancy-schmancy glassware has been packed so I didn't have a stange to make the bier look all pretty for you. Still, it appeared quite temptingly qauffable, if you ask me.

When you're thinking to yourself, "17UP. I get it. It's a play on 7UP." and then go to smell a bier, it's difficult not to smell the soda. Such is the suggestible nature of the human mind. And so my first sniff of 17UP smelled exactly like 7UP. Or how I remember it smelling, anyway. It was a big, sweet burst of lemon-lime. I also caught some citrusy lactobacillus sour in the background.

Unsurprisingly, the taste of 17UP reminded me of 7UP's except it wasn't sweet – thankfully – and tasted more like fresh fruit than the soda. Lime was the predominant citrus flavor. This is not a maxi-sour bier as the lactic tartness really took a back seat to the fruit essences. But the bier was still quite pleasingly tangy with a subtle lemony bite. I was able to taste the salt but only just. Coriander was M.I.A. but I'm not sure if this is because of my tongue or it was left out of the mix to give the lime and lemon gustatory supremacy. If it was there, it was mild.

17UP's relatively tame tartness lingered into the finish as did the dynamic lime-lemon duo. But what stuck around longest was a really mild salinity. No Schaumhaftvermoegen was left on my glass.

17UP's label notes "Back in 1999, our fledgling Brewmaster tried to offer sour beers like this one to the people around here and they mostly just spit them on his boots." It goes on to proclaim that times have changed. I hope so.

While I do wish that 17UP was a bit more sour than it is, with its sprightly flavor and light body it really hit the spot on a near-80 degree day. There was nothing extreme here – each flavor was doing its Midwestern nice thing – and they all just melded together nicely. The people of La Crosse would have to be crazy to spit this on someone's boots.

Junk food pairing: Eat soft pretzels with 17UP. But instead of salt, use a shake of Pleasoning before dipping into mustard.

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19 April, 2016

Mama's little baby loves rhubarb, rhubarb: Geisterzug Rhubarb Gose by Freigeist Bierkultur



This year marks the 500th anniversary of the German Reinheitsgebot - the beer purity laws. There have been many articles written on the subject (mostly auf Deutsch, admittedly) including one published today at The Guardian called "Medieval beer purity law has Germany's craft brewers over a barrel" which caught my attention.

Now, I am certainly no expert on German bier and brewing laws, Reinheitsgebot and otherwise. And I have to admit that, the more I read about this topic, the more confused I become. The laws are like a mystery wrapped in riddle inside an enigma. If German brewers can't use anything but barley then how come there are weissbiers brewed with wheat? Roggerbiers brewed with rye? And how do brewers get away with adding salt and coriander to goses? Read the article above and try to guess what German law says can and cannot be labeled "bier". How does Germany's membership in the EU affect their bier/brewing laws? Why can't a German brewery brew a milk stout and call it "bier"? Do brewers in Bavaria operate under different laws than say their counterparts in Berlin?

One thing I found rather annoying about The Guardian article is that it gives the impression that German brewers have been adhering to Reinheitsgebot for the past 500 years when, in fact, many German brewers gladly ignored Reinheitsgebot or weren't affected by it because it was not the law of their land. They both adhered to tradition and innovated by using adjunct grains along with herbs, spices, fruits, et al for quite some time. Don't forget that there was no country called Germany until 1871 and the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot at issue here (there was more than one) didn't, if memory serves, have the force of law for the entire country until the early 20th century. And so there were all sorts of bier styles in Germanic lands for hundreds of years before the force of law turned the Bavarian way of doing things the German way of doing things. Check out the extinct and near-extinct German bier styles unearthed by Ron Pattinson and Andreas Krennmair.

And this leads me to today's bier, a Rhubarb gose from Freigeist Bierkultur, a German brewery that gleefully gives the Stinkefinger to the Reinheitsgebot. I've reviewed a handful of their biers previously and cannot recommend them enough. Geisterzug means "ghost train" and is the name given to their line of gose biers. Adorning the label is a photo of the Völkerschlachtdenkmal or Monument to the Battle of the Nations which commemorates Napoleon’s defeat in 1813 at the Battle of Leipzig. And Leipzig is the city most closely associated with the gose even though the style originated in Goslar. While this bier was brewed with rhubarb, the vegetable was added to Freigeist's base bier which is a spruce gose.

The bier pours a lovely gold and was quite turbid. My pour produced a small white head that was very loose and went away rather quickly. This stands in stark contrast to the non-rhubarb Geisterzug which had a big, firm, and lasting head. However, there was a goodly number of bubbles inside this bier.

Tartness reigned over the aroma. I could smell both the mellower rhubarb as well as the more sprightly citrusy sour from the lactic acid bacteria.

I noticed the carbonation on first taste before a wonderful, bitter rhubarb flavor kicked in. It was joined by some of that citrus lactic sour that veered towards lemon. This was not a sour overload and instead the sourness was on par with the other flavors. The spruce was prominent here and it often times threatened to overshadow the rhubarb and the lactic sour but, fortunately, it never carried through on it. Overall it had a really pleasant acidulousness to it – just a little lactic bite – and I suppose a touch from the carbonation as well. Unlike its un-vegetabled cousin, I didn't get much in the way of grain here. A hint of cracker but that was about it. Perhaps this was due to the age of either bier but I cannot say for certain. Salinity was moderate – I could just barely discern the salt.

On the finish that spruce flavor lingered well after any tartness had faded and the salinity stayed behind too. No Schaumhaftvermoegen was to be had.

This was a delightfully light, bitter, and tart concoction. A perfect drink for the warm weather we're having. At 5.2% A.B.V. it's not the lightest of brews around, but its bitterness, tartness, and resiny pine flavors all work well in warm weather. The Dulcinea didn't care for it very much, however. I think it was the spruce that turned her off and that she was expecting the rhubarb to be more prominent. I can respect that. Personally I enjoyed the piney flavor but wouldn't mind having it dialed back to allow the vegetable to take center stage. I mean, how often do you find rhubarb in beer? New Glarus' Strawberry Rhubarb is the only other one that comes to mind. (Hopefully Madison will have a rhubarb saison soon, though.)

Junk food pairing: What to pair with spruce? If it were simply rhubarb I'd suggest some kind of strawberry something but the spruce makes it more difficult. If there were such thing as reindeer flavored potato chips, I'd go with that. Since that's not available, try some Cape Cod Feta & Rosemary chips or Kettle Sea Salt, Rosemary, and Garlic chips. The rosemary will complement the spruce well while the fattiness will be pleasantly cut by the slight acidity of the bier.

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18 April, 2016

All the Goats Went Crazy Up in Cell Block #9: Jailhouse Bock by House of Brews



House of Brews has been and remains something of an underdog in Madison's microbrew scene since opening in 2012 insofar as none of proprietor Page Buchanan's beers has achieved a "must-have" notoriety. (Yet!) I've heard very little criticism of his beers but I also tend not to hear that any given House of Brews beer is the apotheosis of a particular style. My guess is that this is due in no small part to the fact that Page bottled only bombers until relatively recently and eschewed IPAs, by-and-large, until last year when he brewed four of them. The IPA cannot accurately be called a favored style of mine. In fact, my refrigerator is where IPAs go to die, generally speaking, but I rather liked Page's Pagoda IPA. (Full disclosure: I know Page and have spent a fair amount of time in his garage drinking his Prairie Rye.)

My understanding is that business has picked up for House of Brews now that Full House Observatory Pale Ale and Standing Stones Scotch Ale are available in cans. Business must also be good for Page's contact brewing sideline. He surely can lay claim to having made the dreams of more homebrewers come true than anyone else in the state. The list of people whose beers he's brewed or rented space/equipment to is quite lengthy: Dead Bird, Bent Kettle, Greenview, MobCraft, The Hop Garden, Rockhound, Viking Brewpub, Big Bay, and One Barrel. (What have I missed?) Page was also an inspiration/mentor to Jim Goronson of the Parched Eagle Brewpub. He is the unsung hero of the central Wisconsin brewing world.

My taste in Page's brews leans towards his Prairie Rye, Kolsch-like ale brewed with the titular grain, and Bungalow Rye ESB. (I see a pattern there.) And while last year's IPAs didn't capture my interest, this year's promised series of lagers certainly does. First up is Jailhouse Bock, which I initially sampled back in February at the Great Dane's Bockfest. It was one of many, many bocks I drank that day so I was happy to recently revisit the bier.

Jailhouse is a doppelbock or "double bock". The style dates to the second half of the 18th century when the Paulaner monks of Cloister Neudeck ob der Au in Munich first brewed the style to help sustain them through Lenten fasting. Doppelbocks tend to be dark, potent, and full of calorie-rich malt sweetness.

Keeping in line with tradition, Jailhouse Bock pours a dark copper color. It was quite clear which gave me a good view of the abundant bubbles inside. The bier had a small ecru head that dissipated quickly.

The bier smelled much like I expected. It had a very juicy, fruity aroma up front – stone fruit to my nose. (Dear Messrs. Drosner and Rostad – some of us come to beer from food service where "stone fruit" is no more weird and exotic than "citrus". It was pretty rich hearing you guys complain about highfalutin writers who use the term as you waxed eloquently about a luxury food item. Pot. Kettle. Black.) Caramel came in a close second with toasted grain completing the aromatic trifecta.

Jailhouse Bock is one of the smoothest biers I've ever tasted. There may have been a lot of bubbles visible in the glass but they could not stem the tide of velvety malty sweetness. The caramel flavor was rich and buttery, not that it tasted like butter, an off-flavor in bier. This shouldn't come as a surprise considering the use of malts known for imparting sweetness: caramel, honey malt, and Special B which, I discovered, is a Belgian caramel malt. There was also some roasted grain flavor but Jailhouse is really about the sweetness.

It would be easy for such a heavy, sweet bier to become cloying but a healthy dose of Nugget hops really comes through on the finish. All that caramel is given a run for its money by surge of herbal/spicy hops that not only deliver a nicely contrasting flavor, but also a goodly amount of bitterness. Considering how sweet the bier begins, it's surprising just how dry your taste ends. There was no Schaumhaftvermoegen to be had.

I admit that I'm less than timely with this post. It is spring according to the calendar but it's summer outside. Eighty degrees is less than ideal doppelbock weather. My tardiness aside, do grab a bottle of Jailhouse Bock if you see one around. For such a big, (~8% A.B.V.) sweet bier, it was quite easy drinking because it is so buttery smooth. That and the sweetness confronts its hoppy nemesis on the finish and loses, giving the drinker a nice, dry ending to each sip.

Junk food pairing: Jailhouse Bock can handle whatever food you throw at it and will subsume lighter flavors into it hefty malt body. Grab a bag of garlic yuca chips or Herr's Kansas City Prime Steak flavored potato chips.

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15 April, 2016

What Flavor Lurks in the Hearts of Schwarzbiers?: 5 O’Clock Shadow by Grand Teton Brewing



The fine folks at Grand Teton Brewing apparently have a penchant for taking lower-alcohol German styles and turning them into mega-maxi brews. Witness how they turned the traditionally (at least in the past few decades) low-alcohol Berliner Weisse into an über-Starkbier. I was recently given a bottle of their 5 O'Clock Shadow, which the brewery describes as a "double black lager", a.k.a. - an embiggened schwarzbier. It comes in at 7.6% A.B.V. Could they have gotten away with calling it a Baltic porter? Only The Shadow knows…

5 O’Clock Shadow is part of Grand Teton's Cellar Reserve series and the tag on the bottle says "Specially designed to enjoy fresh or cellar for years to come." My bottle indicated that it was filled on 27 January of last year and I don't care how big this bier is; cellaring a lager for "years" is probably not a good idea. I had little doubt that being a year and a quarter old was pushing it. In my defense, I was only given this brew a few weeks ago so the prolonged aging isn't my fault. I swear.

Grand Teton says that they lagered 5 O’Clock Shadow for 16(?!) weeks which sounded quite tantalizing. Cleanliness is next to godliness, right?

5 O’Clock Shadow pours a very deep copper. It was almost as light-gobbling dark as Dark Something. If I held my glass up to the light just right, it appeared to be clear. I also spied some bubbles going upwards from the bottom of my glass. At the top was a loose tan head that lasted what I think of as being an average amount of time – about half a minute.

I must admit that the aroma took me off guard. I figured that a double black lager would positively reek, but in a good way, of roasted malts and of some that were extra roasted as well. Instead my nose was assailed by fruit. Sure, there was some of the expected roasted grain and a bit of grass in the background but it blatantly smelled of peach. How blatantly odd. I took this to be a bad sign thinking that oxidation had done the dastardly deed and turned the precious bier that was months in the making back into wort.

Praise be to St. Gambrinus for my fears were allayed upon tasting the brew. The darker grains had really left their mark on the flavor with a rich chocolatey goodness that was accompanied by a hint of smoke in the background. There was some roasted grain flavor as well as some malt sweetness that was part caramel and part bread dough. Hops were subdued here with only some grassy/herbal flavor behind the wall of malt. I suspect that they were more prominent when the bier was fresh.

Those hops, however, stepped up for the finish where they took on a bigger spicy/pepper flavor. Bitterness took over from the malt flavors too making for a pretty dry ending. There was Schaumhaftvermoegen aplenty with a wide ring toward the top of my glass and large splotches on down.

Opening the bottle I was slightly apprehensive as I thought that perhaps 5 O’Clock Shadow would be a big, thick brew and, consequently, a bit too much for a warm spring day. However, I was wrong. The bier had a medium body and was dangerously smooth. I thoroughly enjoyed the smoky chocolate flavors from the dark grains and also liked, not only the hop flavors, but also the level of hoppiness. They definitely took a back seat here and I can only wonder what this bier would have tasted like fresh.

Folks here in Wisconsin who missed 5 O’Clock Shadow last year can and should enjoy Capital's Fishin' in the Dark in a couple of months or so.

Junk food pairing: Should you be so lucky as to have some 5 O’Clock Shadow lying around, bust that open and grab a bag of BBQ flavored potato chips. The salt enhances the bier's overall flavor while the BBQ complements the smoky dark chocolate.

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13 April, 2016

A Scandalously Good Bohemian: Turntable Pils by Great Lakes Brewing Company

Today I am pleased to present another guest beer review here at Fearful Symmetries and it was written by Sherlock Holmes' friend and chronicler, Dr. John Watson. He generously took time out from his busy schedule to pen this post.



To me it is always the beer...

It was a fine spring morning when I called upon my friend Sherlock Holmes. He had only the previous day concluded a matter of the highest importance to the crown by lending his able assistance to Scotland Yard. Yet he was restless. A man of boundless energy, Holmes required at all times to be engaged in some manner, however small, of exercising his formidable intellect.

Perhaps because Holmes had refrained from cocaine, I was able to cajole him into trading some cultural badinage hoping all the while he would find some time away from ridding London of its criminal underworld agreeable. The moment of lightheartedness proved fleeting as there was a sudden knock at the door.

"Mrs. Hudson! Please do answer the door," Holmes said.

Both Holmes and myself expected the beleagured visage of Inspector Lestrade to appear before us but the light footfalls on the steps betrayed a guest of the fairer sex. A few moments later Mrs. Hudson escorted a beautiful young woman into the sitting room.

"Good day, madam. I am Sherlock Holmes and this is my friend Dr. Watson. Do come in. How may we be of service?" Holmes inquired.

The sylph-like woman sat down uneasily. Distress hung upon her narrow face, her piercing blue eyes gazing listly at the floor. After a brief pause in which she regained her composure, she sat up straight and introduced herself as Miriam Rutherford.

Miss Rutherford proceeded to relate the woeful tale of her brother Michael who resided in Cringleford, Norfolk. Mr. Rutherford was something of a rake and was carelessly spending the inheritance that both he and Miss Rutherford were to have shared...but this tale of the Adventure of the Cringleford Sybarite is to be told another day. Instead I want to relate a more pedestrian story.

After Holmes' initial investigation into the Rutherford family revealed a much grander mystery than we had anticipated, we ventured to the unfriendly confines of the Diogenes Club where Holmes sought to call upon his brother, Mycroft. Upon arrival we were escorted to the Stranger's Room to await the elder Holmes' arrival. It was a short wait and the Holmes siblings immediately began exchanging their usual insults and bon mots.

It was during this verbal duel that I looked away and noticed a nearby table against the wall. The table itself was nondescript and was home to a smattering of expected accoutrement: a gasogene, a bottle of very expensive claret, and sundry glasses. But I also espied a bottle tucked into a bucket of ice which was unfamiliar to me. I felt a bit parched and so, as the Holmeses sparred, I quietly took my leave to investigate the potential quenching of my thirst. It turned out to be a Czech pilsner beer from the Great Lakes Brewing Company of Cleveland, Ohio, in the United States.

On the label was a drawing of the platter of one of the new Victrola sound reproducing devices along with the name Turntable Pils. What this had to do with beer escaped me. But the Bohemians had gained a stellar reputation for their pale beers since 1842 when a brewer in the town of Plzeň conjured the first pilsner from his brewing tanks. Being thirsty and with time to spare, I hastily decided to sample the brew. I furtively glanced about the room to make sure no one was watching and then proceeded to decant the beer into a tall, slender, and tapered yet still capacious glass that sat next to the bucket of ice.

The beer was a thing of beauty to behold. It was dark straw in color and crystal clear. The tall glass highlighted the copious bubbles inside that were making their way up to the creamy white head that sat atop the splendid liquid.

I perched my nose over the glass and inhaled deeply. It was almost overwhelmed by a lovely, sprightly scent. The malts in the beer smelled slightly of bread but mostly of more delicate cracker. On the other hand, the hops gave a spicy and somewhat peppery aroma. Later I would learn that the beer had been brewed using Sterling hops, an American hybrid variety that claims parentage from the Czech Saaz hop plant, amongst others. Could this perhaps have been the fruit of Luther Burbank's labors?

The taste was no less elegant than the tantalizing aroma. I immediately felt the presence of those bubbles that I had seen in the glass upon my tongue. That graceful straw color translated into soft biscuity flavors with just a hint of sweetness derived from the grains. Obviously this lagering process that is so very popular on the Continent produces a nice, clean flavor. The aforementioned Sterling hops rendered a firm herbal flavor along with attendant bitterness.

After swallowing each sip, I noted that the malt flavors quickly succumbed to a sharp hop taste, the herbal component of which was joined by an invigorating spiciness not unlike black pepper. More bitterness ensued. From the beer, I mean, not the Holmes brothers whom I had all but forgotten as I refreshed myself. Just as the glass looked lovely with the newly-poured beer, so too did it appear after I had consumed the splendid drink. Streaks of foam lined the glass' interior along with large patches.

What a felicitous discovery! This Turntable Pils was most refreshing with its light body and lively effervescence. The cracker and biscuit aroma and flavor, respectively, were most agreeable to my palate. And the alternating herbal and spicy flavors of the hops stood in stark contrast to the flavors of the grain adding balance and a brisk kick, if I do say so.

Junk food pairing: Although I was without food while stranded at the Diogenes Club, I could have murdered a bag of Worcestershire sauce potato chips.


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12 April, 2016

Manoominale: Wild Brunette by Barley John's Brewery Company



There were two Minnesotans came out of the West,
Their brews with many a fan,
And these two folks made a solemn vow:
Barley John's must can.


Barley John's Brew Pub was founded in 2000 in New Brighton, Minnesota, a northeastern suburb of Minneapolis, by Laura Subak and John Moore. Fast forward ten years or so and they are keen to expand their business by packaging their beers for resale. Unfortunately their plans ran afoul of Minnesota laws which restrict the sale of beer brewed at a brewpub – it had to be purchased on premises – as well as disqualifying a brewpub from owing a packaging brewery. And so the couple were forced to riven their ownership scheme in twain: Subak became sole owner of the brewpub while Moore opened the packaging brewery across the St. Croix River in New Richmond, Wisconsin last year.

My understanding is that this arrangement is sadly ironic for, while Cheeseheads will have Barley John's beers available in cans, Minnesotans will not. This is Minnesota we're talking about here. They still have Blue Laws. Minnesotans keen on buying cans will have to drive over to Hudson to get it on their regular treks to buy New Glarus. We Cheeseheads are able to enjoy four flavors of Barley John's brews which began appearing on store shelves here in Madison back in mid-February: an IPA called 6 Knot, Old 8 Porter, Little Barley Session Ale, and Wild Brunette, a brown ale made with wild rice. I was attracted to Wild Brunette as I like wild rice and cut my microbrew teeth drinking Capital's Wild Rice lager, amongst other beers.

I took advantage of the longer days to bring my Wild Brunette outside where it almost the magic hour. Not that this helped my poor photography skills very much, but I was able to get a good look at the beers beautiful reddish brown hue. While you may not be able to tell that it is clear, you can certainly see the large ecru head that my pour produced. It lasted a good, long while too.

The aroma was no less tantalizing with the woody, earthy, nutty wild rice right there to greet my nose. The malt added more nuttiness in addition to roasted grain. There was a little grassy/herbal hop scent to be had as well.

That Minnesota grown wild rice came through in the taste and was the first thing I tasted. Perhaps this can be attributed to my brain actively desiring to taste the delectable grass seeds. Although there was a goodly amount of it, the malt flavors were more prominent with more nuttiness and a big sweetness that was redolent of plum and toffee. Lurking underneath was some chocolate. Carbonation abetted the hops in balancing the big, rich malt flavors. Some Willamette greens added a nice, mellow herbal flavor while Warrior gave a sharper, spicier, and somewhat citrusy flavor and some bitterness too.

A swelling wave of spicy/peppery hop flavor and some bitterness swept away the lingering sweetness and earthy wild rice flavor making for a rather dry finish. My glass was covered in lacing with big bands of foam up and down the side.

Wild Brunette is 7.2% A.B.V. and so it is no small beer. It has fairly heavy body and combined with the sweetness could make for a rather cloying flavor. But the wild rice, carbonation, and hops all act in concert to bring the malt to a more manageable level. And I really enjoyed the wild rice here. It dominates the aroma and is no slouch on the tongue either. Plus I just like to see Upper Midwesterners utilizing native bounty instead of trying to emulate the West Coast. I also want to note how much I enjoyed the hops which offer grassy/herbal as well as spicy and citrus flavors.

Everything just blends harmoniously for a tasty, beery gestalt.

Junk food pairing: Wild Brunette is a pretty big beer and will stand up to pretty much any food you care to throw at it. I'd pair it with either some wild rice snack sticks to keep the wild theme going or a bag of Funyons with their roasty onion flavor.

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11 April, 2016

Drink Like a Düsseldorfer: Rhine Heights by Vintage Brewing Company



A few years ago a German television network aired a documentary called Hopfen und Malz Verloren which documented and lamented the state of the German brewing industry. For the final minutes of the program, the cameras are at the 2012 World Beer Cup where German brewers lost in several, if not most, of the German beer style categories. One of those categories, German-Style Brown Ale/Düsseldorf-Style Altbier, didn't even see a German brewer place. The silver medal, however, went to Scott Manning at Vintage Brewing Company for his Rhine Heights.

Ah, the altbier – the official brew of Düsseldorf and cousin of the Kölsch in neighboring Cologne – is a hybridized, bastardized brew. It is top-fermenting like an ale but is also lagered (an Obergäriges Lagerbier). As I noted here, the altbier seems to have been born of the conflicting desires of the brewers of Düsseldorf a couple hundred years ago to not only adhere to ale traditions but also to the new trendy lager. I also discovered that it is fermented at temperatures cooler than an ale but warmer than a lager.

Herr Manning likes to brew Rhine Heights for release in late winter/early spring, although, because it rotates in and out of the Vintage line-up, it is sometimes available at other times of the year. Scott throws every malt he can get his grubby hands on into the brew – pilsner, Munich, Vienna, Kiln Amber, and a dash of de-bittered black. That final one helps give Rhine Heights its deep reddish brown color.

The luscious chestnut nectar was nice'n'clear. My pour produced a lovely creamy tan head that lasted half a minute or so. It was quite effervescent with lots of bubbles inside going up, up, and away!

Despite having a few acres of malty goodness in every glass, there wasn't much sweetness in the aroma. Rhine Heights takes about a month to go from conception to parturition – longer than your typical ale – and gets to mellow even further awaiting consumption. My nose caught a hint of stone fruit but that was it for sweetness. There was also a little vanilla and a really nice nuttiness too.

Rhine Heights is smooth and medium-bodied. I caught a goodly dose of carbonation on my first sip and from there it was off to the malty races. The vanilla from the aroma was here as was a smidgen of chocolate. There was plenty of roasted grain flavor – how could there not be with all those malts? - along with a little toffee sweetness. Overall it had a nice, clean lagery taste. Scott uses Magnum, Spalt, and Saaz hops in Rhine Heights but I only tasted a modicum of grassy hop flavor with minimal bitterness.

For the finish the roasted malt and toffee flavors lingered as that grassy hop taste was joined by a peppery flavor which was surely the Saaz kicking in. The hops accented the malt well and while the Saaz gave a little shot of spicy sharpness, the hops were pretty mellow and not particularly bitter overall. There were a few spots of Schaumhaftvermoegen left on my glass but most of the foam slid into the bier.

I look forward to Rhine Heights every year because I adore its clean malty taste. The sweetness is kept at bay allowing the nutty aroma and roasted grain flavors to come to the fore. But wait - there's more! Rhine Heights adds vanilla and chocolate accents for a big, rich malty taste. Plus I really enjoy the little burst of peppery spice from the hops on the finish. It comes in at 5.8% A.B.V. which is a nice strength for this seasonally transitional time of year.

Junk food pairing: Try pairing Rhine Heights with curry wurst potato chips, if available, for that authentic touch. Barring that, grab a bag of Gardetto's Deli-Style Mustard pretzels.

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10 April, 2016

She Comes in Colors Everywhere: Berliner Weisse from Next Door Brewing Company (With Bonus Content!)



The wife and I made a trek over to Next Door Brewing over the weekend. I needed a beer after agreeing to bid rather more than I had wanted on a house. Id' heard tell that there was a Berliner Weisse available along with a trio of flavored syrups. It was barely above freezing outside so it was not exactly optimal weather for a light, low-alcohol, high-quaffability brew but occasio praeceps.

At its most popular, there were reputed to be several hundred breweries making Berliner Weisse. But the ever-increasing popularity of lagers, the spread of the formerly Bavarian-only Reinheitsgebot, and various wars led to the style's decline. Today I believe there are only one or two larger breweries still making the bier along with a smattering of microbreweries doing their level best to revive the indigenous style.

I have read that the practice of adding a shot of syrup ("mit Schuss") originated sometime during the bier's heyday, the 19th century, and was common by 1900. Traditionally drinkers are given the choice between raspberry (Himbeere) or woodruff (Waldmeister). Next Door, however, offers raspberry, mango, and Blue Curaçao. While there, we looked up just what the heck Blue Curaçao was and discovered that it was the flavor of the peel of the laraha, a citrus fruit found on the island of Curaçao. Why the liqueur is colored blue remains a mystery.

I ordered a flight of four samples: the straight Berliner Weisse and one each of every syrup.

The unadulterated bier was a hazy light yellow. There was no head but I could see a goodly number of bubbles inside the glass. Taking a whiff, I caught the expected citrus sourness characteristic of the Lactobacillus-laced style. Unexpected, however, was a rather strong floral scent that was slightly sweet. I was reminded of rose hip jelly. The beer menu noted that the bier was dry-hopped with Huell Melon hops, a newer German variety, and I presume that was what I was smelling.

That sweet floral scent was also found in the flavor along with a strong lactic tartness which gave a nice acidulousness. Despite a big hop flavor, the bier was not bitter and I could discern little grain flavor. (I'm not sure how much wheat Next Door used.) But it had a nice light body that made me yearn for a summer day.

Mit Schuss: Raspberry. A nice light red color and the bier tasted like fresh raspberry juice. The syrup definitely added a touch of sweetness but it also lent a really nice tart flavor as well. All in all, it didn't dull the bier's natural tartness very much and instead added more. Well played, Next Door. That floral hop flavor lingered in the background and complemented the fruitiness very well.

Mit Schuss: Mango. Hard to tell that it had any syrup in it by sight as it looked very similar to the unadulterated bier. Again, it had a nice fresh, fruity flavor but this was sweeter than the raspberry. But it had a somewhat restrained sweetness; this did not taste like sugar water by any means. The mango worked really well with the floral hop flavor again.

Mit Schuss: Blue Curaçao. It had that turquoise hue that made it look like mouthwash. This syrup was much more subdued than the other two. The bitter orange flavor was really mellow while the syrup generally was not very sweet. I really enjoyed the gentle bitterness here. This one seemed to dull the floral hop flavor more than the others but it was still delightfully present.

The addition of Huell Melon was a stroke of genius. I thoroughly enjoyed the sweet floral aroma and flavor it provided. It added another dimension to the traditionally light, tart, and fizzy bier. (It comes in at 3.8% A.B.V.) I adored the fresh fruit flavors of the syrups as well as their restrained sweetness. Each added something different to the mix – tartness, a heightened (yet still fairly restrained) sweetness, and bitterness. I am really looking forward to the warmer weather as Next Door promises a rotating selection of syrups. Personally I am keen on tasting their take on woodruff syrup.

Junk food pairing: I recommend a hearty plate of poutine with your Berliner Weisse from Next Door. It's tartness and acidity make for a nice contrast to the food's smooth fattiness as will any fruit syrup you choose.

BONUS CONTENT!!

Next Door gets credit from me for serving half-pints. This allows for more sampling and accommodates those times when a full beer is too much. Less waste. And so, in addition to my Berliner Weisse flight, I also got to check out Pilot Pils #2.

It featured New Zealand Moteuka hops which lent a rather nice citrus flavor and bitterness. I felt it had the hoppiness more like a Czech pils than a German one but it was not as hoppy as a full-on version of the former. It had a nice bready flavor but felt that it should have been more like cracker. It just tasted heavier than I expect from a pils. And it needed more carbonation. Not many bubbles to be found and precious little of the fizzy taste. It should have been a bit drier, to my taste. On the other hand, I really liked the hops and the level of hoppiness here.



EVEN MORE BONUS CONTENT!!

My wife ordered a pint of the Märzen and I had a sip. It was tasty. Very tasty indeed. I really liked the malt flavor which was nice'n'toasty, full of Maillard reactiony goodness.


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05 April, 2016

A Deadly Dark Ale: dark something by Wisconsin Brewing Company

Today I am pleased to present the first ever guest beer review here at Fearful Symmetries and it was written by none other than the masterful purveyor of horror and weird fiction, Howard Phillips Lovecraft - H.P. to his friends. He was a bit trepid when I initially approached him but I managed to convince him in the end. I hope you enjoy.



The boreal winds cursed and whined one chill spring evening as I lumbered home from my local purveyor of adult beverages, Arkham Wine and Spirits. While there I had espied a new libation from the Wisconsin Brewing Company which snared my attention – dark something. The beers of brewmaster Kirby Nelson are well known to me and his tastes to some extent shared by me. The shop offered the beer in packs of four with the bottles ensconced in a carrying case that featured a photograph of the interior of what must have been the cranium of a madman with the word "CONSPIRACIES" emblazoned across the sides. Surely madness would lay ahead for anyone who dared decant this daemonic brew.

Upon arriving at home I hastened to bolt the doors and fasten the hasps on the windows. After setting my parcel upon the table, I carefully wrested a bottle from its eldritch packaging only to be confronted with the most disturbing label I have ever witnessed to be affixed to a beer bottle. The label's creator was of a parsimonious disposition as its abominable design was simple and cast in shadow with black and various shades of grey being most prominent. However, there was also a pallid circle outlined in ebon. It was as if the words "dark something" above begged to be segregated from the most luminous part of the label. Or perhaps the cadaverous circle required such segregation…? And those words bereft of capitalization – "dark something" - looked as if they had been transcribed from some grimoire, perhaps even by the hand of the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred himself. In that circle was an amorphous black pattern. It was part Rorschach and part iron-filings-waiting-for-a-magnet. My mind wrestled with it for a few seconds before finally being overcome by the ever-increasing unease.

I fell into some kind of oneiric trance as I gazed at the non-Euclidian geometry of the loathsome pattern. All at once the doors of consciousness were thrown wide open as the sound of a passing omnibus shook me from my stupor. Against perhaps my lone remaining strand of sanity, I removed the bottle's crown and secured a drinking vessel.

Commencing the decanting of the beer, I noted its near-obsidian hue as its ululting roar filled the room. Although a deep brown, it appeared as an impenetrable stygian gloom in the glass. I was eventually able to ascertain that the beer was quite clear. My glass was bedecked with a large, creamy, tan head that lasted a fair while. My eyes could not penetrate the gloom to determine whether or not the effervescence penetrated the liquid or remained atop it. All in all, the beer had a saturnine appearance.

Perhaps against my better judgment I placed my nose above the glass and inhaled. My tulip glass concentrated the foetid stench of the brew and I was able to discern the aromas of swarthy chocolate, roasted grain, and a small amount of sweetness which reeked of stone fruit. I cannot explain my motivation but I then endeavored to taste the accursed distillation of all things dark and devilish.

My tongue was at once assailed by a potent blend of malt flavors. The first was of raisin but it was not particularly sweet. Next was an admixture of tastes from grains that had survived the unspeakable horrors of the flames and been transfigured into having an ink-like appearance. Their horrors had produced dark, bitter chocolate and coffee flavors. A modicum of spiciness from hops in concert with some carbonation lurking in the brew's depths added a slight dryness.

When the pitch liquid had finally made its way into my stomach, I noted a prominent taste of pepper from those same hops along with their attendant bitterness. These hops combined with the beer's potency (at 9.3% alcohol by volume this brew is not for the tremulous) made for a very dry terminal taste experience. Having emptied my glass of the rich concoction, I saw that it was filled with sheets of tan lacing. It was as if the vessel desired to remain opaque despite the absence of any liquid.

This so-called "porter-dooppelbock" mutation stands as the darkest beer I have ever witnessed. It seemed to absorb the refulgence from the room just as a Creole sucks the brains from a crawfish and trap it in its hideous opacity. Still, I was entranced by its primordial blend of the darker flavors of chocolate and coffee as well as its pleasing dryness that all but obscured a modicum of malt sweetness.

I am of the opinion that the Wisconsin Brewing Company ought to dedicate a day for celebrating the release of such a thick, cimmerian, and potent potable which channels rich, deep chthonic flavors so well. I suggest the moniker of "dark something Day".

Junk food pairing: dark something possesses the tongue and engulfs it so any food pairing should be robust. I recommend a hearty potato chip such as Kettle Brand's Sriracha or Herr's Peppered Bacon.

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03 April, 2016

Decoction Madness: Zwickel and 1516 by New Glarus Brewing and Weihenstephan



It's like I died went to heaven this spring. The good news came like a 1-2 punch. First came the left jab that the venerable Bavarian brewery Weihenstephan had brewed a limited edition kellerbier called 1516 in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot and that it would receive U.S. distribution. This was quickly followed by the right hook of New Glarus resurrecting Zwickel with a new formula (when was the last time it was brewed?) and in limited quantities.

Personally, I think kellerbiers/zwickels should be produced in mass quantities and widely distributed, displacing IPAs from taps across the globe. But, sadly, I am in a minority on this issue. So I'll take what I can get. I really enjoy because, in my (limited) experience, they have that wonderful malt flavor that combines fresh and lightly toasted bread. It's that Maillard reactiony/melanoidin taste that German brewers seem to make with ease while American brewers often struggle to create or don't even try to. I think the contrast is most stark with Oktoberfests. German varieties are usually very bready while American ones often have a lot of sweetness.

I've heard two opposing explanations for why German biers have more of that bready flavor. First is that German brewers use decoction mashing. This involves taking part of the wort (the grain-water mixture), boiling it, and then returning it from whence it came. I'm not sure how this is supposed to produce the desired flavors; just some kind of latent heat voodoo, I guess. The opposing view is that German brewers use different malts than American brewers.

Personally I am agnostic on this issue. All I know is that A) I love the Maillard reactiony/melanoidin taste and that B) German biers have it more often and in greater quantities than American beers.

I have undertaken a completely half-assed amateur investigation into zwickels and kellerbiers and it has revealed that they are, for all intents and purposes, the same style. Unfortunately, my inquiry never took me to Germany so I wouldn't be at all surprised if there are slight variations in practice such as one being a bit hoppier than the other or more carbonated.

Kellerbier means "cellar beer" while a zwickel is a sampling valve on a cask and each is an unfiltered lager. They're pale, turbid, and have a solid malty base along with generous helping of hops. That's my take, anyway.

Weihenstephan claims to be the oldest brewery in the world with records showing a brewery having been licensed on its site in 1040. New Glarus Brewing, meanwhile, was founded slightly more recently in 1993 in the eponymous Wisconsin town just south of here. Its brewmaster, Dan Carey, served as an apprentice brewer in Bavaria and is no stranger to German bier.

Each brew has some novelty in its hop selection. 1516 features Hallertauer Record hops, an heirloom variety that appears to be hanging on by a thread. Only 1 hectare was grown last year - that's about 2.5 acres or, as my calculator helpfully informs me, .92 soccer fields. What do Hallertauer Record hops taste like? I dunno. Zwickel features not only German and Czech hops, but also French ones. I've encountered the French Strisselspalt hop on a couple of occasions but am unsure if that is what was used here. The label notes it was brewed with six hop additions and warns drinkers that it is "assertively hoppy". In addition, pursuant to my blathering above on decoction, Zwickel's label also says that it was brewed using a decoction mash.

Zwickel poured a burnished yellow and was clear. 1516 was a little bit darker and appeared light gold in the center of the glass although it was much lighter at the narrower bottom. Unlike the its cousin, 1516 was a touch turbid. Both biers ended up with creamy, white heads that lasted what I consider to be an average amount of time – about 30 seconds. While both biers had bubbles inside, 1516 was noticeably more effervescent.

Beginning with the home team again, Zwickel smelled of bread along with a fresh, zesty hop aroma that was grassy and spicy. 1516 had a similar smell but it was a richer, more yeasty kind of bread aroma and the hops were more like grass or hay without the spiciness. Oh mama! That smell, that bready smell. We were getting into Platonic ideal territory here.

1516 kept the melanoidin melody humming along with a big yeasty, bready taste that reminded me of walking into a bakery. As the bier warmed a touch just the slightest hint of malty sweetness crept in but mostly it was Maillard madness. The hops remained grassy tasting but highlighted with a bit of lemon or citrus. Some carbonation rounded things out with a little dryness. Zwickel's carbonation was more up front but I could taste that wonderful bready flavor. Not as strong as in 1516 but it was still delicious. There was also a little roasted grain taste as well. The German and/or Czech hops offered more fresh grassy goodness but I also caught some floral hop in there which I presumed to be from the French greens.

Both biers finished with lingering grain/bread flavors and a swelling of grassy/peppery hops which added both flavor and some dryness. Zwickel's carbonation was felt here too and it had a more pronounced hoppiness but I didn't feel it was assertive.

In each case my glass was left with some nice Schaumhaftvermoegen. Zwickel gave a few nice streaks along with numerous spots of foam while 1516 left a couple large patches along with several spots.

Ausgezeichnet! These are two great biers. Light in both body and color yet they each are full of flavor. While both had fantastic clean lager profiles, 1516 has more of that yeasty, fresh bread taste which I crave. And each had a goodly amount of hoppiness that fell somewhere between a German and a Czech pils, but it was Zwickel that had a broader and fresher hop palette which delivered on the Noble flavors but also added a little floral to the mix which I loved. I didn't find Carey's creation to be "assertively hopped" as the label admonished and it was certainly much hoppier than a helles, but, at the same time, this was not an IPZ. 1516 is 5.6% A.B.V. and I cannot find the alcohol content of Zwickel but it is surely 5-5.5%.

Dan Carey declares the zwickel to be his favorite bier style. I cannot be so confident as to label a single style as my favorite, but it is certainly a favorite. The zwickel/kellerbier has a wonderful simplicity to it. There is the delicate bready side which is like manna but the hops stand on their own instead of just adding a little balance as they do in a helles. The leafy greens are a distinct set of flavors to savor in addition to lending dryness and balance. This less-is-more ethos must surely make demands on the brewer. Bereft of any bursts of tropical fruit, with no time spent in a bourbon barrel, and no lacing with Lactobacillus, any mistakes or just the fickleness of the brewing gods will be evident in a kellerbier. To have two fine examples at once is a real treat indeed.

Each of these biers have limited availability. I bought my 1516 out at Steve's on Junction Road and was told there was not much left. Zwickel has been available exclusively at the brewery since the middle of last month. It is nearly $18/six-pack so savor each sip.

Junk food pairing: Complement the relative austerity of Zwickel and 1516 by pairing them with soft pretzels dipped in a mild cheese food product sauce.

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01 April, 2016

She Gives Great Helmet: Dark Helmet by Titletown Brewing Company



The dunkles/schwarzbier are two of my favorite bier styles. I adore the various grainy flavors that these biers have. Malty sweetness is kept at bay here in favor of more savory ones that range from the lighter roasted flavor to the coffee and chocolate tastes of those grains subjected to the purifying flames for longer periods of time. I've struggled here to determine exactly what the difference is between the two and, as best as I can figure, the schwarzbier is a darker and more deeply-flavored dunkles. It's got more roasted grain flavors including those of very dark malts including coffee and chocolate. Not that they're thick and rich or any such thing, just that they have a bigger flavor while retaining the nimble drinkability of a pilsner.

Green Bay's Titletown Brewing Company has been making Dark Helmet for several years and it won a bronze medal at the 2009 Great American Beer Fest. The bier appeared in bottles beginning in February in the brewery's hometown and I believe they finally made their way to Madison last month.

Since neither style is especially popular, I was quite pleased to hear that A) Titletown was going to be bottling Dark Helmet and B) that they brewed a scharzbier in the first place. Their pilsner duly impressed me so I had confidence that they could brew a tasty schwarzbier when I bought my six-pack.

Schwarzbier means "black beer" in English and Dark Helmet certainly looks that way in a glass with its deep, dark sepia appearing schwarz. Although I couldn't tell until I got to the end of my glass, the bier is clear. My pour gave a rather large, tan head, about half of which can be seen in the photo, that dissipated fairly quickly. I expected it to be very creamy but it leaned towards the foam on soda or champagne. This bier really put the schwarz in schwarzbier so I was unable to see if there were any bubbles inside.

If I had any reservations about Titletown's ability to brew a lager, they certainly eroded when I put my nose to work. It had a big roasted grain scent with some bitter chocolate underneath and just the barest hint of malt sweetness. The taste was similar with bitter chocolate and roasted grain being joined by a little bit of coffee. The clean lager taste gave only the faintest hint of stone fruit sweetness that was complemented by the subtle taste of grassy hops which gave very little bitterness.

On the finish those grain flavors slowly faded as the grassy hop flavor was joined by a spicier one. The hops never got much past mild and the same went for their bitterness. Just enough to see the malty tastes on their way. My glass was left with only a few spots of Schaumhaftvermoegen.

All doubts about Titletown's competency to brew lagers well should be laid to rest. Dark Helmet is a very tasty brew indeed. It has a nice medium body which I thought was lighter than Sprecher Black Bavarian and heavier than Köstritzer. While full of rich, roasted grain flavor and slightly chewy, it doesn't weigh on your tongue; this is not a sweet beer. I really loved the balance of malt tastes here with toasted grain never overpowering nor being overpowered by the coffee and chocolate flavors of darker malts. There is more bitterness here from dark malts than you'd find in a Köstritzer but it's not at porter levels. My Platonic ideal of a schwarzbier would be a touch drier with a little more hops and carbonation but Dark Helmet is still a fantastic bier and a most welcome addition to the shelves of Madison bottleshops.

Junk food pairing: Grab a bag of Snyder's Bacon Cheddar pretzel pieces to go with your Dark Helmet. The slight smokiness of the bacon flavoring will complement the roasted grain flavors of the bier.

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