Wednesday, 28 November 2012

My Journey to Craft Beer: A Provocative Review

I literally remember that day like it was yesterday.  It was nearly six years ago at a family gathering for Christmas 2006 when my brother gave me an Innis & Gunn Oak Aged Beer and inadvertently created a monster.

I had somewhat drifted away from beer over the years before this as I had just started to get bored with what I thought beer inevitably was; which as far as I knew consisted mainly of Macro-brewed American Pale/Light/Adjunct lagers for the most part.  Sure, I had tried La Fin du Monde (which I enjoyed but simply considered a way to drink 9% beer that didn't taste like those 9% beers guzzled by high-schoolers seeking a buzz), Maudite, Guinness, and a smattering of other beers, but too few and without any systematic insight into what I was drinking nor a fair ground of assessment or an evolved palate to appreciate the difference.

Innis & Gunn changed all of that.  It was sweet, chewy, dessert-like, with excellent vanilla and caramel notes present both to nose and mouth.  It was a revelation!  A sign from the beer gods that beer need not be bland, served at taste-numbingly-cold temperatures to mask its flaws!  A sign that beer could be more than a tolerable vehicle for the dissemination of alcohol!  It was delicious!  Not good, or sufficient, or merely nominally different from any other beer... it. was. delicious!

It made regular beer undrinkable for me as I grew accustomed to it and then, through exploration with friends (notably Riley who blogs here and here though not about beer), I learned more and began to discover the diversity of amazing flavours beer offers.

Riley had been rating beer and on our get-togethers we'd drink new things and share them two ways thereby diversifying our options.  Eventually, I took up ratings too and started to watch the list grow, to notice my tastes and experiences expanding, and before I knew it I was reading, writing, and thinking about beer more than I'd ever imagined I would (and still far less than many a beer-rater, if far more than most folks I know).  (And, btw, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, I actually don't drink too much of it at once very often and have even grown to lament the alcohol, wishing rather to enjoy the beer over the buzz.)

Though I would often call Innis & Gunn my favourite beer (and adored its 2007 Limited Edition IPA - for reasons unlinked to style as it represents that style poorly), and though I would turn many onto the beer and repetitively be called an ambassador for the brand (at one point keeping a count of those I had turned onto the brew - a count I lost in the dozens), I would even move away from this, but not without a lasting reverence for both the taste and historical role this beer served in my "Brewed Awakening."  It is, and even to my ever-evolving palate remains, a delicious beer.

That said, I have since discovered many I enjoy far more and, though I rarely drink an Innis & Gunn these days, I still periodically enjoy one and I fondly taste each of their unique special offerings, seasonals, and one-offs.

Innis & Gunn does one thing remarkably well: allow their beer to acquire excellent, sweet, caramel/vanilla/butterscotch notes from the oak barrels it is aged in - aromas and tastes that suit their beer to a tee.  They have inspired many an oak-aging brewer; many to success and some to failure.  However, I am not quite certain they are excellent brewers - in fact, they admit that Innis & Gunn was discovered accidentally by a beer they intended to discard which they had hoped would impart characteristics into the wood to bring back to a whiskey.  One can only presume the level of brewery masterdom applied to a beer intended for disposal would imply that the beer had not been optimally and carefully crafted.

The beer itself is quite unique - in its sweet flavour and in terms of style labelling - though is dominated by oak notes from the maturation process rather than specific beer characteristics of traditional beer styles.  Often called a Scottish Ale, but less because it shares many characteristics with such beers than because it doesn't really fit into other style categories and is simply brewed in Scotland.  Many of their other beers are similarly unique (Rum-Cask, Spiced Rum Finish, Canada Day) and presumably come from a similar base.  Though that style non-conformity is not a bad thing, and could arguably be a good thing portending ingenuity, it is when they apparently misappropriate styles that they get themselves into trouble with beer geeks and where their brewing shortcomings most expose themselves.

It was about a year after my first discovery of Innis & Gunn that I had their aforementioned 2007 Limited Edition India Pale Ale - and I was even more wowed.  This was like an Innis & Gunn on steroids: even more caramel and vanilla, and loads of creamy butterscotch.  It was then that I began discovering more about beer and for the first time found myself on beer advocate where I accordingly found myself appalled that many were upset this was called an IPA.  Having tasted two so-called "IPAs" at the time - this and Alexander Keith's - I really had no idea what offended people so, though someone said they admired the strong hops character of this beer.  It turns out this comment was made by someone who knew as little as I knew about beer at the time, for this made me presume I liked "hoppy" beers, a term I had learned but knew nothing of.  (Which led to my pending request for "something extremely hoppy," while in San Francisco - could it have been a Pliny at the wrong time in my beer journey? I will never know - that got me a shock I would now love to recreate now that I have learned to appreciate what was then appallingly offside to my taste buds!)

That said, I still recall the taste of that I&G IPA and still think I would love it - though I recall it as having about as much resemblance to an IPA as a gueuze probably does to a Miller lite (which is to say, just about none at all).  In fact, I believe the box may have simply said this was the same recipe with hops added during the oak maturation process.  To me (regardless of whether I am recollecting correctly) this doesn't make for an IPA - even if it makes for one of the most delicious beers I have ever tasted.  I think those expecting something resembling a Pliny may have been as off-put by this as by a Keith's when expecting an IPA that actually reflected common characteristic aroma and tasting notes, even if those two are still so vastly different.

Yet, the typical, light-amber Innis & Gunn beers are usually damn good - loved by many, hated by few - despite their stylistic uniqueness.

But then things get dicier... and I start to sound more like a beer geek as my appreciation of stouts and porters grows.

First, Innis & Gunn released their first stout - aged in Irish Whisky Casks.  I reviewed that beer here and therein note that "it wasn't a great stout, nor a great limited edition Innis & Gunn offering."  I even remarked to others that I had a difficult time even considering it a stout since its tastes were much more like a brown ale - cola like - and its body quite lighter than a stout's would/should be.  Regardless, it wasn't egregious, just not great as an I&G one-off nor as a stout.

Then, I picked up their newly released Winter Treacle Porter.  This beer pours a clear amber body - nothing like a porter - with overwhelming aromas of nothing but molasses (or treacle).  The taste has a tiny hint of oak and roasted malts, but is also vastly dominated by molasses.  The body I honestly don't recall as this became one of three beers I poured down the sink this year.

Maybe I just don't like treacle or molasses much - and I admittedly don't, but I don't mind hints of it in my beer - but that is all this beer is!  The treacle dominates even the oak and any underlying resemblance this beer may have had to a porter.  I certainly see no evidence that this beer is anything but a treacle-doused amber-coloured beverage that could just as easily be alcoholized, food-coloured water for all of the beer notes, let alone porter notes, that are evident.

However, perhaps I now sound like those bashing the IPA and I acknowledge this apparent hypocrisy - in fact, it is self-consciously part of the reason for this post!

In my beer journey, I have come to realize that despite my - personal, so very personal - taste for the I&G IPA, it is (as lamented) no IPA.  It is a butterscotch version of their original offering (or something close to that with allegedly more hops) and, if you like that, and don't expect otherwise, it is delicious.  Perhaps if you like treacle/molasses, this is the same, but if you want to try a porter, this will be immensely disappointing.  I realize that, at least, this time around I&G put Treacle in the name (unlike with the Butterscotch "IPA"), but I suppose my provocation here is to actually brew a solid stout, porter, and/or IPA or, in the absence of that, to at least avoid mis-labelling these experiments that play on my (now diminished) brand loyalty and style loves without meeting some resemblance to the product you claim to be selling.

I truly would love to taste a porter - a real porter - made and oak-aged by Innis & Gunn but, claims to the contrary notwithstanding, it seems they have yet to make one.

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