Sunday, 17 November 2013

Now For Something Barrel-Aged: Hopfenstark's 7th Anniversary

Yesterday I managed to get to Station Ho.St for the first couple hours of Hopfenstark's 7th Anniversary party.

By the time they opened (around 2:20 pm), the lineup had grown enough to fill all of the seating in the establishment with a happy mood of delighted beer geeks, and by the time I departed (around 4:20 pm) most of the standing room was taken as well.  A nice turnout, but nowhere near the insanity of some other anniversary parties.

I was hoping for sample flights, while 8oz glasses were the minimum.  That, coupled with tap rotation and the need to remain functional for the evening meant I got through five delicious beers (and tasted another from a friend) and some thoughts follow.  If the kegs aren't all emptied, I encourage you to swing by and clear them out!

While I have often called Dieu du Ciel Canada's top brewery (and placed Hopfenstark close behind), brewmaster Fred and company at Hopfenstark truly are the barrel-agers extraordinaire of the bunch and the reviews below should make that clear.

I began with the Saison Station 16 variant that had been aged in white wine barrels (8% ABV).  This rye-brewed saison, from Quebec's master saison brewery, is a regular favourite, and the added complexity from this aging process is marvellous.  It expresses a delectably enticing tart fruity vinous nose with substantial wood notes. There is no head to speak of as the carbonation is slight, while the flavour is of grape-like wine with some of the rye evident on the finish that lingers with some profound woody complexity and some dusty funk.  The peppery and bubble-gum notes of the original remain, but are muted by the woody complexity.  This is a VERY fine beer, while my only real, and very slight, beef is with the dearth of carbonation though the body is nice if a touch oily without any noteworthy effervescence.  Grade: A

Next, I turned to the rarely brewed and highly hyped saison/lambic blend they call White Chalk (5% ABV).  A chalky and lace-like white carpety soft film of head capped a cloudy dark yellow base.  The nose was nicely tart but tempered with substantial citrus notes of lemon and zest, alongside some barnyard dust.  Similarly, it presented flavour notes that were fairly if not excessively sour with some decent chewy leather funk.  It began  fairly tart as the carbonation spread the notes throughout the mouth, but dries more funky with some wheaty citrus qualities leaving a nicely dry lingering finish.  It was very good, if slightly less complex than I'd imagined (though it was assuredly still fairly complex nonetheless). This had the moderate and stronger carbonation I'd have hoped for in the former, and both were highly drinkable to fans of the funk!  To characterize it with a bit of an oversimplification, it had more lambic on the nose and up front, and more wild saison in finish.  Grade: A-

My third delight was a 6-year old, oak-aged, soured variant of their Baltic Porter de l'Ancrier (8% ABV).  I love me some soured stouts/porters!  This one presented that ever-so-slightly reddish-tinged slight head reminiscent of barrel aged stouts and porters.  It wafted a brilliant nose that was mostly tart and lightly acidic with some sour cherries and hints of dark roasted chocolate. Taste-wise, it showed some toasty sweetness up front that dried out with a uniform tart and lingering finish, but one that lacked the depth of expression that the complexity of the nose had portended.  On the mouth, it remained fairly creamy with sufficient, if light carbonation.  Quite good and drinkable, if not as fantastic as I had been hoping after the early delights. Grade: B+

I then enjoyed a sip of the Bourbon-Barrel Aged Variant of Ma Chaumière (10% Strong Ale).  This oddity smelled strongly of a bourbon-aged imperial stout with some raisins and vanilla-forward bourbon alongside the chocolate roasty notes of enticement!  The taste, however, is entirely different resembling something like a cross between a barleywine and an imperial dark saison that has been barrel-aged!  It begins with some raisins, vanilla and bourbon but ends with a solid herbal hops finish of substantial bitterness, depth, and linger.  A nice full body and more carbonation (if slight, prickly, and fine) than the others tasted thus far, this is a unique and well-brewed oddity.  Grade: A-

My final review herein will consider the white-wine barrel-aged variant of 7 Sisters / La Pleïade: Maïa (9% ABV Belgian Strong Pale Ale).  This cloudy orange-ish, almost reddish-tinged brew expresses a magnificent nose of sour grapes and sweet wood.  It is slightly funky, but in a complex and thorough manner something like slightly fermenting fruit with just enough remaining sweetness to invite a sip.  This easily has one of the best noses I have ever experienced, and the taste... wait for it... was just as good, with similar 'lightly-off' (in a good way) faintly sweet fruity flavours but a perfectly dry floral and herbal hops finish alongside some complex grape must.  It was not sweet in a sweet-tooth way, but just had sweet enough fruit complexity to bring in the finish in a perfect balance.  The mouth was a touch oily with moderate carbonation allowing the expression of its many strengths.  This beer was simply fantastic!  Unlike the non-barrel aged versions, it offered no distinct yeast presence but remained amazing on its own terms!  Easily one of the top 5 beers I have ever tasted and, depending on my mood, perhaps the best!  Grade: A+

Though I also had a 14-month Bourbon Barrel Aged Kamarad Friedrich Imperial Stout, I have reviewed this delight before, and though I wish I could have stayed to try the Red Wine Maia variant (after the success of the white wine one) and perhaps Framboise Forte, I - alas - had to depart.

But, if you needed any reminder of the strengths of this brewery and of the need to watch for their Monday Rare Beer Night kegs or their Tuesday Barrel-Aged Beer events, consider yourself forewarned.  I may call off work if/whenever Maia White Wine appears and drink it all.  I'll fight you!

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Imperial Stout Tasting 1.0: The First of the Newly Cold(er) Season

I greet Winter with a mix of dread at the thoughts of bitter temperatures alongside icy/snowy commutes and joy at the promise of imperial stout season.  Bold, warming, strong, dark, full-bodied, high gravity brews cut the edge off of Winter and, I believe, have become my source of life through the otherwise lifelessness of the inhospitable climate of this most painful season here in Montreal.

Yet a great sense of guilt overcomes me as we had our first zero degree celsius days this past week following our first (mostly) imperial stout tasting of the season; perhaps the cold resulting from us perversely welcoming and inviting the season in this bizarre ritual!  To the degree we are culpable, let me take this opportunity to apologize, but also to say you're welcome for us unofficially kicking off the season thereby granting official malty tasker permission to crack your cellared delights that have been awaiting these cooler times!

As always, when the gents from and I crack brews, we don't fuck around.  So, without further ado, here is the lineup (the St. Ambroise's are 2011, 2012, and 2013 vintages respectively, btw):

Hill Farmstead's Twilight of the Idols (a 7.2% ABV "Winter Porter" brewed with coffee and cinnamon and aged on vanilla beans), while not an imperial stout, suited the theme well enough and began as a warm up.  Unfortunately, this unfiltered, live beer had its remaining yeast keep working and exploded upon opening in the most intense way I have ever seen - volcanically frothing forth and losing at least half of the bottle to the table, the floor, and the coasters (not to mention my hands and, with massive foaming pools forming on the table, to my mouth in my first ever table-sip as it would have been a waste to let such pools drain elsewhere!)

Upon pouring the remainder, we had limited sips - probably about 3-4 ounces each, rather than the 6-8 anticipated.  Moreover we lost much of the carbonation, which for this style is fine for me but led to a unique tasting experience that may not be representative.  Thus, my brief notes will say the following very tentatively:

This Nietzsche inspired porter was quite dark and viscous with no remaining head after exploding half of its contents in the opening geyser, though the nose wafted a some coffee and roast malt notes with a hint of something metallic.  The taste was of dry, with just a trace of vanilla.  It had a decent roasty linger, alongside a creamy feel without much effervescence (though who knows if that's to be expected!).  It was a bit boozy on the palate - in fact the booziest beer of the night despite being the lowest ABV - which I found odd and it may also be due to the explosion.  I won't rate this beer in this context as doing so would be unfair, but as with all things Hill Farmstead, it certainly intrigued enough to inspire a future second take if I get the opportunity!

Turning to the true style of the night, Imperial Stouts, we then enjoyed the Alesmith Speedway Stout (12% ABV Coffee Imperial Stout), pictured below.  This was brought to me from California by a colleague this summer (a thousand thank-yous, again, Alberto!) and looked as magnificent as imagined, building the anticipation:

See?  A nice black body capped by a thick tan head with decent staying power, despite its high gravity. Though the nose is quite nice, it's a bit milder than in many of my favourite imperial stouts.  It presents muted-but-pleasant dark chocolate bitter-sweetness with just a faint hint of alcohol and slight notes of cherry.  The taste is predominantly of bitter-sweet dark chocolate/cocoa without much coffee that is rather muted but presents mostly in a dry, well-roasted finish.  This beer is not sweet, but it has sweet elements tempered by its roasty-dry finish.  In ways, it's more balanced than I'd like in an imperial stout though I greatly admire its balanced complexity and enjoy drinking it immensely!  It was just slightly warm to the tongue, but nicely warming in the chest (as one would expect of a 12% beer) but there is no way you'd estimate its well-hidden alcohol content.  It's rich on the palate, while moderately creamy with only light carbonation in a medium body.  Though in ways this hits neither the nose, the taste imbalance, the coffee content, nor quite the body I generally seek in this style, it starts tasty and grows in pleasure with each subsequent sip!  It differs from my expectations, but is nonetheless a well-brewed marvel, a true pleasure to imbibe and a reminder of all that beer can be!  Grade: A

I have no qualms about professing my profound love of McAuslan's annual St. Ambroise Bourbon-Barrel Aged Stout Impériale Russe (9.2% ABV).  For my own tastes this, in many ways, defines the style for me personally and stands up to many of the more highly praised American competitors.  And it ages magnificently.

Thus, we pulled forth a cellared 2011, 2012, and the brand new 2013 release.  We had three glasses in front of us at once so as to be able to go back and forth between them.

Having previously had two vintages of this gem in juxtaposition, I knew that despite its fresh delights, its aged wonders simply improved the near perfection, thus I began with the 2013.  This thick, black, full-bodied, viscous delight shows a reddish-tinged mocha head of beauty and expression.  As recalled, that expressed nose is just lightly bourbon-esque with traces of vanilla and wood, but also a deeply roasted malt with some fresh earthy and piney hops that fades over time.  Don't get me wrong, it is malt-forward and yet not sweetly aromatic in more than a slight way, tempered by the hops and the roasty bitterness evoked and anticipated.  Tastewise, this beer is of dry unsweetened cocoa up front with an espresso-like dry finish of moderate length, but maximal substance.  The older (both years) versions offer increased wood and vanilla bourbon notes making me wonder if they were aged longer/in fresher barrels or if these notes express more over time.  Regardless, as great as this beer is fresh, it just gets better!  Thus, I never open too many fresh!

The feel is creamy and though I love the Speedway (which isn't sweet) it contrasts more sweetly in juxtaposition to this delight.  The 2012 wafts the most vanilla-forward nose and rounds out/smooths out the flavour from its sharp dryness, while the 2011 has the woodiest notes and the smoothest/most rounded out subtlety and complexity of the three.  In reverse chronological order, this is a tasting that starts amazingly and just gets better!  2013 Grade: A; 2012 Grade: A+; 2011 Grade: A+

Unlike the first two beers that are much more difficult to procure (at least in Eastern Canada), this last treat can be more easily procured.  Costly, at $6 per bottle, this beer is available wherever better beers are sold in Quebec and at the LCBO in Ontario.  Buy a few, store them upright in a cool, dark place, and crack them next year or the year after to experience a true delight!  Or better yet, do it each year and start your own vertical tasting tradition!  Stay tuned for next years' 4-year vertical update!

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Celebrating Sour Beer Day in Style

Those who follow me regularly know that I spent this year’s Sour Beer Day/Zwanze Day at the 15th Anniversary Party of Dieu du Ciel, but like many more traditional holidays, the friendly gatherings stretched on and the festivities continued!  Thus, a few days later, a visiting sour beer-loving pal, Rob, and Noah, the mastermind behind, joined me for an epic tasting following the festivities.
The Lineup (Note the Beer Judge Certification Program Style Guidelines in the background, brought to the table when my less than two-year old ran in with it excitedly shouting, "Daddio, Daddio" before he went to bed and we cracked the first bottle!)

The night began with Quebec marvel Brasserie Dunham’s excellent Saison Réserve (a 6.5% ABV blend of their Saison Rustique [82% of the blend] and their Leo’s Early Breakfast IPA [the remaining 18%] which was then bottle re-fermented with wild yeast).  The result is something to behold regardless.

My comment that this had such a mountainous rocky head that ants would deem the peaks akin to Everest brought my wife to chuckles (as it should - #shitbeergeekssay), but my first impression was true wonder at this marvel of heady peaks that are unparallelled in my beer drinking experience.  The nose offered some excellent earthy hops notes alongside some barnyard funk, while the taste was lightly sour with a more prevalent barnyard funk, merely negligible traces of the guava and tea, with a more substantial dry lingering earthy hops that blended well with the funkiness.  The carbonation was bold, but not overpowering and I was thrilled to drink this delightful brew.  Grade: A/A+

We then turned to Jolly Pumpkin’s Oro de Calabaza (8% ABV American version of a Biere de Garde). Presenting a moderately cloudy yellow with a fair fizzy white head, this beer didn't immediately appear as noteworthy as the Réserve and, though the least sour of the night, was still a wonderful treat. Moderate barnyard funk notes complemented some floral hops in the aroma, while the taste had some oak noes and a bit of faintly fruity funk, but with an easy drinkability. There was a substantial amount of funk here, but not so much in the way of acidic tart sourness, which showed well with decent prickly carbonation. Sourness isn't the criteria for excellence, however, and this (like all beers that night) was excellent! Grade: A-/A

The Bruery's Sour in the Rye (7.8% ABV American Wild Ale) came next, pouring a decent, if-quickly dwindling head atop an orangish-reddish body. The nose was nicely tart with some woody notes present underlining the balsamic sort of vinegar aroma. It was quite tart with sour candy-ish notes without any of the sweetness. Just a hint of the rye spiciness propped up the tartness adding a decent complexity (to what was already quite nicely complex). This was supported by a fair body and a decent carbonation. Grade: A

Finally, we side-by-sided Girardin Gueuze 1882 Black Label and Tilquin Oude Gueuze a l’Ancienne.

Separately, these high quality Belgian gueuzes would seem quite similar, but together we could go back and forth highlighting the differences in contrast.

The Girardin Gueuze 1882 Black Label (5% ABV) poured a lightly cloudy yellow without much head. The nose smelled like a "dusty barnyard" according to Noah, and I couldn't agree more wafting hugely funky aromas from cobwebs, dust, and horse blanket - the whole gamut. Tastewise, it was equally funky and though the Tilquin was too, its funk paled in direct comparison, even if it was probably slightly more acidic. The Girardin, however, offered a very tingly feel with an expressively barnyard-y and leathery lingering finish of noteworthy complexity, with a light-ish body. Grade: A/A+

In juxtaposition Tilquin Oude Gueuze a l’Ancienne (6% ABV) poured an ever-so-slightly darker light amber than the Black Label Girardin and had a slightly more sour nose with just mild fermenting fruity notes discernible. It was very tart and fairly funky, perhaps a touch more tart and a touch less funky than the girardin, with just slight hints of wood and fruit underneath. Medium bodied, with a full tingly carbonation, this was a delicious delight for fans of the funk! Grade: A/A+

All in all, the single best tasting I have ever sat down for in terms of high standard all along! You know when you rank Oro de Calabaza as the lowest of the night, you are in for a real treat!