Review: Stone Smoked Porter w/ Vanilla Bean

This beer isn’t a collaboration, but it follows the idea of combining disparate ideas to make something new, different and exciting. Vanilla porters are somewhat common. Smoke beers are less rare than they have been. The combination still intrigued me enough to pick up a 12oz bottle.

This beer evokes to me the phrase that has lead to many innovations in brewing and elsewhere, “Why the hell not?” Stone had a perfectly successful beer in their Smoked Porter. Then… according to Stone:

Stone brewer Laura Ulrich had a stroke of brilliance… what if she introduced whole Madagascar vanilla beans into a small batch?

If I see Laura (unlikely), I’m going to buy here a drink, because this is exactly what I love about personally about homebrewing and as a consumer about  craft brewing. Take a risk, go out on a limb, don’t be afraid to fail. Stone has been doing that for a long time.

Stone Smoked Porter w/ Vanilla Bean

Stone Smoked Porter w/ Vanilla Bean 5.9%

Review

Appearance: The beer pours a translucent copper with a creamy tan head that recedes quickly to a thin film on top of the beer. There are hints of dark ruby where the light hits the glass.

Aroma: The aroma is incredibly rich with notes rough, smoky chocolate with a heavy, smooth vanilla note taking over at the end. A classic, rauchbier style smoke aroma isn’t there. It’s more a acrid, kilned malt smokiness.

Taste: The taste starts off with a somewhat thin, very dark porter. Lots of dark, kilned malts giving an acrid, burnt flavor. There’s a hint of bitterness as well, but nothing close to overpowering the malt. The flavor ends with a very well rounded, lush vanilla flavor the helps to clear the acridity from the palate. There is a lingering maltiness, but that dissipates after a few seconds.

Mouthfeel: It starts off feeling a little thin, but I’m not sure if it’s a unfermentable sugar in the beer or just an effect of the vanilla flavor, but the end of the sip feel rich and smooth.There’s a light carbonation, the keeps the beer lively without overwhelming any of the flavors.

Overall: I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect here. I know I’ve had the Stone Smoked Porter before. It seemed more like a standard, dark, acrid porter than a rauchbier. This seems more along the lines of Breckenridge Vanilla Porter, but much, much drier. It’s an enjoyable beer, and the flavors work quite well together. I’m interested in trying the smoked porter with chipotle, but I doubt it will be as aggressive as our Pepper Porter or the 440 Pepper Smoker from Original Gravity.

Review: Stone Old Guardian

Stone has quite a few canonical beers. Arrogant Bastard is one of the best West Coast beers. Sublimely Self Righteous Ale acted as the model for black IPAs as they rose to ubiquity. Old Guardian is right up there for American Barely Wines.

While I spend a lot of time in this space talking about the joy of creating or trying something surprising and genuinely new, I do appreciate the standards. It doesn’t seem like summer without Saison DuPont. Two Hearted isn’t exceptional in any way besides being the best widely available IPA in the country. These beers act as guideposts for innovation and change. They are the established base that brewers use for inspiration.

A lot of times, I overlook beers because I see them all over. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to give the out there beers a break and go back to the beers that either created or defined styles.

Tasting Notes

Stone Old Guardian 2012

Stone Old Guardian 2012 (11%)

Appearance: This beer was not as dark as I expected. The beer is a coppery, tan, with ruby tinges when you hold it up to the light. There was a fluffy, off-white head that faded quickly to a thin film.

Aroma: The smell is all malt. Tons of caramel and biscuit comes through. There’s a hint of alcohol heat at the back end of the nose. It certainly isn’t cloying, but has a bit of sweetness to it.

Taste: The taste a bit sharper and drier than the nose. The hops are certainly not overpowering, but come in to help balance the flavor and keep it from being overwhelmingly sweet. At the front of the taste there’s plenty of caramel and malt. The hops follow to dry it out a little bit more. At the end of there’s a fair bit of alcohol heat. You don’t want to have a beer that’s 11% not to have a little kick to it.

Mouthfeel: It’s not as viscous as I thought it would be. There’s not much carbonation; just enough to keep it a little lively. It could actually use a bit more carbonation to keep it from being a bit syrupy. Still, that’s not necessarily against style for a Barley Wine.

Overall: I’m not exactly sure if this is the perfect beer for a 80 degree night with about 90% humidity, but this is certainly a good beer. I had this “cellaring” for about 6 months before cracking it open. That’s really nothing for this beer. I’d be curious to try it after sitting for a year or two. This is certainly a great example of a Barley Wine. There’s a little bit of that Stone, West coast style with the somewhat aggressive hopping, but I think that helps balance it out, rather than move it out of style.

 

Review: Saison du BUFF

Stone has a long history of collaborations. Not all of them are hits, but I can usually find them at my local bottle shop for about $3 for a 12oz bottle. As unit price, it’s a little high, but it’s a low enough price point that I don’t mind dropping it on something that could be a crap shoot. And, with some of these somewhat out there beers, you may not want much more than a 12 ounces.

I’ve been on a saison kick for a little over a year, since I tasted my first batch of Rye Saison. We recently brewed a second batch, and since we certainly can’t keep well enough alone, we decided to split off a bit and do something different. Naturally, I’m always looking for inspiration, and this really seems to fit the bill.

Here’s Sam Caglione of Dogfish Head tasting the beer in a Reno 911 costume (… I don’t know):

Yeah… so there’s that. Anyway, these are three great brewers getting together to do something right in my wheelhouse. Even if it was more expensive, I would have probably still would have picked it up.

Tasting Notes

Saison du BUFF

Appearance: The beer is the color of golden straw. It’s very transparent with a steady stream of bubbles rising from the stem of the goblet. There’s a very minimal white head that quickly reduces to a small patchwork on covering about two thirds of the beer.

Aroma: The nose is led by very earthy, grassy notes from the hops. There is also an herbaceous quality that comes across a little savory and a little spicy. Very interesting aroma.

Taste: Very, very dry. The beer is crisp, clean and dry like a good saison should be. The first taste is the grassy notes from the hops. What follows is a progression from the different herb flavors.There’s a lingering spiciness from the herbs (maybe the thyme?) that leaves the palate fresh.

Mouthfeel: The beer is light and dry with very bright carbonation. Right to style for a saison. A little more head might be nice, but that’s picking nits.

Overall: A lot of beers that are conceived from a joke or reference sacrifice the quality of the overall beer in order to make the more clever joke. This beer manages to pull off the parsly, sage, rosemary and thyme theme by choosing a beer that would be enhanced by the herbs. This is a good beer. The collaboration, theme and whatnot add to the story and help to elevate the beer. A story can elevate a good beer, but it can’t save a bad beer.

Stone Week

This wasn’t really planned, but I ended up picking up a bunch of Stone beers the past few weeks. Turns out I got up 5, so we might as well do a full week of reviews. Most of them are somewhat out there, which is exciting.

Stone Week

The beers for Stone Week

Stone could very easily rest on its laurels and just print money by brewing Arrogant Bastard. They must brew a ton of that, but I’m still always seeing new and exciting beers from them. It’s great to see one of the leaders in the Craft Beer industry still crafting and tinkering.

Beer Trip: Short’s Brewing Company

Though it hasn’t made as many appearances on these pages as I would expect, it’s fair to say that all three contributors to  this site are big fans of Short’s Brewing. Their beers can be hit-or-miss, sure, but the main thing is this: they’re trying crazy shit. We’re big fans of experimentation in brewing, and there aren’t many widely-distributed breweries that are willing to do things like make a bloody mary-themed beer, complete with salty flavor, etc.

So, I’ve said all this to preface an admission: despite our love for Short’s, and numerous experiences drinking their products, none of us has ever made the trip to Northern Michigan to experience Short’s in the flesh.

Until now.

Thanks to a wedding in Traverse City, I found myself in the wild North of Michigan, and – as the plus-one of a member of the bridal party – an entire day with nothing to do. It is common sense what Short’s is, but I continued to journey on.

Location

I knew Bellaire was in the middle of nowhere, but man, Bellaire is in the middle of nowhere. From Traverse City, there are primary routes to take: along the Grand Traverse Bay, or around the other side of Torch and Elk Lakes to the East.

Short's Brewing Company factory

Short’s production facility. “Glory” is a term used loosely in this instance. Sweet rearview, bro.

Since the Short’s production facility is actually in Elk Rapids, about 30 miles from Bellaire, I took the Western route on the way up, and swung by the factory to experience its glory. It was not thrilling, and certainly not while I was just swinging by as I hustled to make it to the brewpub itself.

Elk Rapids is no metropolis itself, but is actually in a pretty cool location, on the channel between Elk Lake and the Grand Traverse Bay. As I said, I didn’t head into the town itself too much.

As for the brewpub itself, I’ve already mentioned that it’s… remote… and that’s the case. The town of Bellaire consisted entirely of a couple blocks, and the brewery is on the Western edge of that town.

Setting and Atmosphere

Bellaire is a quintessential resort town (but with no real reason to visit, other than the variety of lakes a short distance away, I guess), and Short’s is one of the few things that seems like it would bring people into the town. From the outside, it’s an unassuming building as part of a city block.

Short's Brewing Company Brewpub

The calm before the storm.

Stepping inside, however, thinks go from up North casual to that bustling feeling we’ve all come to know and love in brewpubs. All orders are taken at the counter – be they for food or beer – but wait staff actually brings the product to you once you grab a table flag and find a seat in one of two rooms.

The bar room is the one you enter walking into the storefront, but near the back of the space, there is a short set of stairs down into a larger (or at least more spacious) room. In that room, there is a nice stage for live music, and a number of hightop tables along the walls, and standard low-top tables with seating along the middle.

I would have love to have the opportunity to see some live music there, and if it wasn’t so remote, I would make a trip just to see that (and to get some more interesting beers – more about that in a moment). As it stands, it’s likely something that won’t happen without a special set of circumstances.

The Beer

So, I mention that there weren’t many great beers – or at least not exciting ones – on my trip to Short’s. That is in direct contradiction with my opening paragraphs, no?

Well, my speculation (the place was busy enough that I didn’t want to hassle any waitstaff about it) is that, thanks to the Michigan Brewer’s Guild summer festival in just a couple weeks, they’re holding off on presenting many creative offerings in the brewpub until after that event.

Short's Brewing Company beers

Flight paddle.

Regardless, I wasn’t going to drive that far North without trying a few brews – albeit a couple I’d had before – so I picked up a flight. The image at right shows (from near to far): 2009 Golden Rule, Alter Spalter, Autumn Ale, Spruce Pils, and The Magician.

The Spruce Pils tastes downright earthy, green, planty… it has the same flavor of the smell of a certain substance. I’ve had it before, this came as no surprise.

The beer that did surprise me – and again, it’s one I’d had before – was The Magician. It’s a nice brown ale, with plenty of toffee and caramel tastes in the malt experience. It’s lightly hopped – though the Short’s menu mentioned that makes it ideal for newcomers to beer (with the implication that it’s not good for anyone else), about which I couldn’t roll my eyes hard enough.

The other three beers were mostly non-notable. They were good, solid beers, as is expected. Any other week(s) of the year, however, I wouldn’t have even bothered ordering them, instead opting for one of the more creative offerings you’d typically see on draft.

Summary

Short’s is known as a good brewery, and making the trip didn’t do anything to dissuade me from thinking that. It’s in the middle of nowhere, both an annoyance and part of what makes it so special. It’s worth making the journey only if you’re headed in that direction anyway, but on a standard week with a more creative beer list – and the chance to see a bit of live music 0 it can make for an excellent experience.

Going Wild

I’ve mentioned a lot of times that one of my favorite things about brewing is trying to new things and trying to create something I haven’t tasted before. One of our first beers was a Peanut Butter Porter. One of our favorite beers that we made was our Chili Pepper Porter.There’s something exciting about doing something you’ve done before to make something you’ve never tasted before.

Jordan and I brewed another batch of our Rye Saison a few weeks ago. As we were brewing, we threw out a few different ideas. We thought about doing jalapeños, black peppercorns, sage and few a others. Eventually we landed on funky-ing up our beer with some Brettanomyces.

Brettanomyces

Brettanomyces Cells

Brett is in the same family as almost all brewing yeasts, but it attacks sugar in a somewhat different way. We used Wyeast 3711 (French Saison) in primary. This yeast eats most of the simple sugars and outputs most of the booze. The first batch this was all we used. We pitched the Brett in secondary, after the Saison yeast did most of its work. During this phase, this yeast attacks the more complicated sugars in the wort and produces slightly more booze but also acetic acid and esters that give it that barnyard or horse blanket smell.

There are a few different varieties to choose from, but we ended up choosing Wyeast 5526 (Brettanomyces Lambicus™) . The description from Wyeast is:

This is a wild yeast strain isolated from Belgian lambic beers. It produces a pie cherry-like flavor and sourness along with distinct “Brett” character.

I’m thinking the tartness and fruitiness will work well with the yeasty, dry flavors of the Saison. We won’t know what the end result will be for a few months, but I’m already excited.

We have half of the Saison in secondary without any doctoring. We might even be able to mix at the end. There’s a decent chance that this won’t work out, but it’s almost always worth the risk for the chance of creating something new.

 

Review: Clown Shoes Hoppy Feet

I remember when I first heard of Black IPAs. There were posts trying to figure out what to call this new style. Is it a Black IPA? A Robust Porter? Cascadian Dark Ale? The industry seems to have settled on Black IPA, and they’ve started becoming fairly commonplace.

I remember the first BIPA I tried. I was at my go to bar, with my go to server (who has since changed jobs) looking down the draft list. I asked him if there was anything exciting, and he just nodded and started pouring me Stone Sublimely Self Righteous Ale. I’m not sure if that was the first major BIPA, but I know it certainly was a lot of people’s first BIPA. There are moments quaffing beer that are special, when you try something that you haven’t tasted before. That was one of those moments.

I continued to keep a look out for BIPAs and picked them up at bottle shops or ordered them at the bar when I found them. But after a while, more and more started showing up. Some of them still blow me away, but the hit rate seems to have gone down, and I tend to look for other styles.

Fred Armisen from Portlandia

BIPAS ARE OVER!

This is where I push up my hipster glasses and tell you how much better it was before Black IPAs were mainstream. I do worry that I’m becoming a beer snob who will turn up his nose at a perfectly good pint. Well, I decided to give it another go, and picked up a bomber of Clown Shoes Hoppy Feet Black IPA. The brewer describes it:

Hoppy Feet has been lovingly crafted by combining Premium malt with lots of Amarillo and Columbus Hops.  Grapefruit and Pine are balanced on the nose and on the palate by a nutty, dark chocolate, roasted backbone.

This has been knocking around in my “cellar1” for a while. I generally try to drink hoppy beers fresh. I think you get more of what the brewer is trying to produce that way. This may not be a completely fair shake, so I might try it from a tap if I see it around to compare.

Tasting Notes

Clown Shoes Hoppy Feet

Clown Shoes Hoppy Feet Black IPA

Appearance: The beer pours a very, dark copper, with very little translucence. Holding up it the light, you get some flashes of ruby. There was a one finger, creamy head that receded quickly down to about half a finger and remained there.

Aroma: The aroma is a mix of a spicy hops with a strong caramel note from the malt base. The nose is incredibly well balanced.

Taste: Unfortunately, the taste isn’t as well balanced as the nose. The first flavor is a muted malt taste, that is immediately followed by an intense bitterness that mixes with alcohol heat and some acridity from the dark malts. The after taste is a lingering, coating bitterness that stays on my tongue.

Mouthfeel: The beer is very smooth with a slightly heavy body for an IPA. There’s a bit of carbonation from the bomber, but nothing too effervescent.

Overall: Maybe I’ve just been in a BIPA overload, but this beer doesn’t really do much for me. The bitterness overpowers the malt flavors that I want, yet manages to accentuate the acridity that I would want to hide. Also, while I enjoy hoppy beers, I don’t care for the lingering and sometimes muddy bitterness in a lot of IPAs. The best hop bombs, Firestone Walker Double Jack and Bell’s Hopslam (short list, and strictly my opinion), have a great hop nose with a deceptively strong malt backbone to stand up to the hops. The bitterness also is cleaner, with more flavor, be it citrus, spice, earthiness, grassiness, rather than just unplaceable bitterness.

  1. My “cellar” is a couple of cupboards above my microwave.