Sunday, February 3, 2013

Winter Beer Review 2013

I have not only been dabbling in barleywines this winter, I have also been riding the craft beer wagon to Hoptown. Having a friend who brews - combined with the opening of Vancouver's Portland Craft, combined with my frequent visits to the States - has resulted in a regular imbibing of rare and wonderful beers over the past while. Here are some unique beers my girlfriend and I have sampled over the past month:

Maui Brewing Coconut Porter - A-

I instantly liked this beer for two reasons. The first is that Maui Brewing went against my expectations by avoiding sweetness with this porter. When I bought this I was hoping it wouldn't taste like a Mounds bar, and it didn't. This beer has a dry, toasted coconut finish, which is better suited to sipping on the beach than a caramely winter beer that tastes like a candy bar. The second reason is that Maui is a practical, environmentally-conscious brewery. For example, they only use aluminum, and every can displays an explanation of why glass bottles are so inefficient when considering the production and consumption of beer.

New Belgium Brewing Biere de Garde - B

Before commercial yeast strains...and industry cleaning standards...and the conglomeration of independant breweries, brewers often made batches of beer in the winter to have on-hand in preparation for the unpredictability of summer heat and the naturally ocurring yeasts floating through the air (and fermentation vats) during the hot months. This type of beer is now commonly referred to as saison and farmhouse ale, and it was known as biere de garde ("beer for keeping") in northern France back in the day. 

New Belgium, based in Colorado, is making some awesome beer right now. They have a line of progressive beers that they call the Lips of Faith series, and the Tart Lychee Belgian Sour from this line was one of my favourite beers last year. Their Biere de Garde from the Lips of Faith series has been brewed with Michigan's Brewery Vivant, and it packs a wallop. Maybe it had something to do with the whimsical chickens on the bottle, or maybe it had to do with the fact that this beer advertises it is made with orange peel, but I was expecting a light, dry farmhouse ale. Instead, I got a copper-coloured, Sorachi Ace hopped, high alcohol beast that was more invigorating than refreshing. It's not that it was bitter (it sits at 18 IBU), but it was soooo complex. A satisfying beer, but bold!
Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout - C

All of this winter beer drinking has raised the recurring question: what is the difference between a stout and a porter? The short answer is vernacular and semantics. There is a lot of crossover, and historical misuse has made clear definitions nearly impossible. However, online research has resulted in a simple - and perhaps simplistic - way to distinguish one from the other. Stouts, and especially dry stouts like Guinness, should only use two-row barley and should have zero to miniscule amounts of hop aroma and flavour. Porters historically contain a variety of barley types, crystal malts, and hops. With these two definitions in mind, I often seek stouts during these cold dark months because they are rich and easy to drink. Sadly, pretty much every one of the some fifteen "stouts" I have sampled over the past two months are hoppy and/or sweet, which I find becomes oppressive if consuming these types of beer regularly. I was hoping for something along the lines of Maui's Coconut Porter with Lagunitas' Cappuccino Stout, but it was a far cry from the well balanced flavour and dry finish of the Hawaiian beer. It tasted like someone just poured old coffee into a batch of hoppy porter rather than integrating the grounds into the brewing process. And it was really flat to boot. My search for the ideal porter continues! 

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