For the Love of Beer

Posted by on Dec 11, 2013

In the whirlwind of activity that invariably predates Christmas, it’s been difficult to find a spare moment to write up all of the fantastic things that have been opened here at Appellation. I realize the inherent self-congratulation of the last part of that sentence (of course I only showcase the best!) but last week’s first beer tasting was particularly near and dear to my heart as it consisted of some of my all-time favourites; the beers that make me just so warm and fuzzy inside. For that reason, this entry will continue with the theme of self-indulgence while I preach to the masseswhy these beers are so incredible (simultaneously shedding light on what makes beer in general so incredible). Don’t worry, though, there’ll be some tasting notes worked in as well.

1) Orval: Trappist beers always have a certain mystique and promise about them. These monks are known to be couriers of the craft and I for one have adored every one I’ve had. I was introduced to Trappist beers with Chimay Red, but having lived in the States for the majority of the last year, it wasn’t until a return visit to Scotland in May that I came to Orval. Unique amongst the breweries for its use of a Brettanomyces yeast culture, Orval works its magic by presenting the yeast in a very subtle way. While it’s barnyard, funky characteristics are present, a pineapple, spice and herbal quality predominate and are followed through by a soft sweetness and subtle hop character. As such, when first drinking this beer in a pub having just been reunited with one of my best friends, I was able to drink it as a beer: it was refreshing and flavourful. But when the conversation came to a pause it would demand my attention and its complexity would really hit home.

2) Odell IPA: One of two that we revisited from past tastings last Monday, and the reasoning should be apparent by now. Even if this beer didn’t have such a bold hop profile, a nice Crystal malt caramel and sweet bread characters which blend so perfectly into a resinous finish, it would still be brewed by Odell. This was a household name for me growing up, but my first experience of Odell’s quality was on a tour of their brewery almost exactly two years ago. Our group was big enough to warrant taking two cars (neither of which I had to drive, thankfully) and after a long drive in the snow singing Christmas carols we rocked up and I had a pre-tour pint of a special ‘Oil Can Stout’. Up to that point I had yet to experience such a potent chocolate character in a beer. That pint and that brewery tour were what got me hooked on craft beer, and since then I’ve tasted every beer brewed by Odell that I could get hold of. I don’t know if the IPA is my favourite, but it’s such a great example it doesn’t really matter.

3) Rochefort 8: Another we’ve seen before because I like to take every opportunity I can to taste Trappist beer. But when you consider that I only revisit about 5% of the beers I ever taste/buy, it reveals just how beautiful this beer is. Nor did it disappoint this time around, as while I picked up on the nutty spice characteristics I was accustomed to,  along with the presence of boozy toffee apple aromas, an astute compatriot at the tasting pointed out a hint of chocolate cherries in the mix as well. It’s the beers that have something new to offer every time you go back to them — taste to taste, bottle to bottle, and year to year — that really make me skip with joy.

4) Mikkeller Jackie Brown: I first tasted this beer in early November and it blew me away. It’s a beautiful meld of piney, earthy hop aromas that fade into a treacly, chocolate-filled malt complexity, with the hops once again rearing a resinous head at the end. It’s difficult to find a beer with a malt complexity that is equalled by a hop complexity, and even rarer to come across one that exhibits the two so seamlessly. It inspired me to brew my own the very next day and while my beer has nothing on Mikkeller’s, it’s still an interesting beer that I’d probably qualify as an American Brown Ale. I think Mikkeller’s has a bit too much to offer to comfortably sit into that category, and it’s nice to come across beers that transcend definition without blowing your head off with some overwhelming constituent.

5) Traquair House Jacobite Ale: I’m not ashamed to say that I listen to bagpipes even when I’m not on the Royal Mile. In a way, Traquair House similarly appeals to that deluded American side of me that only wants to see Scotland as Mel Gibson would present it: their very brewery exists under a monument to Charlie and his Jacobite following. That being said, two of their three beers are nothing short of fantastic. I would have gladly showcased the House Ale instead of Jacobite, but Jacobite has a bit more alcohol and that pleases me. Overall, it’s slightly reminiscent of Rochefort, with a nutty, marzipan, estery spiced nose. It differs on the sweet malt body, though, and exhibits some medicinal, warming alcohol notes. The finish is unique in that it has a very buttery finish, and though this generally is considered off-putting in a lot of beers, I found it to be endearing — continuing the illusion that I was drinking a mince pie or Christmas cake.

6) Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout: My mom is a great cook, and growing up she baked up some fantastic puddings, pies, and cakes that she wouldn’t even eat herself (a mark of her love for her family as well her incredible self restraint). Some of my best memories are of eating these rich desserts next to the fire and knowing that there were mountains of snow quietly piling up outside. Nowadays my returns home often involve a whisky or Imperial Stout paired with these desserts, and that’s one reason why Russian Imperials are some of my favourite beers out there. They check all the boxes: sweet, warming, boozy, and with rich chocolate and dried fruit notes that all bring me back in time. This beer is no exception, and along with the massive amounts of chocolate in this beer, there’s also a definite peppery espresso character. This beer was in fact the first to introduce me to the fact that ‘espresso’ flavours in beers are indeed different from ‘coffee’ flavours. The stout is incredibly creamy, which helps mellow the alcoholic bite to some extent. Every time I taste this I want to upend the bottle into a root-beer mug and put a large scoop of vanilla ice cream in it. Trust me, it would work.

Put it all together, and it’s evident that what really makes a beer is as much what is in the bottle as the experiences it can generate. Beers can provide sudden instances of transcendent enlightenment, unshakeable inspiration, and enhanced observation. Just as easily, though, they can mellow a moment, set the mind at ease, and bring the kid inside you right back home to Mom.