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You’ve got to feel sorry for Jim Koch.

He straddles the line on a lot of things. He’s considered a pioneer in the beer industry from his early days of building Sam Adams, but somehow a sellout due to his success (which didn’t just happen overnight). The Boston Beer Company’s operations have been criticized for the practice of contract brewing, then in a way vindicated by the same success that resulted from that strategy.

Lately, there has been concern around the Brewers Association and defining “craft” beer. In an effort to salvage the wreckage of a leaky definition, the barrel capacity for “craft” breweries creeps higher and higher to retain the membership and support of the nationally distributed breweries that aren’t quite pumping out Anheuser-Busch quantities yet.

But regardless of your opinions on wordsmithing as it relates to the Boston Beer Company and its peers, Samuel Adams knows how to make good beer, and reliably so.

Perhaps this recent whinging has played into their latest marketing maneuver, the cleverly titled Small Batch Series.

As I write this, I sip their Tasman Red, a self-styled “Red IPA.” Is it more of an Imperial Amber? Could be, but I don’t really care to open that can of worms. I’ve mostly gotten out of the practice of posting beer reviews, partly because there are so many nowadays and also because you likely won’t read them anyway. But since you’ve come this far in the post, I shan’t disappoint.

Tasman Red is a crystal-clear, deeply ruby-colored beer with a profuse amount of foamy head that exhibits remarkable retention. It’s incredibly well balanced despite some roasty malt traits and generous hopping. Think Black IPA, only red and not so damned bitter and divergent in flavor.

If I’m to assume that the stars of the show are the Topaz and Galaxy hops hailing from Tasmania, they’re akin to good actors:  they make their presence known, impress while they’re in the limelight without hamming it up, and don’t linger too long so as to become obnoxious. Complexity and balance are evident throughout, and to top it all off, even the label’s artwork draws you in.

So, if you’re not too hung up on a brewery’s capacity and what it means to produce a “craft” beer, I’d recommend giving this one a shot within a reasonable amount of time before the hops fade. If you are preoccupied with the definition, then, I dunno… start a nanobrewery?

I’m aware of the fact that most of you don’t find too much purpose in beer reviews. And that’s okay, but I thought I’d share some tasting notes from the BrewDog Mikkeller collaboration beer I Hardcore You anyway.

I Hardcore You is a crossover between BrewDog’s Hardcore IPA and Mikkeller’s I Beat yoU, two aggressively hopped Imperial IPAs blended together, so the origin of the name should be no surprise. I received this beer as a Christmas gift and had just recently gotten around to drinking it.

It pours a deep, tawny orange color topped by a few fingers of off-white head, leaving a formidable lacing on the glass. The aromatics are mostly of citrusy orange and resiny pine.

On the tongue, there is a noticeably smooth hop profile, and the characteristics in the nose that seemed potentially jagged are actually rather rounded on the palate. The hop bitterness is a potent but slightly restrained feature. Underneath, the malt profile seems somewhat biscuity, also adding a balancing sweetness.

The reason I share these notes is two-fold. First, I’m not a hophead by nature, but this beer in particular impressed me. Second, it’s a beer that might be of interest to some who aren’t sure if they want to spring for it.

If you’re on the fence about this beer, get off. It’s an Imperial IPA that surprisingly displays a level of maturity (read: drinkability).

As the year comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting a bit when it comes to this blog. One question that has been on my mind lately is that of beer reviews. Being the curious type, I’d like to get a reader’s perspective on this issue.

Basically, are they helpful? Do the beer reviews on this blog give you insight into beers you have yet to try? Do they serve as a guidepost for navigating parts of the beer market? At the very least, are they mildly entertaining?

How about beer reviews in general; are they a good source of information? How much influence do they have on your spending habits? Does it depend on the source of the review? Do you have a preferred source for your beer reviews, or none at all?

Sorry if it seems like I’m playing 20 Questions with you, but inquiring minds want to know. Would you like to continue reading beer reviews on this blog or is it old hat?

Recently, I was given the opportunity to taste four out of five beers that will soon be available in the Richmond market. And by soon, I mean this coming week. They hail from Utah’s own Epic Brewing Company, pioneers in higher gravity brews from a state previously known for its self-imposed restrictions on beer above 4 percent alcohol by volume.

The first two come from their Classic Series, and the latter come from their Elevated Series. Basically, the first two are intended to introduce you to craft beer and their portfolio, the second two are geared toward those who want something a bit more advanced. And fear not, there will be plenty of launch events in the area, including a beer dinner, so you can go out and acquaint yourself with the Epic lineup.

First was Intermountain Wheat. At 5 percent abv, it’s not a heavy hitter by any means, but it’s not meant to be. Though the brewers call it “session-able,” I’d say it’s a bit above that range in terms of alcohol content. In essence, it’s an American Wheat that’s focused on drinkability. There’s a high wheat profile in the nose and on the palate, with hints of light citrus and musty aromatics. They explicitly point out that there’s no banana or clove features in this beer. While it is light in body, I felt like it could have used a touch more carbonation to provide a buffer to the slightly sweet density of the grain bill.

Second came the Spiral Jetty IPA. This one clocks in at 6.6 percent alcohol by volume, and features a golden sunburst color when poured. The aroma of piney, catty, and floral hop notes belies a formidable hopping, but in fact, the taste itself doesn’t deliver much on the bitterness front. Which is fine by me. There is actually a malt-forward sweetness in this beer that really makes this feel less like an IPA and more like a straight-up pale ale. Stylistic hair-splitting aside, Spiral Jetty is a treat for those seeking out flavor and aroma hopping and less in-your-face bitterness.

Third was the Brainless Belgian-style Golden Ale. The Brainless packs a punch at 8.7 percent, but featured many of the same characteristics as the Intermountain Wheat. There was that musty aroma again, but this time with a touch of sweet sugar and soft, subtle spice notes from the hops. Still, that floral and estery profile of the Intermountain was present with the Brainless. While styling itself a Golden Ale, it appeared to be a graduated, more complex version of their Intermountain. Though apparently they’ve also been aging this beer on fruit for another release, which should create some interesting results.

Last, the Copper Cone Pale Ale. Also part of the Elevated Series, it is lighter in alcohol (6.7 percent) than the Brainless but hoppier in character than Brainless and the Spiral Jetty IPA. Sounds counter intuitive, but that’s what the brewers have decided to do. A hazy, deep blood orange color with solid lacing and head formation, Copper Cone has a very similar profile to Spiral Jetty. There’s, again, an emphasis on having a strong and complex malt backbone, and it’s also dry hopped. Their hopping technique provides plenty of hop flavor without all the bitterness, which is a delight.

Overall, these beers, at least in my opinion, seem to have analogous steps up when it comes to their Classic and Elevated Series (their Exponential Series, which I assume is “extreme,” I have not tried). To add more to the mix, the Spiral Jetty is apparently the younger cousin of Hopulent IPA, which will be in the Richmond market but it’s one I have yet to sample.

Each one of the aforementioned offerings focuses on a solid and/or complex malty side, employing bitterness mostly for balance. I like the fact that they went this route, and while I can’t say I was completely blown away by any one of these beers in particular, I do have to commend them for their approach in producing some well-made beers. All seemed appropriately carbonated, but perhaps a touch more on each would have made a taste difference. I’d still recommend going out to at least one of the events in town and giving these beers a taste. I’d love to hear what you think about their lineup, so feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section.

Over a few pints at Legend Brewing Company, Velky Al (of Fuggled renown) and I hatched a plan to review each other’s homebrew. I offered up a bottle each of my Pabl(an)o Honey, Dunkelweizen, and Pale Ale. In return, I received his Mild, IPA, and the now infamous Export India Porter. Well, there was also a Bitter he had given me, but I drank that without taking the best of notes. Still a sessionably solid beer!

But on to the trifecta that I did review more thoroughly.

First up was the Mild. I was surprised with nearly three fingers of tightly bubbled, beige head, something I hadn’t anticipated for the style (man, that sounds geeky as hell). This was a very dark Mild. In fact, when held to light, not much got through the murky black save for soft splashes of mahogany and garnet. The aromatics were of chocolate and an earthy hop character that hinted at its bitterness.

On the palate, a roasted malt undercurrent met a balance of hop bitterness and what came across as treacle. Mouthfeel was somewhat slick yet also lively from the carbonation, with a relatively light body, especially for its flavor descriptors. This one was truly reminiscent of a pub beer – eminently drinkable with an array of flavors.

Next came the IPA. Several fingers of brilliant white head cropped up on top of an amber-colored liquid. I was warned this was a carbonation bomb, so I proceeded with caution and didn’t have too much trouble. A waft of citrus and pine hops carried with it caramel and sugar malt notes. When sampling the IPA, it wasn’t as hoppy as expected, but still a delight. The hop profile was well-rounded and reined in with a diversity of character that didn’t assault the tastebuds. The scent matched the taste, and a pleasant malt backbone offered a tempering balance.

Lastly, the Export India Porter, or “Black IPA.” Al apparently substituted some British hops for their American counterparts, effectively disqualifying it in the eyes of some as being a Cascadian Dark Ale, Black IPA, or what have you. Enough with the style guidelines and bravado, on to the beer!

The EIP poured three and a half fingers of off-white foam. Hard to believe, but darker than the Mild. It possessed a beautifully floral nose and nice lacing that built up on the sides of the glass. All this didn’t prepare me for the bitterness that was to come. Roasted dark malt enters the picture with a formidable hop presence that faded softly and finished expertly.

This beer’s carbonation was at a level that maximized its body, a silky and semi-slick number to accompany the hops in this beer. The earthiness of the hops intertwined brilliantly with the malt bill. One bottle was simply not enough. This beer was moreish to the highest degree, and it’s no wonder it took first place at the CASK competition.

Controversial? Maybe. Quaffable? Most certainly.

I know somewhere back there I promised you a review of my dunkelweizen and ancho chile beer. This post will half-deliver on that promise, then.

Sweet and roasted malt aromatics capture the attention while a clove spice character takes center stage. Thankfully, there’s not much banana and no real bubblegum profile, which was something that I was aiming for when creating this dunkelweizen. I’ve read that it’s a stylistic flaw, and that fermenting too warm will yield those bubblegum tastes and smells.

Carbonation is abundant and steadfast, as is evident from the several fingers of khaki head that sticks around for days. On the palate, a bittersweet malt base lays the groundwork for an effervescent and enjoyable melding of flavors. The darker malts are balanced by the Continental hop profile, where a floral and slightly spicy blend meets the phenolic spice trait somewhere in the middle toward the finish. Aftertaste lends itself to a touch of sweetness but the hops really have a chance to leave a bit of their mark.

Examining the flavor a little further, this one could be considered a German-American porterweizen™. There, I’ve created a new style!

Now if only the weather would return to normal. A 90-degree day in mid-October doesn’t exactly fit the “seasonal drinking” motif for this beer.

I’ll admit, I’m iffy about IPAs. Be they double, triple, strained through a t-shirt:  there’s a lot of room for extremification (yes, you can borrow that word from me) and error. So it was with justified wariness that I ventured to give Southern Tier’s 2XIPA a shot.

It pours a crystal clear golden color on an orange backdrop, topped by a voluminous and rather dense head. The nose is dominated by biscuity and grainy malt aromatics, coupled with floral notes and a touch of freshly mown grass.

Expecting a bitter-as-hell, potentially malty sweet and overall undrinkable Double IPA, I was surprised. Surprised and delighted, because all the reservations I had about this beer were washed away in that first sip. This is an incredibly balanced IPA, even skewed slightly to the sweeter side, but not overly so. 2xIPA possesses an astonishing lack of perceivable bitterness, and yet has such a refreshing character.

I love it when a beer can take your worst fears and cynical thoughts, then squash them in one quick, delicious swoop.

I haven’t done a beer review in a while. I guess maybe I thought no one really cared what I had to say about any beer in particular. But thinking about it further, I’m sure there are some people like myself still seeking some honest and informative reviews on beers they’d like to try but can’t afford to buy out their local specialty beer shop. And who am I to let you down? I’ll get back into the swing of things by taking a look at a commercial beer and homebrewed beer, just to keep it interesting.

It starts off with Hair of the Dog’s Ruth, a self-proclaimed American Pale Ale. Styleniks be damned, because this one screams anything but American. Ruth’s head formation is like a wall of Tempur-pedic mattress:  dense, alabaster, incredibly carbonated. The lacing that formed around the sides of the glass looked like coral reef as the head descended into a rocky formation on top of the hazy, lemon-colored beer.

The aroma gains an awful lot of Belgian spiciness from the yeast, especially for an American Pale. There’s a sharp hop bitterness in the nose and on the palate, but that eases off with a pepper spice note that tags along. The malt is apparently all pilsner;  organic pilsner malt that is, at least according to the label. Lively carbonation makes for a light, effervescent mouthfeel and provides a finish that’s bone dry.

If you’re seeking out the classic American Pale Ale, I wouldn’t look to Hair of the Dog. That’s not saying it isn’t good, it’s just that Ruth gives of more of a Belgian pale vibe; and that’s okay. It’s a well-made beer that I’d recommend to just about anybody.

Next is my Birchler Pale Ale. I wanted to see how my interpretation of a pale ale stacked up to a commercial example. What started out as a modest IPA became a nice, scaled-down hoppy pale ale when all was said and done. With two fingers of white head and a cloudy, tawny hue, this one already looks completely different in comparison to its West Coast APA counterpart.

Giving it the swirl-n-sniff treatment, I detect a combination of bready malt and soft notes of floral, citrus, and piney hops. On the palate, there’s a sturdy, bread-like malt base with a touch of caramel sweetness that’s impeccably balanced by a gradual hop bitterness. The mouthfeel is a bit resiny from the hops, but there’s enough carbonation to scrub away anything too heavy. This American Pale Ale finishes relatively clean with a pleasant, mildly pine hop aftertaste.

Birchler Pale is named after a good friend of mine. He helped haul my new brewing setup from its previous owner to my little BrewShack(tm). The man’s a fan of Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, so I wanted to brew something relatively hop-forward, but also balanced and drinkable. Matching it up alongside Hair of the Dog’s version, the differences are night and day, even for carrying the same style name.

For whatever reason, I’ve been overlooking the pale ale before this season. But this summer has taught me quite a bit, as I’ve dabbled in the style, finding so many variations on a theme. Most of them have been delightful. So it’s only fitting that I cap off the season with a couple of these beers, and think back fondly on such a drinkable, diverse style.

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