The theme for the February meeting of my monthly beer tasting group was “Category 23.” In the parlance of the Beer Judge Certification Program, category 23 is Specialty Ales. It is the catch-all category for any beer that doesn’t fit anywhere else, safe haven for the bastard step-children of brewing. It is here that one finds “imperial” versions of other styles, historical styles, beers brewed with unusual techniques or ingredients, and the cross-cultural twisting and blending of styles peculiar to particular regions. With beers in category 23 one enters the realm of adventure and experimentation where the only limitation is the depth of the brewer’s imagination and the level of the brewer’s skill.
The night began with on an equally adventurous gustatory note, a Crave Case and fries from White Castle. Although I really never eat White Castle, I did somehow manage to force down three or four jalapeno cheeseburgers in order to establish a good protein base for the beers that were to come. The hint of fiery spice that lingered after the beef(?), cheese, onions, bread and grease had slid away left me craving a quenching quaff of oddball beer.
The selection of beers, eighteen in all, was really quite good. As is to be expected with this category, there were a number of high alcohol beers, which made for a much louder evening at the end. The beers ranged from a gruit-like Danish ale to a Pilsner from Turkey. Among them were a few standouts. In my view the best beer of the night was Beatification from Russian River Brewing. This 100% spontaneously fermented ale (they call it a Sonomalambic) poured a brilliantly clear light gold. It was highly acidic, but not offensively tart, with bright pear and peach fruitiness and a background barnyardy funk. Delightful. Next on the list for me was an Oyster Stout from Hunter Beer Company of Australia. This was a rich, smooth chocolate and coffee stout with not a hint of acrid or bitter roast. I expected fishiness. There was none. Bittersweet Lenny’s RIPA, an imperial rye IPA from Shmaltz Brewing was another favorite with it’s “obscene” hop presence, huge rye spice, and big malt backbone.
One of the more interesting beers was Vildmoseøl from Danish brewer Wintercoat. The Wintercoat website describes this an an ale with peat-smoked malt, bog myrtle, and rowan berries. This beer had a huge spruce and spicy nose. The flavor combined a tangy swampiness (I mean that in a good way) with a lingering sugary sweetness. A most interesting and tasty beer.
The two most disappointing beers of the night, although not the worst, came from the same brewery, Southern Tier from New York. I find with this brewery that they either hit it out of the ballpark or swing and miss. Their Imperial Cherry Saison was heavy with an unpleasant smokiness and had very little cherry flavor. The Heavy Weizen, an imperial hefeweizen, was described variously by the group as “harsh”, “musty”, “alcoholic”, and “Lemon Pledge.” This was just an unpleasant beer. I thnk the worst beer of the night has to have been the Efes Pilsner. There may be a good beer underneath, but this bottle was so badly skunked and oxidized that is was impossible to taste much else. Fortunately it was the second to last beer of the night and our palates were probably already half dead.
Those in attendance were Mark Johnson, Chris Belsky, Al Boyce, Joel Stitzel, Gera Exire Latour, and Michael Agnew. The full list of beers tasted included Rose de Hibiscus from Brasserie du Ciel, Lake Superior Mesabi Red, Russian River Beatification, Southern Tier Imperial Cherry Saison and Heavy Weizen, Maple Oat Ale from Peak Organic, Hunter Beer Company Oyster Stout, Shmaltz Brewing Lenny’s RIPA, Rejewvenator, and Jewbelation 9, Flying Dog Imperial Schwartzbier, Lagunitas Cappucino Stout, Wintercoat Vildmoseøl, Neuzeller Porter from Neuzeller Klosterbrau, Wexford Irish Cream Ale, Efes Pilsner, Ettaler Klosterbrauerei Dunkeler Doppelbock, and Altenmünster Winterbier Doppelbock.