Summit Unchained #8: Black Ale

Whether you call them Black IPAs, Cascadian Dark Ales, or American-style Black Ales, bitter, hoppy, black beers are becoming more and more popular with brewers and beer fans alike. What had been a fringe phenomenon has become a true emerging style. Production breweries and brewpubs are turning them out all over the country.

Honestly, it is a style that I have had difficulty embracing. The combination of high-level bitterness, intensely-citrusy American hop flavor, and acrid, roasted malts creates an unpleasant partnership in my mouth. There are a couple examples that I like – 21st Amendment’s Back in Black comes to mind – but in general, these are not beers that I am likely to pick up at the store or order at a bar.

It is with this caveat that I offer my impressions of the latest offering in the Summit Unchained Series, Black Ale. Here’s my notes:

Unchained #8: Black Ale
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Black IPA
Serving Style: 12 oz bottle

Aroma: Light chocolate and roast underlie citrusy orange and grapefruit hops. A bit of bread crust.

Appearance: Ample, creamy, tan head that sticks around, maintaining a foamy layer from start to finish. Very dark brown to black.

Flavor: Sharply and somewhat astringently bitter, with intense grapefruit and orange hop flavor. The hop bitterness is enhanced by the bitterness of roasted malt. The malt character is primarily coffee-like roast with light sweetness that increases as the beer warms. The finish is dry, lingering on coffee and juicy grapefruit. The bitterness grabs hold at the start and is the last thing to let go.

Mouthfeel: Medium body with prickly carbonation. A touch astringent.

Overall Impression: This beer has that particular combination of bitterness, black malt, and citrusy hops that sits uncomfortably on my tongue. The high level of attenuation enhances that. I could do with more malty sweetness to balance the hop and roasted-malt bitterness. A hint of chocolate would give the citrus a pleasing foil. As it is, it is a well-made beer, just not one that suits my tastes.

Schell’s Stag Series #4: Burton Ale

It’s hard to know what a real Burton Ale might have tasted like. The style, once among the most popular in England, pretty much died out 60 years ago. One is left with only old descriptions and brewer’s logs to try and piece together a facsimile. That is exactly what Dave Berg at August Schell Brewing Company did to create the fourth beer in the brewery’s Stag Series.

I’m not going to load this post down with a lengthy history of Burton Ale. You can read what British beer writer Martyn Cornell had to say about the style on the Zythophile blog.  Or you can really geek out about it with brewer’s logs and recipes on the Shut Up About Barklay Perkins blog. I’ll let those guys do that. I’m just going to tell you my impression of the Schell’s version and leave it at that.

Here’s my notes:

Stag Series #4: Burton Ale
August Schell Brewing Co., New Ulm, Minnesota
Style: Burton Ale
Serving Style: 12 oz Bottle

Aroma: Sweet and toasty malt takes center stage with overtones of caramel, figs, and just the slightest suggestion of citrus. Earthy hops remain in the background.

Appearance: Clear. Dark amber to mahogany colored. Good stand of rocky, beige foam that persisted reasonably well.

Flavor: The main event is sweet malt, redolent with flavors of molasses, brown sugar, caramel, figs and raisins. A light impression of chocolate enters midway through. Earthy and citrus hop flavors seem to float on another layer along with prickly, minerally bitterness. The bitterness balances, but sweetness rules. The finish is spectacular, well-attenuated, but sweet. It seems to go on forever with successive waves of molasses, figs, raisins, and even anise.

Mouthfeel: Medium-full body. Thick and smooth. Medium carbonation. Light alcohol warming.

Overall Impression: Man, what a finish!! It was great in my mouth, but still I could hardly wait to swallow every sip. The flavor layers are clearly articulated. Some may find this beer too sweet, but I love malt and this really showcases malt. It’s a bit like an overly-hopped, English Doppelbock.

Steel Toe Brewing Co. – Dissent

I really do intend to get back to my GABF coverage. There is still so much to talk about. I’ve got video interviews to post, along with pictures and audio from the big 30th Anniversary dinner. But in the mean time here’s this.

Steel Toe Brewing Co. in St. Louis Park opened its doors just a couple of months ago. It’s the newest in a coterie of recently-opened Minnesota breweries, a group that will continue to grow by leaps and bounds in the coming months. I was particularly excited about Steel Toe because of the brewing background of co-owner and brewer Jason Schoneman. He brings with him a load of experience, including several years as Head Brewer at the award-winning Pelican Brewpub in Oregon. I visited this brewpub-on-the-beach a few years ago and found it to be well worth the acclaim.

Jason aims to make beers that are big on flavor, but that don’t necessarily fit any style. He launched with four beers. Provider is a light, easy-drinking golden ale that I love and that I lately have been pouring a lot of at events. Two that I have yet to try are Rainmaker, an Imperial Red Ale, and Size 7 IPA. I hear good things. Finally is Dissent Black Ale. I picked up a bottle of this recently and just got around to giving it a whirl. Here’s my notes:

Steel Toe Brewing Co., St. Louis Park, Minnesota
Style: Black Ale (?)
Serving Style: 22 oz bottle

Aroma: Brown sugar and molasses. Some coffee roast and light caramel. Licorice and earthy hops.

Appearance: Black and thick. Good-sized, dark-tan head that was moderately persistent.

Flavor: Rich bittersweet chocolate at the top. Like cocoa nibs and coffee. Orange and grapefruit-rind citrus notes float over the top, making it almost like an orange-flavored porter. It’s rich, but well-attenuated, which keeps it very drinkable. Bitterness is moderate, but lingers after swallowing. As the beer warms, molasses flavors become ever more prominent.

Mouthfeel: Thick and rich with relatively low carbonation.

Overall Impression: This would be great with a big rack of saucy, barbeque ribs. In fact, my girlfriend said that the aroma initially reminded her of barbeque sauce – all sweetness and molasses. It’s a big, chewy, malty, black ale that remains remarkably drinkable. It starts and ends great, but I kept feeling like there was some kind of hole in the middle. While I know that this is not helpful, I couldn’t quite put a finger in what was missing. Guess I’ll have to pick up another bottle and work on that some more.