Coney Island Hard Root Beer

As long as we’re talking about root beer…

We were talking about root beer, weren’t we? Judging from the response to my Not Your Father’s Root Beer post of a few days ago, apparently we are. We REALLY are.

Well, the Small Town Brewery offering isn’t the only new kid on the block. Coney Island Brewing Company recently released one of its own. The folks at Coney Island were kind enough to send me a sample for tasting.

Coney Island Brewing Company was founded in 2007 by Jeremy Cowan as a spin-off of Shmaltz Brewing Company. You can read my profile of Cowan in the upcoming issue of Beer Connoisseur Magazine. Cowan sold the brand to Alchemy and Science, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Boston Beer Company in 2013. The sale helped finance the expansion of the Shmaltz core lineup of He’brew beers and the construction of its new brewery in New York.

To extend the argument over whether these things are beer or not, the promotional material for Coney Island Hard Root Beer states, “Coney Island Hard Root Beer is a beer made with all natural, traditional root beer flavors. It begins with 2-row malt, caramel malt and European hops. It then undergoes a secondary fermentation with additional sugars and ale yeast, which is filtered to develop the perfect root beer base. From there we add the final all natural flavors from the best ingredients available, including Madagascar vanilla.” Sure sounds like beer, but it’s an FMB.

Here’s my notes:

Coney Island Hard Root BeerConey Island Hard Root Beer
Coney Island Brewing Company, Brooklyn, New York
Style: Hard Root Beer
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
5.8% ABV

Aroma: Wintergreen aromas hit the nose from 18-inches away. Refreshingly minty. Low vanilla. Faint anise background.

Appearance: Stout-like black, opaque. Low, soda-like, tan foam with no retention.

Flavor: Sharp. Peppery. Clove and spice. Wintergreen is still dominant, but with more of the anise and spice balance. Vanilla is low. Brown sugar or molasses. High sweetness, but the spiciness really helps to cut it. Low alcohol. Finish is moderately sweet with strong lingering wintergreen and gentler notes of anise, clove, and pepper. Slight alcohol aftertaste.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. High carbonation. Low warming. A bit cloying, like soda.

Overall Impression: A very botanical beverage. I like the sharper edge than NYFRB. I am a fan of root beer and this tastes like a good one to me. If you like root beer, then I think you will like this. If you don’t like root beer, then drink something else. This tastes like root beer. If you are going to get all pissy about whether or not this is beer, then just get over yourself.

Sam Adams Redesigns the Beer Can

A guest at a recent private beer-tasting event sent me into a rant. We were discussing the relative value of cans when he suggested that the reason some people might taste a metallic flavor in canned beer is that they are putting their mouth all over the top of the can. At that moment I was seized by the spirit of Ninkasi. “At least 85% of what you taste is actually what you smell.” I said. “If you drink from the can or bottle you smell nothing. You are cutting yourself off from the majority of the experience of the beer.” I ended with the admonition, “I don’t care what kind of glass you drink from. Just drink from a glass.”

Now the Boston Beer Company is telling people to drink Sam Adams Boston Lager from the can.

Well, not really. They still want you to drink it from a glass, but they acknowledge that sometimes that’s impossible. Maybe you’re hiking or canoeing far into the backcountry where glass is not allowed. Cans have long been touted as a solution to such situations. So should you just accept that you will only get 15% enjoyment out of that backcountry quaff? Ever the innovator in beer-service technology, Boston Beer says, “No.”

Following up on the Sam Adams Perfect Pint glass and the Spiegelau IPA glass, they have revolutionized the beer can. Called the “Sam Can,” the new package is the result of two years of “intensive sensory research.” It features a wider lid to allow more airflow into your mouth, a more centered can opening to bring the beer closer to your nose, and an extended lip to deliver the beer to the tip of your tongue.

I was skeptical. Really? These little changes were going to make a big difference? The Sam Adams press release did a good job of adding to that skepticism. Like the media reporting on the underdog in a presidential debate – “he just has to avoid looking like a complete idiot” – the materials stressed that the difference was “subtle, but noticeable.”  The bar was set low. Maybe they had learned a lesson from the over-hype of the IPA glass.

I was skeptical, but curious. So when the media package arrived at my door containing one regular can and one Sam Can, I had to give it a whirl. I opened both at the same time for a side-by-side face-off. Just for comparison I poured a bit from each can into a glass.

Of course the beer in the glass tasted the best. Really, drink your beer from a glass! But to my surprise, the Sam Can delivered on its promise, and then some. The improvement in flavor was more than “subtle, but noticeable.” I found there to be a significant difference in all three areas of sensory evaluation; aroma, flavor, and mouthfeel.

Aroma: In this area I won’t say that the difference was huge, but it was there. Aroma was non-existent when drinking from the regular can. While the Sam Can didn’t deliver the aromatic blast of drinking from a glass, hops and malt were noticeable.

Mouthfeel: The regular can delivered a beer that was unpleasantly prickly. Carbonation felt excessive, lightening the impression of the beer’s body. The Sam Can smoothed out the bubbles. The impression was more like that of a beer that has been poured into a glass and allowed to degas. Boston Lager isn’t a full-bodied beer by any stretch, but the reduced carbonation allowed the viscosity that is there to come through.

Flavor: The beer from the regular can was bland and sharply bitter. Spicy hops almost totally obliterated the malt, leaving only the faintest impression of caramel. The excessive carbonation mentioned above gave it a distinct carbonic bite that amplified the already harsh bitterness. From the Sam Can the beer was much more balanced. Bitterness was there, but kept in check by noticeable malt sweetness. Spicy hop flavors made their appearance, but malty caramel provided a welcome counterpoint. It was a much more pleasurable quaff. The cynical thought crossed my mind that they had perhaps put a different beer in each can, but poured into a glass the two were indistinguishable.

I went in a non-believer. I came out convinced. The Sam Can may not be an earth-shaking development, but the difference is real. Still, drink your beer from a glass.

2012 Samuel Adams Utopias

Samuel Adams Utopias is one of those legendary beers. It’s one of the original extreme beers – that is if you don’t include the earlier Sam Adams offerings, Triple Bock and Millennium. It’s not the booziest beer in the world, but it is the highest-alcohol, naturally-fermented brew. Getting a beer to ferment up to 29% is no small feat. Those others – the Tactical Nuclear Penguins and Schorschbocks of the world – cheat with freeze distillation. Part of the Utopias legend is rarity and cost. They make only 15,000 bottles and each 24 oz., brew kettle-shaped bottle retails in the neighborhood of $180.

Utopias is a blend of liquids. High-test brews from many different barrels – some of which have been aging for nearly 20 years – are brought together to complete the final brew. Some of that original Triple Bock from the 1990s is reportedly part of the mix. The result is an uncarbonated, spirituous elixir that is more like cognac or port wine than beer; a brew to sip from a special glass, two ounces at a time.

Utopias has been released in odd-numbered years since 2003. There was a batch in 2001, but they called it something else. Because it is a blend, every edition is somewhat different from the others. Somehow I have been lucky enough to sample every year’s release including 2001. While all have been extraordinary and luxurious, some have been better than others. I remember 2003 as a particularly standout year, though it’s been too long ago to remember why. 2009 was a lesser year; extra boozy and extra sweet as I recall.

Although it was an even-numbered year, Sam Adams released Utopias in 2012. It was the 10th-anniversary edition. The iconic kettle-shaped bottle remained, but this time it’s black instead of copper. The surface is etched with roots, “a metaphor for the 20+ years of complex history and aging of the liquids that make up this final brew.” So says the press release. For Samuel Adams Utopias, 2012 was a very good year.

Here’s my notes:

2012 Samuel Adams UtopiasSamuel Adams Utopias
Boston Beer Company, Boston, Massachusetts
Style: Strong Ale
Serving Style: 24 oz. decanter

Aroma: Every time it comes to my nose there is a different sensation – some extremely pleasant, some less so. Maple. Caramel. Butterscotch. Wooden barrel – very woody in fact. Old musty cedar. Vaporous alcohol.  Mineral spirits. Dried cherries and raisins. Chocolate comes in as it opens up. Really, there is so much going on that all I can do is list.

Appearance: Beautiful. Deep chestnut-mahogany. Brilliantly clear. No bubbles.

Flavor: Lip numbing with the first sip and the alcohol warms all the way down. It even stings a bit. Let your saliva blend in to mellow it out. There is so much fruit here; a surprising amount. It starts with bright, sweet/tart cherries. That gives way to darker fruits – plums, prunes, dates, and raisins. But that cherry never quite lets go. Rum and maple linger all the way into the finish. As it opens up in the glass some tootsie-roll chocolate note appear and hang on long after the swallow. Combined with the cherry it give the impression of tart and boozy chocolate covered cherry bon bons.

Mouthfeel: Viscous and smooth. Very warming.

Overall Impression: 2012 is really a very good year.

Sam Adams Noble Pils

In the world of brewing ingredients there are only five hop varieties that can be called “noble”; Hallertau Mittelfrüh, Tettnang Tettnanger, Spalt Spalter, Hersbrucker Hersbrucker, and Saaz. Grown only in Bavaria and the Czech Republic, these noble hops are prized for their spicy, herbal, and floral aromatic properties. They provide the signature flavors and aromas of German lagers and pilsners.

In 2009 the Boston Beer Company introduced a new beer called Noble Pils as part of their annual Beer Lovers Choice® program. While most lagers make use of one or two of the noble hops, the brewers at Sam Adams blended all five to make this new beer. Noble Pils won the votes of over 67,000 drinkers, giving it a place in the regular lineup.

Last year Noble Pils was released as a new spring seasonal beer. I first tried it last January while standing in the snow on a wet, frigid evening at the Beer Dabbler Winter Carnival event in St. Paul’s Mears Park. I loved it. I went back for multiple samples. Thus, it was with great expectation that I opened my first bottle of this year’s release. I still love it. What can I say? Here’s my notes:

Noble Pils
Boston Beer Company, Boston, Massachusetts
Style: Bohemian Pilsner
Serving Style: 12 oz bottle

Aroma: Grainy, pie-crust pilsner malt leads. Light perfume and floral hop notes overlay. Subtle sulfur underneath.

Appearance: Golden color with brilliant clarity. Moderate, fine-bubbled, white head is moderately persistent.

Flavor: Hops lead off with spicy, herbal, and floral notes; pepper and licorice. Some very interesting baby-aspirin orange overtones. The grainy malt sweetness stays underneath to just offer support, but comes in stronger mid-palate. Sharply bitter on the finish.

Mouthfeel: Medium body and medium carbonation. Crisp and clean.

Overall Impression: I just plain like this beer. I have since the first time I tried it. I’m a sucker for pilsners at any rate, but the delightful mix of hop tastes in this one really does it for me. And I love the hints of orange that wind their way through the flavor. I have lots of it in the cellar and that makes me happy.

Sam Adams® Latitude 48

Sam Adams is launching a new beer this summer, an India Pale Ale called Latitude 48. The beer takes its name from the northern hop growing region located around latitude 48°. The press release for the beer touts a blend of German, English, and American hops that create a “distinctive, yet not overpowering, hop character” balanced by a sweet honey malt blend. I am unclear whether this means they used honey or honey malt. [EDIT: They used honey malt, not honey.] Here’s my notes:

Sam Adams Latitude 48
Boston Beer Company, Boston, Massachusetts
Style: India Pale Ale
Serving Style: 12 oz. Bottle

Aroma: Citrus and grassy hops with undertones of sweet berries and pineapple. Lightly sweet and biscuity English-style malt. English yeast fruitiness opens up as the beer warms. Balanced.

Appearance: Amber and crystal clear. Moderate off-white head that persisted only moderately.

Flavor: Kicks off with medium-high bitterness that lingers long into the finish. This bitterness first had a harshness that smoothed out as the beer warmed. Hop flavors present an interesting mix of earthy, floral, and spice, with hints of lemony citrus. Sweet caramel and biscuit malt balances the hops and claims top placement mid-palate. Finish is dry, lingering on hop bitterness and flavor that sticks around long after swallowing.

Mouthfeel: Medium body with medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: An interesting take on a classic English IPA. The malt character and yeast fruitiness definitely reflects the English style. The hops present a blend of European, English, and American flavors that lend the beer some interest. Not the best IPA out there, but definitely one I would be happy to drink again.