Boulevard Collaboration #4: Saison

A lot of brewery collaborations seem pointless. They give the sense that the brewers simply cobbled together a recipe over a couple of emails. There is no convincing reason for the collaboration – at least none that is apparent. There is no sense that some piece of each brewery has come together in some way in the finished beer. Marketing gimmick? Perhaps, but I’ve never been able to get a brewer to admit to that.

They don’t all seem pointless, though. In some cases the joint project really does tie the two breweries together. Avery/Russian River’s Collaboration Not Litigation is a good example. Two brewers selling beer of the same name in the same markets decided to blend their beers rather than engage in sticky trademark litigation.

In another example the brewers from Avery, Russian River, Allagash, and Lost Abbey decided to brew a lambic after traveling together to Belgium. The beer was brewed at Russian River and barrel-fermented with the house lambic bugs from each brewery. The four beers were then blended into the final product; a true coming together of the breweries.

Boulevard Brewing Company’s collaboration with Brewery Ommegang is one of those that seems genuine. Having started as independent companies, both are now owned by Belgian brewing conglomerate Duvel-Moortgat. They are sister breweries so to speak. Ommegang brews only Belgian inspired ales. While it was built on other brews, Boulevard has made a splash with its Belgian styles such as the delicious Tank 7 Saison. And Boulevard’s brewmaster Steven Pauwels comes from Belgium.

The collaborative process involved brewing separate batches of a saison recipe that used pale malt, oats, rye, corn and wheat and was spiced with coriander, grains of paradise and lemon peel. Each batch was fermented with the house yeast from the respective brewery and then the beers were blended. To me, that’s a collaborative beer.

Here’s my notes:

Boulevard Collaboration #4Boulevard Collaboration #4: Saison
Boulevard Brewing Company, Kansas City, Missouri with Brewery Ommegang, Cooperstown, New York
Style: Saison
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
ABV: 7.3%
IBU: 28

Aroma: High fruity esters – orange, mango, lemons, banana. High peppery phenols. Medium-high noble hop character – lemon and spice. Low biscuity malt.

Appearance: Full, rocky, ivory head with excellent retention. Medium-light amber and very hazy.

Flavor: Banana, clove, and zesty black pepper with high notes of lemon citrus. Bitterness is high, accentuated by very high attenuation. As it warms other fruits come through – blood orange, mango. Low malt sweetness gets a boost from the banana esters, but gives up past mid-palate. Some biscuity malt character. Alcohol adds some floral notes. Finish is extra dry with emphasis on peppery phenols, lingering bitterness, and alcohol.

Mouthfeel: Medium to medium-full body. Mouthfilling in a hefeweizen kind of way. High carbonation – effervescent. Moderate alcohol warming.

Overall Impression: A full-throttle saison. Big and filling, yet high attenuation leaves it refreshing. Zippy and spicy. A good saison for the fall season.

Rye on Rye 2014 from Boulevard Brewing Co.

Boulevard Brewing Company in Kansas City, Missouri is an example of both the past and the future of the industry. Founded in 1989, it was a pioneer among small brewers in the Midwest. Boulevard started small, with a business plan that foresaw eventual expansion to 6000 barrels of production annually. As was the case with small breweries in the “olden days,” growth was slow, but steady. By 2006 the brewery was able to expand into a custom-built facility adjacent to the original brewhouse, growing production to 600,000 barrels, making it the largest craft brewer in the Midwest and the 12th largest in the country. In addition to the 150-barrel brewhouse, packaging lines, and administrative offices, the new building also boasts several event spaces. It’s quite a facility and worth a visit if you are in the area.

So how does Boulevard represent the future? Last year the brewery was sold to Belgian beer maker Duvel-Moortgat. Purchases of this kind are going to become more frequent, I believe. First, they represent a growing interest on the part of large brewing companies to get a slice of the growing craft-beer pie. Another example of this is AB-InBev’s purchase of Goose Island and Blue Point.

Also, such purchases are a reflection of the aging of the first generation of craft brewers. Old-school founders such as Boulevard’s John McDonald reaching retirement age. They are looking for a way out. The companies they built are too large for other small brewers to purchase. Lacking a clear exit strategy, they are turning to larger concerns that have the wherewithal to do the deal. The same was true in the case of Anchor Brewing when Fritz Maytag sold it to a group of investors a few years ago. While some may decry this as a negative trend, I see it as a sign of a successful industry.

Boulevard built its reputation on a solid lineup of beers brewed to classic style. It has supplemented that with its Smokestack Series of specialty brews and a newer collection of barrel-aged, sour beers. Rye on Rye is produced annually as part of the Smokestack Series. It’s a 12% ABV rye ale aged in barrels that once held Templeton Rye whiskey.

Here’s my notes:

Brand_Rye_on_Rye2014 Rye on Rye
Boulevard Brewing, Kansas City, Missouri
Style: Barrel-aged Rye Ale
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle

Aroma: Bread crust and whiskey. Soft background notes of oak, vanilla and toffee. Whiskey and toffee aromas blend nicely, leaving it unclear where one ends and the other begins. Some alcohol is apparent. Dark fruity notes – dates.

Appearance: Medium amber/red. Hazy. Full, stiff, creamy head of off-white to ivory foam. Excellent retention.

Flavor: Alcohol is evident from start to finish – just shy of being hot. Caramel and toffee malt is the dominant theme, with spicy, bread-like rye gaining intensity mid-palate and lingering into the finish. Rye whiskey and wood places a close second. Date and orange citrus fruitiness fills in the cracks. Raisin comes in as the beer warms. Hop bitterness is medium-low, but supported by the spicy bite of rye. The finish is dry with lingering alcohol, toffee, rye spice, and dark fruits.

Mouthfeel: Full body, but well attenuated. High carbonation. High alcohol warming. Light astringency in the finish.

Overall Impression: Rye on Rye is a full-throttle sensory assault. It’s packed with complex flavors, but my problem is that is lacks nuance. It seems to hit me all at once like a brick wall. It becomes like the white noise static on an unoccupied television frequency. There is a lot going on, but I’m missing layers to explore. That and the high alcohol make it a one-and –done beer for me. I’ve never allowed a bottle of this to age. I wonder if that would smooth it out a bit and bring more dimension.

2011 GABF Interview with John McDonald of Boulevard Brewing Co.

Founded in 1989, Boulevard Brewing Company is a Midwestern craft-beer pioneer. When he started making beer people thought John McDonald was crazy. The region quite literally dominated by Anheuser-Busch. Selling this new, more flavorful beer was a daunting task. In the interview McDonald shares an amusing story about an early delivery to a bar just down the street from the brewery. The reception of the patrons makes you wonder how the brewery ever got off the ground.

But succeed it did. Boulevard has grown into the largest specialty brewer in the Midwest, with beer available in 24 states. They continue to innovate with their Smokestack Series beers, bringing out a wide range of styles and flavors from Belgians, to barrel-aged and sour beers. The brewery itself has grown from the original, vintage Bavarian brewhouse to a state-of-the-art 150-barrel system with capacity to produce 600,000 barrels a year. The building is itself a model for others to follow with multiple event spaces that host everything from corporate meetings to weddings.

You can read an earlier interview that I did with McDonald on The Heavy Table food blog.

Boulevard Reverb Imperial Pilsner

Anyone who knows me or has read much of my writing knows how I feel about pilsner; it’s the perfect beer. Pilsners are simple and easy-drinking enough to remain unobtrusive at times when drinking beer is more about the social event than the beer. But if you want to pay attention, there is a depth of complexity hiding beneath that simple surface. Take the time and make the effort. Pilsner will reward.

So why would anyone want to imperialize a pilsner? Why mess with the perfect beer? I have seldom met an imperial pilsner that I liked. Most are either too sweet or lean too much on hops. They upset the delicate balance that makes pilsner great. There was the one at the Rail House Restaurant and Brewpub in Marrinette, Wisconsin. It managed to be at once big and balanced. But the rest have all been drain pours.

So then there is was, Reverb Imperial Pilsner from Boulevard Brewing Company in Kansas City, Missouri. The bottle was staring at me from my fridge, daring me to drink; throwing down the gauntlet to challenge my bias. This beer first appeared in 2010 as the brewery’s first collaboration. I’m told that collaborator Jean-Marie Rock – a.k.a. the guy who makes Orval – had been sitting on this recipe for quite a while. It was a collaboration specifically between him and Boulevard, not Orval. I guess when one makes only one beer time and time again, the urge arises to do something else, and an imperial pilsner was that something else.

So what was I to do? Leave the bottle sit or accept the challenge, fully expecting to be disappointed by yet another large lager? I could not let this slap in the face go unanswered. I grabbed the bottle firmly by the throat, popped the cork, and poured its suspect contents into a glass. Challenge accepted.

Here’s my notes:

Reverb Imperial Pilsner
Boulevard Brewing Company, Kansas City, Missouri
Style: Imperial Pilsner
Serving Style: 750 ml Bottle

Aroma: Malt leads the way; a combination of pilsner-malt sweetness and notes of toast. Light hints of sulfur in the background. Hop character is lower than expected; floral and spicy.

Appearance: Light gold and quite hazy at first. The haze cleared as the beer warmed a bit. A large, mousse-like, cap of white foam that just wouldn’t die.

Flavor: A bit too cold on the first few sips, it came off a bit unbalance; light hops and overly bitter. A quarter of the way into the glass it suddenly became delightfully pilsner-like. The same sweet malt and toasty edges from the aroma. The bitterness is just about right to balance the amped-up imperial sweetness. Floral hop flavors ride smoothly over the top, slightly prominent, but never dominant. A hint of sulfur adds complexity. The finish is clean and crisp with lingering bitterness and floral flavor.

Mouthfeel: Medium-full body. A bit viscous. Medium, but prickly carbonation.

Overall Impression: I took the challenge and the beer won. This is the most pilsner-like imperial pilsner I have ever tasted. An ABV under 8% helped. Nothing is pushed over the top. If there is one flaw it is that the malt sweetness is a touch too much. A bit more bitterness would be welcome, but not a lot.

Boulevard Two Jokers Double Wit

I first tried Boulevard Brewing Company’s Two Jokers Double Wit when it was originally released two years ago. At the time I found it overly spiced, kind of like granny’s bath soap. After that experience I never went back. Jump to the present and I had a completely different experience. Has the beer changed or has my palate change? That’s hard to say. Here’s my notes:

Two Jokers Double Wit
Boulevard Brewing Company, Kansas City, MO
Style: Imperial Witbier
Serving Style: 750 ml Bottle

Aroma: Saltine cracker wheatiness. A bit of banana candy and lemony citrus. Intensely floral.

Appearance: Deep golden to orange color. Cloudy. Fluffy white head that lasts and lasts.

Flavor: Tart, lemony, citrus acidity hits the middle of the tongue right away. Soft bready wheat serves as a base, providing a sweet fluffy cushion. Plenty of stone-fruit esters and floral spicy notes. It’s still a bit perfumed for me, but no longer seems over the top. The dry finish lingers on floral spice.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Mouth-filling wheat thickness. Effervescent carbonation.

Overall Impression: The “imperial” part of this beer lands it somewhere between a Belgian Tripel and a witbier. The spice blend is strong, but doesn’t seem as over the top as the last time I had this beer. For 7+% ABV it’s remarkably refreshing.

Boulevard Chocolate Ale

Chocolate Ale, the latest release in the Smokestack Series from Boulevard Brewing Company is a collaborative effort with Kansas City chocolatier Christopher Elbow. According to Boulevard’s press release for the beer, “Elbow’s sweets are distinguished by their use of unusual and sometimes surprising flavors and ingredients.” A look at his website reveals some beautiful bonbons with intriguing flavors and colorfully intricate designs.

This collaborative beer is not your typical chocolate ale. Forget about chocolate stout, there are no roasted, black malts here, just oats, wheat, and pale malt. Elbow selected a variety of chocolate grown in the Dominican Republic and brewers incorporated the nibs into the brewing process. The result is an unexpectedly amber ale; an interesting departure from the chocolate beer norm. It should hit shelves in Minnesota on February 23rd. Too late for Valentine’s Day, I’m afraid.

Here’s my notes:

Chocolate Ale
Boulevard Brewing Company, Kansas City, Missouri
Style: Specialty Ale
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle

Aroma: A milk chocolate bar. Chocolate and more chocolate. Hints of herbal hops.

Appearance: Amber color and very hazy. The full, ivory head persists and leaves lace on the glass.

Flavor: The predominant flavors are a blend of milk chocolate, vanilla, and hazelnuts. It is malty, but not sweet. Moderately-high and slightly astringent bitterness reminds me of both cocoa powder and hops. Spicy and herbal hop flavors are fairly strong; licorice and cinnamon. Finishes quick and dry, leaving only lingering, lightly-astringent, cocoa bitterness. It’s a bit alcoholic.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Crisp and well attenuated. Fairly high carbonation. A bit of astringency.

Overall Impression: There are a lot of interesting flavors working in this beer; cocoa and herbs, vanilla and nuts. However, they aren’t always working together.  While only 24 IBUs, low for a 9% alcohol beer, it struck me as fairly bitter, a sense accentuated by the high carbonation and dry finish. I would have liked more sweetness. Chocolate Ale is unique enough to be worth picking up a bottle, but it didn’t really grab me.

Boulevard Brewing 21st Anniversary Fresh Hop Pale Ale

Boulevard Brewing Company of Kansas City, Missouri is celebrating 21 years of making beer on November 17th. That was the day in 1989 when founder John McDonald delivered the first keg of Pale Ale to a Mexican restaurant a few blocks from the brewery. At the time, Boulevard’s Pale Ale was considered over-the-top. The hop-happy direction of the craft beer industry in the intervening years has made it seem almost pedestrian. So to celebrate the anniversary of that original beer, Boulevard’s brewers have created a bigger and bolder pale ale. The newest beer in the Smokestack Series is 21st Anniversary Fresh Hop Pale Ale. It is a 7%+ ABV IPA with a relatively modest 44 IBU of bitterness. But juicy fresh-hop flavor abounds.

Here’s my notes:

21st Anniversary Fresh Hop Pale Ale
Boulevard Brewing Company, Kansas City, Missouri
Style: Fresh Hop IPA
Serving Style: 750 ml Bottle

Aroma: Deep and complex, hoppy nose; earth, orange/grapefruit citrus, melon, black pepper, garlic, mint. English in character but with other things going on. Light sweet malt with notes of toffee and biscuit.

Appearance: Voluminous and persistent, rocky, ivory head. Dark amber. A light haze that clears as the beer warms.

Flavor: Leads off with a bright, sharp, crisp bitterness. Complex and refreshing hop flavors; mown grass, wet leaves, lemon/orange citrus, melon, pepper, garlic, earth. Sweet malt with toffee and biscuit notes sits underneath, providing a solid bed, but letting the hops shine. From the crisp bitterness to the toffee/biscuit malt, the beer has a vaguely English character. The finish is dry and doesn’t linger long, leaving only faint wisps of earthy, lemony hops.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. High carbonation. Light astringency.

Overall Impression: I’m not typically a fan of wet-hopped beers. They tend to have a grassy, over-hopped character that I don’t find pleasant. This one is different. It is all about the hops, but has an adequate malt base to balance. Despite the high alcohol and grassy hops, it’s refreshing and easy to drink. The complexity of the hop expression provides evolving interest rather than vegetal disappointment.

Boulevard Brewing Seeyoulator Doppelbock

Seeyoulator Doppelbock
Boulevard Brewing Company, Kansas City, Missouri
Style: Cedar-Aged Doppelbock
Serving Style: 750 ml Bottle

Aroma: Woody with sweet caramel malt beneath. Undertones of dark fruit and herbs.

Appearance: Deep, clear mahogany. Large and persistent, creamy, tan head. Pretty beer.

Flavor: Prominent malt flavors; toffee, toast, bread crust, and hints of coffee, raisins and figs. Moderate bitterness balances the sweet malt with cooling herbal hop flavors. As the beer warms subtle spicy notes from the cedar make an appearance; cinnamon, clove, and allspice. Alcohol is noticeable. The dry finish lingers on toffee, herbs, and earth. Vaguely distracting phenolic impression giving the faintest suggestion of something Belgian yeasty.

Mouthfeel: Medium-full body, yet easy to drink. Creamy with low carbonation. Somewhat warming.

Overall Impression: This is a nice winter curl-up-by-the-fire kind of beer. The cedar-wood spice adds a layer of complexity to the already complex doppelbock malt. I’m not sure where that slight phenolic note came from. The wood perhaps. It was a bit distracting, but not enough to spoil this otherwise enjoyable beer.

Boulevard Amber Ale

I love a good American Amber Ale. They are simple beers. They don’t make a lot of demands on you. Yet they are full-flavored and fairly dependably drinkable. Many dismiss them as throwaway beers, the boring bastard stepchild of the big and bitter IPAs and Double IPA’s that beer geeks love to slobber over. To me they are a pub standard. A fallback in times when I don’t want my beer to grab me by the throat and dare me to enjoy it. You might say they are like an American version of the classic English Bitter, beer for drinking and coversating.

Boulevard Brewing Company of Kansas City, Missouri recently added an amber to their lineup, aptly called Amber Ale. They say it’s a “Midwestern version” of this classic style, presumably to set it apart from its highly-hopped cousin the West Coast Amber. Some would say this makes it sound even more boring. But I’m a Midwesterner born and bred. I would say “uncomplicated.”

What ever you want to call it, I got some and I tasted it. Here’s my notes:

Amber Ale
Boulevard Brewing Company, Kansas City, Missouri
Style: American Amber Ale
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle

Aroma: Huge caramel, like a chewy caramel candy. Sweet and sugary with a grainy malt background. Moderate floral hops. Hints of licorice. Not overly complex, but big and rich.

Appearance: Copper/Amber and clear. The moderate off-white head stuck around reasonably well.

Flavor: The flavor follows the aroma, but doesn’t come off quite as rich, in fact it seems unexpectedly thin given the rich, sugary aromas. Caramel. A bit on the sweet side, with grainy malt underpinnings. Moderate bitterness balances the sweet caramel, but it’s not highly hopped like many west coast examples. They do call it a “Midwestern” version. Moderate floral hop flavors. Candy. Rosewater. Notes of orange citrus almost like a classic English bitter. The finish is sweet and lingers on caramel. The finish is where the richness comes through.

Mouthfeel: Medium to medium light body. Medium carbonation. Finish leaves a clinging, coating of sweetness on the tongue. Not that this is a bad thing.

Overall Impression: I won’t say that this is the greatest Amber ale I have ever had. I also won’t say that it is a bad one. It’s simple, clean, easy to drink if a tad on the sweet side, and quite enjoyable. At the same time it doesn’t assert itself as anything special either. While I might not go out of my way to get hold of it, I would certainly drink this one again. Another nice pub fallback. I could see this complementing a roast turkey or even a fried pork chop, although you may want something with a bit more hop bite with fried foods.