Boulevard Brewing Co. – The Calling IPA

I don’t have a lot of back-story here. I like the Smokestack Series beers from Boulevard Brewing Co. They have a new one that will be year-round. It’s called The Calling IPA. A simple malt bill of just pale 2-row barley malt supports a blend of eight different hops – Mosaic, Equinox, Galaxy, Amarillo, Simcoe, Bravo, Topaz, and Cascade. That’s a lotta hops.

Here’s my notes:

the_calling_12oz_bottleThe Calling
Boulevard Brewing Company, Kansas City, Missouri
Style: American IPA
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
8.5% ABV
75 IBU

Aroma: All hops – Citrus, lemons, grapefruit, tropical fruits. The deep, juicy kind of tropical – mango and guava. Low herbal/mint notes. Faint malt sweetness with neutral character. Low floral alcohol. Super fruity, sweet and juicy, with contrasting floral alcohol.

Appearance: Light gold and hazy. Moderate, creamy, white head with moderate retention.

Flavor: Juicy hop flavors dominate over low, grainy malt sweetness. Bitterness is restrained, but lingers into the finish at low levels. Pineapple. Tropical fruit. Mangoes. Lemon curd. Pine resin. The lemon shines bright in the off-dry finish. Moderate alcohol.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Medium carbonation. Low alcohol warming. Not astringent.

Overall Impression: Bitterness is surprisingly restrained at 75 IBU. The 8.5% load of malt sweetness more than amply balances it. This beer holds its alcohol well. It’s an example of style-creep that has occurred since the last BJCP guidelines were written. This falls into Double IPA range, but Boulevard calls it an IPA. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

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.

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 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.