Like making a year-end list of best records, creating a list of one’s favorite is a silly yet necessary exercise. Silly because who really cares? Necessary because everybody’s doing it. In no particular order, here are beers that were either released this year, discovered by me this year, or finally made sense to me this year. I apologize upfront for the IPA-heavy list. I’m a hop head and have trouble remembering what I thought about most sours, stouts, Saisons, etc.
Trappist Westvleteren 12
I’ve had Westy before, but it was a small sample at the end of an evening of craft beer debauchery. My bother “won” one of those lottos just to get a chance to buy and $85 six pack. He shared as family is wont to do over the holiday. Half a bottle was more than enough for me to fully appreciate what many consider to be the best beer in the world. I don’t know about all of that or even if it’s the best Belgian quad, but it’s very very good.
Goose Island King Henry
This may have been released in 2011, but we never saw it locally. One evening in Lincoln, Nebraska at an excellent pizza joint offered me the opportunity to try this magnificent beast.
Bells Black Note Stout
I should not have had a glass of this beer, but I did. A sample was sneaked to me as I had to leave a Bells dinner. Imagine the molasses-fueled deliciousness of Expedition, mixed with the sweetness of a milk stout, and brewed in bourbon barrels. Even then, you can’t imagine how glorious this beer tasted.
Three Floyds Zombie Dust
I love me some APA’s but this one is on another level. So much Citra. So good.
Stone Ruination Tenth Anniversary IPA
Specially released IPA’s from Stone are all over my list. This one featured an amped-up version of what was my epiphany beer, if that was even possible… Of course it was! This was as good a tribute as any brewery has ever brewed.
Stone Enjoy By 12.21.12 IPA
I actually preferred this one to the September version. It’s possible this one was fresher, but both were consumed well before their best by dates. The idea of a ridiculously fresh IPA is nothing new, but this release made it a priority. There’s no way one of these will ever sit on shelves too long. I hope they continue to brew Best By IPA’s.
Cantillon Lou Pepe Kriek (2008)
Obviously, this beer was not from this year, but I finally opened it and was glad I did. No one does lambics and sours like Cantillon. Probably no other more obvious sentence has ever been uttered regarding beer. Lou Pepe was no exception. I suspect the aging altered the beer, but I doubt I wouldn’t have loved it a couple of years ago.
This one is on the brain as I just picked up the latest release of this great Smokestack Series brew. I always liked this beer but never really got it until this year. I don’t know whether that’s trying so many inferior rye beers or just the ongoing development of my palate, but it’s so rich and so good. Aside from Boulevard’s Saison Brett (another all-time favorite that could make this list every year), this is one of the true Missouri craft beer treasures.
The Bruery 5 Golden Rings
I stumbled upon one of these at a Whole Paycheck the day before Xmas Eve and figured it would make the perfect Xmas dinner drink. And it did. No one outside of these guys and Stillwater consistently make beers that go better with food. I was lucky I paced myself of this one would have put me under the table.
Broadway Brewery Columbus Single Hop IPA
Never in my wildest dreams would I have figured a beer brewed here in Columbia, MO would make a list like this, but this one stacks up. I’m sure the freshness factor comes into play here, but I dragged a growler nine hours to Ohio, another three to Cleveland – all of it in a cooler that was probably not properly chilled and a growler that was not properly filled to the top – and the beer survived. Hell, it did better than survive. It was downright delicious.
Odell The Meddler Oud Bruin
I had nearly given up on Odell’s special releases, but this one was decently priced and I like to try anything new in this style. The beer was beautiful from appearance to aroma to the all-important flavors within. It paired well with whatever I was eating that night. This beer renewed my faith in Odell.
Schlafly Tasmanian IPA (TIPA)
Schlafly has been experimenting with different varieties of hops, mostly through special keg-only releases and cask ale. Still, this one was a nice little surprise. It’s one of those beers that nails the hoppiness hop heads are always after, causing us to want to drink one after the other.
Millstream Great Pumpkin Imperial Stout
This is how pumpkin ale should be done. Screw the pumpkin pie and sour varieties. Put your pumpkin in an imperial stout or Baltic porter! As an imperial stout, it’s not my favorite. However, it made me rethink pumpkin beers just as I was writing them off.
Treble Kicker Beer New Slang Saison
My own Saison is easily one of my favorites. I upped the ante with this year’s version for my partner’s tenure celebration. More lemon zest and rosemary = a punch in the face Saison that is not playing around. Add in some dry-hopped Sorachi Ace hops and you have a lemon bomb/balm that needs to brewed again and soon.
Stone 16th Anniversary IPA
This one was met with many mixed reviews, but I loved the twist this one offered some lemon verbena and rye-induced spice that made for one of the more interesting/surprising beers this year.
Deschutes Chainbreaker White IPA
Why isn’t the white/wheat IPA more popular? Because no one wants to take on Deschutes’ hold on hoppy beers. No one hops a beer like Deschutes. No one.
Tallgrass 8-Bit Pale Ale
This was my beer of the summer. Refreshingly hoppy goodness in a can carried me through record-setting heat, including a 30-mile bike ride.
Green Flash Rayon Vert
I’m not sure how long this beer has been around, but it made its first appearances in middle-Missouri earlier this year and I’m sure glad it did. Another twist on the IPA (this time with Belgian love), Rayon Vert became the “heavy” beer of summer.
What can I say that hasn’t already been said before about Stillwater’s excellence. I could put any of their beers on this list every year. Still, this one made its debut in 2012 and I for one welcome it to the best lineup of Saisons this side of Belgium.
Firestone Walker Wookey Jack
The Black IPA/Cascadian Dark Ale continues to dig out a niche in craft beer and Firestone’s entry is no different than the best of the style.
Deschutes Chasin’ Freshies
Did I mention Deschutes’ mastery of the hop. This fresh-hopped IPA and its fresh-hopped APA cousin (Hop Trip) do what fresh/wet-hopped beers are supposed to: capture the essence of Dionysus’ underwear… or something like that.
Mikkeller Royal Rye Wine
Most of the Mikkeller releases I enjoyed this year were not all that new to me. However, the experience surrounding the Royal Rye Wine made this possibly the most memorable beer of the year. Read more about it here.
What did I forget? What would you add? Disagree or agree with any of these?
This blog focuses on the intersection of indie rock, craft beer, and other independent and/or artisinal industries. I’ve tried to raise awareness of indie and craft industries while defining what constitutes “indie” and “craft” as best I can. The idea of indie-craft has been bouncing around in my skull for a while. However, it’s been tough for me to pinpoint what I want to say about it. With the indie-craft interview series, I’d like to get the perspective of those who actually produce all these great consumables and share those thoughts here.
Brian Strumke is the gypsie brewer who produces the delectable Stillwater Artisanal Ales in his hometown of Baltimore as well as in various breweries around Europe. His take on the Saison has been a real kick to the craft beer scene, challenging convention while creating a great deal of success for himself. It’s been a quick rise to the top of the craft beer universe for Stillwater as Brian has reached the top of many lists, is in the process of establishing his own pub, and even getting his own distribution truck wrap.
After running into Brian on a couple of occasions, I figured that I could bug him to be my first indie-craft interviewee. Luckily, he agreed. The results are below…
1. Describe your craft(s).
Artistic interpretations in the form of beer.
2. What’s the importance or benefit of remaining indie?
Freedom is paramount, I am very adamant on doing things my way especially because my art is an expression of myself and maintaining the control of my art is what is most important to me.
3. How does your craft contribute to society?
Working with beer is about sharing good times with people. I produce a product that is designed for enjoyment and also use that product to make people question what beer actually is… Nothing we do is straight forward and I enjoy creating intrigue within my consumer base.
4. What other indie-craft products inspire you?
Anything that is backed by a good philosophy and executed well.
5. What is your dream of success?
If you would like to try some Stillwater Artisinal Ales, move to one of these places or petition your local distributor to bring Stillwater to your neck of the woods. If you want to see what I’ve had to say about Brian’s beers in the past, go here.
Be on the lookout for more Indie-Craft interviews. I have chocolate makers, filmmakers, music makers, and possibly more beer makers lined up (or potentially lined up) for future interviews. If you have a suggestion for someone I should badger with the five questions above, let me know.
Beer: Cellar Door
Brewery: Stillwater Artisanal Ales (Baltimore/gypsy)
Context: We had cod for dinner. Wits and Saisons are good to pair with most any fish. Why not pair a Wit brewed with Saison yeast? There was nothing special about the evening. We have a mouse infestation and I had spent the day cleaning out cupboards and finding places to put all the things we kept in said cupboards until our mouse problem was gone. The three-year-old has been a bit more challenging as of late. So, I needed a drink. Cellar Door, though really difficult to get in these parts, hit the spot.
Appearance: Cloudy orange with a lot of carbonation featuring foamy bubbles and loose lacing. Specks of yeast stuck to the bottom of the glass, a reminder of all the good things happening in the bottle.
Aroma: There’s a peppery spiciness to this beer which the carbonation helps to deliver. Also present is citrus and a hint of sage.
Palate: This is where the carbonation goes to work, attacking all corners of your mouth with aggression. I don’t think it’s over-carbonated, but this aspect of the beer delivers a full mouthfeel without the prerequisite thickness. Instead, that fullness is created with bubbles, delivering the best aspects of the pepper and citrus notes found in the aroma. Once it settles, the experience is quite enjoyable, soft even.
Flavor: The same things were sensed in my mouth as was in my nose. Pepper, citrus (lemon, orange), and a hint of sage.
Suggested Soundtrack: Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground by Bright Eyes in all its triumphant, angsty glory would be the proper celebratory soundtrack for this beer. The dynamics of this album are all over the place, allowing the listener to enjoy all the aspects of Cellar Door from the light citrus aromas and flavors to that aggressive, palate-cleansing carbonation. Bright Eyes’ recognizes the strength he gains from friendship and lessons of loss to create what I think is one of his most overlooked gems. The story of this beer is in the soil…beneath the soil, in a cellar even. So, keep your ear to the ground and maybe some Cellar Door will make it to your market. (Or something like that.)
Thoughts: There’s word that Stillwater is doubling production. So, maybe we’ll see more Cellar Door and other brews from Stillwater. That’s really my only complaint about Brian’s beers. Of course, if that’s my only problem, I can deal with it just as long as some Cellar Door finds its way into my glass now and again.
In last week’s top-5, I predicted there would be some indie rock tribute beers this year. Since I want to be part of the solution and not the problem, I have decided to post five possible examples of beers that could be brewed as a way to properly recognize the chemistry that exists between indie rock and craft beer.
5. Dogfish Head Guided By Voices Heavy Lager – I once heard Bob Pollard proclaim on stage that he drinks “Bud Heavy” and not Bud Light. So, I think Dogfish Head needs to produce a “heavy” lager, maybe an imperial pilsner or high ABV bock of some sort and dedicate it to the reunited classic GBV lineup. I chose Dogfish Head because they’ve done this sort of thing before and there’s a picture of Sam Calagione wearing a GBV t-shirt out there somewhere.
4. Stillwater Bright Eyes Angst-Ridden Saison, Aged in Red Wine Barrels – I once had a pretty in-depth discussion about Bright Eyes with Stillwater brewer Brian Strumke. So, I know he’s a fan and would totally be into this sort of thing. I also know that Conor Oberst loved some red wine. If anyone could figure out a way to brew the perfect beer involving a red wine barrel (Pinot Noir possibly?), it’s Brian. This is actually the beer on this list that I personally think has the best chance of actually happening.
3. The Bruery Pavement Pilsner, AKA Watery Domestic – Of course I had to figure out a way to work Pavement into a beer. I suspect The Bruery could tap into Pavement’s Northern California aesthetic from their early days and brew their first commercially-available pilsner in the process. Since it’s from The Bruery, expect some flavors and adjuncts that will throw you for a loop.
2. Shmaltz Brewing Company He’Brew Yo La Tengo Barley Wine – A better brewery and band pairing would be hard to conjure. Shmaltz calls NYC home and specializes in Jewish-themed brews with their He’Brew line, particularly their Hanukkah gift pack. Yo La Tengo hails from across the river in Hoboken, but they spend a lot of time in the City. Every year, YLT celebrates their Jewish heritage with a set of shows each night of Hanukkah. A huge barley wine that improves with age would be ideal.
1. Just About Any Portland Brewery to Brew an IPA in Honor of Just About Any Portland Band – I get that this will be seen as a cop-out, but how could one narrow Portland’s beer and music scenes to just one brewery and one band. The one thing that isn’t hard to figure out is the beer’s style. An IPA makes the most sense here as some of the best come from Portland. Their bitterness can be a turn-off for some at first, but eventually the joy that is a Wests Coast IPA is discovered. The same goes for the average Portland indie band.
Update: This happened today. Let’s get on this, Stillwater, Bruery, Schmaltz, et al.
In no particular order, here are my ten favorite beers of the year. A few are new for 2011 and some were just new to the market in which I live (Missouri). What did I miss? Are there better examples from the following breweries or of the following styles? Discuss in the comments. Warning: There’s a whole lotta Miekkeller and Stillwater in this list.
Mikkeller Black Imperial Stout – I love the ultra-boozy, thick imperial stout. You know, the kind that is sold in 12 oz. (or Euro equvialent 11.2 oz.) that costs more than many six-packs and bombers. The ABV is obscene and they’re good now or after a couple of years in the cellar. This entry into the sub-style from Mikkeller is astoundingly good. It’s all I can do to keep myself from cleaning the shelves around town of the monster in a bottle. My bank account appreciates it, but my stomach and tongue glare at me with resentment.
Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout – Another huge imperial stout that is maybe the most hyped beer of all-time. Hyperbole aside, this beer lived up to the hype. It’s a mouthful as the maple syrup, coffee, oak, and all the things one would expect from a Founders imperial stout are there. I feel lucky to have tried CBS on tap and still have a bottle to save for later.
The Bruery Black Tuesday – A glass of this fantastic beer crossed my lips at the same event that provided my portion of CBS. More in the vein of Mikkeller’s Black, Black Tuesday is a gigantic imperial stout. Howevern, unlike Black that comes in a bottle more appropriate for a single serving, this Goliath comes in 750 mL bottles, meant to be shared with a group. Still, I lucked out by being in the right place at the right time and got to try this beast next to the one above. Life’s good for the beer geek.
Anchorage Bitter Monk – Moving on from imperial stouts, a surprising arrival showed up in stores this year. Anchorage makes what is one of the more complexly interesting beers I’ve had in a long time. The huge hop presence of a DIPA is balanced with chardonnay barrel-aging and even Brettanomyces… basically a dream beer. Despite its relatively high price point, I’ve noticed this beer doesn’t hang out on shelves for long.
Stillwater/Mikkeller Two Gypsies Our Side – Another beer that finds a way to bring piney hops to the farmhouse, making this hybrid style a sure thing to be cloned over and over in the coming year. Where Bitter Monk relies more heavily on the barrel aging and Brett, this beer keeps it simple but still strikes a chord with the beer nerd in search of a complex, challenging experience.
New Belgium La Terroir – A third, less-intense version of the IPA/Saison hybrid is New Belgium’s La Terroir. Technically, none of these beers really fits a style, but they highlight the best of the Saison/Farmhouse/wild end as well as capitalizing on the resinous hoppiness we all love in our IPA’s. This third in the hybrid group of beers on my list is more of a barrel-aged wild ale with the peachy presence of an Amarillo and Cascade dry-hop.
Stillwater/Mikkeller Rauchstar – Second Stillwater/Mikkeller brew on my list is also another hybrid beer. This beer also happened to just slide into the top-10 as it was consumed the day after Xmas. Yes, it’s a smoked beer, but it’s also highly hopped and there’s that Stillwater tang that’s unmistakable. Really, this was a shockingly good beer that I wished I had more of. Plus, the label is pretty wicked.
Odell Friek – I’ve really learned to appreciate Kriek Lambics and the like over the last year, especially when paired with chocolate. This one delivered and has made a brief return to our market right at the end of the year. It’s very welcome. My previous experience with Odell’s Woodcut series did not end well and I have another of their beers I’ve been advised to wait out. Still, when they do it right, I still have to give them credit. Friek is a freak of a good beer.
Firestone Walker Double Jack DIPA – I realize that this is far from a new beer for most beer enthusiasts, but it was new to our little market this year and very welcome. While some will go more for the bigger, richer, oakier varieties of beer, but this DIPA is exceptional. The only thing that may challenge it is their Union Jack IPA which just arrived.
Stone 15th Anniversary Escondidian Imperial Black IPA – Another welcomed sight on the shelves and coolers here was Stone. Then, they came correct with their 15th anniversary ale, a big, hoppy double black IPA. Really, this beer was phenomenal and has extended the legend of the black IPA.
I’m thankful for a lot. However, I won’t go into all that here. This blog is about craft beer and indie rock. So, I won’t go into my thankfulness for my health, family, home, etc. Those all go without saying. No, this post pays homage to the little extras that provide a little spice to life, the things for which I obsess over and blog about incessantly.
10. Improved Missouri Distribution – Since I’ve moved here and eventually became a beer enthusiast, the distribution in this state has increased dramatically. I don’t even think I can name all the breweries we’ve added in that time. Off the top of my head, I can think of Firestone Walker, Lagunitas, Stone, Founders, Ska, Jolly Pumpkin, Stillwater, and a bunch more I probably didn’t realize weren’t already available here. We currently get nearly all the important Michigan and Colorado breweries. Our west coast selections improve monthly. It’s a great time to be a beer geek in Missouri.
9. Two Clubs, Two Cities – It’s tough trying to see bands in a town such as Columbia. We’re not really gib enough for a lot of acts, but we do have options. Two clubs here are just the right size for most indie bands. There’s Mojo’s with it’s barn-like qualities and the Blue Note with its old-school dancehall/porno theater feel. And when bands don’t want to stop here, it’s not a huge deal to drive two hours in either direction to see them in St. Louis or Kansas City. This year alone, among others, I’ve seen Sebadoh (Mojo’s), Yo La Tengo (Blue Note), Beirut (St. Louis), and Wild Flag (Kansas City) in four different places. That’s not bad for an old man.
8. The Ohio Pipeline – Even though Missouri’s distribution is improving, there are still many breweries we do not get. I could do some online trading or simply buy online, but that gets expensive. Luckily, for every brewery we don’t get here, there’s a better than average chance they do get it in Ohio. Between my siblings (one who works at a Whole Foods) and my mom (who drives here once a month to see
me her only grandchild), I have a steady flow of out-of-market beers to keep myself satisfied.
7. Insound – I’ve complained before that there’s no decent record store here. Thankfully, Insound is always a click away. At one point, they shipping so many records to me that the UPS lady asked my wife if I was a DJ. Hardly. No, I’m just a man with a problem, an addiction, an addiction to vinyl.
6. Glassware – A beer out of the wrong glass or even out of a bottle is just not the same as one served in the proper glass. Over the years, I have collected several different glasses in which I can enjoy some of the finest beers in the world as well as some tasty homebrew. I have various stemmed glasses for various styles of beer. I have enough conical pint glasses to serve a decent-sized party. There’s even the set of taster glasses for those who just want a small taste of a big beer. Over time and many bottles of beer, I’ve found the tulip to be the best, most versatile glass. The stem gives me something to hold onto if I don’t want to warm my beer. The bowl presents an option to make my beer warmer. The lip allows aromas to flow. Quite simply, it is the perfect beer glass.
5. The Nineties Are Still Alive – In case you haven’t figured it out, I am a child of the nineties and my musical tastes reflect as much. My favorites continue to be nineties mainstays and most of the new music sound so 20 years ago. The two best albums might be by Wild Flag and Stephen Malkmus, ambassadors for the decade. New, younger bands such as Yuck and BOAT have ’90’s written all over them despite their youth. It’s the decade that will never die. Spin and I will make sure of that.
4. My Bottle Opener – For whatever reason, I like to hold onto the bottle caps from the beers I drink. In the past, I’ve turned some into refrigerator magnets, but most just go into a drawer. Still, it’s a luxury to have an opener that opens caps without bending them. My opener does that. It’s fashioned from an old railroad spike. It’s heavy and rustic looking. My bottle opener is a conversation piece before we ever crack open a bottle.
3. 180 Gram Vinyl – I love to listen to vinyl, but I worry that it may warp or that the record won’t stand the test of time. However, with hefty 180 gram vinyl records, I don’t worry about that. One can feel the weight of a 180 gram vinyl record the way one should feel the resulting music from the grooves within. The record is so tactile anyway, it’s nice to feel some heft as you lift a disc to rest on your turntable.
2. Mikkeller, Stillwater, Jolly Pumpkin – I love breweries that push limits and don’t taste like any other brewery. These three do what they do at the highest level and often alone. Mikkeller, Stillwater, and Jolly Pumpkin are the kinds of breweries that keep my attention firmly set on craft beer. They’re always good and even when they’re not, they’re at least interesting.
1. This Blog and Its Readership – Seriously. This blog has really taken off since the Freshly Pressed moment last winter, but the continual participation and contributions from my readership have really moved me to post as often as I can. In fact, I’ve looked forward to finishing a post a day throughout November because I know that you all will respond in kind and often add to the discussion in a way that makes me think and motivates me to write again.
Thank you faithful readers and have a happy Thanksgiving.
The gypsy is alive and well my friends. No, I’m not talking about those who wander southern and eastern Europe in search of an easy mark. The kind of gypsy to which I’m referring is that of the craft beer and indie rock worlds. Throughout those scenes, there are examples of loner craftsman wandering between breweries and bands and creating product that defies typical industry definitions.
As is usual with these sorts of things, the indie rock gypsy is way ahead of the the craft beer variety. Musicians have been using monikers normally reserved for bands of two or more people for projects with revolving members. The freedom to make all the major creative decisions for a band without worry of the band breaking down has to be a plus. And when they want to pick up and move, there are no band members holding them back. Then, when there is a creative problem to solve, they can call on hired guns to figure them out.
Take Bright Eyes for one. BE is basically Conor Oberst (later to include Mike Mogis) and whichever friends he could round up to fill spots on his roster. His sound and dynamic have generally stayed constant, but Oberst is able to create something new each time out by simply adding a few pieces while replacing others. Oberst could have gone it alone as a solo artist (which has done and probably will continue to do), but he must have liked the comforts and support a band provides. Fewer bands are as tight as an Oberst-led group and there always appears to be a great chemistry. As a gypsy, Oberst was able to move his operation to Brooklyn from Omaha without skipping a beat. Bright Eyes was not the first ever or only gypsy act in indie rock, but it has been an extremely successful one.
Interestingly, Brian Strumke, gypsy brewer of Stillwater Artisanal Ales, revealed to me that he is a big Bright Eyes fan, but their connection as gypsies in their fields don’t end there. Both have stayed true to their hometowns. Strumke brews in Baltimore and Oberst has done most of his work in Omaha. Both have traveled to “meccas” in order to continue their crafts with some Stillwater beers being brewed in Belgium and a Bright Eyes album or two written and recorded in Brooklyn. Both men have honed their crafts into something unique that often defies categorization while still giving a nod to their influences.
The gypsy is able to break free from the constraints and tradition of his craft. The typical indie rocker is stuck with the band structure that determines how many parts to consider in every song and even how many seats to provide in the tour van. Your average brewer must consider the additional costs of running and often upgrading brewing facilities. The gypsy is not bothered by either. His band can take any shape. He can brew in this brewery or travel overseas to brew at another. The gypsy is without the typical worries that dog their more sedentary counterparts.
And why is this gypsy-fication of indie rock and craft beer on the rise? Besides the freedoms mentioned above, we live in a world that is simply more conducive to the gypsy approach. For one, we are a more global society. Due to decades of migration and multicultural educational initiative, we no longer live in a …. society. There’s a reason American brewers make Belgian styles and popular music demonstrates influences from all over the globe. Secondly, technological advancements have made it possible to coordinate projects in multiple locations. Conor Oberst can work in Brooklyn while his Omaha label Team Love GM lives here in Columbia. Brewers can easily participate in beer scenes all over thanks to social media. The world is too small for these creative types to stay in one place. Bands and breweries will just keep them down.
It’s an interesting development that has produced some pretty great results. Below are a few other gypsies I admire.
- Crooked Fingers is the “band” name Eric Bachman (Archers of Loaf) uses. He lives out of vans and people’s couches, but he finds time to round up some players, record records, and hit the road. What started out as a side project of woe has turned into a great bar band, no matter who’s backing Bachman.
- Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project is one of the most sought after breweries in the scene right now. I don’t know all their particulars, but they make some artful brews and incorporate a nose for design.
- Bon Iver started out as Justin Vernon, fresh from band and girl breakups, heading out to a Wisconsin cabin one winter to record one of the most textured and heartfelt records of this century. He seems to have a regular touring band these days, but no one questions who or what Bon Iver actually is.
- Mikkeller is the gypsy from Copenhagen we American beer geeks adore. Not surprisingly, he has a connection to Stillwater as they have collaborated on several brews, some yet to be released.
There are trends in craft beer like any other industry. Typically, anything that’s labeled “imperial” or “oak-aged” garners a lot of attention. Some have been pushing for “sessionable” beers to be a trend. Lately, turning something pale into something dark is a hip trend in beer styles. That and gypsy brewing are two trends I’m enjoying immensely for pushing the definition of a beer and its brewer.
The dark Saison or farmhouse ale is the ugly step-child of the Cascadian dark ale/black IPA in much the same way the Saison has been treated in comparison to the IPA/DIPA. However, as tastes grow to become more sophisticated, the Saison is gaining attention. It doesn’t hurt when brewers like Boulevard sour their Saisons with Brettanomyces or infected tanks to add character that bitter India pale ales just can’t obtain. Now, the black Saison is gaining ground on the black IPA in much the same way.
One brewery that does the Saison better than almost any is Stillwater Artisanal Ales. The Baltimore-based brewery recreates the farmhouse like few clans of Amish ever wished or hoped to raise on a Saturday afternoon. Wet horse blankets and all fill 750mL bottles topped with home-winery PVC caps and stickered labels that draw the envy of many an artist.
Besides the great beer and label artwork, the other aspect that sets Stillwater apart from most breweries is their status as a “gypsy brewery.” Much like the Coalition’s favorite Mikkeller, Stillwater pays breweries to use their facilities in creating their artisanal ales. The gypsy brewery is the nomad of the nano set, the free spirit of craft beer. And the results are pretty amazing.
Last night, I cracked open Stillwater’s Existent, a dark, almost black farmhouse ale that defines/defies the style like few others could. The only other black Saison I’ve had capitalized on the sweetness of the dark malt, but this beer brings the roastiness like Starbuck’s tenfold. Coffee and chocolate dominate the tongue, but that familiar pungency of the Belgian Saison fills your nasal passages with floridness that is pure farmhouse. Some of the reviews I read didn’t sense the Saison characters, but you have to breath in deep on this one and when you catch it, it takes over. The combination is all raisins and roasted chicken, possibly even coq au vin.
As with my last straight-up beer review, I have focused on a beer that defies convention brewed by a brewer who also defies convention. It’s hard to figure out a beer who’s style is supposed to be fruity, earthy, but is corrupted with roasted malt. Additionally, it’s hard to figure out brewers who don’t have a street address. The challenge lies in getting past this unconventional approach to the conventional and just judging the beer on its own merits. It’s roasty like the finest porter, but the floral aroma says nothing but French/Belgian countryside. This makes Existent a triumph at best and a good beer to have with your roasted chicken at worst.