Breckenridge Brewery – Barrel-Aged Small Batch 471 IPA

Breckenridge BA 471CLEARLY A ROBUST and powerful pale ale, this double IPA fills its snifter with lambent grace, throwing a large frothy white head of tiny bubbles and positively radiating amber transparency. This is the virgin French (from Limousin) oak-aged version, and thus has no bourbon, port, sherry, or rum notes to color the beer or its still-verdant hop character. Instead the barreling helps support and neatly couch the beer’s already generous malt body—dense and sticky without overemphasizing any single aspect, and altogether a thick but neutral template. The aroma contains some peach or nectarine, likely based in Cascade with tweaks from Simcoe and the barrel-aging. The further combination of caramel sweetness, pine, and some Chinook intensity results in an earthy, slightly prickly sensation that invokes ginger more readily than most common hop characteristics. Perhaps the Fuggle’s latent touch? This latter element layers neatly into the finish and imparts a faint holiday characteristic, but again no single element comes to dominate the experience.

Some vanilla comes through late along with a touch of woody grains near the finish, but for the most part this is still a fresh, citric, slightly spicy, and hoppy beer. Only 70 IBUs, though, it’s among the less bitter imperial-strength IPAs on the market, relying on Chinook’s assertiveness in the finish and Cascade and Simcoe’s floral/piny/citric triple-threat to enliven its bouquet and keep the midpalate from being too thick. Alcohol is nearly 10%, but doesn’t show in either the aroma (no matter the temperature) nor the flavor; its presence fills out the body, though, and leaves the mouthfeel decidedly robust. Effervescence is virtually transparent yet still highly efficient, ensuring an even dispensation of flavors and keeping the malt density in check without ever becoming a conspicuous part of the flavor profile. Overall it is one of the more balanced American double IPAs on the market, equally at home on fireside evenings with a bourbon nightcap as at the bar served alongside a deep dish pizza with mushrooms and oregano. A rare instance of the style that reasonably appeals to malt and hop fans alike.

Served: On tap (World of Beer, Naperville)

Rating: 88

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Mateo & Bernabé – Bernabé 11 Golden Ale

Mateo & Bernabe 11AN UNREPENTANT GUSHER, this bottle of Bernabé lost about a third of its contents before the remainder could be sloshed into the glass, where its frothy head and agitated yeast sediment took up as much space as the opaque golden liquid itself. From thereon out it was a smooth and easygoing companion, though, as most foreign-made Belgian blondes tend to be. The nose gently blends peach, very lightly toasted French bread crust, a zip of lemon, slightly sweetened baking spices, and doughy yeast. All mix together in the medium-light body for a round, somewhat soft flavor that’s mild without being entirely meek; the beer doesn’t strive for great complexity overall and thus oughtn’t to be judged against more robust competition. Despite that massive initial burst of foam, the head does not linger long and there is only moderate effervescence, quite creamy and evenly dispersing on the tongue. An easy aperitif on its own or as counterpoint for textural, airy amuse bouche, Bernabé touches upon the gentler core of Belgian ales without being featureless. It still could still use a firmer backbone overall, though, and perhaps a touch more dryness to outline its spice characteristic and accentuate the finish.

Served: 50 cl bottle (L07801)

Rating: 83

Brasserie La Choulette – La Choulette Ambrée

La Choulette AmbreePERHAPS THIS beer was merely amber once, but age has seen it deepen, darken, and take on a rhubarb cast that presages its earthy density. Its potent aroma strikes early with toffee malt and dried berries (e.g. prune), succeeded by an herbal prickle, slightly spicy hops, and sprinkle of musty yeast. The flavor unfolds in kind: at first sweet and earthy like a rustic cider with some woody depth, almost cloyingly chewy without being full-bodied, it then shifts towards juniper, herbs, and a savory undertone of malt vinegar before a slightly tannic finish. Hops are present in the mix, with bitterness coming less from alpha acids than the drying touch of herbs and earthiness so particular to this style.

Indeed, Ambrée is a tastefully authentic and matured manifestation of the Bière du Garde, conjuring daydreams of bucolic lowlands and rustic pantries from older epochs. Less fusty or barnyard twingy than some of its peers, the beer is still a delectably striking experience, rich yet somehow none too filling. The eggshell head froths when summoned by swirling but otherwise is restrained, and slightly elevated effervescence mingles with a touch of the 8% ABV fume towards the finish, though neither sensation is too pronounced. No doubt this would be a champion with rustic fare like Moulesfrites or Coq-au-vin; also consider experimenting with gorgonzola and spinach-stuffed mushrooms or dolmades.

Served: 750 ml bottle (best before 26.11.15)

Rating: 93

La Choulette Ambree Front

New Belgium – Snapshot Wheat

New Belgium Snapshot WheatIF ANY AMERICAN brewery could win the masses to sour ale, surely it must be New Belgium: the nation’s largest Belgian-themed brewery and curators of the unconventional Lips of Faith series. Chicago’s Goose Island is famous for the Orval-inspired Matilda that was indeed a transformative pioneer in the field, but that beer and its sisters in the Vintage Series always aimed for a discerning crowd of gastronomes and wine drinkers who were more easily persuadable in the first place. New Belgium has instead focused their new Snapshot on a much wider field of consumers, selling it in affordable six packs of easy-drinking American wheat ale. This broad contingent of styles is dynamic and highly marketable, ranging from nationwide money machines (312, Blue Moon) to more exclusive and/or robustly flavored cult favorites (A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’, Gumballhead). So which camp would New Belgium join?

Neither, really. Although Snapshot does feature lactobacillus-soured wort for part of its blend, its flavors ultimately fall much more in line with the simple refreshment of a summery wheat ale, easily quaffed from the bottle at the ballpark without giving its sour component a second thought. Its aroma slips through pale malt, some wheat, lemon, with a very light touch of cream and tartness, and the flavors correspond: light and crisp with a touch of tang towards the finish, almost more salty and piquant than sour or creamy. The ABV of 5% and IBUs of 13 are both non-factors, though a little floral note comes in the aroma from Cascade hops.

The body is light enough to be hardly noticeable until a larger sip is taken, and with that longer exposure the lactic component can develop more clearly, tweaking the transparent finish and tying in neatly with the sweet sparkle of coriander. Otherwise this Snapshot flits across the tongue, gone nearly as quickly as it arrived but leaving a light and refreshing wash behind. Thus Snapshot delivers on its name: quick and carefree, ultimately disposable but sometimes still worth revisiting. It may well become the next big summer beer for those who’ve tired of 312’s ubiquity and comparative roundness. Some may lament that it could have been so much more, and they’ll be right. But not every vista calls for Ansel Adams.

Served: 12 oz bottle best by 6/15/14

Rating: 81

Los Muertos Brewing (Day of the Dead) – Immortal Beloved Hefeweizen

Los Muertos Immortal BelovedMEXICAN HEFEWEIZEN? This bizarre marriage actually becomes logical with a bit of consideration. What with the limitless stream of Vienna-style lagers brewed south fo the border it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that a Mexican brewery would eventually attempt another classic Alpine style. And whereas in Bayern this highly carbonated and refreshingly wheaty beer is an ideal summer companion, in Mexico the sun shines hot enough for a Hefeweizen to be an appetizing prospect year round. And so we come to Immortal Beloved from Cerveza de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead en inglés).

Billing itself as Mexico’s first “first fully developed, fully accessible craft beer” company, Day of the Dead brews its beers in Tecate, Mexico, right upon the border with the United States and less than an hour east of Tijuana. The city was indeed the original site where Tecate beer was brewed, though DotD comes instead from the facilities of Cerveceria Mexicana. It’s a difficult to determine whether DotD is actually a craft brewery contracting out of a larger facility (100,000 BBL capacity) or the latest peek-a-boo act performed by a major brewing conglomerate. Some speculate* that MillerCoors is the muscle behind this brand and its sudden deployment in more than 30 states despite existing for barely a year.

Whatever its bankrolling, Immortal Beloved is DotD’s traditional Hefeweizen—no peppers or other Latin-themed adjuncts like 5 Rabbit might employ—and not a bad one at that. After pouring a traditionally hazy golden with a moderate (for the style) white head, the beer’s aroma leads with bubblegum and banana esters, less so the clove or yeastiness more common to German archetypes. There are some other ethyl group esters in the aroma, too—a little red apple, perfume, and maybe even a bit of apricot. Head retention is subpar despite a constant stream of small bubbles through the hazy body.

Wheat and grain are also unusually prominent both in the aroma and on the palate, along with a little trace of water near the finish. Carbonation is rather high and pinpricking, but it neither binds with the wheat crispness nor dissipates the beer over the tongue, which implies a relatively full body for the style. The finish is mildly metallic and a touch one-note, almost akin to a solid but unspectacular homebrew. A small touch of alcohol emerges in the finish with a vigorous swirl, otherwise Immortal Beloved is only mildly bittered and on the whole more sweetly oriented.

Part of the best before date has been effaced, but it on the whole does taste a smidge old; a fresh sample might have earned a couple points higher, though it likely was never too complex a profile. A more pronounced phenol edge would have given the beer more depth and made it a better pairing for food—especially the spicy, smoky kinds of flavors found in prime Mexican fare. But the brand is yet young, so perhaps these tweaks may yet be made.

Served: 12 oz bottle best by ??/07/14

Rating: 76

* – The Chicago Reader’s Philip Montero conducted some admirable sleuthing work, but DotD’s American importer and sales VP claims DotD is all craft.

Barley Island – Sheet Metal Witbier

Barley Island Sheet MetalHUGELY EFFERVESCENT, even a soft pour of Sheet Metal sends white froth virtually exploding from the glass, carrying with it strong aromas of coriander, lemon, orange zest, and tart yeast. That head subsides very slowly, affording plenty of time to contemplate the beer’s persistent bubbling and cloudy lemonade hue. For the impatient, a sample of that froth imparts bright minerality up front and bits of the Liberty hops, though at only 17 IBUs their floral, slightly spicy impression is subtle. Once the liquid itself is accessible it supplies a complementary sweetness; with further additions of chamomile, Sheet Metal almost invokes a lemon sorbet mixed with creamy oats and wheat. Beyond promoting that bounteous head both adjunct grains come through in the mouthfeel while the chamomile supports its sweet conclusion. Swirling will soften the aroma, pulling out more of the orange and a little dampening alkalinity.

As with any good Wit, the first sips are electrifying…but unfortunately the balance of flavors never quite coalesces: initially quite tangy and with pinpoint carbonation, the second half of Sheet Metal swings too far back towards floral sweetness before the long prickle of the aftertaste slowly manages to right the ship. At that point it’s too late for the yeast to leave much of a mark, and the final flowery impression sits on the center of the tongue instead of dispersing brightly across the entire palate. This in spite of the massive carbonation, too. It’s a shame to fault an American Wit for being too bubbly when so many are too mild, but Sheet Metal boasts CO2 volumes more apropos of a powerful tripel than a 5% ABV wit. Perhaps this was meant to counter the condensing sensation of chamomile and gummier tendencies of flaked wheat? It partially worked, but wasn’t very tactful. Admittedly, the beer is still quite easy to quaff and would play very well against tangy salads (red onions and spicy vinaigrettes; arugula and sesame seeds). But even if Sheet Metal does reach its destination intact the voyage itself was a little too turbulent.

Served: 12 oz bottle

Rating: 74

Angry Orchard Cider Company – The Muse

Angry Orchard The MuseBOSTON BEER’S Angry Orchard brand of hard ciders debuted in 2012 as a modern and slightly more masculine take on this rapidly resurgent category. The tactic worked: in one year Angry Orchard’s core trio of flavors knocked Woodchuck from the top spot en route to a staggering 40% market share. Now with unbeatable brand recognition and a strong foundation of accessible six-packs, Angry Orchard has turned on the charm to woo premium-priced customers. Their Cider House Collection emphasizes the “passion and creativity” behind “rare and innovative” ciders sold in champagne-styled bottles with branding halfway between cartoonish video games and Romantic mythology.

The latest entry in the series is The Muse, an oak-aged, quite bubbly, semi-sweet cider of 7.8% ABV aiming for the champagne crowd. It might just hit home—pouring a light gold, its bursting foamy head and total diffusion onto the palate give it the same striking mouthfeel of a sparkling wine. The flavor blends Granny Smith tartness and Fuij-style apples (they say “culinary and bittersweet”), hinting at a Pinot Grigio’s balance between sweetness and acidity. The Muse remains recognizably a cider, though, with a touch of yeast filtering in from the background and apple-sweet sugars sitting forward on the tongue. Its oak-aging imparts more flavors of vanilla than wood to the midsection as well as a faint tannic prickle in the finish that lingers near the lips.

It’s a pleasant sensation at first, but also a fleeting one: subsequent sips seem a little hollow and the slightly metallic flatness of carbonation eventually dulls the roof of the mouth instead of enlivening it. And although the body seems quite light there is still an impression of residual sugars that the bursting carbonation can’t quite scrub away. Were The Muse half its price it could compete with bargain champagne for a celebratory tipple, but at $14 a bottle the competition stiffens considerably. As a cider, though, the bright carbonation, underlying barrel notes, and lingering sweetness all pull in too many directions for The Muse to be worthy of much actual musing.

Served: 750 ml bottle

Rating: 75