This one didn’t technically violate the rule against Plural Big Beers in a night, but you do ruin your good midstength start if you then have a flagon of golden ale, and then find yourself tempted to try something Big like this. But oh well; you still do it, you just note down that you probably shouldn’t have.
I wound up at Hop Garden (which is in/conveniently on my way home from town), and Scotty couldn’t resist showing off his astute purchase of a swag of these, so we split one.
Rye beers are finally coming back into fashion after a rather mysterious absence; different grains make for different chemistry, unsurprisingly, and with rye you usually get a boatload of really nice texture, which was certainly the case here. The piney hoppiness was characteristically face-punching (for a pale ale from its part of the world), and the balance between the two made for a beer that managed to be simultaneously serious and fun. At least, that’s how I think I remember it. And hey; I do take notes.
Verbatim: Bear Republic ‘Hop Rod’ Rye 12/2/11 @ HG, with Scotty, who cleverly bought it off HZ. 355ml 8% 18% Rye, and it shows in the body. Nicely massive piney nose + taste. I’ll admit to being slightly too far-gone for doing this properly, but we had to try it. Quite a dark amber, which implies the pleasantly surprising balance. Big fruitiness in there. Monster bitter finish. Quite special.
‘Pliny’ is one of those stupidly-highly-regarded beers that make for a rather weird tasting experience. You always worry about the Emperor’s New Pale Ale effect, and when it’s brought over ‘unofficially’ (however carefully), there’s the vexed question of whether any Not Overwhelmed reaction is down to an over-hyped thing itself, or simply the result of difficult travel. This wasn’t a “grey market” import, this was a trade; brought over by some travelling Americans and exchanged with one of our regulars for some local Good Stuff. From its time in a chilly bin filled with ice and water, it had lost its label, but that was smoothly replaced by an awesome tea-towel from Steph’s house (to help keep it cold on its trip to the pub), which I couldn’t resist including in the photo.
I thought it was really tasty; properly big and fruity and resiny and just what you’d expect and want out of a West Coast Double IPA. But it didn’t completely melt my face and leave me overawed — I’d have put Hallertau’s bigger IPAs comfortably in its league, for example — though there’s just no way to tell whether that’s because something genuinely face-melting had an imperfect journey or if that’s just what it was. Two out of the four of us had had it before, and did attest to it being better last time they had it, but that just opens up the batch-to-batch variance and the subjectivity cans of worms.
Which is really the whole lesson, isn’t it? There is no objective “best” beer. You like what you like, and that’s just how it should be, especially if you can start to put your finger on just why you react like you do to something — and doubly-especially if you remember to keep in mind what the brewer was trying to do when you evaluate something. Personally, I thought this stuff was bloody good — but I don’t think you need to go so far afield to get something in its class.
Verbatim: Russian River ‘Pliny the Elder’ ÷ 4 w/ Steph, Johnnie + Llew. Sample traded for some local goodies by Steph. Apparently treated about as well as you’d hope, but S+L still say it’s not at its best. The pine needle side is lacking, going more to melony fruitiness. To me, it’s Maximusesque; all those Northwest hops. It’s always tricky to try something so ludicrously highly regarded — you always worry about the prospect of Emperor’s New Pale Ale. I really like this, but it hasn’t knocked me out of my shoes; maybe that’s a travel thing, or maybe the blessed subjectivity. The 3 are all agreed that I have to retry Moa Pale Ale, so here’s hoping that was a dud. Consensus here [about ‘Pliny’] is both tastiness + disappointment. Not up to legendary status.
I’m not sure what did it, but New Year’s was uncharacteristically quiet, so I was able to sign off pretty early and just perch on the end of the bar.
My fellow bartender Halena had gotten back from some time in the U.S., and had whipped up some of her deservedly-famous hot wings (despite being jetlagged and staring down the barrel of a long shift). Something Californian and hop-tastic seemed therefore mandatory. Fortunately, one of these was sitting in my personal stash — Amelia had insisted I buy it after seeing the cute label, and after hearing my heavily-accented stab at ‘properly’ pronouncing the name.
It’s a really lovely beer. Gorgeous colour and aroma, with all those obligatory and classic U.S. West Coast hop notes in residence — intense, but not as ‘aggressive’ as some of its relatives can be. Surprisingly drinkable, given its weight and the forcefulness of the initial flavours.
Verbatim: Lagunitas ‘Little Sumpin’ Sumpin” Ale 31/12/10 $9ish @ Rumbles. 355ml 7.3% had on the occasion of Halena’s return from California, and especially because she brought me some heavily-Franked bbq chicken wings. No idea why the upside-down label, but I like it, the art and the name. Very fun to say, heavily accented. It’s quite pale + peachy gold, nice soft bubbles + a big blunt fruity nose. To me, the bitterness starts big and eases off. Which might be a nice change, or might be the hot sauce talking. Stonefruity + light + tasty — with that underlying hopwallop + boozewarmth.
Scott, the bar manager at Malthouse, dropped some Big News during our shift — something that had been brewing for a while, but which I felt was sufficiently ’embargoed’ that I didn’t mention it directly in the Diary lest I get my act together uncharacteristically quickly and jump the gun by posting it on here. The short version is that, after ten years — an honest-to-goodness decade — he had resigned. He’s off to run the Hop Garden, a new neighbourhood bar opening soon in Mount Victoria, owned by James Henderson of Bar Edward fame. For us, it’s a helluva loss, but their new place is a tremendously exciting prospect, so it’s full of that bittersweet “hate to see you go, but dead keen to see what you do next” vibe.
In the spirit of first things first, though; Big News deserves Big Beer, so I fetched this one out of my personal stash. I’d been looking forward to it for ages, and couldn’t think of a better opportunity or anyone more worthy of sharing it.
This is Dogfish Head in Resurrection Mode, taking a crack at re-creating an old recipe — the oldest known, in fact. The idea was to take the remains of vessels found in the 2,700-year-old tomb of King Midas, run them through all sorts of chemical analyses, and get a reasonable approximation of what the drink they once held was like. So in with the now-standard barley went honey, white muscat grapes, and saffron.
It is suitably wine-ish, and honey-ish, but also still definitely a lovely and peculiar ale. I just loved it, for both its intrinsic and circumstantial properties. I wanted to drink whole pints of it, standing around in the sun somewhere — and still wanted to, even knowing that this is 9% and would swiftly knock me on my arse. It’s light and lush and it feels like what I — a Beer Nerd, after all — wish wine tasted like while at the same time being totally recognisable as ‘just’ a staggeringly interesting golden ale.
Verbatim: Dogfish Head ‘Midas Touch’ 27/12/10 ÷2 with Scotty on the occasion of some Big News. 330ml $? from NWT (in my notes, but the internet died) [actually $10] I like it a lot, that’s the main thing. Beautiful golden peachy colour. Scotty through the saffron would be mostly giving colour, then we (proudly) realised we’re both sufficiently middle-class that we don’t know what it tastes like. The grapes come through a lot, making it very winey, but soft at the finish, not acid / sharp. The flavour makes you expect a whallop finish, but it’s just this lovely gentle wash instead. Wonderfully rides that line of Different Enough But Not Too Different.
I really have turned around on Epic’s beers over the course of a few years. For too long, Luke’s products were just the perfect embodiment of that trend that bored me so horribly wherein More Hops All Other Considerations Be Damned became such a trendy and habitual thing to do. Yawn, I say, despite loving a hop-stupid beer on occasion. I just hate to see one element of a many-faceted thing elevated above all others and paraded about as if it’s the key to everything for all situations.1, 2
‘Mayhem’ met me halfway, being a hop-focussed but actually balanced beer which I really enjoyed, and lately, Luke’s finally gone that final step and made some beers which let other factors entirely take the leading roles. His collaboration with England’s Thornbridge brewery produced a pretty-damn-good stout, and this ‘Portamarillo’ might just be a proper turning point, rescuing Epic from One Trick Pony status. Because honestly, no matter howgood any particular pony’s one trick is — yawn.
So. Continuing along the collaboration train, Luke joined forces with Sam Caligione of the famously-experimental Dogfish Head brewery. Working together for part of Sam’s Discovery Channel TV series, they made a uniquely New Zealandish beer by smoking tamarillos over pohutakawa and cramming them into a smooth, boozy porter. Because why not? It sounds ludicrous, but works absurdly well. I drank a lot of it myself, as we quickly went through some two-hundred litres from the taps at work. The porter is relatively light-bodied for its strength, leaving room for the gentle smokiness and a delightfully-random tart fruitiness.
Better yet, they brewed it twice. Double-better-yet, we got to try some of the U.S.-brewed version at work, when we threw a bit of a shindig for the Near Enough Fifth Birthday of the Epic brewery. It was a great little exercise in how much difference little changes can make — the Dogfish version being much smokier, the peculiar ‘sweetness’ you get from heavily-smoked malt stealing the show more from the tart fruit. The U.S. version was only available because Sam had some in his luggage, the Epic batch is still kicking around in bottles in the better sorts of retail outlets; you should get some if you haven’t yet — or just get more.
Verbatim: Epic / Dogfish Head Portamarillo 15/12/10 @ MH, for Epic’s Fifth-ish Birthday. The NZ brew is on tap, and we’ve got a bottle of the US batch to try. It’s an awesomely odd idea: Porter with Pohutakawa-smoked-Tamarillo. The US is darker is body + bubbles and — to me — plays up the smoke more, whereas the fruit is stronger in the NZ. The US has a crazy bitter / spicy late finish, the NZ seems smoother. But I really dig both.
— so then (16/12/10), I was stopped on the street today by a regular who was asking about my blogthing. Which was enjoyably weird. But he also mentioned that Luke’s version was less smoked than Sam’s, because he didn’t want that tail-end astringency. I really must get around to watching the Making Of TV show, but it’s nice to know I was on the right track.
1: The same thing, lamentably, happens with my related obsession: Scotch Whisky. There, you get “peat freaks” like you get “hop heads” with beer — indeed, I think there are similarities to be drawn all over the place between peaty whiskies and hoppy beers, but that’s a little too tangential even for a footnote, perhaps. Myself, I love peaty whiskies. But not all the time. Not to the point where in absolutely all cases would I think that a whisky would be improved by more peatiness. So it is with hoppy beer.
2: And don’t you have to worry — at least a little — when you read something adorned with a “Add More Hops” background or a title like “I’m Here for the Hops” or “The Pursuit of Hoppiness” whether you should be discounting (in the sense of moderating-down, not “ignoring”) what they say about beers with a different emphasis? I read all three aforementioned sources avidly, but wish they didn’t position themselves so lop-sidedly. They might defend themselves by saying these things are (half?) in jest — but then, why are all the jokes lined up in that one direction?
I’m not going to get properly into the whole “grey market” (or “gray market”, if you’re American) debate here. I’m sure I will do so more fully at a later time, when it inevitably flares up again. I’m actually pretty sympathetic to both sides — which is rare.
My own particular concerns are these:
“Grey market” strikes me as an unfair term, which loads the dice against the “unofficial” importers, since it carries its connotations of being kinda black market — but grey market imports are legal.1 It certainly doesn’t seem like a neutral term that both sides would use, so it’s probably not a good phrase for commentators to go on using as a label for the debate.
The quality concern should be paramount, but I often get the suspicion that it’s used as window-dressing for a more knee-jerkish desire for good old-fashioned control.2 The opposition to parallel importing often seems oddly dogmatic — I just can’t imagine some of the most-vocal opponents actually changing their tune and make an exception were some perfect, quality-guaranteeing dream importer to emerge.
And finally, I’m just not invested enough in this debate to become someone’s martyr. I don’t see the “anti-grey” side as being so obviously right that I’d be willing to join a boycott and deprive myself the change to try something I might never otherwise be able to sample. Yes, yes, I know there may be quality issues — but I’m accustomed to navigating them with everything else as well and can accomodate those possibilities as part of the tasting experience.
Anyway: Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale, on tap in the Little Country. This is a “grey market” import, in case you were wondering why I went for a spin along that particular tangent — it was basically a “test keg”, actually, to see if kegs of Sierra Nevada would start heading this way just like bottles have been for a good few months now.
I thought it travelled very well, though some local Beer Folk seemed to bubble towards the opinion that it’d been beaten up a bit — I suspect an element of that was the somewhat regrettable pack mentality that sets in when someone “noteworthy” makes an early pronouncement (negative or positive), with maybe also a touch of that phenomenon where it becomes moderately fashionable to knock something once it reaches a certain level of success. In the main, it went down a treat; we blammed through that pilot keg in very short order (possibly helped too much by me, on one particular night).
The only let-down was that we didn’t make enough of a fuss about it, and I don’t even really know why we didn’t. It turned out that we actually tapped our keg — the very first in the country — on the actual goddamn thirtieth birthday of the beer. How neat is that? And it was totally accidental, weirdly. I tried to lobby for the awesomely-ostentatious oversized tap handle to be installed, too. The reasoning was that one big silly handle would look out of place among all the normals — but surely that’s precisely why you do it. Sigh. That said, Peter’s note on the blackboard — written “in Californian” — was awesome.
Verbatim: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale! 15/11/10 apparently the first keg to make it to the Little Country. A bit of a travel test, after which it may become a fixture on tap here @ work. Some of the Beer Snobs have already yeah-yeah-ed themselves into agreeing that it hasn’t travelled well. I say nonsense; is lovely. Maybe, maybe slightly muted. But still its delicious self. I suspect people are confusing it with its gruntier relatives.
— and then a lot / too many more the next night. I discovered that the 15th is the brewdate Birthday; so we tapped ours on its 30th! Worth celebrating, so we did.
1: Greg Koch, one of the founders of the Stone brewery, made a spectacularly arse-faced appearance on the RealBeer.co.nz forum in which he characterised a parallel import of his beer as “black market” and “illegal” several times in a short span. That lost him a lot of my sympathy, and it was very hard not to read his comments without uncharitably starting to think they were decidedly sour grapes, given that they were spurred by a negative comment about his beer. Illegality is a serious accusation to fling at someone so casually — even if there’s a question of whether one of the middlemen had broken a no-exporting deal, that’d just be an issue of breach of contract, not the proper breach of statute that his terminology and outrage imply. 2: To return to Greg Koch (from footnote 1), he quite-casually throws around the phrase “fresh-and-as-intended, or not at all”, which does set me wondering just where he wants to get off that train; what else gets smuggled into “as intended”? I really hope he took Stu’s quoted song lyrics to heart, and calmed down a bit.
We’ve struck censorship once before in these pages, but here I find myself doing some redaction before the paper was ever scanned. I’d had a very weird run-in with some misbehaving Police on my way home from Hashigo, so I stopped by Malthouse and raided the fridge’s supply of abandoned samples in search of something to follow ‘Péché Mortel’.
I found this, and shared it with a plural number of colleagues who I shan’t name; it’s obvious enough that I had it, but they were a little more squiffy as to its status as ‘abandoned’, despite it having laid idle for months.
Unfortunately, despite its ludicrously high scores on Ratebeer.com, I just wasn’t wowed. This could be attributable to several things (or some combination thereof):
Maybe I’d had too-many high-grunt beers before it. This is definitely a factor with beer; you just can’t properly try that many ‘new’ things in a session, especially if they’re quite strong. There comes a point at work where someone will ask for one more random recommendation from me (who is, quite naturally, well stocked with such), and my frank advice will be to return to something they know. Save the new things for next time.
Perhaps the beer had had a hard life before reaching me. Beers of this kind (strong, malt-driven) tend to age well, and the brewery are confident it would, but this was two years old and may have had some difficult (too hot, too rough) travels in its time. It’s a relatively-fragile product, really, and that fact is a large part of what drives the controversy over ‘grey market’ imports — about which more later, I’m sure. Or,
Possibly it just Wasn’t My Thing. The subjectivity of beer tasting should never be allowed to be forgotten. That you yourself don’t enjoy something otherwise-almost-universally-acclaimed is no cause for concern. Especially if you know even just a little about what you’re getting in for, you’re perfectly entitled to not like something.
For me, at the time at least (I’d certainly give it another go, with that reputation), it was just too smack-in-the-face, too fumey — despite being only a nudge stronger than my previous beer’s 9.5%, one particularly-apt comment on Ratebeer.com has it as smelling “like some sort of solvent poured into an ashtray”. Just not nearly as lovely as the Péché Mortel.
Verbatim: Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout 07/08 13/10/10 10/6% abandoned sample @ MH. 12 floz ÷ 3 w/ [redacted] Same gorgeous colour, same espresso head, fumier, though. Tarter chocolatey flavour. Strength is much more apparent in the face, too. Rapey, says [anonymous]. As you can see from the censorship, the internet publication potential is meeting with paranoia about the exact abandonedness of these things. Possibly a bit too full-on, actually. Or maybe just mis-timed.
Verbatim: Goose Island Honker’s Ale. $?, 12oz, @home, Nov 6. More West Wing, so a Chicago ale with burgers. Darkish, but hints of orange again. Bubbles not so enduring, no haze. Lighter taste + smell, still flat, muted ale-ish. More an afternoon beer. Perfectly respectable + tasty. Great everyday stuff; entry-level Liberty, almost.
Afterthoughts, October 2010: Not that I knew it at the time, but Honker’s is styled as an American take on English pale ale, whereas the Liberty I’m evidently comparing-to is pure American pale ale — so the observed easier-ness makes a lot of sense.
I remember this one quite well, reaching for a legendary American ale after the re-election of GWB. It was a pretty freaking bleak day; I was in a genuine philosophical funk for days, even weeks. But I knew it wasn’t the fault of the entire country, so I did consciously reach out to known / suspected “good things”, so as to keep perspective. There really is a sense in which self-medicating with beer can be healthy. Very occasionally.
Verbatim: Anchor Brewing Co. Liberty Ale. $?, 12oz, @ home, Nov 4. Bush won again, but the West Wing is on. — Great bubbles, still around, very slightly cloudy, amber color. Even smells a bit orange-colored. Quite a strong muted-fruit flavour. Tasty. (5.9%) Bananas and orange peels, but flat notes where lagers would be sharp. Still bubbly. Well-made American. And then a big Hello Coriander at the end. The feel. Another fun thing about San Fran.
Afterthoughts, October 2010: It’s taken the Diary a while to get to its first pale ale, hasn’t it? The style hadn’t really hit its stride in the Australian microbrew scene, and the market definitely skewed (as you can see from these entries) towards European imports. I like the note that it “smells orange-colored” — and can’t help but notice that my occasional American-spelling habit was quite ingrained, at this point — that seems to be me noticing the classic American hoppy flavours. But then my brain got overloaded by the fruity / herby hoppy notes and seems to’ve retreated to the wheat beer genres it knew much better at the time when trying to pigeon-hole them.
So starts the diary. After years of thinking that it was a birthday present, a look at the date here makes me realise it must’ve been a Christmas one. Shows how rubbish the human memory is, I suppose. (Either that, or I was really, really slack with getting started on the diary, since my birthday is in late August. Which is always possible.)
Verbatim: Samuel Adams Boston Lager. 4.8% 355ml ?$ at home w/ nachos. Amber-gold. Quite round and beery, but not overly lagerish, really. Honey-caramelly aftertaste. (Batch.) 7/1/04.
Afterthoughts, October 2010: Weird to look back this far and see the sorts of notes I used to write. I was evidently obsessed with bottle-conditioned stuff, so felt moved to note that this wasn’t. And given that I’d never heard of Vienna / Amber Lager as a style or the differences that would entail, I’m quite chuffed that I spotted the caramel-ness and that I thought it wasn’t just lager as-usual. I revisited this one quite a bit later…