QTN™: Gnomegang

When I read that American brewer-in-the-Belgian-style Ommegang was collaborating with actual Belgian brewery L’achouffe on a beer, I was a little nonplussed. But then I saw the name of the collaboration: Gnomegang. And it all made sense.

This is a remarkably, even dangerously, easy drinking beer at 9.5%. A shade lighter than the classic Chimay gold but darker than Achouffe stablemate Duvel, only the slight sour on the tongue flavor tips off the uniquely enjoyable threat lurking within. There aren’t too many Belgian styles that are just right for sitting by the grill, but this is one.

I had to hunt to find a bottle of this collaboration, but it’s totally worth seeking out.

Magret a la Mad Elf

Christmas dinner has come and gone, and brought some unusual triumphs.

First, the side dishes: alongside the usual boiled parslied potatoes and green beans, I slipped in a dish of glazed turnips. The turnips were so young and soft that I was afraid to really brown them for fear of turning them to mush, so they were just kind of boiled. But delicious. Like a potato and a radish made sweet, forbidden love. I never had turnips growing up, but they are certainly growing on me now. I suppose that increases my New Englander score a bit.

Next, the main dish. As already noted, I seared duck breasts — four Muscovy breasts and a Magret — then popped them in the oven to rest while I worked on the sauce. I poured out all but a thin film of duck fat on the bottom of the pan, dumped in a diced shallot, and scooted it around a bit while it sizzled. Then a few tablespoons of flour to thicken the roux while I pondered the deglazing. I steeled my nerves, opened a Troëgs Mad Elf—and poured the whole thing into the pan.

An aside on the Mad Elf. I try to find a holiday beer every year–sometimes it’s been a standby like the Harpoon Winter Warmer, sometimes Belgians like the Kerst Pater Winter Ale. Some of the selections have not lasted, and I’m still sad that Orchard Street Brewing Company’s Jingle Ale went away when the brewery did. This year’s holiday beer was the Mad Elf from the Troëgs Brewing Company in Harrisburg, PA. An astonishingly subtle 11% ABV, the cherries and honey mask the heat until it’s too late, as a rule. Well worth snapping up a few sixes if you come across it.

At any rate, I thought, if I was going to do a cherry sauce for the duck but had no cherries, why not use a beer brewed with cherries instead? The answer became clear after I had deglazed the pan and cooked it for a bit: the bitterness from the hops threatened to swamp the other flavors and make the sauce inedible. I desperately cast about for something to fight the bitterness and found a bottle of pure cranberry juice in the fridge, and added about 3/4 cup, tasting after each splash. The cranberry juice did wonders: without totally removing the bitterness, it added a deep sweetness and redness to the sauce that made it piquant and splendid. I added dried thyme and sage, cooked it through, and we were ready to go.

And it was excellent. The flavor of the magret breasts was gamier than I thought, but the sauce carried it through. Definitely a keeper.

QTN™: American Oktoberfests

I’ve been tasting a variety of Oktoberfest beers, in name if not in style, this fall. The latest, from Avery Brewing Company, is the Kaiser Imperial Oktoberfest. And it’s a big beer. A barleywine, in all but name. But it’s not an Oktoberfest. It’s a great big quaffable (if not sessionable), very tasty, 10% beer. But it’s not an Oktoberfest. It’s not a märzen. If they served this at d’Wiesn, people would be screwing in the aisles and fighting with the oompah band. Or vice versa. But the choice of name seems like a cynical marketing choice.

Surprisingly, the same was true of the Oktoberfest from Otter Creek. While sessionable and tasty, the hops made it more of an American pale ale than an Oktoberfest beer. I haven’t done a side by side tasting, but the hops really felt more Cascadian than Bavarian.

This is when I start to wonder why it’s so hard to find a beer that tastes like it was brought in a one-liter mug by a busty barmaid to a table full of enthusiastically drunk German college students and hollering Australians. That’s when I remember the most authentic tasting Oktoberfest I’ve had–perhaps because of its freshness–from Berkshire Brewing Company. Mmm. Mmm. I feel sorry for those outside the limited distribution range, because this beer is right on.

QTN™: Dogfish Head Fort

When a beer is made with crushed raspberries, it can be either very good or very bad. I’ve had some fruit “lambics” (you know the ones) that tasted like Koolaid. True to form, Dogfish Head’s Fort is not among these. I’ll be lucky to articulate what it is among, given its fairly high alcohol content: 18% (higher than some Zinfandels).

The name could stem from the Latin for strong (most likely) or from its resemblance to the word port, which the beer somewhat resembles. The intense raspberry aroma of the beer gives way to an incredibly well balanced sweet/malty/yeasty/alcohol flavor combination that makes it very easy to forget that you are drinking the equivalent of three normal beers by volume.

The beer was an outstanding balance for grilled pork tenderloin that was covered with a sweet, gingery spice rub.

QTN™: Rogue Imperial India Pale Ale

Tonight’s Quick Tasting Note regards the Imperial India Pale Ale from Rogue Ales Brewery. A beer in a big 750 ml ceramic bottle with a flip-top stopper, it’s a 9.5% ABV hoppy monster. Hoppy monster in that the hops are so monstrous that the malt almost can’t catch up. The trick with a beer like this is in the balance between hops, malt, and alcohol, and this one clearly seeks to balance out the hops and the alcohol with some neglect for the malt. That said, it’s a really interesting beer: bracing, citrusy, floral, strong. Good match for a plate of bratwurst with mustard.

This, like the Drie Fontainen Oude Gueuze, came from Warehouse Wine and Spirits in Framingham. Their beer selection may not be as wide as Downtown Wine and Spirits in Somerville, but they have the advantage of being near my office and the exceptional things they have are pretty darned exceptional.

QTN™: Drie Fonteinen Oude Gueuze

It’s been a while since I posted a Quick Tasting Note, but the Drie Fonteinen Oude Gueuze merited a note. Blended, as all gueuzes are, from multiple lambics—spontaneously fermented beers—the style is usually a little sour, a little acetic, and wild. This one is no exception, except that it’s a lot sour, a lot acetic, a lot wild: as a taster on BeerAdvocate notes, the beer has a “raw yeastiness that allows me to finally comprehend…the term ‘barnyard’ to describe a beer’s nose…” And it’s barnyard in a good way. The most amazing thing is that it’s appetizing. It makes me hungry. This one was a 2004 bottle that turned up in Warehouse Wine and Spirits in Framingham. I might have to go back and pick up a few more.

QTN™: Harpoon Saison (100 Barrel Series)

I’ve written about Harpoon’s limited 100 Barrel series before—including the Oatmeal Stout, the most phenomenal offering in the whole series. But I need to amend that last statement. The new Harpoon Saison is the finest beer yet to come from this particular brewery… and I say that not just as an aficionado of the Saison style in particular and most Belgo-French styles in general, but as a fan of fine beer in all its forms.

The nose is a good start—bready with banana undertones promising good complex esters in the taste. The taste doesn’t disappoint either—up front hoppy brightness, opening into a bready but bright (lemon? spices?) body, with a pleasantly lemony aftertaste.

The more impressive part, though, is the nature of the middle part. If you close your eyes, the Saison could be a French Saison or even a Belgian—Lisa’s comment was “It tastes like LaChouffe.” This is high praise indeed for an American beer in general and a New England beer in particular, this region not noted for its Belgophile beer styles.

This last may be the biggest obstacle to the Saison joining Harpoon’s regular lineup. It’s so different from Harpoon’s regular styles that I can’t get my mind around it. It’s like Sam Adams suddenly brewing a Duvel. But the disjoint in styles may ultimately be a good thing. Harpoon’s regular lineup has been stuck for a long time. But suddenly a raspberry-flavored Hefe has joined the family, and maybe some more will come. I vote for the Saison sticking around for a long long long time.

QTN™: Harpoon Oatmeal Stout (100 Barrel Series)

The Harpoon 100 Barrel series has been one of the bright lights on the local beer horizon here, with new experimental offerings every few months—a pretty bold step for a local micro-becoming-mini-brewer whose offerings used to be as predictable as the seasons (IPA and the UFO hefeweizen, mostly, with Munich Dark and Ale generally only available in multipacks, plus the Winter Warmer, Hibernian, Summer, and Oktoberfest available seasonally). In the past I’ve only reviewed the Scotch Ale (Wee Heavy) and the Alt, so it’s high time I added to the list. Fortunately Harpoon is helping out by reissuing their very first 100 Barrel offering, the Oatmeal Stout.

If Harpoon doesn’t add this to their standard line-up, they’re dumb. Not only is it a good beer, it’s a good oatmeal stout, a style that’s pretty damned hard to pull off. It’s malty with a touch of sweetness in the nose (even through my cold-stuffed sinuses). The mouthfeel is appropriately weighty without being overwhelming, and the overall impression is very very pleasing. Even Lisa, who feels about stout the same way that society matrons feel about someone passing gas in public, feels it’s an astoundingly good beer. If you are in the distribution area, snap it up before it goes away again.

QTN™: Oud Beersel, Oude Geueze Vielle

I’ve been holding onto this one since my first pilgrimage to Downtown Wine and Spirits. My favorite kind of beer on the planet (very broadly speaking) is Belgian, and my favorite Belgian beer style is geueze, the amazingly complex melding of young and old lambics in one wild-yeast-fermented mouth bomb. And, as of this writing, my favorite geueze might be the Oude Geueze Vielle from the Brouwerij Oud Beersel.

What to say about such a complex beer? The nose is peppery with citrus overtones, with deeper notes of earth. The flavor is a little sweet immediately followed by a yeasty sour depth, with the lingering carbonation picking up the flavor and brightening it again. It’s all in perfect balance, and spectacularly tasty. Almost as refreshing as a Flemish red, but with a bready aftertaste that inevitably recalls Champagne—fitting, as Michael Jackson calls beers in this style “the Champagnes of the beer world.”

Lisa tried a little of this and said, “Wow. That’s different. Save me some.” I regretfully complied, though not without severe temptation.

I tasted this with a non-traditional food accompaniment—a platter of burnt ends and pulled pork from Blue Ribbon Bar-B-Q. Somewhat to my surprise, it was a great combination, the sweetness and smokiness of the meat playing perfectly against the breadiness of the beer, and the vinegar in the greens joustling happily against the tartness of the geueze. Belgian beers may not replace sweet tea at Southern roadhouses anytime soon, but they may well at my table from now on.

QTN™: Dogfish Head Midas Touch

It’s been far too long since I’ve posted beer tasting notes; a reflection, I think, on the limited availability of off-the-wall beers in this little corner of the Boston suburbs, if not on my actual consumption. So it’s with pleasure that I renew the series with notes on the Dogfish Head Midas Touch Golden Elixir.

The backstory of this beer is almost reward enough: analyzing the residues found in drinking vessels in a Minoan grave site, archaeologists found they comprised a mix of grape wine, barley beer and honey mead. Dogfish Head took the finding and ran with it, creating a barley-based beer in which the yeast was fed with honey and Muscat grapes, with a little saffron added for color and bitterness. But the taste of the beer is almost as complex as its origin. Starting with a nose a bit like a Duvel (or other golden Belgian ale), the taste is sweet without a hint of the complex esters (banana or bread flavors) normally found in more complex ales. But a second after the first swallow, you get the part that balances the sweetness: the 9% ABV that provides the counterpoint to the up-front sweetness. There is a little bit of dry-cracker taste, as with more expensive wines made with méthode champenoise, providing the other counterpoint to the honey flavor.

This is one sophisticated beer. And as the alcohol content suggests, it should be drunk accordingly: in small quantities, preferably with friends about with whom you can share your reactions.

QTN™: Brasserie Duyck, Jenlain Bière de Garde

Yep, the French make beer—highly complex and distinctive beer. I don’t think your average Pabst or Bud drinker would denote this fabulous bière de garde as a beer, but it’s accessible to anyone who’s enjoyed Belgian beers. Michael Jackson notes that Duyck’s Jenlain uses pan-European hops (Alsace, Flanders, Germany, Slovenia) and that it’s 6.5% ABV; he doesn’t note the surprising sweetness that greets you on the first sip. The sweetness is matched by the complexity of the nose, which is equal parts orange peel, bready yeast, and caramel, and by the lengthy finish with lingering citrus and spice notes. Not an everyday beer, but then what is?

QTN™: John Harvard’s Provision Ale

It feels odd reviewing a beer that’s been available for less than a week, but I’m not complaining. John Harvard’s Provision Ale is so new, it’s not even on the beer list yet. When we picked a growler of it up a week ago, it was a day old. And it’s impressive. A dark, dark ale, almost black, it has a nose like a stout—malty, almost sweet—but an ale’s mouthfeel—light-bodied, malt balanced out by hops (and alcohol). I’d love to see an ABV or BU measurement on this ale, but I’m guessing both of them are pretty high. This is good stuff, and I hope it enters the regular rotation at the pub.

For more information about the style, check out this Michael “Beer-Hunter” Jackson article on Old Ale and check out the paragraph next to the second pull-quote. Basically, Provision Ales were meant to lay down, hence the high hops and alcohol content.

QTN™: Rapscallion Premier

This particular quick tasting note is a new one on me. Coming from the Concord Brewery in Lowell, MA, the Rapscallion Premier sounds like it should be a golden Belgian-style strong ale along the lines of Duvel or its imitators (Delerium Tremens, Lucifer, etc.). Instead the color is a gorgeous reddish-blonde, the nose is complex with fruit fragrances (apricot predominates), the up front impression is crisp and vibrant, the body is part-malt, part bitter (maybe a little too bitter) and the finish is lingering. If any note is discordant it’s the hops. I don’t know what they’re using but I would guess Cascade, or else they just have a very heavy hand with the hops, and the bitterness comes close to overwhelming the rest of it. But in the end it kind of balances out in the finish and the overall impression is very strong. I think I’ll have to make a visit.

QTN™: Harpoon Scotch Ale (Wee Heavy)

A while back, I blogged the Harpoon 100 Barrel Series—“one of a kind creations fashioned by a Harpoon brewer, limited to a single 100 barrel batch.” At the time I didn’t think I’d have a chance to try any, but I’ve found two since moving back to Massachusetts. The Alt Ale, which is currently on their website, I found uninspired—a little timid, too little hop to balance the malt. The Scotch Ale (subtitled Wee Heavy), on the other hand, is pretty darned good, and true to the tradition too. High head that recedes quickly, good copper color, excellent malt nose, a little heavy on the palate in the true style, a good sweetish aftertaste. And strong too. A better effort than the Alt. But still room to grow in this series; I look forward to tasting more of the individual brewers’ efforts.

QTN™: Hahn Special Vintage 2000

Tonight’s beer, because it arrived on my doorstep, is an Australian bottle-conditioned ale, the Hahn Special Vintage 2000. A bottle-aged amber, the four-year-old beer pours dark-red to brown with a small, light weight head. Nose is malty and yeasty; initial taste is slightly sour, almost in a Rodenbach kind of way, but the subsequent taste is almost dusty. It’s drinkable, but I don’t think the vintage is aging particularly well. Kind of sad, for Australia’s first corked beer, but tasty nonetheless.