Review: Hermitage Brewing Company Belgian Blonde, Hermit Ale, and Boysenberry Sour

Hermitage Brewing Company Belgian-Style Blonde

Three limited release beers from our friends in San Jose at Hermitage Brewing Company. Thoughts follow.

Hermitage Brewing Company Belgian-Style Blonde – A chewy, malty brew, this Belgian blonde is drier than most beers of this style, offering restrained notes of fresh barley, just a touch of dried fruit, and gentle hops on the back end. The finish is leaner than I’d like — while it offers a crisp and mostly refreshing conclusion, it fades away too fast to leave much of an impression. 6% abv. B / $NA (22 oz. bottle)

Hermitage Brewing Barrel Aged Hermit Ale – An old-school pale ale inspired by a late 19th century style of beer (akin to a strong ale), aged in bourbon barrels for 6 months. Thick and brooding, this intensely bitter ale offers notes of tree bark, licorice, and burnt toast before turning to a slightly sweet, somewhat pruny body. The finish is lasting and mildly syrupy, offering light vanilla notes driven by the bourbon barrels mingled with a lasting bitter edge. It grows on you. 7% abv. B+ / $NA (500ml bottle)

Hermitage Brewing Boysenberry American Sour Ale – This sour, boysenberry-infused beer spends two years in California wine barrels before bottling. Indeed, it tastes like a lot like a young wine, huge with tart fruit, but tempered with a yeasty fizz and intense notes of sour fruit candies — think mouth-puckering raspberry and strawberry sours. More instantly drinkable than many sour beers — in an old-school soda fountain kind of way, with quite the punchy pop on the backside. 6.5% abv. B / $NA (750ml bottle)

hermitagebrewing.com

Review: Bear Republic Apex Special IPA (2015)

apex ipaAh, another fine seasonal release from our NorCal neighbors at Bear Republic. Apex, an Imperial IPA, isn’t made every year, but 2015 marks two years in a row that it has. Each year the beer’s profile changes, reflecting seasonal varieties of hops available and new strains that are developed. Apex is a beer that is intended to be “forward looking.” For this 2015 release, Apex — the name connoting the pinnacle of beermaking — includes Cascade, Columbus, Centennial, Chinook, Simcoe, Citra, El Dorado, Azacca, and Lemondrop hops. Some familiar names in there, and some obscurities, too.

If you like bold, piney IPAs, this is one not to miss. Take the crispness of Racer 5 and weed out some of its burlier, almost lumber-like elements and what you have left is Apex. Intensely bitter, it melds evergreen notes with grapefruit and orange peel, lingering notes of roasted grains, and some surprising floral character on the finish. As it lingers, a touch of mushroom on the back end takes you back to the earth.

Gorgeous from start to finish.

8.25% abv.

A / $NA (22 oz. bottle) / bearrepublic.com

Review: Deschutes Brewery Zarabanda

zarabandaWhat’s this? Acclaimed chef Jose Andres slumming it in the beer world? In Oregon?

Believe it or not, Andres and Deschutes have been collaborating for three years to come up with this: A spiced saison brewed with lemon verbena, pink peppercorns, sumac, and dried lime. Made with Vienna and Spelt malts (among others) along with Saaz hops, the beer is designed as a farmhouse-style brew. The name is inspired by the Spanish Saraband dance, which makes sense if you drink a sip or two.

Immediately exotic and funky, Zarabanda gets started with some mustiness that speaks more to earth and mushroom than to its intriguing aromatics. As the beer warms up a bit, it reveals some more of its fruity, herbal underpinnings. The pink peppercorn is a fun element, adding a gentle, smoky spice and some woodiness to the body. The citrus peel is the other noteworthy element here, adding not sweet lemon or lime notes but rather an additional herbal character that rolls around on the palate, seemingly for days.

Big, grassy, and loaded with oddball, avant-garde flavors — it’s exactly the kind of thing you’d expect Andres to be involved with.

6.7% abv.

B / $NA (22 oz. bottle) / deschutesbrewery.com

Review: Deschutes Brewery Red Chair NWPA (2014) and Hop Henge Experimental IPA (2015)

Winter/spring seasonals from Deschutes have arrived — both can likely be considered 2014/2015 releases, but we did our best on pegging them to a release year in order to keep things organized for those searching through the archives. Thoughts follow.

Deschutes Brewery Red Chair NWPA (2014) – This heavily malted Northwest Pale Ale is immediately sweet from the start, with an almost maple syrup character to it. Less blatantly sugar-focused than I remember from prior bottlings, this expression also features slightly less alcohol, which helps to liven up the body a bit. Some orange flower and candied grapefruit notDeschutes-HopHengeIPA-Labeles emerge on the finish if you give it some time to warm up a bit. 6.2% abv. B+

Deschutes Brewery Hop Henge Experimental IPA (2015) – This classic “IBU escalation” brew is now engaging in a bit of “abv escalation,” too. Last year’s Hop Henge was a “mere” 8.8% alcohol. Now it’s pushing 10%. Dropping from 99 IBUs to 90 hasn’t hurt: This year the beer is drinking with a nice balance of piney notes, grapefruit, and a touch of caramel sauce on the back end. I catch faint notes of baked apple and incense, as well, making this a more complex and, frankly, enjoyable beer than it’s been in recent years. 9.5% abv. A-

each about $6 per 22 oz. bottle / deschutesbrewery.com

Review: Starr Hill Shakedown Imperial Chocolate Cherry Stout

Starr Hill Shakedown Chocolate Cherry StoutStarr Hill flies a bit too close to cute with this Imperial Stout that has cherries and dark chocolate mixed in during the fermentation. The chocolate is far more noteworthy — there’s just a hint of sourness driven by the cherry component, and mostly that comes through on the finish. In the meantime, it’s a rich, coffee-laced stout that dusts cocoa powder and some bitter root notes atop a creamy body that balances malt and hops reasonably well. I’d simplify things next time out, though, and let the more traditional ingredients do more of the talking.

8% abv.

B / $NA (22oz. bottle) / starrhill.com

Review: Sidra Fran Ramos del Valle Spanish Cider

del valle ciderMost of the cider we see here at Drinkhacker — which seems to be growing week by week — hails from Washington state or thereabouts. Sidra Fran is based in the Asturias region of Spain — and rarely does it travel far from home. Imported cider? Here it is, and it’s a far different experience than you’re probably used to. To wit: Native apples are picked and left to ferment naturally, with the cider resting on the lees for more than five months. No sugar or carbonation is added. What you get is the pure essence of fermented apple.

That may be an acquired taste. A bit musty and earthy, it’s got a powerful funk that recalls the very core of the apple’s fruit at the same time as echoing citrus peel, mushrooms, and hospital notes. Lightly fizzy and cloudy (it’s unfiltered and has to be lightly shaken before drinking), it’s sharp on the tongue, with a long, acidic finish.

It’s one of those beverages that is at first a bit off-putting with so much unexpected character, but which I could see getting used to over time — particularly on a hot summer day. For now, it stands as a curiosity.

6.3% abv.

B- / $11 (700ml) / theartisancollection.us

Review: Samuel Adams Boston Lager plus Winter/Spring Seasonals

samadams-bostonlager--en--c2e3a813-e407-463c-bc95-efd9e8fda221The Boston Beer Company produces over 100 varieties of beer, but the biggest of them all is Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Oddly, we’ve never reviewed it, but today we’re taking that opportunity, along with a look at three winter/spring seasonals now on the market. Thoughts follow.

Samuel Adams Boston Lager – The original (though surely it has changed considerably over the years as Sam Adams has grown). Technically a Vienna-style lager (along with many darker Mexican beers), this brew is malty and lightly hopped, making for a nicely balanced, yet slightly chewy brew. Bready with almost pretzel-like overtones, its long and savory yet quite simple finish makes it is surprisingly hard not to like. 4.9% abv. A-

Samuel Adams Winter Lager – This winter wheat bock is spiced with cinnamon, ginger, and orange peel, making for an appropriately festive winter brew that is nonetheless a touch overspiced. The cinnamon notes are a bit drying, the orange peel a bit too bitter. Lots of bready cereal character rumbles along on the finish, washing away much of the spice. Enjoyable enough in small doses, but not a favorite. 5.6% abv. B-

Samuel Adams Cold Snap – A spiced white ale (witbier) studded with orange peel, plum, and coriander. Jarring and heavily perfumed at the start, that strange, plum-driven sweetness keeps growing, compounding itself with the herbal character to reveal a flower petal character with a citrusy finish. Not a huge fan of this one. 5.3% abv. C-

Samuel Adams White Christmas – Another witbier, spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, and orange peel. More straightforwardly Christmasy than Cold Snap, White Christmas is easier-drinking, more full-bodied, and simply more enjoyable from start to finish. The citrus peel is understated and makes for a pleasant natural companion to the wheaty body, the baking spices just a mild dusting of sweetness that leaves behind a pleasant, frosty finish. 5.8% abv. B+

samueladams.com

Review: Guinness The 1759 Limited Edition Amber Ale

guinness 1759This limited edition Signature Series bottling from Guinness is an American Strong Ale brewed with both standard beer malts and peated whisky malts, making for a decidedly curious and intriguing beer.

Thick and malty from the start, The 1759 (named in honor of Guinness’s founding) kicks off with a woody, slightly maple-syrupy nose. I catch hints of rhubarb, licorice root, and amari. On the tongue, it’s a dense and richly syrupy beer, but surprisingly lively and flavorful. Big molasses notes tend to overpower things, but the Port-like notes bring with them hints of whisky, chimney smoke, and coffee beans. The long, semi-sweet finish recalls the licorice on the nose and adds in some chocolate.

On the whole: It’s quite a complicated monster, fitting of a “special occasion” beer, with an uncanny similarity to the barrel-aged craft brews that are becoming so common these days.

9% abv. 90,000 bottles made (and “never to be brewed again!”).

B+ / $43 (25.4 oz bottle) / guinness.com

Book Review: The 12 Bottle Bar

The 12 Bottle Bar is founded on a great idea: Build a home bar not by amassing hundreds of obscurities like Chartreuse and Punt e Mes (guilty!), but rather by focusing on the bare essentials. With just 12BottleBar_CVR_MechOut 03.indd12 bottles, authors David and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson say you can make hundreds of cocktails without breaking the bank or having to devote a spare room to your hooch (also guilty!).

I won’t belabor the mystery. Here are the 12 bottles:

brandy
dry gin
genever
amber rum
white rum
rye whiskey
vodka
orange liqueur
dry vermouth
sweet vermouth
aromatic bitters
orange bitters

OK. So, yes, that’s one way to do it. That’s a fine first draft. But… two kinds of rum? Genever? Humbly, I submit my own curated list of 12 most essential bottles:

brandy
dry gin
amber rum
rye whiskey
vodka
orange liqueur
sweet vermouth
aromatic bitters
reposado tequila
bourbon
absinthe
maraschino liqueur

Now that’s a starter bar. And arguably you could replace the rye with a single malt scotch, letting a good, rye-heavy bourbon sub in for straight rye in any number of cocktails. I don’t think you need two kinds of rum; just use amber and live with darker (and more flavorful) Daiquiris and Mojitos. Absinthe may not sound like a big deal, but it does open up the Sazerac and Death in the Afternoon, and works wonders as a rinse in any number of avant garde concoctions. Even the book notes that the lack of tequila in their list is a tough one, but life with Margaritas may not be worth living. Maraschino — in lieu of seldomly used orange bitters and basically-used-in-martinis-only dry vermouth — is, I think, one of my little linchpins here. Try it with rum or in a Manhattan.

But I digress.

Let’s look at The 12 Bottle Bar on its merits, not my own conjecture and my own wild bar ideas.

This is a really thick tome — 412 pages — for a book that is about making do with less. That’s a testament to how far 12 bottles will get you… but bear in mind you will still need fruits, juices, syrups, sodas, mint, cream, eggs, and more to make nearly anything in the book. With few exceptions, you can’t make any of the cocktails in the book with just these bottles. The Mai Tai, for example, has 6 ingredients, only 2 of which are in the above list. The curious Green Snapper has 7, but you’ll need to source 6 on your own time.

What emerges after spending time with the book is not instructions on getting by with a small bar, but rather a primer on using a handful of base spirits in numerous classic and avant garde cocktails. There’s plenty here to choose from, including some delightful-sounding concoctions, but the little black-and-white icons don’t do much to cue you in to what the final product is going to be like. Every cocktail has a story attached — typically far longer than the recipe itself. Given that design, I would have put each cocktail on its own page (the typical length of a recipe, anyway) instead of running free form, which makes the book much harder to scan.

So, fun idea, but the second edition could use a little better presentation. If anyone out there ever makes a genever cocktail at home, do let me know.

B / $10 / [BUY IT HERE]

Review: Redhook Winterhook #30

redhookSeattle-based Redhook Brewery has been around for 30 years now, and its 30th expression of its seasonal Winterhook brew is now on the market. Redhook tweaks the recipe for Winterhook every year, and this year it comes forward with a burly, slightly smoky winter ale. Decked with molasses from the get-go, this malt-heavy beer offers notes of coal fires, bitter greens, cloves, and forest floor. It tastes stronger than it is — just 6% abv — which makes it a better choice for sipping on in this post-holiday-meal aftermath. All in all, a burly, but not overpowering, little number that dark beer fans should enjoy quite a bit.

6% abv.

B+ / $NA / redhook.com