Tasting the Beers of Devils Backbone: Five Apostles Saison, Pear Lager, Golden Stag, Black Rock Milk Stout, Catty Wompus, and Trail Angel Weiss

devils backbone

Lexington, Virginia-based Devils Backbone has been cranking out craft brews for years, and earlier this year the operation was acquired by Anheuser-Busch. The company says that the Bud connection won’t stifle its autonomy, and that it will keep releasing daring beers for years to come.

That’s starting with the brewery’s new Adventure Pack, which includes Five Apostles Saison, Pear Lager, Golden Stag, and Black Rock Milk Stout, all of which were formerly available only at the Devils Backbone brewpub. We’re reviewing all four of these below, plus a couple of one-off releases, Catty Wompus and Trail Angel Weiss, further on down the page.

Let’s start with the four beers from the Adventure Pack.

Devils Backbone Five Apostles Saison Belgian-Inspired Farmhouse Ale – A relatively alcohol-heavy expression of a saison, this fruity and spicy ale offers notes of coriander, overripe apples, and a smattering of baking spices, culminating in a finish not far from fresh baked gingerbread. A bit drier than I expected, but that’s actually a positive — giving this saison a truly refreshing finish. 6.9% abv. A-

Devils Backbone Pear Lager – A lager flavored with natural pear flavor. That’s not a combination I’ve ever asked for (or even thought much about), but it works better than expected. Gentle though unspecific fruit mixes easily with the up-front malty lager notes, with these two factions fighting for control for quite some time as the palate builds and then fades to its curiously fruity but distinctly beer-like conclusion. 4.8% abv. B

Devils Backbone Golden Stag Blended Beer – Designed as a hybrid of a lager and an IPA, and the combination works quite well. The IPA at first seems that it will win this war of styles, with heavy (though not particularly citrusy) hops, but eventually the big and malty body muscles its way to the forefront. Bold without being overwhelming. 5.5% abv. B+

Devils Backbone Black Rock Milk Stout – A traditional, black-as-night milk stout sweetened with milk sugar, though it’s not as creamy or as sweet as you might be expecting. Notes of coffee and well-roasted nuts take center stage, with gently soothing sweetness acting as a very modest foil to the proceedings. The finish has a slightly odd touch of sourness to it. Curious. 5.4% abv. B+

And here’s a look at the two one-offs…

Devils Backbone Catty Wompus – “A Belgian inspired India Pale Ale,” this expression offers the best of both of those worlds, starting things off with a foot deeply set in the IPA world, then slowly letting those Belgian Ale notes take hold. That means a good dose of hops start things off with a healthy level of bitterness before some more subtle fruit components — apples, apricots, orange blossoms — start to take hold. The finish is a refreshing but rounded and mouth-filling blend of both elements. Well done. 7.5% abv. A-

Devils Backbone Trail Angel Weiss – Made in the “Bavarian style,” which is really how all weissbier is made. It’s a little funky at the start, with some mushroom notes that aren’t perfectly in sync with the lemon peel and substantial malt character, but at least gives the beer a hefty, chewy, bready body, something that isn’t always in the cards in the world of weissbier. 4.7% abv. B-

about $17 per 12-pack / dbbrewingcompany.com

Review: Deschutes Brewery Hop Slice, Armory XPA, Big Rig, Down ‘N Dirty IPA, and Pinot Suave

deschutes armory

A whole bunch of stuff has come down the pike from Deschutes lately. Here’s a look at five new releases — two in 12 oz. bottles and three oversized offerings.

Deschutes Brewery Hop Slice Session IPA – Hey, it’s an IPA brewed not with grapefruit but with Meyer lemon! The unusual addition on this session brew ultimately adds quite a decent kick of citrus to the brew, but there’s a heavy earthiness that does a good job of masking it with burly, almost woody overtones. Nice body given the alcohol level, though. A solid effort. 4.5% abv. B+ / $8 per six-pack of 12 oz. bottles

Deschutes Brewery Armory Experimental Pale Ale (XPA) – The first beer brewed at Deschutes’ Portland-based pub, this “experimental” pale ale adds Northern Brewer and Nugget hops to give the beer a distinctly earthy character — just pure bitterness without either a lot of pine or citrus notes. Instead, a leathery, mushroomy character with coffee overtones rises up to greet the palate on the finish — which will likely divide drinkers looking for a more refreshing way out. 5.9% abv. B / $10 per six-pack of 12 oz. bottles

Deschutes Brewery Big Rig – Aka Big Rig Bitter, a “classic pub ale” per Deschutes, or an Extra Strong Bitter if you prefer more austere terminology. Big Rig offers refined, Ye Olde Pub Style drinking with an American twist. Think nutty earthiness at the start, moving quickly into a heavily piney character more in line with today’s IPAs. The finish strongly echoes the earthy-bitter beginning, with notes of mushroom and tanned leather clinging to the palate as the experience fades away. 6% abv. B+ / $5 per 22 oz. bottle

Deschutes Brewery Down ‘N Dirty IPA – A bold American IPA with Bravo, Cascade, and Centennial hops. It’s the Bravo that gives this brew its name and its character, which is intensely earthy — indeed a bit “dirty” — and washes away all but the slightest hint of grapefruit peel notes. Watch instead for chewy tree bark notes that inform its heavy, resinous finish. 6.3% abv. B / $5 per 22 oz. bottle

Deschutes Brewery Pinot Suave – The very latest from Deschutes in its Reserve Series (complete with wax-covered caps), this is a Belgian style ale that is aged in French oak and Pinot Noir barrels filled with pinot grape must. The results are nothing if not unique, intensely fruity with a mountain of malt to back it up. A little must goes an awfully long way, though, and this oddity takes its upfront malt into lightly sour territory, complete with funky, dusky overtones that cling heavily to the palate. Strikingly original, but probably more conversation piece than anything else. First topic for discussion: Is it pronounced “suave” or “sua-vay?” 11.8% abv. B / $17 per 22 oz. bottle

deschutesbrewery.com

Review: Redd’s Blueberry Ale

The latest in Redd’s flavored beer lineup is this “limited pick release,” Blueberry Ale.

It’s a surprisingly refreshing concoction, a little candylike but far from offensive, with mild (but clear) blueberry juice masking anything by way of the beer base beneath. The finish is a bit green and a touch bitter, but this works with the fruit up front. As with Redd’s original Apple Ales, the Blueberry Ale seems tailor-made for more casual consumption by folks who don’t like beer and for whom the concept of wine coolers seems hopelessly ’80s. Ensure it’s ice cold for best results.

5% abv.

B / $8 per six-pack / reddswickedapple.com

Highlights from the 2016 California Beer Festival – Marin

066

Finally I was in town to visit the Marin stopover of the roving California Beer Festival, which I last attended in 2013. This year saw plenty of worthwhile brews on tap for the hop-loving supplicants, as well as an ample collection of ciders, sours, and even a refreshing kombucha or two. With live music and tons of great food choices, it was a great couple of days out on Novato’s Stafford Lake.

Here’s a look at some of my favorite beers sampled.

Half Moon Bay Brewing Full Swing IPA – Great citrus bite on this ultra-hopped quaffer.

DNA Brewing Dock IPA – A grapefruit double IPA with both fruit notes and some maltiness, which helps to balance out the heavy bitter notes.

067Hop Valley Alpha Centauri – Hidden behind the booth, you had to ask for it. A perennial favorite IPA just loaded with citrus and pine notes, and probably the best beer of the show.

Anderson Valley Brewing Briney Melon Gose – Crazy fun semi-sour features the addition of watermelon and sea salt. A unique brew in a sea of IPAs.

Campbell Brewing Winchester Wheat – My favorite witbier of the day, nutty and restrained, without that overpowering yeastiness that you can often get in a wit.

HenHouse Saison – Brewed with exotic black pepper and coriander, its slightly lemony and built for summer sipping (or hot days like this one).

There’s no need to visit Marin County for beer. Check out an upcoming CBF near you!

Review: Dogfish Head Squall IPA

dogfish head squall ipa

Dogfish Head’s Squall IPA is a “continually hopped, unfiltered Double IPA that’s brewed with three types of malt as well as dry-hopped with Simcoe, Amarillo and Palisade hops.” It’s naturally carbonated through bottle conditioning, which gives this a much different character than you’re probably used to in an IPA.

What you get immediately is how creamy and rounded the body is, a contrast to the typical sharpness of the usual IPA. On the palate, it’s got pine and citrus notes, but these soon yield to gentle notes of walnuts, light cocoa, and hemp seed. The bitterness on the finish is long and lasting but balanced with the light sweetness and a bit of chewiness that lets it last and last.

All told it’s just far enough off the beaten path to merit serious exploration.

9% abv.

A / $9 per 25.4 oz bottle / dogfish.com

Review: Woodchuck June & Juice Juniper Hard Cider

for-page-761x527

Woodchuck’s latest “Out on a Limb” cider is this true oddity — June & Juice — a juniper-based cider that takes the gin and tonic as its inspiration.

It’s a semi-sweet apple cider made by steeping fresh juniper berries, rose buds, and orange peel into the mix. The results are better than I expected, a light and refreshing cider which isn’t too sweet and which doesn’t overdo the botanical elements, either. Lightly junipery, the rose flowers make a distinct impression and give it a floral focus. With a little time in the glass, citrus makes a stronger showing. The finish lets the apple base shine — again, with just the right balance between dry and sweet.

While it’s loaded with uncharacteristic flavors, it’s one of the more worthwhile cider releases in recent months.

5.5% abv.

B+ / $8 per six-pack / woodchuck.com

Review: Guinness Dublin Porter and West Indies Porter

guinness West Indies and Dublin Porter

Guinness was experimenting with these two porter releases, based on old 1800s recipes, when I visited in the summer of 2015. Now they’ve made their way to the States, so everyone can see a bit about what Guinness might have tasted like — decades before it ever released its first stout.

English Porter isn’t an entirely well-defined beer style, but in many ways it presents as a slightly lighter version of stout. Porter gets its name from… well, let’s let Guinness explain:

With origins in a 1796 entry in the Guinness brewers’ diaries, the Dublin Porter was inspired by the golden age of porter in the 1800s. This was a time when porter was the working man’s beer and after a long day’s work in Dublin or London, Guinness would have been a respected choice. The West Indies porter is based on an 1801 diary entry for the first Guinness purposely brewed to maintain its freshness, on long sea voyages to the Caribbean and beyond. To guarantee the best quality upon arrival, Guinness brewers made a porter with more hops and a higher gravity.

Here’s a look at how both of these expressions (both tasted from bottles) fare:

Guinness Dublin Porter – This drinks like a very heavily carbonated version of Guinness Stout. At under 4% alcohol, it’s a surprising session beer that gives moderate coffee and licorice notes a sizable amount of hoppy fizz. Caramel notes emerge on the finish, along with a fairly intense maltiness, but ultimately it lacks real depth. 3.8% abv. B

Guinness West Indies Porter – Guinness Foreign Extra was designed for hotter climes and remains huge in the Caribbean, where it’s high-proof, racier profile is nearly ubiquitous. This is the porterized version of that beer, which offers a bigger hops profile, again with a ton of fizziness, and a heavy, somewhat oppressive nutty/malty character on the back end. Here the coffee notes creep in just as the finish is fading. Foreign Extra is a hefty experience, and West Indies Porter has the same approach, a heavily carbonated monster that is never as refreshing as the real thing. 6% abv. B

each $3 (500ml bottles) / guinness.com

Review: Yuengling Traditional Lager and Summer Wheat

yuengling

“America’s oldest brewery” gets minimal play out here on the west coast, but Yuengling (est. 1829) is nonetheless a well-known brand in these parts, even though we don’t often see its labels being peeled off of damp bottles. That’s because Yuengling is also a very large brewery — roughly the size of Sam Adams’ parent company, actually.

Today we look at Yuengling’s classic expression, a lager, and a more recent release, a wheat beer. Thoughts on both follow.

Yuengling Tradtional Lager – Traditional is right. This is a malty, robust, slightly nutty amber lager that exudes the old world from front to back. Grain lingers on the finish, with just a touch of gingerbread making a late appearance on the back end. Ball park beer at its best. 4.5% abv. B / $8 per six-pack

Yuengling Summer Wheat – A simple hefeweizen, Yuengling’s take on this brew offers lots of coriander and dried orange peel, giving the heavy wheat notes underpinning it a huge amount of spice. Initially off-putting, I eventually came around to the brew, though its boldly sweet and malty finish left me longing for some hops. 4.6% abv. B- / $8 per six-pack

yuengling.com

Reviewing Gluten-Free Beer: Coors Peak Golden Lager and Copper Lager

coors peak 6pack

Despite the science, the “gluten-free” movement still refuses to go away, so that sea of footnotes indicating glutenlessness continues to mar restaurant menus, and gluten-free alternatives to regular products continue to line grocery shelves. Including gluten-free beer.

Beer is traditionally made from barley, which is loaded with gluten, so making a beer without gluten presents some thorny issues. While you can use magic science to remove gluten from beer, if the raw ingredients ever had gluten in them, you can’t call the finished product “gluten free.” To get around that issue, Coors turned to our gluten-free friend, rice. The Coors Peak beers include brown rice malt, brown rice, protein from peas, hops, and caramel sugar. Pea-based protein? Well if that doesn’t sound refreshing, I don’t know what does!

Now, “gluten-free” anything does not have a major association with “great-tasting,” so even if Peak is the “best gluten-free beer,” that may be damning it with faint praise. That caveat aside, let’s find out where these brews stand. Note: Both are available only in Portland and Seattle. Sorry, Tennessee!

Coors Peak Golden Lager – Initially malty and fairly fresh, things quickly take a turn for the worse as that traditional, slightly sweet, lager body takes an acidic and unnatural turn, offering vegetal notes, some mushroom, and a weird Band-Aid character that lingers forever on the finish. 5% abv. C-

Coors Peak Copper Lager – While the Golden Lager could pass for a traditional beer if you squint your taste buds, the Copper Lager, a redder beer that seems to have more caramel sugar in it, is an entirely different monster. Caramel-heavy and quite sweet, it overwhelms with a saccharine faux-malt note then fades out with notes of stale popcorn, raw carrots, and ash. Awful. 4.7% abv. F

each $7 per six pack / coorspeak.com

Review: The Traveler Beer Co. IPA Shandy

Traveler IPA-Traveler-12oz-Bottle

Bottled shandies shouldn’t be difficult — it’s just beer and lemonade — and yet it’s surprisingly tough to find a really good one on the market. The Traveler Beer Co. — which already has three lackluster shandies on the market — finally cracked the code with this version, which blends IPA with real grapefruit juice to make a fresh, fruity, and still hoppy combination. Bittersweet in the truest sense of the word, it starts with lots of lemon notes before fading into gentle, citrus-peel-focused hops. The finish is the sweetest part of the experience, like biting into a sugar-dusted grapefruit segment.

4.4% abv.

A- / $7 per six-pack / travelerbeer.com

Review: Starr Hill King of Hop Series, The Hook, Daily Grind, and Sublime

starr hill Four Kings

A  whopping seven new releases from Starr Hill, including a series of four IPAs which are variations on the theme, bottled under the “King of Hop” moniker.

Let’s dig in…

Starr Hill King of Hop Imperial IPA – The base IPA, dry hopped with a variety of American hops and pumped up to the full, west-coast effect. Ample citrus notes find a pleasant companion in a healthy slug of piney hops, with a light mushroom character underpinning it. A classic IPA from start to finish, it’s a refreshing exemplar of the style. 7.5% abv. A

Starr Hill King of Hop Lemon-Lime Imperial IPA – The lemon/lime notes are understated, just a quick rush of lemon flavor on first sip, then ample hops following, providing the standard piney, earthy, slightly citrusy notes present in the unflavored version. Together the lemon/lime and hops components make for a pretty and refreshing finish — but then again when did a squeeze of lime not make for a natural companion to beer? 7.5% abv. A-

Starr Hill King of Hop Grapefruit Imperial IPA – You can’t escape grapefruit in beer these days, but in Starr Hill’s grapefruitized IPA you won’t even notice it. Virtually indistinguishable from the unflavored version, maybe it’s like having vitamins in your beer. “Fortified” with grapefruit? I taste nothing different here at all, but nonetheless I’m giving it a half a grade off for being ineffectively flavored… and for the threat of the vitamins. 7.5% abv. A-

Starr Hill King of Hop Habanero Imperial IPA – Exactly what you’re expecting, a hop-heavy IPA with the thrill of heat hitting hard on the finish. The first sip is off-putting. From there you get used to the spicy finish fairly quickly. On its own it’s a bit disjointed, but as a strange mirror to the standard grade King of Hop, it’s worth a peek, particularly if you’re into the spicy stuff. 7.5% abv. B+

Starr Hill The Hook Grapefruit Session IPA – Yes, more grapefruit! And here you can taste it a bit more clearly, the strong upfront hops giving way to a burst our sweet-and-sour citrus, before finishing on a lightly earthy, leathery note. Quite a nice flow, and well balanced. 4.9% abv. A-

Starr Hill Daily Grind Peppercorn Farmhouse Ale – I hear “daily grind” and immediately think coffee, but this is a spicy, peppercorn-based beer that folds in bold citrus notes, plus apple cider, sticky toffee, and ample malt. (That said, I get almost nothing in the way of pepper within.) There’s something to like in this beer but it’s a bit all over the map — and the heavy residual sweetness on the finish fatigues the palate. 6.2% abv. B-

Starr Hill Sublime Citrus Wit – A bold wheat brew, loaded with malty cereal notes plus ample citrus peel, grapefruit peel, and a touch of nutmeg. Refreshing, and with just a touch more going on than your typical wit bier. 4.7% abv. B+

each about $9 per six-pack / starrhill.com

Review: Beers of Yee-Haw Brewing

YeeHaw_Beers_2

Johnson City, Tennessee is the home to Yee-Haw Brewing, which offers four permanent brews in addition to rotating seasonals. We tried all the members of the primary lineup (from bottles, which today you’ll find only in Tennessee and Kentucky). Thoughts follow.

Yee-Haw Pilsner – Surprisingly bold for a pilsner, both showcasing ample malt along with moderate hops and a big nutty character to boot — the latter two of which are not readily characteristic of pilsner. Notes of roasted vegetables and even coffee arrive on the back end as the finish fades. The overall experience is engaging and a little mysterious — it’s not a bad beer, but stylistically it doesn’t really fit with expectations. 5.3% abv. B+

Yee-Haw Pale Ale – Restrained, but bitter enough (~35 IBUs), and backed up by notes of mushroom, fresh herbs, and roasted meats — alongside sweeter, chewy malt notes. With much in common with the English style of pale ale (rather than today’s hops-or-bust west coast IPAs), it balances bitterness with other elements to showcase a gentler, lightly sweeter ale that’s worth some attention. 5.7% abv. A-

Yee-Haw Eighty (80 Shilling) Scottish-Style Ale – Bold and nutty, with overtones of coffee, caramelized carrot, brown sugar, and toffee. Its burly body smolders on the tongue and goes down easy, any bitterness rather expediently washed away by the sweet malt and hints of raisin and prune on the finish. 5% abv. B+

Yee-Haw Brewing Dunkel Munich Dark Lager – Another rich and nutty beer, loaded with coffee and chocolate overtones and a heavy, belly-filling maltiness that lingers forever. The finish is loaded with the essence of chocolate malted milk balls, with a hoppy, slightly weedy bitter edge. Compare and contrast to the 80. 5.5% abv. B+

pricing NA / yeehawbrewing.com