Review: Shock Top Twisted Pretzel Wheat

shock top Twisted Pretzel Wheat bottleI absolutely love pretzels, so how could I say no to Shock Top’s latest, a simulacrum of salted pretzel in beer form. Essentially a flavored Belgian-style wheat beer, Twisted Pretzel Wheat does an amazing job of recreating that favorite of baked treats in boozy form. Wheaty-bready with that familiar pretzelly bent, it offers a touch of salt to balance the not insignificant sweetness that carries through to the finish. Twisted Pretzel Wheat is an utter gimmick (and is out only as a limited edition), but it’s a gimmick that works surprisingly well as a one-off experience.

5.1% abv.

B+ / $7 per six pack / shocktopbeer.com

Review: 21st Amendment El Sully Mexican Style Lager

el sullyYou needn’t head all the way down to Mazatlan to get a Mexican beer: 21st Amendment is making a Mexican-style brew right here in San Leandro, California. One sniff of El Sully and you’ll be transported to your favorite beach — or, probably, your local sports bar — wherever it is you tend to sip on Mexibrews.

Rich with lightly sweet malt and slightly vegetal in that way that all Mexican beers are, it sure smells authentic from the get-go. The body is richer and more rounded than your typical Modelo or Corona — it comes across as almost German at times — but otherwise cuts a familiar profile — sweetness, some popcorn, a touch of mushroom, and a long, lightly bitter and mildly hoppy experience. The finish is quite lengthy for this style, but nothing if not refreshing.

4.8% abv.

A- / $8 per six-pack of 12 oz. cans / 21st-amendment.com

Review: Alaskan Brewing Company Winter Ale

alaskaAlaskan’s Winter Ale is brewed with spruce tips plus a selection of specialty malts and hops. The beer is sweeter than you’d think, think less evergreen and more winter spice mix — cinnamon, cloves, and ginger. Very heavy with malt, it’s quite sweet and it leaves behind a lengthy, sugary finish before fading out with the aid of a delicate dusting of hops.

Stylistically, it’s not my favorite, but considering it’s been made for 15 years running, it surely has a fan or two out there.

6.4% abv.

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

Review: Samuel Adams Utopias (2015 Release)

Utopias-Comp2-2The 2015 expression of Samuel Adams’ most extreme beer is the fifth time we’ve covered it — the first was the 2007 vintage — and it may just be the best Utopias we’ve seen to date.

Not familiar with the idea? Here’s some background:

Only the ninth batch brewed since the first release in 2002, this year’s Utopias, like previous vintages, was brewed in small batches using traditional methods, blended with previous vintages going as far back as 1992, then finished in the Barrel Room at the Samuel Adams Boston Brewery.

With each new batch of Utopias, the brewers at Sam Adams push for a complex flavor profile, and during this process have created brews with alcohol levels reaching over 30% ABV; this year’s beer is 28% ABV and is best enjoyed as a two ounce pour in a snifter glass at room temperature. While some of the barrels have reached over 30% alcohol, the brewers blend down because the goal is to craft complex flavors, not an extreme alcohol percentage.

For the 2015 Utopias, the Sam Adams brewers used a variety of malts for the brewing process and during fermentation used several strains of yeast, including one traditionally reserved for champagne. The beer was then blended with Utopias vintages from previous years including some that have been aging for more than 20 years in the Barrel Room. Aging the beer over a longer period of time accentuates the beer’s distinct vanilla notes and creates aromas of ginger and cinnamon. Some of this aged beer is over twenty years old, old enough to drink itself.

Utopias is brewed using traditional methods. The brewers begin with a blend of two-row Caramel and Munich malts that imparts a rich, deep amber color. Noble hops – Hallertau Mittelfrueh, Spalt Spalter and Tettnang Tettnanger – are also added to lend complexity and balance. During fermentation, several yeast strains are used, including one normally reserved for champagne which the brewers call a “ninja yeast.” This fresh beer is then blended with a variety of different barrel-aged beers and “finished” in a variety of barrels to impart additional complexity and flavor.

This release of Samuel Adams Utopias also uses a blend of beer finished in a variety of barrels. “Finishing” is a creative way for the brewers to impart additional flavor from a variety of barrels before the beer is bottled. This final step of finishing the beer lasts several months before the beer is bottled and imparts flavors ranging from fruit like cherry and raisin to chocolate, leather and oak. The multi-step and lengthy process results in flavors reminiscent of a rich vintage Port, fine Cognac, or aged Sherry, while feeling surprisingly light on the palate.

New this year, the brewers used White Carcavelos wine barrels to finish the beer, in addition to barrels that once housed cognac, Armagnac, ruby port, sweet Madeira, and Buffalo Trace Bourbon. White Carcavelos wine barrels help to amplify the dried fruit and oak flavors of this year’s Utopias. Carcavelos wines are blended and fortified like a port, are off dry and topaz colored with nutty aromas and flavors. Carcavelos comes from a small region of Portugal and the barrels are very rare, which made the Sam Adams brewers all the more excited to experiment with them as finishing barrels.

Whew!

With all that out of the way, let’s tuck into a glass of Utopias 2015. Notes of plum, Port-like raisin, and milk chocolate lead the way into as the beer starts to develop in the glass. This can quickly become overwhelming, so use caution as you sip your way through a small glass of the stuff, and watch for exotic mushroom notes, burnt coffee, and raspberry jam.

The finish is where things go a bit off the track, with Utopias 2015 showing slightly sour notes of cherry pits and rotten fruit, as if things have been pushed a bit too far and only dialed back via a last minute rescue. It doesn’t ruin the experience, but it does put a damper on what is initially a pretty glorious beverage.

Utopias isn’t something I drink every day, but it sure is a fun diversion from IPA and winter brews — and one hell of a conversation piece.

28% abv.

B+ / $199 / samueladams.com

Review: Ballantine Burton Ale 2015

Burton Ale BottleNot familiar with Ballantine? I wasn’t either, so draw near and listen to a story.

Ballantine Burton Ale is a legendary and storied beer that has been decidedly limited in availability. One source says he’s heard of $500 being paid for a single bottle.

Ballantine, founded in 1878, was a popular brew at the time, but it really hit its stride in the 1930s and 1940s, as P. Ballantine & Sons was one of the few brewers to survive Prohibition. Burton Ale was a bit of a celebratory bottling introduced after the Repeal, and it was something special, aged for years — up to 20, after a time — in oak barrels, through the solera process. Largely the beer was never actually sold but was rather gifted only to dignitaries and special friends — hence its cult status.

While Ballantine was huge as late as the 1960s, eventually tastes changed and business declined and Ballantine sold itself to Falstaff in 1971. That didn’t work out, and Pabst (yes, that Pabst) bought Falstaff in 1985. Ballantine as a brand was dormant until 2014, when the first Ballantine brew, Ballantine IPA, was relaunched.

Burton Ale is the second of the Ballantine brand to hit the scene, and while it isn’t aged for 20 years, it is a tribute of sorts that is designed to “replicate the original flavor… aged for several months in barrels lined with American oak. The slight oak essence, with notes of toasted vanilla, will make it the perfect holiday treat.”

And so it goes…

If you like big, syrupy holiday brews, Ballantine Burton Ale will be right up your alley. Loaded with notes of raisins, dates, vanilla sugar, and maple syrup, it drinks like a holiday dream straight out of Bethlehem. Sweet and sticky, it’s a bruiser (and a barleywine, technically) that pours on the malt before releasing you with gentle bitterness. A bit vegetal on the back end, I like it a bit less than similar beers like Deschutes Jubelale, but it offers festive fun that any fan of the season’s brews will enjoy.

11.3% abv.

B+ / $2 (355ml) / pabstbrewingco.com

Review: Bear Republic Racer X Double IPA (2015)

RacerX2015-bottle-fillFew seasonals get the kind of love that Bear Republic’s Racer X Double IPA receives — and even fewer actually deserve it.

Racer X is a rarity that has wholly earned the love it gets on those rare occasions when it adorns beer shops and tap handles. The big brother to Bear’s equally loveable Racer 5, Racer X pumps up everything that that year-round brew has to offer and pours on the hops — Cascade, Columbus, Centennial — pushing the beer up and over 100 IBUs but flooding the palate with flavor.

Things start with loads of sweet fruit — citrus, but also apples and pears and some green banana. Caramel notes take hold for a bit before intense and resinous, piney notes build, with touches of licorice, coffee bean, and dark chocolate floating in and out and reminding you that this is not your father’s (or your hipster son’s) IPA. The finish is highly bitter, but manageable, echoing some of the sweeter notes that come across earlier in the experience.

I love the way Racer X bounces back and forth between sweetness and intense bitterness, offering a respite from each sensation before either has a chance to wear out your palate.

I could go on, but as this is a seasonal release that is criminally underpriced, you’re better off heading to your local beermonger for all you can carry.

8.3% abv.

A / $8 per 22 oz. bottle / bearrepublic.com

Review: Guinness Nitro IPA

guinness nitro ipa

I can’t blame ’em for trying. The secret of Guinness’s success has long been the nitrogen that is pumped into the beer as it is poured, giving the brew a rich, creamy, and unmistakable body that is beloved the world over.

While Guinness has been innovating with other beer styles, it hasn’t done much with nitrogen — until now. The big idea: Why not nitrogenate a west-coast style IPA and see what happens? Sealed in cans with a nitro-ball widget the way canned Guinness Stout is, the result is Guinness Nitro IPA.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, quite a bit. This is somewhat off-putting at first… and at the end, for that matter. The nose doesn’t really scream IPA but rather lager, with more malt than hops influencing the aroma. The body is of course something altogether different, a creamy mouth-filling experience that recalls Dublin far more immediately than it does California. The flavor elements aren’t quite right, either. Rather than bracing hops and piney resins, there’s apples, strong cereal notes, and muddy mushroom notes that linger on the finish. Yes, some hops have been thrown in to add bitterness, but not much — or rather, not nearly enough.

Guinness has been doing some really neat stuff lately, but this experiment is really just a noble failure. I doubt that fans of either IPAs or Guinness proper will enjoy this much.

5.8% abv.

C- / $8 per six pack of 11.2 oz cans / guinness.com