Review: Beers of New Belgium, Late 2016 Releases

new belgium Heavy_Melon_12oz_Bottle

New Belgium just doesn’t stop, and today we take a tour through eight new releases from the Colorado/North Carolina-based brewery, including two one offs and six beers that are part of its new “Collabeeration Pack,” comprising five collaborations plus the original from which they are all spun-off.

Let’s start with the sextet…

New Belgium Fat Tire Amber Ale – This is the original Fat Tire, included as a reference point and, one presumes, because it’s a pretty good beer. Nicely honed after many years of release, this is a malty and slightly sweet beer that eschews raw cereal notes and gumminess in favor of a clean and satisfying palate that culminates in a lightly bitter, well-rounded finish. There’s nothing too complicated here but it’s a significant step above some of the mass-produced brews out there, and good enough to conceivably recommend in its own right. 5.2% abv. B+

New Belgium in Collaboration with Avery Brewing Fat Tire and Friends Fat Wild Ale – A wild and funky take on Fat Tire, with the addition of Brettanomyces yeast. Results: Big and malty, with just a hint of sour cream-‘n’-chives character. Some lightly fruity elements hit on the finish, along with a dose of balsamic and chewy forest-like notes. Interesting, for sure, and an interesting tiptoe in the direction of wild fermentation. 6.2% abv. B+

New Belgium in Collaboration with Hopworks Urban Brewery Fat Tire and Friends Fat Sour Apple Ale – A funky cross between a sour and a cider, this beer tries to thread the needle with minimal success, starting off malty and chewy, then taking an abruptly sharp turn into cidertown. The finish is sour but more akin to the kraut variety than the apple one. 5.9% abv. C+

New Belgium in Collaboration with Firestone Walker Brewing Fat Tire and Friends Fat Hoppy Ale – Definitely West Coast IPA “inspired,” this beer finds some new territory by mixing in notes of roasted nuts and a touch of coffee with a modestly bitter backbone that offers a glimpse of the forest, though it skips the juicy citrus notes you find in a typical IPA in favor of a more straightforward, earthy character. The overall impact is surprisingly drinkable, closer in the end to a British pale ale than anything else I can describe. 6.0% abv. B+

New Belgium in Collaboration with Rhinegeist Brewery Fat Tire and Friends Fat Pale Ale – This Belgian-style XPA is relatively innocuous as this series goes, offering pushy malt notes with grassy, with overtones of coffee and hazelnuts. It’s a big and chewy beer with subtle sweetness. Belgian fans will get a kick out of it. 6.0% abv. B+

New Belgium in Collaboration with Allagash Brewing Fat Tire and Friends Fat Funk Ale – A bit less funky than you might expect, considering this is a bottle-conditioned Belgian style ale that’s been treated with Brett. Lightly sour, the beer offers musty sourness, orange rind, and bubbly malt, with an earthy finish that echoes both tobacco leaf and balsamic vinegar. You’ll know from all of that whether this one is up your alley. 5.6% abv. B- 

And now, two one-offs from New Belgium…

New Belgium + Hof ten Dormaal Golden Ale – From the “Lips of Faith” series comes this collaboration with a small Belgian brewery, which has resulted in a somewhat wild, very slightly sour golden ale that offers loads of heavy, nutty malt, plus notes of fresh apple and pear, very ripe (mushy) banana, honeysuckle, and baking spices. The finish is throat-coating and a bit funky, loaded with heavy yeast notes. 7.0% abv. B

New Belgium Heavy Melon Watermelon Lime Ale – Somewhat self-explanatory, this seasonal brew shows off crisp, malty notes up front that quickly segue into fruit character — surprisingly, more lime-focused than watermelon, with overtones of honeydew and nougat. I won’t call it “girl beer” but I can’t control what other people do. (I joke, ladies, and I fully recognize you are all capable and discriminating drinkers.) 5.0% abv. B

$17 per 12-pack /

Tasting Chenin Blanc – Vouvray vs. South Africa, 2016 Releases


Chenin blanc is not a grape that people ooh and ahh over. Typically it’s the cheap wine on the by-the-glass list that you select only because you don’t drink chardonnay and you just don’t trust that New Zealand sauvignon blanc to be dry enough before dinner.

Chenin blanc is best known in its home in the Loire Valley, but it is also the most widely planted grape in South Africa. Once used exclusively to make semi-sweet wines, chenin blanc today is primarily a dry wine style, though the finished product can be quite variable… as we’ll find out in just a moment, as we explore both the Loire’s Vouvray region and South Africa, to see how chenin blanc styles have evolved in both of these areas. (Spoiler: It’s incredibly random.)

2015 Clos du Gaimont Vouvray AOP – A fresh and lively wine, offering notes of pineapple, mango, and coconut, all atop a brisk, moderate-to-highly acidic and vaguely floral base. The finish evokes clementine oranges, with hints of fresh peaches. A / $20

2013 Domaine Vincent Carême Vouvray Le Peu Morier – A very pungent wine, perhaps the opposite of the Paul Buisse above. This one showcases a sour face, with notes of white wine vinegar, green grass, and wilting flowers. The finish is tart and reminiscent of sherry. While there are elements of this wine that are enjoyable due to their uniqueness, on the whole it’s too overpowering for my palate. An extreme example of “old world” winemaking. C+ / $38

2015 Terre Brulee Le Blanc Swartland South Africa – Immediately flabby on the palate, with dominant notes of melon, green pepper, and some baking spice elements. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge of flavors, which might not be so bad, but the lack of any noteworthy acidity takes things out on a muddy note. C- / $16

2015 Indaba Chenin Blanc – A Western Cape wine, and an improvement over the Terre Brulee — better acid, with more interesting notes of grapefruit, mango, and white flowers. Altogether it’s a more classic chenin in structure that feels like it could be a lower-tier Vouvray. B+ / $11

Review: Stone Citrusy Wit, Go To IPA, Mocha IPA, and Scru Wit

stone scru wit

Four new beers have arrived from SoCal’s Stone Brewing — all ready to be sampled and sussed out. Let’s dig right in!

Stone Citrusy Wit – What’s the first thing most people do with a wheat beer? Squeeze an orange into it. Stone does that heavy lifting for you with this beer, which adds tangerine and kaffir lime leaf to the mix. That sounds better on paper than it is in the glass, where some big and funky mushroom notes blend with pungent herbs driven by the kaffir lime leaf. There’s a bare essence of a witbier somewhere in here, but it comes off as quite a bit too hoppy for a wit. 5.3% abv. C+ / $11 per six-pack

Stone Go To IPA – A sessionable, hop-heavy IPA, this is is a fruity rendition of IPA, loaded with lemons and oranges and liberally infused with a sizable amount of piney hops. You’d be hard-pressed to ID this blind as “session” anything, given its dense body, chewy palate, and the loads of authentic IPA flavor it packs. 4.8% abv. A- / $10 per six-pack of 16 oz. cans

Stone Mocha IPA – “Style-defying” is no lie: This is a double IPA with cacao and coffee added. What? Surprisingly, this isn’t a complete and utter failure. The beer offers both bracing bitterness and the classic flavors of a chocolate-spiked coffee, the former more up front, the latter more evident in the rear. How these two go together eventually starts to make sense, if you think about the bitterness of coffee, or its sometimes herbal notes (evident in a big IPA). Sure, the big piney character of a classic double gets a bit confusing in a beer meant to taste like coffee and chocolate, but as experiments go, it’s hard not to dig what Stone has come up with, at least for a pint. 9% abv. B+ / $16 per six-pack

Stone Scru Wit – This is one of Stone’s spotlight ales/pet projects, a melding of styles which probably aren’t too common in your corner store. Specifically, a Finnish sahti, a medieval European gruit, and a Belgian imperial wit, made with a recipe that includes mugwort, wormwood, and juniper berries. They call it “SahGruWit,” hence the name. The results are about what I thought they’d be: A crazy bunch of styles that probably went over better in medieval Germany than it does today. The beer finds notes of smoked grains (rauchbier-like at times), freshly turned earth, sweet malts, and a variety of canned green vegetables. It’s long on the finish, and a bit syrupy at times… but you can barely even taste the mugwort, God! 8.5% abv. B- / $8 per 22 oz. bottle

Review: Craft Distillers Millard Fillmore U.S. Brandy

Millard Fillmore

Some of the best American brandy you can buy is coming from Ukiah, California-based Craft Distillers, but said brandy can often cost a pretty penny, if you can find it.

A few years ago, the company decided to see if it could produce a more affordable product that still offered high quality, and 3 1/2 years later, it’s here: Millard Fillmore U.S. Brandy.

Naming a brandy after our 13th president — one of the least effective in the country’s history — is auspicious, to say the least, but let’s try not to judge a book by its cover. This brandy takes column-distilled grape spirit from the San Joaquin Valley and blends it with pot-distilled brandy from Germain-Robain’s old timey Cognac stills. The result is a hybrid of styles, but unfortunately it’s not a wholly effective one.

There’s lots of youth on Millard’s nose, both in the form of raw wood and raw alcohol. Gentle fruit notes line its pockets, but this brandy wears its inexperience on its sleeve. On the palate, it’s more of the same: dusty lumberyard character tempered by oily petrol notes, then finally some juicy red berries and plum notes to offer a counterpoint. Notes of licorice, tobacco, and oily leather bring up the rear, though it’s that immature wood character that makes the most lasting impression.

80 proof.

C+ / $35 /

Review: Frey Ranch Vodka and Gin

Frey-Gin-Bottle (Jeff Dow)

Nevada-based Frey Ranch produces its spirits with an intense estate focus — just about everything that goes into the products is produced on the Frey Ranch estate. As the company likes to say, “When you purchase a bottle at our distillery, it is the first time any of these quality ingredients have ever left Frey Ranch.”

We tasted Frey Ranch’s home-grown vodka and gin. (A whiskey, not reviewed here, is also produced.) Thoughts on both of these follow.

Frey Ranch Vodka – Triple distilled from a blend of corn, rye, wheat, and barley. The nose is quite corny, almost like a white whiskey, with some unfortunate mothball notes. The palate is sweeter, the granary note fading into a sweet corn character that’s underpinned by some nutty brown rice notes, scorched sugar, and mushroom. On the whole, this is an atypical vodka that will likely be divisive to vodka lovers. It’s not entirely to my taste, but your mileage may vary. 80 proof. C+ / $40

Frey Ranch Gin – Presumably made with the same base as the vodka, this gin is flavored with estate-grown juniper and sagebrush (not the same thing as sage, by the way), plus a mix of imported (and unstated) botanicals. This comes together more effectively than the vodka, its heavy aromatics hitting on the nose with a combination of camphor, herbal sage, and juniper — in that order. The body is heavy with all things herbal — no citrus overtones on this one — pushing those green notes even further as it attacks the palate. The finish is all herbs, pungent with a touch of cucumber and a dusting of black pepper. If you like your gins with a heavy vegetal note (and I know some of you do), this one’s for you. 90 proof. B / $33

Review: Liberated 2015 Sauvignon Blanc and 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon


A pair of mid-2016 releases of Liberated are here, both North Coast bottlings but different as night and day. Thoughts follow.

2015 Liberated Sauvignon Blanc North Coast – A fresh and lightly tropical sauvignon blanc that nonetheless has enough acidity to keep things alive and vibrant. Pineapple finds a companion in light, white floral elements and a spritz of perfume on the back end. The clean finish has a gentle dollop of sweetness. B+ / $17

2013 Liberated Cabernet Sauvignon North Coast – This wine immediately comes across as very young and a bit brash, quite green up front without much structure. Instead, it’s all pushy and immature wine notes, simple berries, and a slug of vanilla on the back end. Rather plain. C+ / $17

Review: Pickle Juice Chaser

pickle juice

Want the flavor of pickles but without those troublesome brined cucumbers? Good news, now you can, thanks to Pickle Juice, brought to you by The Pickle Juice Company.

Pickle Juice has one legitimately known use in cocktailing: The Pickleback. The Pickleback has no known origin, but the name was coined only in 2006 in Brooklyn. The ingredients are awfully simple: shot of whiskey (often bourbon or Irish), chased by a shot of pickle brine. It’s a simple formula: Sweet followed by sour and salty.

Pickle Juice isn’t exactly the runoff from pickle-making. It is a rather simple blend of water, vinegar, salt, dill flavor, plus some preservatives and yellow #5. On its own, it tastes like a reasonable facsimile of pickle juice, though not an exact simulacrum. It’s hard to put a real finger on, but it feels like the recipe could use more variety in the herbs aside from dill. Maybe some garlic and black pepper to liven things up a tad? Pickle Juice just sort of sits there and wallows in its dillness when what you’re looking for is a big, acidic bite — the equivalent of biting into a lime after a rotgut tequila shot. Too bad it smells better than it tastes, which is a bit of a letdown.

Ultimately this is the kind of product that is designed for folks (bars, let’s say) that simply can’t keep enough pickles on hand in order to serve their Pickleback-drinking regulars. If you’re out of actual pickle juice, Pickle Juice Chaser is a reasonable substitute — provided you’re OK with the fact that it’s just not really the same thing.

C+ / $5 (1 liter) /