The Evolution of Canned Beer: Samuel Adams Joins the Can Parade

sam adams concept canEarlier today, Samuel Adams announced that it would start distributing beer in cans. As of now, only the flagship Boston Lager and Summer Ale are slated to hit the market in time for beach excursions, but it would not be a surprise to see Samuel Adams’ other popular offerings roll off the canning line, especially after the Boston Beer Co. already sunk millions into strategic planning, designing, and implementing the new format. In terms of design, Samuel Adams bucks the trend of normal 12 oz. cans in favor of a brand new vessel that features a wider mouth and an hourglass shape below the lip to help facilitate smooth liquid flow and ease of drinking, changes that were received favorably during consumer testing. (See concept at right.)

There has been no indication that Samuel Adams will discontinue the normal bottling line for the brands set to be canned, but initial reaction to the news has been mixed at best and surprisingly harsh from some fronts. After announcing the plans on Facebook, followers of the brewery chimed in with opinions ranging from hesitant to enthusiastic to sadly ignorant at times.

Two specific ideas strongly resonated in regard to the canning process and the image of canned beers. Many people posted concerns that the beer inside the can would simply taste different than that which is bottled, but advances in canning technology have led to a food-grade lining within the can that does not create any flavor differences. Basically, the fear that canned beer would taste metallic is simply unfounded, since the beer never touches aluminum either during the canning process or after it is packaged.

However, the second assumption about canned beer is easily the most egregious; the notion that only inferior or “cheap” beers are canned. This is a truly bizarre statement in today’s marketplace. Look at who’s canning now. Big-name heavy hitters Sierra Nevada and Brooklyn Brewery recently started selling their signature beers in cans (as well as continuing bottle production), Oskar Blues exclusively distributes cans, Surly from Minneapolis and Sixpoint from Brooklyn specialize in 16 oz. pounders,  and even smaller, but still respected, breweries like Anderson Valley have experimented in canning.

But perhaps the most damning evidence against the shaming of cans shines from a brewery that isn’t a household name, but is widely heralded amongst the craft faithful. The Alchemist, a small, family-run brewery located in Waterbury, Vermont, rose to fame from the success of its double IPA, Heady Topper. Once a beer that was only seen on tap at the brewery, it eventually received a very limited bottle release before transitioning to year-round-available beer that is only distributed in – you guessed it – 16 oz. cans. The kicker? Heady Topper is currently the #1 beer (and best double IPA) in the world according to Beer Advocate, beating out beers such as Russian River’s Pliny the Younger (and Elder), Westvleteren’s 12, and Founders’ CBS and KBS.

As long as Samuel Adams keeps its bottling line, the addition of cans can only be lauded. Not only are cans easier to recycle and transport, they are also accepted on the beach and on camping grounds, unlike glass bottles. If you are enjoying a beer at home, it shouldn’t matter if the vessel is a can or a bottle, since the final resting place for a beer is a glass. (You are drinking your beer from a glass, right?) With the implementation of linings that don’t affect the taste of the beer, cans should receive a warm welcome in your refrigerator or cooler this summer.

Review: Pilsner Urquell (And Its New Cold-Shipped Delivery)

Pilsner Urquell is firing a new salvo in the battle for fresh beer. Light-struck, or “skunked” beer is a rampant problem for breweries, especially those overseas that need to ship product over a longer distance than domestic brewers. Pilsner Urquell is packaged in a distinctive green bottle, but, while attractive, it doesn’t do much to prevent ultraviolet and fluorescent light from penetrating it and reacting with the hops to cause those off-flavors and aromas. It’s not uncommon to hear consumers say that Pilsner Urquell and other beers in similar bottles, like Heineken and Grolsch, taste better in their native lands than what is offered on shelves in America, and light exposure is a big reason why.

But Pilsner Urquell has recognized this problem and is taking proactive steps to deliver a fresher beer to its fans. The brewery will be keeping the same green bottle, but redesigned its entire packaging to shield it from light and will use refrigerated trucks to cold-ship across the country. While expensive, the goal is to provide fresher beer that will attract a brand new segment of customers.

However, faithful drinkers of Pilsner Urquell can rest easy. Besides the new shipping and packaging, what is inside the bottle has not changed. It still pours the familiar shade of light straw, clear and clean, topped by a tall, billowing ivory head. The cap has decent retention, but the lacing is somewhat meager.

Grassy, floral, and somewhat spicy hops are apparent in the nose, as well as a strong malt grain smell. The hops are fresh and crisp and really do provide a sharp contrast to bottles shipped under the old method. The aroma is also ripe with pilsner malt that ties everything together.

The overall flavor, while not overly complex, is traditional. Not much has changed within the brand from its original recipe in 1842, but there isn’t much to fix when it’s not broken. It starts with a bready flavor reminiscent of biscuits that gives it a rich texture to build off of, while the hops follow to seal the deal. The biggest notes come from these fresher hops, especially an earthy grassiness, subtle lemon, and even a somewhat bracing spiciness.

Time-tested flavors and ingredients combine to make this an easy-drinking pilsner that is a joy to drink. Pilsner Urquell is going the extra mile to make sure their beer is delivered in a cool, dark environment, so if you are new to the brand or looking for redemption from an off-bottle, seek out the new, cold-shipped packaging.

B+ / / $9 per six-pack

Review: New Belgium Lips of Faith Spotlight – Cocoa Mole and La Folie 2012

One would assume that I had learned my lesson regarding chile beers after tasting Twisted Pine’s Ghost Face Killah. One would be wrong.

While Twisted Pine touted GFK as the hottest beer in the world, New Belgium instead takes a more subtle route. Although still spiced up with ancho, guajillo, and chipotle peppers, Cocoa Mole is balanced with caramel and chocolate malts to help relieve and complement the impending burn.

In terms of appearance, Cocoa Mole actually doesn’t look too out of the ordinary. Its color borders a dark, ruby red and brown, but it’s still translucent. I was expecting a big, thick, stout-like look, but even the sandy head is light and fizzy.

The initial whiff brings a very strong cinnamon note mixed with a little brown sugar, but soon afterward there’s a lot of earthy, gritty pepper. The spicy heat mixes with the vegetal aroma to hit home the message that this is chock full of chiles. As such, the malts are a little subdued here and I only got a pinch of cocoa.

Bold, flavorful ancho and chipotle peppers pace the taste, but the heat doesn’t kick in until a few seconds later, giving the full range of flavors time to settle in. This is where the cinnamon and brown sugar return; their sweet and spiciness serving as a cooling foil to the burning sensation that is now building. This isn’t mouth-ruining hot, but it does have a pretty big kick to it. As in the nose, the cocoa isn’t as big as I was hoping, but I did have my expectations for the chocolate set high. The finish is long with heat and flecks of caramel and bready malts interspersed within.

Overall I like this beer quite a bit as it isn’t afraid to bring the heat, but doesn’t rely on it entirely. There’s a nice composition of flavors here, and my only meaningful gripe against it is that there isn’t as much chocolate as anticipated. I enjoyed the cinnamon, but I felt some more malt could go a long way in making the mouthfeel more full and thick.

B+ / $8.99 per 22oz bottle /

Standing in stark contrast to the spice-laden Cocoa Mole, La Folie is a wood-aged, sour beer. Brewed in the Flanders style, these types of beers are typically somewhat fruity, acidic, and come with varying degrees of tartness.

In terms of this spectrum, La Folie easily approaches the extreme end. The first sip brings a huge huge amount of lactic sourness that overwhelms the palate. I have had the 2010 release of this beer and don’t remember that vintage being quite so mouth-puckering. After the tartness fades, a ripe fruit note follows to give a pinch of sweetness as condolences for how sour it was at first. Green apples and tart cherries form the bulk of the flavors, with a kiss of grape and oak that almost gives this a wine-like quality. There is some vinegar acidity, but it doesn’t detract from the overall flavor (as some red Flanders are wont to do).

Even when poured into the thick New Belgium goblet, La Folie still has an enchantingly dark mahogany tint to it and is just barely transparent. Both the head formation and lacing are solid and make it easy to fully enjoy the aromas spilling out of it; the soured fruit, wooden barrels, and pinch of vanilla enticed me the most.

A- / $8.99 per 22oz bottle /

Review: Leinenkugel’s Big Eddy Imperial IPA

Leinenkugel’s may be well-known for its popular Sunset Wheat (which some liken to Fruity Pebbles in ale form) and Berry Weiss beers, but its Big Eddy line is bringing extreme beers to serious craft lovers. The Big Eddy Imperial IPA is the third and newest release in the series, following a Russian Imperial Stout and Scotch Wee Heavy. Sitting at a whopping 9% abv, this imperial IPA strives to look the part of an authentic representation of the style and incorporates five types of hops to further distinguish itself.

Like most “bigger” beers on the market, I would recommend pouring this into a wide-bodied glass with a flared rim to both soak in the appearance and allow the hop aromas to fully develop. Immediately the visual is striking as the IPA pours a burnished copper color with a clear body. A white head slowly starts to billow before finally coming to a rest, but it doesn’t last long and when it’s gone it barely even leaves even a wisp of foam as a cap, which kind of gives this the look of a whiskey. This image is compounded further by the fact that there isn’t a whole lot of lacing either.

Leave it to the hops to steer this back on course faithfully. The nose is potent and immediately delivers a bushel of fruit, from citrus to tropical, with a focus on pineapple, mango, orange, and a bit of grapefruit. There’s a kiss of sweetness near the end, but it is mild and doesn’t draw away from the hops.

Thankfully, the taste continues where the hops left off — with a ton of fruity hoppiness. Despite the brief appearances by the malts that give a subtle brown sugar and toffee flavor, the hops are rightfully at the forefront. I want to clarify that while the hops are the predominant flavor, this isn’t a West Coast hop bomb where the bitterness rips the enamel straight from your teeth, but rather it is a showcase in hop mastery. The Citra and Cascade hops give their distinctive citrus and tropical flavors, while the Simcoe adds to this plus a touch of pine. Finally, the Amarillo adds a dash of spice and earthiness to the finish. A nice combination of sweet and bitter dance on the palate from start to finish and a sticky hop influence burdens the tongue in a pleasant way.

Big Eddy Imperial IPA debuted this June in limited quantities and should hopefully make its way to most markets that Leinenkugel’s currently services. I was pleasantly surprised with this beer and it exceeded my expectations for it. Be on the lookout for this and the next upcoming release in the Big Eddy series, a Baltic Porter, later this year.

A- / $10.99 per 4-pack /

Review: Upland Brewing Co. Gilgamesh

Hailing from Bloomington, Indiana, Upland Brewing Co. is creating a stir among craft beer circles for its extensive souring program, which seeks to produce traditional lambics, gueuzes, and Flanders-style ales within the United States. This effort has notably spawned over eight different varieties of fruited lambics as well as the beer that is the subject of today’s review – Gilgamesh.

Brewed within the Flanders Red style, Gilgamesh combines traditional characteristics as well as introducing a unique twist in the form of utilizing bourbon barrels to finish the beer. After an initial struggle with the cork that left my palms a little worse for wear, this looks every bit the part of a typical Flanders Red, exhibiting a dark ruby color with deeper patches of mahogany interspersed within.

At first, the nose is acidic and has a little splash of vinegar, but not enough to be a turn-off. There is a bright fruit note as well, like tart cherries and a touch of banana. In the back-end, there is a very strong influence from the barrel, with huge oak notes and as it warms, you can start to get some of the bourbon.

Right away the cherries lead the flavor with their sour twang, which lends their tartness to the duration of the taste. It’s pretty acidic so that lingering note sort of muffles some of the other flavors. Compounding this is the alcohol heat that isn’t too shy to jump to the forefront at times. As in the aroma, the latter half of the flavor is dominated by the oak and bourbon, taking this beer to a completely new level that I’ve yet to experience in any other beer within this style.

Gilgamesh takes a typical Flanders, cuts the vinegar a bit, adds some bourbon barrel-aging, and comes out a winner in my book. Throughout my bottle this beer transformed multiple times, as first being somewhat high in vinegar, then very tart, then focused on the barrel.

A / $25 per 750ml bottle

Review: Red Brick Old Stock Ale and Wee Heavy

Brewing out of Atlanta, Georgia, Red Brick offers the Brick Mason series alongside its year-round core brands. This series focuses on higher abv beers with more unique ingredients (such as the smoked vanilla beans in Vanilla Gorilla). This week, I was able to get the chance to review two beers from this series.

Red Brick’s Old Stock Ale starts as a blend of three different ales — one that’s been oak-aged, one that’s been heavily malted, and one brewed with citrus and star anise. These beers mix together to create a transparent, albeit dark, cherry color. The nose is complex and has a lot of different components to it, but the ones that pop the most are the ones that I wasn’t expecting to see in this style of beer. Rather than the malts driving the aroma, it is more sugar-coated fruits that are the focus. Orange peel, plums, and raisins are the most noticeable, and a kick of alcohol astringency draws this into an almost Belgian-esque territory.

A bittersweet cocoa component appears on the palate that isn’t there in the nose. The fruits return here again, especially the orange, but they are kept in check and now they enlist the ranks the star anise. Encompassing all of these characteristics is a mild, toasted oak note that is more of an additional complexity rather than a full-fledged flavor, but it adds more depth to an already loaded taste. As it warms, a surprisingly potent punch of vanilla arrives which isn’t present at all at lower temperatures. The one drawback to this beer is the amount of alcohol heat in this; although I’m not a total stranger to the style, the alcohol just didn’t play well with the orange for me. But to be honest, that is some fine nitpicking, as the rest of this beer is a unique twist on an Old Stock ale. 7.9% abv. B / $3 per 12oz bottle

The newest entry into Red Brick’s Brick Mason series is its Wee Heavy. Normally, Scottish ales have a signature, strong caramel note to it and may use a specialized type of yeast, but the first thing I immediately noticed from the aroma in this is the addition of peated malt so that you really get that Scotch connection. It’s smoky, salty, and has a twinge of iodine in it, and then the caramel comes in to give it a rather robust, almost herbal, nose.

In the taste, the caramel does play a bigger role and there’s also a slightly spicy note from the hops. The peat is still the biggest factor, sweeping in about midway through and carrying the flavors to new levels. The smokiness is prominent, but there’s also an oceanic angle to this as well, with some saltwater, seaweed, and iodine, all drawing from the peated malt. The biggest and most unique advantage that Red Brick’s Wee Heavy has over its competition is the peaty smokiness. Not only does this help curb the sweetness that is usually prevalent in this style, but it helps it live up to the Scotch Ale name. 6.5% abv. A / $3 per 12oz bottle

Brewery Spotlight: Epic Brewing Company (Part II)

Continuing from our recent Brewery Spotlight, today we are rounding out the last few beers from Epic Brewing Company.

Hopulent IPA looks every much the part of an imperial IPA, with a dark amber body, snow white head, and cloudy appearance, but despite this and the name, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill hop bomb. I wasn’t sure if this was on account of it being a relatively old bottle for an IPA (this was from Release #27, brewed on August 18, 2011) or if Epic brewed it as such, but this has a balanced aroma full of caramel sweetness. That isn’t to say that the hops don’t come through completely, but they are muted and veiled.

If the nose let on that this wasn’t a hop-forward beer, the taste certainly tries its best to fight that notion. The initial sip brings a rather strong bitterness that is only accentuated as one continues to drink. It’s times like these that I am thankful that the malts are so present, as they really help to cut that bitterness. Much like in the nose, the hops fall off shortly after the strong rush, leaving the tropical fruits in favor of a sweet, rich caramel and toffee, and this comes across prominently. In fact, at the current age of this beer, this could pass as an aggressively-hopped American barleywine. I don’t really consider myself an ‘IPA-purist,’ where if an IPA is older than a month that it is past its prime, but I can’t help but feel that this would be a lot better if fresher. Right now, the malts dominate this beer outside of the first few moments, with a sweet finish. That being said, if you like a more ‘balanced’ IPA, then this may be right up your alley. C+ / $8 per 22oz bottle

Amber ales are sort of a grab bag in terms of what kind of qualities you can expect from them. Some, like Troegs’ Nugget Nectar, is essentially an IPA wrapped up in ruby wrapping paper, while others focus more on the malts and their sweetness. Epic’s Imperial Red Ale is more along the lines of the former, but exhibits a pleasant balance. The first whiff of the nose brings a slightly spicy quality mixed with a somewhat astringent alcohol smell. I lent the spiciness to the hops, but there’s also a fairly strong caramel presence here as well. As it opens up, these blend together smoother, which helps cover the alcohol.

Initial tastes are pleasant mixtures of hop and malt, with a focus on hop resin. There is a clear distinction between the spicy, and at times fruity, hops and the toffee-like sweetness of the malt, as the hops start and end the flavor with the caramel sandwiched in-between to serve as a distraction. The hops do have just a pinch of fruitiness to it, with the usual Cascade influences, but for the most part it is more earthy and spicy, which both compares and contrasts the malt in a good way. The alcohol comes in about midway through and lingers, hampering the overall taste. Overall, I would’ve liked to see some more direction. The hops and malt are in constant conflict, which keeps the mouth guessing as to where this is going, but at the same time it’s nice to have a balanced beer. The one major flaw I can find with this is the amount of alcohol presence. B / $10 per 22oz bottle

Of all the Epic Brewery beers I’ve reviewed, Spiral Jetty is probably the most ‘ordinary.’ There are no exotic ingredients or unique fermenting techniques and it is released under the Classic Series line, which Epic describes as the ‘not so basic, basic brews.’ But even with the lack of fanfare, I actually really enjoyed this beer, and at times, more so than some of the limited offerings. Despite the bare-bones approach to an Indian Pale Ale, Spiral Jetty’s aroma brings a clean hop influence which is fruity and floral, and even has some notes of resin without being overly abrasive. There’s a decent amount of malt here as well, but it’s essentially hop-forward most of the way.

The hops continue to be the focal point in the flavor, with a grassy, lemony citrus taking the stage for most of the taste. It’s overall a fairly mild flavor, with the hops giving off their fruit and floral notes without being overbearing. The malts swoop in during the finish to add a touch of sweetness. I have to admit that I really enjoyed the simple, yet flavorful view towards this beer. It’s not amazingly complex, but what it does, it does well with a no-frills type of enjoyment. B+ / $6 per 22oz bottle

Moving away from the hoppy spectrum, Epic’s Imperial Stout is an exercise in roasted malts. Straight away, the nose opens to an aroma that is more reminiscent of this morning’s coffee rather than a beer, but after letting it air out, I got a lot more dark chocolate and star anise underneath the roast. There’s even a slight waft of fruit that fleetingly comes into play, reminding me of a Terry’s Chocolate Orange, but it leaves just as swiftly as it arrives.

The pitch-black body precludes that this imperial stout is brimming with flavor and it doesn’t disappoint. Roasted malt floods the palate and if you had any doubts about it, some more comes after that. It’s almost like a burnt roastiness, like over-steeped coffee grounds mixed with real pure cocoa. The licorice comes through strongly as well. The hops and fruit are nearly completely absent here, with perhaps a very slight tint in the finish. This was my favorite Epic beer to date; its Imperial Stout is an unabashedly malty beer that doesn’t mince its bitterness and roast.   A / $12 per 22oz bottle

Although the season for pumpkin beers has come and gone, Fermentation Without Representation isn’t your typical beer for the style. Epic teamed up with D.C. Brau for this collaboration, which uses a porter as a base to help give some complementing features to the pumpkin, such as chocolate and some coffee. Speaking of the pumpkin, Epic and D.C. Brau stuff over 200 pounds of the gourd into each batch as well as adding five different spices and Madagascar vanilla beans. This is a beer that is more at home on the dessert table after Thanksgiving dinner rather than celebrating the pumpkin harvest!

The aroma is interesting and awkward at once. I was hard-pressed to find much pumpkin in this as the malts and spices dominate the nose. Ginger, vanilla, and cinnamon contribute the most, and they aren’t afraid to border on overpowering. Similarly, roasted malts and a bittersweet chocolate follow the spices to help curb their effects.

In comparison to the nose, the taste actually mellows out the spices in a way, as the chocolate plays a bigger role that helps this beer overall. The spices are still integral to the overall profile, but they flutter in the background as they should. I’m not one to invoke the purity of the Rheinheitsgebot, but I wanted to actually experience some pumpkin in a pumpkin porter and this beer finally delivers on that front in the finish. That being said, I would still file the pumpkin as a tertiary thought at best, mingling among the malts and spices. B / $10 per 22oz bottle