Review: Brewery Ommegang 20th Anniversary Ale

Cooperstown, New York-based Brewery Ommegang has been in the business of making Belgian-style beers for two decades now, and to mark the milestone they released their 20th Anniversary Ale late last year. It’s a Belgian dark ale aged for more than five months in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels. While bourbon barrel aging is a booming trend among brewers, it’s not something typically seen with Belgian-style beers. We couldn’t resist picking one of these up over the holidays, and our tasting notes follow.

The beer pours a very dark amber color with a light head. The nose is mild but complex with caramel, chocolate, and plenty of dark dried fruit. The body is big and silky. It’s not overly sweet on the palate, which can be a problem for some barrel-aged beers, and there’s minimal bitterness. A bit of spice is present among the beer’s variety of flavors: apricot, cherry, cream soda, and juicy raisin notes. The bourbon barrel aging serves to tie all of that together with a generous sorghum and vanilla sweetness that hangs on well after the other flavors have faded. All in all, 20th Anniversary Ale is a fitting celebration for Brewery Ommegang. Here’s to 20 more years!

11.5% abv.

A- / $20 per 750ml bottle /

Review: Goodwood Brewing Company Bourbon Barrel Stout

Goodwood Brewing Company in Louisville, Kentucky distinguishes itself from most other craft breweries by wood-aging every beer in its portfolio. According to their website, this is done as “an homage to this region’s distilling legacy and to those old barrels out there that still have so much flavor left to give.” With some of the country’s best bourbon distilleries at their doorstep, Goodwood probably has access to some of the more sought-after used barrels. With this in mind, we recently sampled Goodwood’s Bourbon Barrel Stout. Thoughts follow.

The nose on this beer is restrained, bordering on nonexistent. Often, bourbon barrel-aged beers have a sweet, boozy aroma, but with this stout you get almost no alcohol and only a hint of vanilla and burnt chocolate chip cookies. The body is surprisingly thin. On the palate, like the nose, you have to really go searching for the flavor. There’s toasted grain and some sawdust, but very little evidence of those more complex whiskey flavors, the vanillas and caramels that are the reason brewers bourbon barrel age their beer in the first place. Chief among its few redeeming features is a solid, bittersweet chocolate bite, but even that is unfortunately short-lived. The barrels used in Bourbon Barrel Stout may have come from some great distilleries, but they sure seem to be spent on flavor, making for a beer that is far from the homage to Kentucky distilling that Goodwood intends.

8% abv.

C+ / $12 per four-pack /

Two Beertails for Chinese New Year

On February 16, the Year of the Dog will be upon us. Sure, you can celebrate with snake wine and firecrackers, or you can fire up one of these lighter cocktails, both made with China’s Tiger Beer, which provided them.

Gung hay fat choy!

Ginger Lemon Tiger Sour
.75 oz fresh lemon juice
1 oz ginger syrup
1 bottle Tiger Beer

To make ginger syrup, add equal parts ginger and sugar to water, boil over medium heat until sugar has dissolved. – adding and equal portion of sugar to the juice. (i.e. 50g of fresh ginger to 50g of sugar). Add contents into a pot at medium heat. Stir until the sugar has dissolved.

Add ginger syrup and lemon juice into a beer glass. Pour in beer, swizzle, then serve.

Sichuan Tiger-Tail
1 dash Worcestershire sauce
1 dash tamari sauce
2 dashes chili oil or valentina
.5 oz lime juice
.5 oz tomato sangrita or plain tomato juice
1 bottle Tiger Beer
Tajin Classic Seasoning

Rim a Collins glass with Tajin Classic Seasoning. Once rimmed, place three ice cubes into Collins glass. Add Worcestershire, tamari sauce, chili oil, lime juice, and sangrita. Top with Tiger Beer and serve.

Review: Samuel Adams Sam ’76

Samuel Adams isn’t the first company to marry an ale with a lager, but as far as mainstream versions of this hybrid go, it pulls it off remarkably well. A little backstory:

Born in Samuel Adams’ experimental nano brewery in Boston, it took more than a year of testing and 60 different brews for the brewers to perfect the harmonious balance of Sam ’76.  To create the refreshing and flavorful beer, the Samuel Adams brewers began with two active fermentations – a base lager and a base ale – each with their own respective yeast strains. The base beers were brewed, then combined during a final maturation step when both yeast depend on each other during a tag team fermentation. The combination of multiple yeast strains and dry-hopping during a late stage of fermentation creates an amazing array of flavors not possible in a typical brewing process.

A deft combination of styles, the beer starts off crisp and clean, with a hint of lemon and some spice, washing over the palate before an entirely modest (but visibly present) slug of hops — heavy with tropical notes — makes its presence known. There’s an impressive balance between the two styles, neither fully dominating, but both clearly in the mix, making for an easily approachable brew that fans of both lagers and ales should enjoy fully.

4.7% abv.

A- / $7 per six-pack /

Review: New Belgium Voodoo Ranger Juicy Haze IPA

Pineapple is the name of the game in this latest bottling from New Belgium’s Voodoo Ranger series, a tropical-focused brew that is indeed as juicy as its name would suggest — almost to a fault, at times, its ultra-fruity body leading one to think fondly of their last trip to Hawaii. At the last second, though, Juicy Haze shows its hop hand, where loads of Citra, Cascade, Centennial, Simcoe, and Nugget hops give the beer a classic IPA bitter intensity.

It’s not so much balanced as it is double-sided, with each face wholly worthwhile.

7.5% abv.

A- / $9 per six-pack /

Review: Deschutes Brewery Hop Henge (2017) and Red Chair NWPA (2017)

These two Deschutes bottles hit at the tail end of 2017, so we’re belatedly marking them with “2017” — but never mind all that, you should find both readily available.

Deschutes Brewery Hop Henge Imperial IPA (2017) – No longer denoted as “experimental,” this is now apparently a standard-issue release — to the point where Deschutes denotes its year of first release as ’17. For 2017 at least, Hop Henge appears as a crisp imperial IPA, chewy and doughy, but bursting with hops and resin notes. Hints of chocolate and salted caramel add some nuance, though the hugely bitter finish is nothing but hops. One of the best Hop Henge releases in recent years. 8.3% abv. A / $10 per six-pack

Deschutes Brewery Red Chair NWPA (2017) – Briskly hoppy but with a twist, Red Chair is always a beer that takes a step in a different direction. For this year, a very nutty, toasty malt gives the beer its core, a slight mushroom character complementing loads of fresh hops. The finish is bitter but gently citrusy, with hints of savory herbs. Better than the typical NWPA release. 6.2% abv. B+ / $8 per six-pack

Wine and Beer Touring in California’s Paso Robles, 2017

In 2014, the U.S. TTB finally approved a longstanding plan to split Paso Robles up into 11 AVAs. It was just the latest move that is turning this sleepy region into a top wine destination, with some 300 wineries (plus or minus, depending on who you talk to) cranking out some excellent bottlings. Rhone grapes — syrah, grenache, mourvedre, viognier — are the general focus here, but you’ll find just about everything being produced in this area, which experiences a wide range of microclimates but also undergoes huge swings in temperature.

Recently we spent four days in the region. Tasting notes on just about everything we encountered follow.

Need more Paso? See also notes from our previous road trips here in 2012 and 2014.

Calcareous Vineyard

A perennial favorite in Paso, Calcareous is one of the first stops you’ll reach as you head into the mountains — and the source of one of the area’s best wines, too. Calcareous is a geological term describing calcium carbonate, which the soil here is so rich with that it’s white.

2015 Calcareous Estate Chardonnay – Bright and lemony, melon notes and some lightly tropical character. The moderately creamy body is spot on. A- / $34
2014 Calcareous York Mountain Pinot Noir – Burgundian in tone, with light smoke and leather notes, and a bit of a balsamic edge. Restrained cherry notes give it life. A- / $40
2015 Calcareous ZSM – 48% syrah, 28% zinfandel, 24% merlot. An odd blend, the zin giving the wine a sweet attack. The merlot dials it all back and gives it a touch of cocoa on the back end. B+ / $45
2014 Calcareous Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – Bright and fruity, with bold cherry, spice, and lingering cola and tea leaf notes. A- / $50
2015 Calcareous Grenache Paso Robles – A lightly floral nose is a surprise, as the wine winds its way toward dark raspberry, orange peel, and blackberry notes. A- / $49
2014 Calcareous Lloyd Paso Robles – 31% cabernet franc, 28% merlot, 24% cabernet sauvignon, and some other stuff I didn’t get written down. Chocolate, blackberry, and blueberry notes explode up front, leading to a bold, chewy palate with a citrus edge on the finish. A- / $62
2014 Calcareous Cabernet Sauvignon York Mountain Carver Vineyard – A quieter nose, chewy but stone-heavy, with balsamic notes and a silky finish. A- / $100
2013 Calcareous Signature Cabernet Sauvignon – Boldly minty with eucalyptus notes, brambly blackberry fills the palate. A- / $NA

Tablas Creek Vineyard

A titan of Paso Robles and one of the founding wineries of this area, Tablas makes a huge selection of Rhone-specific blends and single-varietal wines. Play nice and maybe they’ll pull out some of the “VINsider” stock for you.

2016 Tablas Creek Cotes de Tablas Blanc – 43% viognier, 40% grenache blanc, 14% marsanne, 3% roussanne. Very dry, mineral-heavy, with notes of green apple and sea salt. High acidity brightens it up. B+ / $30
2014 Tablas Creek Esprit de Tablas Blanc – 72% roussanne, 23% grenache blanc, 5% picpoul blanc. Slightly vegetal, bold but grassy, with light acid. B / $45
2014 Tablas Creek Full Circle 
– 100% pinot noir, not a grape this region is known for. Earthy, with licorice and a meaty underbelly; cherry notes develop over time. B+ / $45
2015 Tablas Creek Cotes de Tablas
– 39% granache noir, 35% syrah, 16% counoise, 10% mourvedre. Bright fruit here, with strong cherry and vanilla notes. A- / $35
2015 Tablas Creek Mourvedre
– 100% mourvedre. Bold and a bit funky, meaty with a strong bacon character. B+ / $40
2014 Tablas Creek Esprit de Tablas
– 40% mourvedre, 35% grenache noir, 20% syrah, 5% counoise. A great combination of earth and fruit, bold raspberry and cherry notes. Sharp. A- / $55
2015 Tablas Creek En Gobelet
– A GSM wine made from “gobelet” trained vines. A salami and cheese-friendly wine, meaty, slightly gamy. B+ / $NA
2016 Tablas Creek Picpoul Blanc
– Light honey and peach notes, like a viognier-lite, with mild acidity. A- / $24
2015 Tablas Creek Tannat
– Yes, tannat! Strong currant notes, some earth, and a hint of eucalyptus. B / $32

Justin Winery

Since selling to Fiji Water in 2010, Justin Winery has undergone significant expansion and seen numerous upgrades. Today it’s a major destination in Paso Robles, complete with a luxury inn and gourmet restaurant.

2016 Justin Sauvignon Blanc Central Coast – Fueled by grapefruit, lemon, and some lime, this sauv blanc is bold, with a slight creaminess. A- / $NA
2016 Justin Viognier Paso Robles – A classic, peach-heavy wine with a mix of fresh herbs hitting on the back end. Some marshmallow notes emerge midway, but the finish is quite dry. B+ / $NA
2015 Justin Trilateral – A syrah, grenache, mourvedre blend (in that order), made in the style of a Cotes du Rhone. Heavily meaty on the nose, with notes of beef jerky and a leathery finish with notes of dried cherries. B / $NA
2015 Justin Malbec Reserve Paso Robles – Chewy, with some pepper, fresh plum, mint, and a long finish, with hints of cocoa. A- / $NA
2015 Justin Justification Paso Robles – 52% cabernet franc, 48% merlot. In pre-release, bold chocolate notes, big tannins, but will soften in time. Lightly floral, with some caramel on the finish. A- / $NA
2014 Justin Isosceles – 73% cabernet sauvignon, 15% cabernet franc, 12% merlot. Fragrant and spicy on the nose, iconic currant notes, a bit of baked apple, and a slight lilac note. One to watch. A / $NA
2015 Justin Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Paso Robles
– Quite bold with milk chocolate and blackcurrant notes, a barnburner or a wine with a semi-sweet kick to it. B / $NA
2014 Justin Isosceles Reserve
– The nose is quite spicy, and the palate is loaded with same. The body is mountainous with fruit and some floral notes, but this wine needs ample time for its disparate flavors to integrate. A- / $NA

And one from sister winery Landmark Vineyards, whose facility is located in Sonoma…

2014 Landmark Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Escolle Road Vineyard – Dense and powerful, with rich cherry and cola notes; a gorgeous wine. A- / $NA

Law Estate Wines

This high-end operation only produced its first vintage in 2010, and already it has built a reputation as one of Paso’s most luxurious wines — and most upscale places to visit, perched in a modernist castle atop a ridge studded with beautiful views. Nearly all of its wines are blends and all are made with estate fruit.

2014 Law Cirque – 32% tempranillo, 23% mourvedre, 23% grenache, 22% carignan. Smoky on the nose, with a palate full of meaty bacon. Very dense and dry, with cocoa powder leading to a tight finish that’s only just starting to open up. Not altogether there yet, but it may focus in time. B / $75
2014 Law Sagacious
– 42% mourvedre, 38% syrah, 20% granache. More floral, with green olive notes, lots of chocolate, and some tobacco character. Better integration of flavors, with a silky finish. A- / $75
2014 Law Audacious
– 30% cabernet sauvignon, 29% syrah, 23% granache, 18% petit verdot. Again, cocoa and cassis carry the day, with eucalyptus notes on the back end. Blueberry hits on the finish. One of may favorites of the grouping. A- / $75
2014 Law Beyond Category
– 75% syrah, 13% petit verdot, 12% petite sirah. A bit dusty, with violet and plum notes, plus blueberries and pie crust, lifting it up. B+ / $75

Epoch Estate Wines

Located on the western edge of the Paso region, getting to Epoch requires some minor off-roading, but it’s worth the trip for Jordan Fiorentini’s lineup of rich wines. Don’t miss her “vinpressions,” Jordan’s drawings that visualize on paper her experience of tasting each wine. (Winery cat pictured above!)

2016 Epoch White – 47% grenache blanc, 39% viognier, 14% roussanne. Rather bold, with some vegetal notes atop a core of quince, brown butter, and baking spices. B+ / $35
2013 Epoch Veracity – 49% grenache, 34% mourvedre, 17% syrah. A creamy expression of a Rhone with notes of graphite and leather. Vanilla kicks in on the back end before some fruit washes over you. A- / $65
2013 Epoch Estate Blend – 32% syrah, 25% grenache, 25% mourvedre, 10% tempranillo, 8% zinfandel. Silky and a bit spicy, with solid vanilla notes, raspberry, and chocolate sauce on the finish. Tons of depth here. A / $50
2013 Epoch Ingenuity
– 54% syrah, 21% mourvedre, 16% grenache, 9% petite sirah. A pepper, raspberry, and currant explosion. Earth with more chocolate notes, silky tannins, some mushroom, and blueberry fruit on the finish. Elegant and balanced. A / $70
2013 Epoch Tempranillo
– 87% tempranillo, 10% grenache, 3% zinfandel. Tannic and heavy, with some mint notes. Lots of earthy, leathery notes. B+ / $75
2013 Epoch Tempranillo Reserva –
78% tempranillo, 22% grenache. Intense, with a mouthful of eucalyptus, dark chocolate, and a lingering sweetness. Massively tannic. B+ / $NA

Pelletiere Estate Vineyard and Winery

Janis Denner, a Bay Area transplant, purchased this dilapidated vineyard and winery in 2014 and built it back into something that is gaining some real attention for its focus on Italian grapes, unusual in this area. On the day of our visit, she was the only one working in the winery’s small tasting room.

2016 Pelletiere Viognier Paso Robles – Classic, golden and bright, well structured, with bold notes of peaches, honey, and a little spice. A / $NA
2015 Pelletiere Montepulciano Paso Robles – A massive barnyard funk mars this wine, pungent and earthy, with blown-out licorice and smoky bacon notes. B- / $NA
NV Pelletiere Vino Rosso Paso Robles – A nonvintage table wine, with a bit of olive, fruit, and ample leather and spice notes. Some earth and licorice underneath. B+ / $NA
2014 Pelletiere Sangiovese Paso Robles – A classic representation of its style; Italian in structure, with leafy olive notes, ample acid, and a cherry core. B+ / $NA
2015 Pelletiere Zinfandel Paso Robles – Peppery and bold, but a bit restrained, allowing some pretty spice notes to show through. A- / $NA
2015 Pelletiere Syrah Paso Robles – Notes of toasted bread, with an ample meaty bacon character. Could use some time in bottle to soothe its leathery tannins. B / $NA

Vina Robles Vineyards & Winery

Vina Robles is one of only a handful of wineries on the “east side” of Paso Robles, across the 101 freeway. Flatter and drier, the wines here can be considerably different from those just a few miles away to the west. Vina Robles is also home to a large concert venue which hosts some of the biggest names in music and comedy to venture through this region.

2016 Vina Robles WHITE4 – A blend of 45% viognier, 27% vermintino, 17% sauvignon blanc, and 11% verdelho. Aromatic and lightly peachy, with gentle lemon notes. Lightly creamy, it’s a big crowd-pleaser. A- / $16
2016 Vina Robles Vermintino Huerheuro – Great acidity here, with floral and vanilla notes; creamy at times with ample zippiness. A / $18
2015 Vina Robles Cabernet Sauvignon Estate – Blueberry and currant notes galore, with bold chocolate and fruit notes. The finish is surprisingly dry. B / $26
2014 Vina Robles Petite Sirah Estate – Lovely milk chocolate notes, some florals, and a bit of raspberry. A- / $29
2014 Vina Robles Zinfancel Estate – 88% zinfandel, 12% petite sirah. Fresh strawberry and baking spice notes, almond on the finish. Light body for zin. A- / $32
2013 Vina Robles Syree – 80% syrah, 20% petite sirah. Chocolate cherry, but quite dry, with bold pepper and eucalyptus notes. Some blueberry at the back. B+ / $46
2013 Vina Robles Petite Sirah Creston Valley Vineyard – Bolder and higher in acid, but seeing some gamy, meaty notes. B / $46
2013 Vina Robles Signature
– 79% petit verdot, 21% petite sirah. Violet notes lead some heavy floral notes, with cocoa powder and a slight grassiness. B+ / $46
2013 Vina Robles Cabernet Sauvignon Mountain Road Reserve
– Eucalyptus notes, with dark chocolate, vanilla, and brown sugar all heavy. A little beefy at times, but the tannins are softening. A- / $54
2014 Vina Robles Syrah Terra Bella Paso Robles
– A punch of dark chocolate leaves behind more eucalyptus, cassis, and a mound of roast beef. A- / $NA
NV Vina Robles Brut
– Sourced from New Mexico, this is a fresh and creamy sparkler, with apples, pears, and some fig fruit. B+ / $NA

Firestone Walker Brewing Company

Paso Robles isn’t just home to some world-class wines, it’s also got a major beer operation calling the region home. Firestone Walker has become one of the biggest successes in craft brewing in recent years, driven largely by the runaway success of its ubiquitous 805 Blonde Ale. (This beer is sold in 30 states, but 80% of the total goes to California.) The tour here is quick, informative, and well worth taking.

Firestone Walker DBA – Firestone’s original beer, with lots of lemon and chewy malt. Slightly hazy, its a winner that drinks easily. 5% abv. A-
Firestone Walker 805 – Punchy with malt, fresh and lively. Easy to see why it’s a hit. 4.7% abv. A-
Firestone Walker Unfiltered DBA – A slight woodiness here vs. the standard DBA, some vegetal notes. 5% abv. B
Firestone Walker Pivo Pils
– A hoppy pilsner, with bold grain notes plus a punch of hops. 5.3% abv. B+
Firestone Walker Nitro Merlin Milk Stout
– A beautiful stout with a supple body, rich with fresh and toasty cocoa nibs, but light on the finish. 5.5% abv. A
Firestone Walker Pale 31 
– Floral with nuts and lots of toasty malt, a big and rounded “pretzel beer.” 4.9% abv. A-
Firestone Walker Luponic Distortion 008 
– Tons of fruit here, apples and spice, lemon, grapefruit, and a playful bounty of hops. Supple and well balanced. 5.9% abv. A
Firestone Walker Wookus 
– A Leo vs. Ursus black rye, very chewy and chunky, with notes of burnt toast and hard pretzels. A big departure, stylistically, for this series. 8.2% abv. B+
Firestone Walker Dark & Stormy (2017)
– An ale blended with ginger and lime; it sure does smell like its namesake, but the sweet malt and spicy ginger make for some unusual sipping. Hard to get your head around it. 13.6% abv. B+
Firestone Walker Stickee Monkee (2017) 
– A molasses bomb with maple syrup and baking spices; a bit thick for me. 13.8% abv. B
Firestone Walker Sucaba (2016) 
– This barrel-aged barley wine has dill on the nose and ample balsamic notes, with a bold finish of molasses, vanilla, and cocoa powder. A monster. 13.4% abv. A-
Firestone Walker XXI Anniversary (2017) 
– Gorgeous, loaded with caramel and chocolate, raspberry, and ginger notes. Tons going on, and doing it perfectly. 11.8% abv. A
Firestone Walker C-Hops Pale Ale – An exceptional pale ale, with loads of citrus, piney resin, and just a great all-around balance. 6% abv. A
Firestone Walker Highland Park Brewing Collaboration
 – Not a collaboration with the distillery but rather with another brewer in Venice Beach. A rather dull beer, a Czech-style lager with chewy malt notes and not a lot more going on. 5.3% abv. C