Brewery Review: Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers

Jack’s Abby opened its doors in Framingham, Mass. in 2011 and has already had to expand its operation to meet demand as word spread about a brewery that only makes lagers, but ones that break the mold of what a lager is supposed to taste like. I have grown to appreciate Jack’s Abby’s beers and had a chance to visit the brewery and talk with their Master Brewer, Mike Gleason, who has been with the operation almost since it was opened by three brothers: Jack, Eric, and Sam Hendler.

Mike and I met to talk in the brewery’s new Beer Hall, a cavernous, bright, inviting space from which you can see the brewery through a wall of glass, and which includes a bar serving 24 different home-brewed lagers on tap. I tried their beers while eating one of their specialty pizzas: bacon and clams. I was impressed by the beer, enjoyed the food, and appreciated the ambiance. If I lived closer, I’d be here so much that the bartenders would know my name and my favorite lagers.

But on to the beers:

Core Beers

Jack’s Abby Hoponius Union IPL – The single beer most identified with Jack’s Abby is their India Pale Lager. Like an IPA, this beer relies on hops for its flavor, clocking in at 65 IBUs (International Bitter Units), a respectable, but not over-the-top number. But this beer is much more than just a super-bitter lager. On the nose, it shows bright grapefruit citrus, tropical notes, and resin. The flavor follows suit in beautiful fashion and introduces a malt backbone just strong enough to stand up to the hops. I can’t say for certain if I could blindly identify this beer as an IPL instead of an IPA, but I can say it is balanced and bold yet dangerously drinkable. 6.5% abv. A

Jack’s Abby Smoke & Dagger Black Lager – Without introduction, I would have guessed this pitch black beer was a porter. On the nose, it oozes sweet malt, coffee, and smoke. The taste follows, showing malt, coffee, chocolate, and sweetness, but not too much. The smoke is less intense in the flavor than in the smell. With so much going on, this beer somehow manages to be medium bodied. Without setting out to sample Jack’s Abby’s full line of available beers, I probably wouldn’t have tried this one, and that would be a shame, because it is surprisingly good. 5.6% abv. A-

Jack’s Abby Leisure Time Wheat Lager – As the name suggests, this is a light, summertime sipper. The can lists chamomile and orange peel, and both ingredients figure in the smell and the taste. Wheat also figures prominently, giving the beer a yeasty, bready quality. It doesn’t have as much character as some of the best witbiers, but it is worth a try. 4.8% abv. B

Jack’s Abby House Lager – This beer has the smell and taste of corn and yeasty bread. On their website, Jack’s Abby describes the House Lager as “sweet and golden with a full malty body.” I agree, but I found it to be too sweet, with a slightly cloying finish that detracts from a pleasant, everyday lager style. 5.2% abv. B-

Jack’s Abby Calyptra Session IPL – More heavily carbonated than Jack’s Abby’s other IPL offerings and showing a lower abv, Calyptra is an enjoyable session beer. The hops, which do not present as boldly as I typically like, grow fruitier (grapefruit citrus), more assertive, and more enjoyable as I worked my way through the can. The crispness on the finish is ideal to a hot summer day, and I finished the beer ready to start another. 4.9% abv. B+

Jack’s Abby Excess IPL – This beer lives up to its name and offers a serious challenge to the best double IPAs on the market in terms of assertive hoppiness. But this beer is more than a hop monster. It reveals bold, enticing aromas of pineapple, grapefruit, and pine. The palate follows suit, offering more fruit and citrus than bitterness. The malt component just stands up to the hops, offering a beer that is balanced but very hop forward. Love it. 7.2% abv. A

Seasonal Beers

Jack’s Abby Saxony Lager Vienna Style – In a blind taste test, I would guess this was an established German lager. The malt presence is dominant but is balanced by the hops to create a beer with great flavor, but one I could drink all day. Light grass and cereal grains show on both the nose and the palate along with the crisp finish that the style demands. 5% abv. B+

Rotating Beers

Jack’s Abby Framinghammer Baltic Porter – Nearly all popular porters are ales, but this beer proves that a lager can achieve an outstanding example of the style. Framinghammer is a rich, slightly sweet, full bodied porter that exudes dark chocolate, coffee, malt, enticing bitterness, and an impressively long, enjoyable finish. The high abv is entirely hidden by the bold flavor that goes on and on. 10% abv. A

Jack’s Abby Mass Rising Double IPL – This used to be part of Jack’s Abby’s regular rotation but was ousted by Excess, which I like more. But Mass Rising gained a following and now shows up on the rotating list of brews. It is not inferior to Excess, just different. It has a massive 100 IBUs, which show up on the nose in pineapple, pine, and citrus. The flavor also shows serious bitterness with strong resin, which are balanced by nice malt. The beer is a bit hot, showing its high abv, but it is a powerful, dank, uninhibited IPL that demands respect. 8% abv. B+

Specialty Beers

Jack’s Abby Bourbon Barrel-Aged Framinghammer Baltic Porter – I don’t know if I have tasted a better bourbon barrel aged stout or porter. Unlike so many other examples of the style, the porter and the bourbon barrel marry together seamlessly in this beer. The nose and the palate exhibit some sweetness (but not cloying), bourbon, and brown sugar along with chocolate and malt. The bourbon elements never overwhelm the beer, but work with it. This is worth hunting down. Wow. 11% abv. A+

Jack’s Abby Cordon Rouge Barrel-Aged Framinghammer Baltic Porter – This is the Framinghammer, aged in bourbon barrels with orange peel, which add a spicy kick to the otherwise silky porter. I don’t like it more than the regular Framinghammer, but it is very good. 12% abv. A

Jack’s Abby Mole Barrel-Aged Framinghammer Baltic Porter – Flavors of chocolate and spice from the mole are prevalent but don’t mesh perfectly with the porter. I expect there are going to be people who love this beer, but it doesn’t come together for me. 11.9% abv. B

Jack’s Abby PB&J Barrel-Aged Framinghammer Baltic Porter – This was my least favorite of the barrel aged porters. The flavor of peanut butter comes first with just a hint of jelly, and together they hide the outstanding flavor of the porter. 11.8% B-

jacksabby.com

Review: Wines of Cline, 2017 Releases – Mourvedre Rose, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel

 

Three new releases from our friends at Cline, based in Sonoma County. Two of these wines however hail from the other side of the bay, Contra Costa County (home of Oakland’s suburbs).

2016 Cline Ancient Vine Mourvedre Rose Contra Costa County – Very strawberry-forward, with note of vanilla whipped cream and just a hint of lemon peel and thyme. Perfect for Sunday on the porch, but best as an aperitif. B+ / $10

2015 Cline Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast – Big and meaty, with a leathery backbone, this pinot is both brash with youth and austere with the windswept funk of the Sonoma Coast. The body’s a bit thin, which is means it’s tough for the wine’s intensely earthy flavors to stand up to its somewhat watery structure, but paired with food it’s more impactful. B- / $13

2015 Cline Old Vine Zinfandel Contra Costa County – Fresh with fruit, but also a little salty brine, giving the wine a touch of seaweed character. The finish finds notes of black tea, cola, blackberries, and violets — all of which work well enough, but which clash at times with the salty notes. B / $11

clinecellars.com

Review: Starr Hill King of Hop Series 2017

Previously encountered in 2015 and 2016, Starr Hill is back with another round of King of Hop releases. Like it did in 2016, four variations are being released, available in a mixed four pack so you can try them all. Naturally, things all get started with the straightforward Imperial IPA bottling, a base from which the remaining trio can build… Thoughts follow.

Starr Hill King of Hop Imperial IPA 2017 – Ultra fruity this year, loaded with pineapple, lemon, and even some coconut notes, all of which serve to temper the hoppy, lightly briny IPA underneath. I love fruit-heavy IPAs, but this one actually takes things a bit too far, dulling the bitterness (and making for a less clean finish). 7.5% abv. B+

Starr Hill King of Hop Orange Imperial IPA – A typical, even expected spin on IPA is to squeeze some orange into it. Here it’s done with a very soft hand, though the orange element isn’t bitter (peel-like) at all, but rather quite sweet and juicy — though compared to what we’re starting with, it already had plenty of that to go around. Ultimately, a somewhat gummy finish makes me like this version a bit less. 7.5% abv. B

Starr Hill King of Hop Mango Habanero Imperial IPA – Last year’s Habanero IPA from this series was a heat-packing bruiser. This version tones down the spice considerably, with both the mango and the chili pepper really just afterthoughts that follow that fruit-forward pale ale attack. It’s actually quite delightful, the touch of spice giving the beer a playful kick. 7.5% abv. A-

Starr Hill King of Hop Coffee Imperial IPA – This didn’t sound like a good combination from the start, and I was right — it’s not. The sweet and syrupy coffee overwhelms the full experience, and the bitterness from the hops just makes the whole experience muddy and confusing. While it’s drinkable in its own way, there are better brews in this box. 7.5% abv. C+

$11 per mixed four-pack / starrhill.com

Review: Interrobang Vermouth

An interrobang is a punctuation mark that is both an exclamation point and a question mark. It’s also the name of a new, artisanal vermouth from a small craft producer in Newberg, Oregon (in the heart of Oregon wine country). The company offers two varieties covering both of the classics — one white, one red. We tasted them both. Thoughts follow.

Both are bottled at 17.5% abv.

Interrobang White Vermouth No. 73 – “Based on a traditional Southern French recipe, this white semi-dry vermouth includes cinchona, cinnamon, and five other organic or sustainable botanicals. It took us 73 times through the recipe to perfect the production.” Lots of quinine on the nose, with a restrained underbelly of savory and grassy herbs and a brightness driven by aromatic white wine. The palate is appropriately bittersweet, though it leans a bit more toward the cinchona than any other element in particular. The finish keeps things clean and fresh; if you like a drier style of white vermouth, this may be right in your wheelhouse. B+ / $18 (375ml)

Interrobang Sweet Vermouth No. 47 – “Based on a centuries-old German recipe, this sweet vermouth includes wormwood, gentian, and ten other organic or sustainable botanicals. It took us 47 times through the recipe to perfect the production.” An unusual sweet vermouth, it’s really quite bitter and far from what we expect from most classically sweet vermouths. The nose is bright with red berries and flowers, but the palate is stuffed with those classic bitter root notes, hints of balsamic, and a minty finish. Fun stuff, but give it a sip before you use it in a Manhattan. B / $18 (375ml)

whatisinterrobang.com

Re-Review: Vikre Boreal Juniper Gin (2017)

So this is a new one. Following our 2016 review, Vikre, a distillery based in Duluth, Minnesota, apparently didn’t wholly disagree with our assessment of its Boreal Juniper Gin, and the company sent me a letter. Vikre is making incremental changes and wanted more juniper in the product it calls a “juniper gin,” and would I be amenable to reviewing the gin made from new recipe?

Why not, I said. What of these changes?

We changed how we were distilling it. We are also using fresh, organic citrus in the distillation now instead of dried organic. We started steeping some of the botanicals directly, including the juniper and coriander, before distilling, instead of vapor infusing all the botanicals. But we keep the more delicate botanicals in the gin basket still. We wanted it to be more juniper forward and have the spice of the pink peppercorns on the finish and not the nose.

And so, let’s give the New Boreal Juniper Gin a whirl, shall we?

The nose is clearly much different than before. Juniper first, citrus second. Very few of the perfumy/floral notes of the previous version are detectable; aromatically, this smells a lot like a traditional London dry. Give it time and a smoky element emerges, along with some notes of dried herbs. Even later, some sweeter, marshmallow-heavy notes. The palate is quite similar to all of the above, with evergreen notes leading into gentle fruit (both citrus and red), followed by a dusty, almost dirty funkiness. The finish recalls white pepper, with a bitter edge to it.

All told, this is a capable — if still somewhat plain — gin, though it’s clearly a remarkable improvement over the fascinating oddity that Vikre released last year.

90 proof.

B / $35 / vikredistillery.com

Tasting Report: Ram’s Gate Vineyard Designate Wines, 2017 Releases

Visitors to Sonoma County know Ram’s Gate well, even if they’ve never been there. Why? It’s the first winery you pass as you come into the region, and now — since it was purchased from Roche, which used to have a tasting room here — it’s even harder to miss. The “gate” of Ram’s Gate is a real thing, towering dozens of feet into the air like something out of Game of Thrones.

Ram’s Gate is available to visitors by appointment only, and numerous tasting options abound, including some with meals served from the full kitchen on the premises. When we visited, we stuck with a short tour and wine, five selections from Ram’s Gate’s Vineyard Designate lineup. Thoughts follow. (Note: All of these wines improve with air and time in glass.)

2014 Ram’s Gate Chardonnay Hyde Vineyard Carneros – Almond and tropical notes abound; bold and buttery to be sure, but it has a bit of acidity. B-

2014 Ram’s Gate Chardonnay Green Acres Hill Vineyard Carneros – Bold with honey, some bitter citrus peel notes, and an unctuous, buttery finish. B

2013 Ram’s Gate Pinot Noir Gap’s Crown Vineyard Sonoma Coast – Burgundy in style, with some earthiness that finds a companion in notes of lavender and cocoa powder. Intense, give it 2 to 3 years before drinking. B+

2013 Ram’s Gate Pinot Noir El Diablo Vineyard Russian River Valley – Muted on the nose, with some chewy bacon notes, dark chocolate, menthol, and camphor. B-

2013 Ram’s Gate Syrah Parmelee-Hill Vineyard Sonoma Coast – Minimal fruit on this one — it’s all licorice and meaty sausage notes. B-

ramsgatewinery.com

Review: Wines of Columbia Winery, 2017 Releases

 

We last met with Columbia Winery in 2014  Since then, the winery has dramatically revamped its labels, so you might not recognize these bottlings are from the same company. As always, Columbia focuses on affordable yet authentic wine from Washington’s Columbia Valley. Let’s taste four new releases.

2014 Columbia Winery Chardonnay Columbia Valley – A workable chardonnay, with hints of butterscotch and spice amidst the otherwise butter/vanilla combo that you’ve probably come to know quite well. The body is reasonable in body without being overbearing, and the finish is lightly woody and a bit chewy. Worthwhile at this price. B+ / $14

2014 Columbia Winery Merlot Columbia Valley – Soft but enjoyable, this wine offers ample herbal notes, light florals, and a cherry-heavy core. The finish shows off more bitter grip than what’s come before, but that’s probably a good thing, as it provides some much-needed complexity. B- / $16

2014 Columbia Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley – Again, a workmanlike cab (catching a theme here?), with ample tannin atop cherries and currants, lightly jammy on the finish but showing some good grip. B / $16

NV Columbia Winery Red Blend – A blend of merlot and syrah, which showcases both the floral character of merlot and the meatiness of the syrah. Not a bad combination, which shows a bit of smoked bacon, cherry fruit, and some rhubarb. Simple, lightly bittersweet finish, with hints of white pepper. A solid value wine. B / $14

-->