Purchased at Pangaea Bottle Shoppe ($8.99/22 oz. bottle) and poured into mini globe glasses.
This “black rye kölsch” is the first entry in Stone’s “Spotlight Series,” the winner of a blind tasting contest whose entries were sourced from Stone’s own brewers. It pours a glossy, minor key black with a mid-sized sawdust head, and offers a welcoming nose of chocolate-y coffee, licorice, and black bread. Sprocket Bier is surprisingly light and crisp on the palette, and also quite thirst-quenching, with the coffee and roasted nut bitterness riding in only on the finish. The yeasty brightness of the kölsch is counterpointed by the beer’s dark and roasted qualities, and the whole thing is harmonized by the presence of rye, which also adds a nice snap to the aftertaste. It is an excellent intersection of chocolate, coffee, yeasty dark bread, rye, and nuts, and it consistently maintains a light and lovely mouthfeel.
Purchased at Final Gravity ($19.99/25.4 oz. bottle) and poured into tulip glasses.
This bourbon-barrel aged sour ale from Kansas City-based Boulevard pours a ruby-tinged rust color with a mid-sized beach sand head, and a fair amount of flotsam in the body. Sour fruit aromas sock you in the nose, including SweeTarts, pineapples, tart berries, and red wine. A big tartness also asserts itself on the tongue, but the beer finishes pretty clean, with grapefruit, slightly immature strawberries, green apple, and even lime coming to the fore. Some of the barrel makes its way onto the palette on subsequent swallows, but the most accurate analogue to the beer is a sour apple-flavored Jolly Rancher. We cellared this beer for 14 months before uncorking, and I did not recall it being this fruit-driven and boldly tart in the spring of 2013, nor this distinct and nuanced. My suspicions were seemingly confirmed by the bottle itself, which includes icons indicating low fruitiness and medium sour-ness, although many Beer Advocate reviewers from the time of release mention green apples, tart berries, and the like. Either way, this beer is fantastic, and should hold up in the cellar for at least another year.
Purchased at Capitol Beer and Tap Room (16.9 oz. bottle) and poured into mini wine glasses.
This barrel-aged saison from Denmark brewery Amager pours an apple butter color with a thick white head, and a subtly smoky nose of burnt leaves, cigar ash, and wood. There were not any saison-like notes on the nose in my glass, and it was surprisingly bready and nearly quad-like on the first swallow, fading into dark fruit and caramel, with a woody bitterness in the finish. Smokiness is generally a red flag for a saisons, and it seems fairly certain that this beer was infected, although it’s unclear at which phase the infection occurred. During brewing? During barreling? During bottling? Somewhere in transport? In my fridge? Whatever the case, the beer still remains pretty interesting and drinkable, with notes of brown sugar, apple, scorched wood, and a whiff of hard alcohol, with a finish of bitter kindling that is the only truly unpleasant part. It should also be noted that although this beer was poured evenly between two small glasses, Darcey’s glass did not have that distinctly smoky nose or the woody finish. Hers was more flowery on the nose, similar to chamomile tea, with a bit of a lemony flavor coming in at the finish. I would rate my glass 2 ½ toasts and Darcey’s glass 3 ½ toasts, so I will split the difference at 3 toasts.
Purchased at Taylor’s Market ($9.99/25.4 oz. bottle) and poured into tulip glasses.
This third Game of Thrones-themed beer from Cooperstown, New York-based Ommegang pours a rusty red with a massive, persistent, off-white head. Through the thick froth, you can make out an interesting nose of dark fruits (especially plums) and chili peppers, along with some notes of Belgian spice. Although this hoppy Belgian red ale has been spiced up with the addition of Ancho chiles (as well as spelt and rye), there is no major heat on the tongue or in the throat, just a consistent chile flavor accenting the base taste of apple, plum, and berry. Fire and Blood is far more drinkable than you would expect from the description, offering delicious but relatively restrained Belgian-style flavors with a lot of depth and nuance.
We were very happy to receive an invitation to the soft opening of the new Ruhstaller tasting room last week. They only opened their doors Thursday through Saturday, and there was not a lot of signage to direct us, with only a stencil of Ruhstaller’s cigar-chomping “Jimmy” logo to let us know we had the right building. Once inside the underground facility, which is dubbed The Swiss Rifle Club in a nod to Jimmy Ruhstaller’s personal history, we got in line for beers. The tasting room is sectioned off into two separate areas – the bar area, which is dominated by a large communal table, and a more living room-like lounge area. There is a lot of Ruhstaller-related memorabilia both new and old in the décor, including a large display of their trademark burlap-wrapped bottles. When we visited, they were not pouring the entire Ruhstaller selection, but rather were informally test-marketing several varieties of a house red ale called Swiss Rifle Club, as well as a Belgian-y saison and a brown ale. Unfortunately, we could not find any information about when the tasting room will be open to the public, but the Friday night soft open was very well attended.
Purchased through Rare Beer Club and poured into tulip glasses.
This blackberry-aged Berliner Weisse from Charlotte-based NoDa Brewing pours a clear, light gold with a filmy, bright white head. The Rare Beer Club notes suggested aging Tart Attack for a maximum of 6 to 7 months, and this bottle fit right within that timeframe. It offered a berry patch nose of blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, and a little mineral water, with some white wine grapes and honeydew melon on the periphery. There is a succulent tartness on the first swallow dominated by berries and other fruits, including green apple and cantaloupe, but it finishes clean and crisp, without a significant amount of mouth pucker. Some dusty funk asserts its presence on the nose and tongue, and a lemon-like tartness appears on the finish, giving Tart Attack the feel of a North Carolina terroir brew.
Purchased at Curtis Park Market ($6.99/22 oz. bottle) and poured into Green Flash tulip glasses.
This plainly named hoppy dark ale from beloved San Diego brewers Green Flash pours an espresso bean dark brown-black with a mid-sized and slowly fading tan-colored head. The expected Black IPA aromas of leafy hops and burnt toast are present, but the supporting smells favor dark fruits and berries over the usual coffee-like roast. Green Flash Black IPA offers an excellent mix of fresh hops and scorched grains on the first swallow, with a bitterness that is reminiscent of coffee without necessarily matching its flavor profile. Fresh and assertive hop bittering helps to offset the chalkiness that can sometimes creep into black IPAs, and fans of the style should appreciate this beer, even if the flavors are a little overstated.
We spent our 2013 holidays visiting Darcey’s parents in Chesterfield, Virginia, just outside of Richmond, and we also made a short side trip to Washington, D.C. Naturally, we scheduled as much of our visit as we could around DC and RVA breweries and brewpubs, and yet we were left with the impression that we barely scratched the surface of these exciting beer scenes.
The first brewery that we hit was Isley Brewing Company, coincidentally also one of the newest to the Richmond scene, having opened just a few months before our visit. They were also kind enough to give us a tour of their small but highly sophisticated brewing operation. The brewers at Isley told us they were brewing only a few different styles to start out (although their website shows they’ve added an IPA to the rotation since last December), and then creating variations on those styles by infusing them with various adjunct ingredients. We had a hard time deciding whether we preferred the clean flavors of their The Bribe oatmeal porter or the peanut butter-infused version known as Choosy Mother.
From there, it was on to Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, which we were lucky enough to visit on the day of the Illumination festival, an annual solstice celebration that features a lot of their rare and barrel-aged beers. Hardywood is another relative newcomer to the Richmond scene, but their warehouse-sized tasting room/brewing space is genuinely awe-inspiring, more on the scale of something like Green Flash than a mere microbrewery. Their beers are also extremely unique and ambitious, including Bourbon Cru, a barrel-aged quad, and a bourbon barrel-aged version of their justifiably famous GBS (Gingerbread Stout), but even their relatively simple, Belgian-inspired Singel was tremendous.
We moved on to DC the next day, and practically bee-lined over to the famed Churchkey bar, where we met up with a couple of our Sacramento beer buddies who were also visiting Virginia for the holidays. The entire group tore through the sizable beer list via a litany of tasters, including our first-ever samples of beers from Great Lakes, 3 Stars, DC Brau, and XBeeriment. However, the undisputed champ of the night was the cinnamon-spiked Abraxas from Perennial, a legendary Imperial Stout that deserves every ounce of its reputation.
The next night, we went to a D.C. beer bar called The Black Squirrel, where we ordered a couple of rounds of tasters. It was another mixed bag of styles, including an Almond Porter from 21stAmendment and a Union Craft gose, but the highlight of the night was undoubtedly the Tasmanian IPA from St. Louis-based brewery Schlafly. For all of the rare breweries and styles that we tried, though, we were just as thrilled to sample East Coast stalwarts that we can’t get here, such as Yuengling Lager or Brooklyn Brown Ale, in our hotel bar. Other stops along the way offered opportunities to sample exotic-to-us East Coast beers, like the Troegs Hopback we found in the café at the Smithsonian, or the Victory DirtWolf six-pack we scored at an area CVS.
Back in Richmond, a day spent sightseeing through the city was capped off with a trip to Legend Brewing, the oldest operating microbrewery in central Virginia. Legend opened in 1994, and as such they are rooted in the standard beer styles that every brewpub offered back then (lager, porter, stout, repeat), but they are also expanding the roster with their Urban Legend series. We sampled most of their offerings, all of them quite good, but the easy winner was the Bourbon Barrel Golden IPA, which offered notes of butterscotch, pineapple, and hard alcohol.
Our last night in Virginia was spent at Richmond’s Mekong Café, where a delicious menu of Vietnamese cuisine is augmented with an absolutely bonkers beer list of local favorites and world beaters. This gave us an opportunity to recommend the Schlafly Tasmanian IPA to all of the hopheads in our group, and we were able to sample more Virginia offerings like Center of the Universe’s White Russian-inspired El Duderino milk stout, and Strangeways’ sublimely malty Belgian-style brown ale Woodbooger.
Of course, we could have spent our entire trip working our way through the beer menu at Mekong Café, and still come away with only a sliver of the picture of the emerging DC/RVA beer cultures.
10.2% ABV, 102 IBUS, 21 degrees Plato
Purchased at Corti Brothers ($7.99/22 oz. bottle) and poured into pint glasses.
This famed Double IPA is part of Avery’s “Dictator Series” (along with their excellent Czar, a Russian Imperial Stout that we reviewed here ), and it pours a deep gold with a frothy, eggshell white head. Classic DIPA aromas make an impression on the nostrils even two full feet away from the glass. Upon closer olfactory inspection, Maharaja offers a very sweet nose of fruit syrup, strawberries, browned toast, and honey, an aroma that doesn’t seem like it could possibly be the prelude to a triple-digit IBU beer. The first swallow follows the lead of the nose, doling out honey-drizzled fruits like strawberry, peach, and pineapple, but ending in a wave of hop bitterness that closes on a note of spiced crackers. Maharaja is thick as tree sap and sweet as syrup, with a malt presence that is overstated for my taste, and an almost tyrannical mix of tastes that varies from spicy to sugary to full-on hop burn.