In order to be a successful artist, one must [generally] study the Academy; it provides the foundation of history and technique from which one can draw inspiration, or then abandon in search of a new way.
Since we are living in the youth of a new wave of beer (the wave has not crested!), brewers are working in the shadow of the older “Renaissance” breweries: Anchor and Sierra Nevada. Countless brewers and beer lovers were converted in their teens from mass-market lagers by the Steam and Pale Ale, with totally different flavors and structures. Sierra Nevada was founded by Ken Grossman in 1980, and he is still the owner today. He has turned Sierra Nevada into a nearly zero-waste company that sends its beer all over the country. The brewery still adheres to its principle of using all whole leaf hops (as opposed to pellets, which most larger breweries use) and bottle conditioning its beer (as opposed to force carbonation in tanks prior to bottling, which most breweries do). It is an icon in the beer world.
Sometimes people forget (or don’t know) how solid Sierra Nevada’s beer is, or take it for granted (“I was raised on this stuff!”), but that should not be. The brewery continues to create new beers, and has even branched out into the Belgian styles with its Ovila line. Its latest is a seasonal called Flipside, a red IPA (“black, white, yellow, red / can I bring my friend to bed . . .” — The Beatles didn’t know they were naming all the colors of IPA!). Upon pouring, a waft of pine resin and bracing citrus peel escapes the glass, followed by a somewhat scratchy toast and cocoa note as it warms up.
Flipside is brewed with pale, wheat, caramel, and chocolate malts; bittered with Magnum, and finished with Citra, Simcoe, and Centennial hops. Citra and Centennial are fairly stable in their flavor profiles – Citra has a distinct tropical (mango, papaya) note, and Centennial is very lemony. Simcoe can (in my own homebrewing experience, and with commercial examples) undergo a fairly drastic change over time, from “catty” (yep) when fresh to a more resinous citrus note after it settles in– it’s often better in combination with other hop varieties. The hop character of Flipside is somewhat at odds with the maltiness, but I find that’s often my own experience with other hoppy red ales; there are a lot of flavors floating around there, and it finishes off with a clean, smooth bitterness (thanks Magnum!), lingering pithy hop, and light toasted cocoa flavor. One of the great things about Sierra Nevada is that they don’t lie about what’s in the bottle.
Perhaps reviewing Firestone Walker’s Velvet Merlin is unnecessary. It’s an oatmeal stout to which most other oatmeal stouts should aspire (Samuel Smith’s and Anderson Valley being notable exceptions). I drank one yesterday and tried really hard to find a flaw. It is extremely smooth, and has a party of all the right malts goin’ on– lots of dark chocolate, some burnt toffee, a touch of caramel, and a tempered coal of roasted barley. I don’t know how much oat they use, but it gives the beer a silky texture without being sweet or slick. The hop factor is low to none, and the bitterness is thankfully low, letting the roasted barley bear that brunt.
Until last week, I’d never had a commercially brewed “gluten free beer.” Travesty? I think not. Sorghum, the main GF grain used in these beverages, puts out a somewhat metallic bitterness that isn’t easily hidden by hops or yeast character; like many flavors in beer, it’s an acquired taste. I applaud the GF community that supports these beers (although I assume that many opt for cider, mead, wine, and liquor), and am impressed that the craft sector is catching on. Deschutes has long produced a highly-desired GF beer at its Bend pub, and now we have Harvester Brewing in Portland that puts out a stable of entirely GF beers brewed with sorghum, certified GF oats, and other ingredients.
I had the opportunity to have the first taste of Green’s Dry-Hopped Lager in Eugene at our Merchant du Vin tasting a week ago. The beer is brewed with sorghum, millet, buckwheat, hops, and brown rice. I sniffed my sample warily, and was surprised to receive a blast of grapefruit from the dry hopping. A soft, lager-like grain character came through on top of the sorghum’s signature twang. The beer is very dry, not uncommon for GF beers, but not as bitter or strange as other examples I’ve tasted since. The smooth lager character definitely helps even things out, and the dose of hops would definitely quench an American drinker’s hop thirst. The GF beers I’ve tried have all benefited from a few minutes to warm up and release some carbonation, which allows the sweetness from the grains to come out.
Green’s is located in Stockport, England, just outside of Manchester (that’s in central England, toward the west side of the island. They make nine different GF beers, four of which we carry here at The Bier Stein. The other three are Belgian-style Dubbel, Amber, and Tripel, which will certainly offer more to think about than their gluten-freeness.