On Boulevard Stingo, Stone Brewing, Jester King and Real Ale
Firstly, for those of you who requested a review of Stingo:
I must say, it lived up to all my expectations. From the moment I popped the cork and got the first suggestions of those dark ale aromas until I drained the last of it from my glass, I enjoyed every drop of it. Plenty of malt in the nose, both sweet and roasted, and a strong mustiness too. I love the idea of adding a souring agent to a beer such as this, and after all, that's probably how a lot of beers would have tasted before the introduction of brewing and fermenting beer in stainless steel. Yes, even those first IPAs which were sent to India in barrels. Any barrel that had been used more than once to store or ferment beer almost certainly had Brettanomyces, lactobacillus or pediococcus living in its crevices, and almost nothing will get rid of those apart from burning the thing to ashes. Some brewers, Pilsner Urquell for instance, line their barrels with pitch as a barrier against such creatures, although they leave their wooden open fermenters unlined, presumably because there's enough brewer's yeast in there to keep any wild yeasts in check.
Back to the beer. Boulevard and Pretty Things have done a superb job of balancing the sweeter malt flavours - toffee and caramel - with the bitterness that comes from a higher roast, and I believe they used all Yorkshire malts too. Nice touch. Some of the wort was fermented with wood, some without, some was soured, and the three were blended. There were some dark fruit flavours of the kind you'd associate with a dark beer - plums, figs, raisins - coming through, and I thought I detected a hint of kola nut too. The sourness was quite muted and subtle but gave it a faintly sharp edge. Not really what I'd call the sting that the beer is supposed to be named after, but just enough for my palate's preference. I thought I also detected a little vinous, sherry-like character. And, of course, as the beer warmed up in the glass (did I mention that I let the bottle stand for about 20 minutes after taking it from the fridge before I opened it?), it opened up nicely and the flavours intensified.
It probably took me twice as long to drink the last third of the 750ml bottle as it did the first two thirds because I didn't want it to end, and in a sense it didn't, at least for a short while because I was left with a very satisfying aftertaste of... I'm not sure what. It wasn't hops and it wasn't bitter malts. I already have a bottle stashed away (I don't think it's bottle conditioned but I'm going to cellar it anyway) and I will be buying one or two more before the supply runs out, to drink now. Oh yes.
At what you might call the opposite end of the beer spectrum, in style if not in ABV, is Stone Brewing's new venture, Enjoy by IPA. That's not actually the full name of the beer because the full name includes a date which will change with each batch. The first batch has already been brewed and distributed with a date of September 21st, 2012. There's even a countdown clock on the Enjoy by page together with Enjoy-o-Meters for each of the places it's been sent to so you can easily judge where this beer's at in its freshness. You can also watch a little video of Greg Koch explaining the reasoning and logistics of how this is all going to work.
Beer freshness is important, and if you've ever had a really fresh beer you'll know what I mean. It doesn't even have to be a hop-forward beer, which are the styles that most beer geeks cite when they complain about freshness. I've had beers in bars that I thought were average, but when I had the same beer at the brewery it was a top class brew. One such beer was a locally brewed amber ale. Amber is hardly the most hoppy of beer styles, but when I drank this one at the source it had a far greater depth of flavour than the bar-poured pint. The small degree of hop character was more pronounced, but so were the malt-derived flavours. There was an overall cleanness and sparkle to the taste.
Judging by those shipping dates it looks like Stone is going to give each batch just about a month before the sell-by date comes down on it like a guillotine. Mind you, one wag has already commented that it'll probably turn into a nice barley wine after a couple of year's worth of ageing (it won't - there is no beer equivalent of the philosopher's stone). Bearing in mind that it's going to be pretty well unsaleable after the date on the label wholesalers and retailers aren't going to be too keen about having a product on their hands with such an obvious sell-by date, and I don't know if Stone have made any pledges to buy back unsold stocks of it. It'll be a while before demand can be accurately predicted so it may well turn out to be difficult to find for a while.
Either way, I've put in my vote for Enjoy by IPA to come to Austin.
There's been quite a beer frenzy going on in Austin just lately, and the catalyst is our friendly local farmhouse brewery, Jester King. It feels like they've released more beers (some new, some the second brewing of a previously released beer) in the past few months than they have in the past year, and most of them have been pretty damn hard to get hold of. I'm so looking forward to the future, when Jester King have expanded their barrel room and we can get beers like Boxer's Revenge and Bonnie the Rare as easily as Le Petit Prince and Wytchmaker. All the new breweries in Austin have something good going for them, but Jester King have to be the most interesting and innovative of the group. I think we have a brewer on our doorstep who could easily rival other brewers whose names are often spoken in hushed and reverent tones such as Russian River, Jolly Pumpkin, Lost Abbey and Firestone Walker. Let's not forget that Jester King came out of the gate with a beer style that's almost impossible to find in the US - an English dark mild. It flew in the face of the current trend for extreme beers with a sessionably low ABV of 3.3% and had bags of flavour. The name? Commercial Suicide. Hell, they even barrel-aged some of it!
A significant part of Jester King's appeal is the artwork, for which Josh Cockrell is responsible. He has given JK an immediately recognisable style, particularly with their series of 'Metal' beers - Black Metal, Thrash Metal and the soon-to-be-released Funk Metal (see above), although I have to say that I find Bonnie the Rare just a little bit... weird. Seriously good beer, though.
There's also been a flurry of activity in the Real Ale camp. Already known for their Mysterium Verum barrel-aged and experimental beers, Real Ale have started souring some of their beers and adding them to the programme. Imperium is Lost Gold IPA with the addition of wild yeast, while Scots Gone Wild is a soured version of their Real Heavy Scotch Ale. This is as well as the recent release of their 16th Anniversary Doppelbock and a beefcake version of Fireman's #4 blonde ale called Four Squared (is Imperial Blonde a contradiction in terms?). And now I'm hearing rumours of another barrel aged beer from Real Ale called Shipwrecked. All I know of this one is what I read in a post online which suggested it's Real Heavy aged in Jameson barrels. Sounds like something I'd like to get my hands on.