Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Finally Pliny! Review #10 - Russian River Pliny the Elder

Posted by: Stonecipher

Mar. 28, 2011

Finally!  A Russian River Pliny the Elder!  I have been to the top of the mountain and I have seen the Pliny!  Seriously, I pretty much had to go to the top of a mountain to finally get my hands and taste buds on this thing.  After a brutal disappointment at the Falling Rock Tap House in Denver earlier this week, the woman and I trekked up Highway 36 to Estes Park, Colorado.  Our target was a pizza place called Poppy’s that was rumored to have the Pliny on tap along with some outstanding pizza.

Before getting into this review, though, I need to say a few words about Poppy’s – it was downright awesome.  In fact, I believe that for many years this will be one of the more memorable experiences I’ve ever had at a restaurant. 

For starters, Russian River’s Pliny the Elder was actually on tap at Poppy’s and it was brought out to us by Rob, the owner of Poppy’s.  He asked if we had ever tried it before and when we told him we had not he spent about five minutes talking to us about it.  One of the things he wanted us to take note of, aside from the spectacular aroma, was the color.  He loved the color of the Pliny and really wanted us to appreciate it.  We did. 

This, of course led to more beer conversation and to make a long-story-short, after finishing our fantastic dinner Rob stopped back at the table and spent about 20 minutes with us talking beer and bringing out samples of some of his favorites.  He helped us narrow our dessert beer down to two Barley Wines and when we finally settled on one, he brought out a bottle of the other for us to take home. 

Since you may be wondering, the Barley Wine we drank in the restaurant was Moylan’s Old Blarney Barleywine, a tough beer to find, and it was outstanding.  The other was a Canadian Barley Wine called Solstice d'hiver from a Montreal's Brasserie Dieu du Ciel.  Anyhow, enough back story, here’s some specs on Russian River’s Pliny the Elder before we begin the review:

ABV: 8.0%
IBUs: 100
Brewery Location: Santa Rosa, California
Style: American Double/Imperial India Pale Ale
Average Beer Advocate Rating: A+/4.59 – World Class
My Beer Advocate Rating: A+/4.53 – World Class
Current Number of Reviews/Rank in the Top 20 on Beer Advocate: 1,999/4th
Brewery Description: Pliny the Elder
Bottled On: NA

APPEARANCE: (4 out of 5)  The Pliny was poured into a couple of tulip glasses and just as Rob instructed, we took note of the gorgeous, orange and ever so slightly hazy color.  The head was not enormous, but bubbles continued to flit to the top of the glass throughout the pint making the beer look very lively.  The lacing was solid with a thick wall of lace on the opposite side of the glass.

SMELL:  (5 out of 5) I know that at some point in my beer reviewing past I claimed that some other beer was the best beer I had ever smelled.  Before I tried a Pliny I remembered what that beer’s name was.  Now if anyone asks what’s the best smelling beer I’ve ever had there will be no hesitation or pause to think – the answer is clearly Russian River’s Pliny the Elder.  As my notes say, the Pliny “…smells like flowers.  Like delicious, hoppy, magic flowers.”  I had my nose in the glass for about five minutes before taking my first sip and I kept sticking it back in throughout both glasses I had.

TASTE: (4.5 out of 5) The Pliny takes the palate on precisely the balanced ride that it is supposed to go on with every Double IPA it encounters.  It may sound odd to say, but Pliny the Elder is a very technically sound DIPA.  Starting out sweet and piney the hops kick in towards the end of the sip along with strong floral flavors and a hint of honey.  Elegant is Pliny the Elder in a word, at no point does it taste too sweet or too bitter.  It is a near perfectly balanced beer. 

MOUTHFEEL:  (4 out of 5) As I mentioned above, bubbles continuously floated to the top of the glass throughout the entire pint and that kept the beer lively during the whole experience.  It was certainly better carbonated than many DIPAs, but it also had a slightly oily feel to it.

OVERALL:  (4.5 out of 5) I am very happy I was finally able to track down a couple of pints.  The hype is well-deserved, but may have also served to disappoint me just a bit.  This is everything a Double IPA, and in my mind, a beer should be - almost perfect balance with an absolutely spectacular nose, but not quite the life-changing event some have made it out to be.  That said, I thoroughly enjoyed this beer and it would have been easy to keep drinking this stuff all night.

DRAWBACKS: There are very few holes to poke in Pliny the Elder’s quality, but I will say it was not quite as exciting as I thought it would be.  While I appreciate the accuracy and precision with which Russian River crafted this Double India Pale Ale, it did not become my favorite beer ever.  It may very well have been the best beer I have ever had, just not my personal favorite, which is what I was expecting from all of the hype.  My favorite beer needs to have something distinctive, something that sets it apart from the rest. 

SOUND:  Some of the most technically sound music I have ever heard has come from James Brown and his musicians.  One particular song that stood out to me as one of the finest examples of the Godfather of Soul’s talent and precision was “Give it Up or Turn it Loose” – a perfect song to sum up the same precision that is Pliny the Elder.

Can Anyone Beat this Selection of American Craft Beers at the Moment?

Posted by: Stonecipher

March 30, 2011

A string of excellent luck, hard work and perseverance over the past month and a half have suddenly led me to have all of this:

This is certainly the best lineup I have ever had at one time.  I fought hard for the KBS, I searched high and low for the Pliny, I traveled over 2,000 miles to bring the Consecration, Oak Aged Yeti and G'Knight home and I schmoozed the right people here in Chicago to get all the Bourbon County stuff.  Funny that it all happened to show up at roughly the same time.

EDIT: For the record, I forgot to include The Abyss in the picture.

I'm curious to hear what everyone else has, if anyone thinks they can best this current collection.

I do have a lot more beer at the moment, multiples of many of these and plenty more from all the breweries represented, but I thought these were the best examples of the most impressive beers out there at the moment.  In case anyone is wondering, here is the list from left to right:

Russian River - Pliny the Elder
Founders - Kentucky Breakfast Stout
Founders - Double Trouble
Lagunitas - Hop Stoopid
Avery - Maharaja
Great Divide - Oak Aged Yeti
Great Divide - Old Ruffian
Russian River - Consecration
Oskar Blues - G'Knight
Goose Island - Bourbon County Brand Stout

Goose Island - Rare Bourbon County Stout
Goose Island - Bourbon County Brand Vanilla Stout

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Review #9 - Lagunitas Maximus

Posted by: Stonecipher          

Mar. 27, 2011

A couple of weeks ago I had a rare moment on my own to stop in at one of my favorite local beer bars – Prarie Moon in Evanston, IL.  I have probably consumed more of Lagunitas’s Hop Stoopid at Prarie Moon than I have at any other place on the planet, so I thought about reviewing that, but given my limited amount of time and the need to function at a fairly high level for many of the remaining hours of the day I decided that a 22 oz. bomber of Hop Stoopid might be a bit much, so I went with the other Lagunitas beer on The List, Maximus.

ABV: 8.2%
IBUs: 72.41
Brewery Location: Petaluma, California
Style: American Double/Imperial India Pale Ale
Average Beer Advocate Rating: B+/3.91 – Very Good
My Beer Advocate Rating: B+/3.93 – Very Good
Current Number of Reviews/Rank in the Top 20 on Beer Advocate: 993/13th
Brewery Description: Lagunitas Maximus
Bottled On: NA

APPEARANCE:  (3.5 out of 5) Poured from a 12 oz. bottle a brilliant and crystal clear light copper color with an eighth of an inch head on top.  The bubbles were medium sized and very homogeneous.  They seemed to hang around for a little while, but once the first few disappeared the rest toppled and the whole bubbly structure quickly vanished.  As the surface level dropped in my glass, yet another mysterious case of lacing only showing up on the left and right side of the glass developed.   What made the Lagunitas’s case different was that I did not drink this from a snifter like I did with the other left/right lacers.  This was in a pint glass.

SMELL:  (3.5 out of 5) The Lagunitas Maximus may be a hop bomb, but it is also a malt bomb and that comes through strongly in the nose.  The aroma does fade fast with the lack of head, however, so sniff this one quickly.  A faint smell of grapefruit is noticeable as well. 

TASTE:  (4 out of 5) The sweet, malt flavor erupts on the palate upon impact.  It is intensely malty with a bit of toastiness.  A brown sugar-like flavor is also present and some orange and grapefruit notes creep in on the side and back of the tongue as well.  On the back end, it seems as though the moment you become fully distracted by the sweetness, the hops and their bitterness kick in.  The tail end of this has a strong hop presence, but it is just a short burst of hoppiness and the untrained palate may miss this altogether until the aftertaste, when all 72.41 IBUs kick in.  Wow, that grapefruit really builds too.  By the end of the glass the grapefruit flavor is much more pronounced than it is in the beginning.  Whereas some of the DIPAs reviewed here at 20 Beers in 20 Nights have taken us on a roller coaster ride, the Maximus takes the drinker on a long, slow-coasting ride from one point on the IPA plane to another.

MOUTHFEEL:  (4.5 out of 5) Lively is the first word that comes to mind when drinking the Maximus.  It is well carbonated with tiny bubbles that tickle the tongue on the way down.  Despite the teasing, tickling feel on the way down, the sweetness and the malt do cause this offering from Lagunitas to sit fairly heavy. 

OVERALL:  (4 out of 5) At the time I first reviewed this beer it was one of my all-time favorite beers, but I was not very well versed in the world of Double IPAs.  It is still a fantastic go-to, and although it is certainly worthy of being on The List, it does not particularly stand out when up against a Hopslam, a Burton Baton or a Ruination.  What it boils down to is that the Lagunitas Maximus is just an average best beer in the world - which isn’t too bad.

DRAWBACKS:  The head was a bit weak, but decent retention and halfway decent lacking saved the foam from being too much of an issue.  The smell could be a touch stronger and I would really like to experience the hops for a slightly longer period of time during each sip.  The grapefruit coming on strong towards the end of the glass certainly helps in this regard, but I wish it was more consistent throughout the whole beer.

SOUND:  Something good, but popular, maybe Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On.”  Like the grapefruit, you just seem to get more and more into this song as it goes on.  You might not be ready for it or completely be into it at first, but by the end you’re singing along.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Review #8 - Stone Ruination IPA

Posted by: Stonecipher

Mar. 22, 2011

Sometimes when I say tomorrow, I really mean next week, especially when I forget to factor in the fact that it is the week of St. Patrick’s Day and I work at a large Irish Pub in Chicago and that I had a major project due the day before St. Patty’s at my other job. 


Anyhow, as promised in last week’s preview, here’s the full review of the Stone Ruination IPA.  Let’s start with the basics:

ABV: 7.7%
IBUs: 100+
Brewery Location: Escondido, California
Style: American Double/Imperial India Pale Ale
Average Beer Advocate Rating: A/4.29 - Outstanding
My Beer Advocate Rating: A+/4.68 – World Class
Current Number of Reviews/Rank in the Top 20 on Beer Advocate: 2,384/2nd
Brewery Description: Stone Ruination IPA
Bottled On: NA

APPEARANCE:  (3.5 out of 5) The Stone Ruination IPA has an odd color for a Double IPA, most are more copper in color, but the Ruination pours a pale yellow.  A bubbly and light head rests on top of it and, as if its name were Rover, it sits and stays…and stays.  The excellent head retention, however, only results in minimal lacing, which is a big disappointment.

SMELL: (4 out of 5) In general, I prefer a very strong and in your face aroma, but the smell wafting up from the glass of Ruination is more like a subtle warning to the palate.  It smells like a hop bomb that is going to rip the taste buds apart, but again, in a subtle way.  The aroma is not overpowering, rather it is just enough to whet the appetite and cause trembles in the hands of those who fear the hops.

TASTE:  (5 out of 5) The Stone Ruination certainly delivers on its promise to have “ruinous effect” on the palate.  As the bottle explains, all other flavors become bland after sipping it.  This beer does not taste like hops, it is hops.  This is what hops were designed to do and to taste like.  On one hand this beer seems very simple; it is just beer being itself, bitter, hoppy and delicious.  On the other hand, it is clear that the Ruination is a finely crafted product made with love and care.  Somehow Stone managed to make this beer both subtle and extraordinarily aggressive at the same time.  That combo could not possibly be obtained without a lot of thought and effort.

MOUTHFEEL:  (4.5 out of 5) Unlike many other bitter beers, the Ruination goes down very smooth and while it is dry and taste bud-ripping to a certain extent, it seems to allow your tongue to recover after each sip and doesn’t completely dismantle the palate like the Moylan’s Hopsickle did.  Instead, the bitterness just builds in a delightful way that is bound to make any hop head happy.

OVERALL:  (5 out of 5) The Stone Ruination IPA is an amazing beer.  As I have mentioned on the site before, I have always enjoyed very strong flavors.  Blue cheese, bourbon, spicy food, BBQ, bring it all on.  I love to have my palate pushed to the edge so it comes as no surprise that the Stone Ruination pleased my palate.  What made it more interesting to me was that just as spicy food often hurts, but simultaneously makes me crave it even more with each bite, the bitterness built throughout the glass and made me crave more with each sip.  One of the only drawbacks is that it made me want to push the 100+ IBUs even further.

DRAWBACKS:  If the Stone Ruination IPA were interviewing for a job, I am certain that it would knock at least one question out of the park.  If it were asked what its weaknesses were, I think it would have to answer that it has two.  One, it would have to say that it is so good and focused on doing its job well (which is just simply being what a beer should be, a hoppy masterpiece) that some people often see it as pretentious, aloof and arrogant even though it is not trying to be any of the above.  Additionally, and maybe more impressive, it would say that those who do actually understand it are so impressed that they are left wanting more, and most of those people do not understand that to give just an inch more would be to go too far, to go over the edge and ruin everything.  “Why can’t you push just a tiny bit farther?  Why can’t you be just a little more bitter?” they ask.  For those that are truly enlightened, however, the Ruination understands that to be excited and left feeling the desire for a little more is far better than to have crossed over the edge and regretted it.

SOUND: As I sipped this bold and delicious masterpiece I thought about how this beer would sound and I came to the conclusion that the music for this beer would have to be something with a strong, driving beat, something that sounded almost noble, but also aggressive.  The song that kept popping into my head was “Elements of Style” by All Natural, a group from right here in Chicago, Hyde Park to be exact.  

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Preview of Review #8 - Stone Ruination IPA

Way back in February of last year I posted the following plea on Beer Advocate:

I'm a long time drinker, but I'm new to the wide world of good beer. I used to be almost strictly a bourbon guy with the occasional gin and tonic on a warm summer night or rum when traveling to the southern U.S. or Latin America.

Anyhow, point is, I have completely fallen in love with American Craft beer - particularly our west coast IPAs. Early on in my beer exploration phase I experimented with some Belgian and other European beers, but nothing has even come close, in my opinion to what we're doing with hops here.

Furthermore, aside from bourbon, it seems that beer is the only thing we're making better than the rest of the world, so I truly feel a strong desire to preach the good word about the amazing craft breweries in this country.

That said, my recent dive into the world of great beer has left me somewhat unsatisfied - I still have not found that one, perfect beer.

I have come close, but it hasn't ever really happened and I think the B.A. community is much better equipped than I am to help me find it.

Sure, I have soaked up every bit of information I possibly could from B.A., from bottle labels, from my distributors at work (I'm a bartender) and from other beer nuts, but so far it hasn't led me to that one beer that I feel like I've been looking for since the day I was reborn as a drinker - a good beer drinker.

Here's what I want - hops. I don't want anything else - no sweet malty flavor, no floral, no citrus, no sugary flavor, I just want bitter, hoppy deliciousness. I understand that most IPAs are going to have some malty, fruity and floral flavors, but there has to be something out there that assaults my taste buds without making me feel like I'm eating a candy bar - and I'm hoping you guys know what it is.

So all of you more experienced and wise beer advocates out there please help me out. Help me find that beer I am looking for - tons of hops, tons of bitter - nothing else. My initial thoughts were that I would find this beer in the IPA/Double IPA category, but I am realizing that many doubles are just overwhelmingly sweet. What should I do? Where should I go to find a straight hoppy, bitter delight?

Thanks in advance for the advice B.A.!

My post ended up with hundreds of page views and dozens of replies.  The BA community was very happy to help out a newbie and I got a ton of good advice.  One thing that kept coming up, however, was Stone Ruination.  According to one commenter “Ruination is your beer.”

At the time, we were a little more than a month away from having access to any Stone products here in Chicago, so I had to wait.  Even once Stone finally arrived I was initially unable to find Ruination and then just forgot to get around to it.  Eventually I found a glass on draft, but I was in a social situation where pulling out the iPhone to review a beer would have been totally inappropriate.  I remember liking it, but not being able to pay close attention. 

In the mean time, as I have developed my palate by trying every IPA/DIPA I can get my hands on, I have come around to being able to enjoy some of the sweeter tasting beers.  In fact, beers like Hopslam, Lagunitas Maximus and Ska’s Decadent DIPA are among my all-time favorites now…and they are all pretty sweet.   That said, there is still this lingering desire to find that perfectly bitter, hoppy beer that I know must exist out there somewhere.  Well, the Stone Ruination IPA certainly comes close to being that beer, but to find out how close it came to perfection you’ll have to bookmark this page and check back tomorrow for the full review.  

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Review #7 - Dogfish Head Burton Baton

Posted by: Stonecipher

Mar. 6, 2011

The Dogfish Head Burton Baton has been much more difficult to track down than I initially suspected.  Here in Illinois, as is the case in 36 other states, Dogfish Head products are pretty easy to find, but given that the Burton Baton is not brewed year-round out there in Delaware, it can be a challenge to locate.

Fortunately, Binny’s Beverage Depot is an incredible resource and my local Binny’s happened to have one 4-pack left last week.  This was particularly good news considering that a couple weeks ago I lost the one bottle of it that I had been able to get my hands on.  As it turned out, that loss was actually a gain.  Rather than having just the one bottle, I was able to have a few extras to enjoy while I was not writing about them.  The reason I have this blog is because I thoroughly enjoy writing about beer, but sometimes it is nice to just sit back and enjoy one without thinking too much about it.  Plus, rather than stealing a sip or two from me, my girlfriend was able to steal an entire beer for herself. 

On to the review:

ABV: 10%
IBUs: 70
Brewery Location: Milton, Delaware
Style: American Double IPA (Blended with an English-style Old Ale)
Average Beer Advocate Rating: A-/4.14 – Excellent
My Beer Advocate Rating: A-/4.25 - Excellent
Current Number of Reviews/Rank in the Top 20 on Beer Advocate: 1,189/11th
Brewery Description: Dogfish Head Burton Baton
Bottled On: NA

APPEARANCE:  (3.5 out of 5) I poured the Burton Baton from its 12oz. bottle into a snifter and found it to be a fairly standard (for a DIPA), but still good-looking deep, mildly opaque copper color.  A small, slightly creamy head rested on top, but it didn’t last long.  Within seconds it was completely gone, which did seem to negatively impact the smell.  As expected with the lack of head retention, not much lacing was evident, although a few scattered wisps of foam remained as evidence that a beer had recently been enjoyed in the snifter.

SMELL:  (3.5 out of 5) Speaking of the snifter, it is an absolute must for this beer.  The aroma is complex and should be appreciated to its fullest and the snifter provides plenty of surface area while simultaneously directing the aroma right into the nose.  Sweet smells of vanilla, malt and some citrus lead the way, but hints of oak and hops lurk in the background.  Had the strength of the aroma lasted a bit longer than it did I would have been able to give this beer higher marks in the smell category.  Unfortunately, though, my first sniff was by far the best and as soon as the head vanished the smell seemed to go with it. 

TASTE:  (4.5 out of 5) A strong, malty, vanilla and citrusy sweetness completely dominates each sip of the Burton Baton, but if close attention is paid to the taste, there is also a very intense hop flavor that might be missed by some.  It’s like drinking good bourbon in the respect that the strong alcohol flavors often fool people into thinking that it isn’t as sweet as it really is.  The Baton is sort of the opposite; the sweetness hides the bitter, hoppy flavor.  There are plenty of DIPAs (Hopslam immediately comes to mind) that would be good for introducing a non-hop head to the style, but the Dogfish Head Burton Baton might be the perfect beer in this respect.  The hop flavor is a large part of what makes it so impressively tasty, but unless you are really focusing on that in particular it is very easy to not notice what it is.  This is getting to be a long-winded description of the taste, though, so to get back on track notes of pine and citrus are also detectable in this very delicious Double IPA.  A slightly bitter aftertaste also leaves the palate craving the next sweet sip.

MOUTHFEEL:  (4.5 out of 5) The Burton Baton has the rare combination of having both a smooth, creamy and oily feel while still possessing some strong sparkle and carbonation.

OVERALL:  (4.5 out of 5) This is an absurdly easy beer to drink, at least for the first one.  I have not attempted to drink two in one sitting before, but I’m not 100% sure that I would want to.  It sits like a rich dessert would.  The palate craves more, but the stomach might disagree.  One of these days, though, when I have some Burton Baton around again, I’m sure my palate will win out and we’ll see how it goes then.

DRAWBACKS:  My biggest problem with this beer was the lack of head retention and lacing.  The head retention would not have been such a big problem if it had not impacted the nose so strongly.  In terms of the lacing, I know I tend to knit pick about it, but I like my beer to please all of my senses and strong lacing is a large part of what pleases my sense of sight. 

SOUND:  The Burton Baton is a very smooth, pleasant and accessible beer, but at the same time it is extraordinarily complex, lively and full bodied.  It also happens to be rare, at least compared to many other Dogfish Head products.  These characteristics reminded me of a very smooth, easy to listen to, yet still very complex song by a group called the Whatnauts.  The song is called “Help is on the Way” from their album, “The Whatnauts on the Rocks” and was released in 1972.  I usually try to include  a link to the song I am referencing in the sound section, but iTunes doesn’t carry it.  So you’ll have to do a little digging yourself, but in the mean time you can at least check the group out with one of their hit singles called “Livin’ My Life”.