Every day is like waking up in a new place when you're a beer fan. The craft beer scene continues to hit higher plateaus. Brewers and beer artisans no longer seem content to simply produce a great beer in a recognizable style, they're reaching out into the realms of winemaking, distillation and cooking just to see what they can offer, what they can contribute to zymurgy. I've mentioned the experimental barrel-aging going on with B. United's Zymatore Project, but every stumbling step seems to put me mouth to mouth with a pint of inspired brewing. It's like the Seattle music scene in 1990, or Parisian cafes in 1870: artists are communicating with artists, experiencing each others' product, and reconsidering what they can produce.
Yesterday I had a Rogue Chipotle ale. Yes, yes, I know: chipotle has been done, done to death, buried, reanimated in a unholy ceremony using two parts voodoo and one part Guy Fieri's wrist band, and been put down and buried again, but there I was, having to recalibrate what I thought about beer. This was not a beer I'd pick out for myself. It seems too gimmicky. I didn't even order the pint I held. The beer itself is a kind of dusky brown - think of standing with your back to the wind during a dust storm as the sun sets, and you'll see the color. Counterpointing this darkness is a brilliant, white foam which floats on top of the beer and clings to the glass's edge. I had just swallowed, and could feel the cool, not cold, beer flowing down to my belly. I had expected something akin to eating a spicy dish. I had expected, frankly, to be repelled. What danced around in my head, though, was this word: "creamy."
It was so odd, but that's what I kept coming back to. The Rogue was so smooth - the Great Western and Maier Munich malts prevailed in both taste and sensation. Chile pepper beers usually take their cues from the hot sauce genre, more of a thing you give to someone for a laugh, just to watch them gasp and choke. They're more of a dare than anything. On one side we have "this," and an ocean away, there is "that." The chipotle has been used sparingly in this ale; there's a tinge of heat, just a bit of a prickle, a dim candle light seen from another room. What the chipotle adds is a breeze of smoke, the chipotle sharpening its claws on that buttery soft malt. It's so well composed. Whereas most bourbon barrel aged beers simply taste like bad whiskey, and most rauchbier (smoked beer) is like licking a fire pit, smoked peppers seem to be the magic middle ground, as found by Rogue's brewers. Those brewers, by the way, credit reading a letter penned in 1575 by Juan de la Cueva describing a dish he had eaten in Mexico which combined chipotles and beer as their inspiration for this gold medal-winning ale. They made this beer modest in ABV, so it's remarkably sessionable, and Rogue ales are available almost everywhere.
Peppers are not all that new as an ingredient in beer, but they are a versatile one. When Weyerbacher decided to celebrate their seventeenth anniversary earlier this year, they looked at making a Belgian-style saison. A celebratory beer needed to be special, so they created what they call a "Super Saison." The beers pours an opaque, cloudy orange; its head rises from the liquid like watching a seedling grow in time-lapse, and it settles in a bubbly meringue from which fumes a mixture of floral Belgian yeast and sweet citrus from the orange zest used in the brewing. Stopped right there, this would be a good beer. In the current environment, though, wherein beer producers and drinkers alike are constantly exploring to see what else is out there, "good" and "nice" do not lead to "special." Tip this one back and there's a beautiful smoothness made bright by a fresh orange sweetness, the whole thing stung by the addition of pink peppercorns. The suave mouthfeel is thus punctuated by spice. Share this beer with anyone and watch a cartoon question mark leap into the air over their head after the first gulp. Watch for a second longer and catch their eyes popping as a small wave of hops breaks across their tongue and washes the pepper right away. "Did I just taste that? Was there pepper in my orange... and I liked it?" The mind races like a chocolate lab who's just heard a dog bark on the television. The only way to quiet the mind, the only satisfaction, is to scratch the mental itch with another sip. Weyerbacher Seventeen is a limited edition beer, so it's going to be both difficult to find and expensive, but the payoff is high.
Barrier Brewing Company is a small new brewer in Oceanside on the south shore of Long Island just inland of Long Beach. They give their beers fantastic names like Caddywompus (an English bitter), Icculus (German kolsch), and Saazquash (butternut squash[!] ale). I had their Evil Giant rye IPA while waiting for a grilled pizza at Coals just over the border in Port Chester*. There is a fresh, fruity citrus scent to the hops wafting off this one. I won't write this often because I think it's a heavily overused descriptor, but the smell is positively grapefruit-y. Amarillos? Cascades? I'm not sure what they used to dry hop this beer, but there's a real stickiness to the hop profile, the citrus being cannon-blasted out of the water by a strong bitterness, spiced up by the rye malts. At 6.4% it's not going to hit like a lead sapp, but this remains a beer for the big kids' table, and an absolutely delicious mutt of an IPA. Barrier seems only to have distribution in New York state at the moment, but I fully expect beer this good to gain wider distribution.
Every time you step out your door, every fresh day, there's something new to be discovered. Drink it in.
* By the way: go there. It's a little joint tucked into Main Street, they have a great little selection of American craft beers, the pizzas only come in one size, about a medium, they're served on painted dishes, and they're preposterously thin, chewy, and flavorful. The tomato sauce is dynamite.