Friday Froth: Out Of The Black

James Gribbon

I watched the International Space Station arc overhead last night at about half past five. Six crewmen from the U.S., Russia and Japan traced a fast arc overhead - a bright golden light from the hidden Sun, long since fallen below the horizon, reflected off their solar arrays and into my retinas, hundreds of miles below. I wondered if anyone was looking back, right at that moment. The station, five and half thousand days in Earth orbit at the time, faded away, long since over the north Atlantic, and I was left looking at stars like scattered grains of salt on a black sky. My throat burned from breathing the cold air. I headed inside, into light and warmth. 

Winter beers are a different breed. That's what they're meant to do - bring you in out of the cold, if only figuratively, and supply a bit of metaphorical light in this darkest of months. Cold isn't an object - it can't be added to something the way we add a layer of clothing or a memory. Cold is the lack of energy, of heat. It's like when we say we want to make a room darker, but that's impossible, too. What we're really doing is taking away the light.

Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, has time to tinker. The beers he has created sell at a fairly brisk clip, and the staples, like Brooklyn Lager and Pennant Ale, don't need too much looking after. Brewers, if anything, are tacticians of recipe, and commanders get quickly bored sitting behind walls.About three times per year, Oliver and his comrades will emerge from behind kettles and notebooks and announce another small batch which has been cleared for limited distribution. These are dubbed his Brewmaster's Reserve, and are sold to a few of Brooklyn's accounts in good standing. I recently walked into Coalhouse Pizza in Stamford to pick up some takeout, and lucked into one of these. It's called There Will Be Black.

I held the glass up to the lamp, and it stayed black as Dethklok. It wasn't even light at the edges. There was a big, off color head - snow over an icy road - but the aroma was clean and Earthy, almost like freshly split wood. New Zealand Pacific Gem and Motueka hops should take most of the credit here, I'd think.

You know the difference between fresh pasta and that gluey muck they gave you in school? Hold that fresh pasta "mmm..." in your head - that's this beer. Let me clarify that by saying there's no semolina going on here, but there is a fulfilling depth to the malts, plus that fire-born blackness, but it's gentle across the tongue. The malts are quiet like owls' wings. 

Brooklyn uses pale, lager, crystal and chocolate malts from Britain, American black barley and German black malts in the creation of this beer. The aforementioned Kiwi and American Willamette hops add zest but very little bitterness. They're just an aesthetically pleasing perpendicular line to the rest of the flavor profiles. The gestalt is creamy, but not heavy. I had several of these, and I'd put this beer up there with New England Ghost Pigeon as one of the superior winter offerings in the black category. It's not just well done, it's artistically done.

Brooklyn says this beer is "awesome with your burger, revelatory with chicken molé, and intends to marry your lamb vindaloo," and you can check out a short video they made about it here

Brooklyn Brewery's beers are pretty familiar territory to us around here, but I recently had the opportunity to try out a few bombers of a new name.

Gritty McDuff's Red Claws Ale pours cranberry juice red with a thickening head swelling up top. The aroma put me in mind of English malt-forward brews, so much so that I wished someone else was around so I could call pronounce it "bevvy-ridge" out loud. Actually, I just did that. Who says drinking alone isn't fun? 

It's a stiff shot of malts that crosses your lips on first sip, and it's caramel-y not with sweetness, but in a Maillard Reaction way. Red Claws isn't a heavy beer, and easily goes down in great gulps when served cold, like mine was. It's a gentle soul with streamlined malts and light dusting of 16IBUs from Willamette and Cluster hops, and would make a pleasant and versatile table beer for most dinners. It's also plenty desirable for what may well be its intended purpose: a sports spectating beer. 

The Maine Red Claws are an NBA D-League team who play their games in Portland, not far from Gritty McDuff's Brewing Co. in Freeport, and the team's logo doubles as the beers'. Gritty's lists a final gravity of 1.014 for this red session ale, which would put it at just under 4% alcohol, by my calculations.* 

So this is a bit of a palling-around beer: one you can spend a lot of time with, but without fear of coming to after you've just made the winning bid on a dressage horse. Like the D-League guys, this beer isn't ready to be the centerpiece of anything you're building, but it can be a nice role player.

*Do with that what you will: my career average in math classes hovers somewhere around room temperature. 

Basketball is in season, and so is Christmas. Friendly Santa was offering me a beer from the label, and I couldn't stop myself from reaching for Gritty's Christmas Ale. I prefer to eat pie, not drink it, so I was relieved to find this wasn't a spiced ale, as so many Christmas beers are. Instead, Gritty's has chosen to make an English-style Extra Special Bitter (ESB) weighing in at 6.2% alcohol. 

The ale pours a deep ruby color with a medium head, and lots of sharp, roasty malts on the nose. There is a creamy richness to this red ale that is absent from the Red Claws, at first sip or any other. Those voluptuously rounded malts are thickly layered above and below a narrow vein of IBUs from Cluster, Styrian and Yakima Golding and Saaz hops, and the pilsner-like bitterness is just a pea underneath all that padding. 

You kind of get the feeling that if some beers were guests at a party they'd be the one with the tongue stud who takes you around a corner and unzips their pants to show you their tattoo. This ESB isn't ever going to be the manic pixie, it's more like the fire in the hearth. It's a gathering point, a slow smile and a warm glow and no need to shout. It's beer as comfort food. 

I think that's a good place to leave it this week. See you out there.