By Gary Robson
Kathy and I just attended one of the coolest events a beer geek could possibly attend. The inaugural Denver Rare Beer Tasting featured two dozen breweries pouring their rarest, most unique beers, and yet I titled this article, "It's not about the beer."
That's because the Denver Rare Beer Tasting was a fundraiser for an organization called "Pints for Prostates." We had a chat with the organization's founder, Rick Lyke, who explained that the genesis of Pints for Prostates came when a friend of his pushed him to get tested for prostate cancer and the test came back positive. Lyke went through prostate surgery in 2008, and started his campaign to reach other men in a non-threatening way and encourage them to get tested.
"It only takes a few conversations," Lyke told us, "and you'll save someone's life."
Pints for Prostates has been doing fundraising events all over the country. "Most of them are pub nights," he explained, "Some may bring in $300 and we expect to make $20,000 from this event." That's pretty likely, considering the event sold out all 450 tickets.
Why beer? Lyke is a beer columnist for All About Beer, Brewing News, and Draft. It's a subject he knows well. "And if we do something beer-related--beer and guys--we're using the language of men." It worked. He communicated with me!
If this collection of beers had a theme, the theme was "big." Really big. That's because there's no reason for a simple formulaic beer to be rare. If you make a great pale ale, you're going to make a pile of it, but if you produce a beer that uses ten different malts, or gets aged for a year in brandy casks, or requires triple the labor that goes into a standard brew, the market really doesn't exist to take it mainstream.
The event did feel a bit odd. There were lines for the men's room, but the ladies' room was almost empty. It wasn't a group of moderately-informed volunteers pouring the beers: it was brewery owners and brewmasters. And just about everybody there had a notebook, a camera, or both. Half the beer magazines were sponsors, and the other half sent people to cover it.
I tasted 17 beers in three hours (well, 16 beers and a mead, but we'll get to that). Breweries ranged from tiny brew pubs to Michelob. Alcohol content ranged from 6.5% up to 27%. Yes, you read that right--Samuel Adams Utopias 2009 has 27% alcohol by volume (ABV). I missed a few because they ran out, and missed some more because by the end I'd definitely had enough.
Here are the highlights from my tasting notes:
This is the up-and-coming thing. I reviewed Ola Dubh in July, and this event brought out many more to compare it with. These beers were aged in new casks and in casks previously used for bourbon, Scotch, rum, and brandy. They were as different as night and day. I asked Scott Jennings, the head of R&D at Sierra Nevada Brewing, whether he felt that barrel-aging was heading for the mainstream.
"To a limited degree," he replied. "It's a very labor-intensive process. The barrels only hold 50 gallons, and you need a place to store them. It's being done coast-to-coast, but we'll probably never see it in appreciable quantities."
Foothills 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle Barrel-Aged Total Eclipse Stout (7% ABV). Foothills Brewing is a high-end, draft-only, small-batch brewery. They won a silver medal in 2008 at the World Beer Cup for their Total Eclipse Stout. They pulled a bit and put it in some 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle bourbon barrels to age for 4 months. I found it to have a surprisingly light nose, and a great hearty flavor with noticeable bourbon overtones. Foothills makes their barrel-aged beers available to the top 15-18% of their customers on an incentive-based system.
Jolly Pumpkin Biere de Mars Grand Reserve (7%). This is a sour ale that was aged for 27 months in oak casks and then refermented in the bottle, where it has been for the last year-and-a-half. I'm probably not the best person to rate this beer, as the sour style isn't really my thing. There's a strong tart vinegary scent, and the beer has a sour, acidic base with oak and bourbon. You can taste the Brett (Brettanomyces yeast) as well. It has a funky flavor that brewers used to fight to keep out of the beer, but craft brewers are introducing intentionally now under tight controls.
Lost Abbey Angel's Share 2009 Brandy Barrel Finish (11.5%). This beer hasn't been released yet. It's an English-style barleywine that was fermented in steel and then aged for 15 months in oak brandy barrels. The nose was an intense explosion of malt, and the flavor was full and mellow. The long aging toned down the sweetness and produced a beer I'd love to have a snifter or two of after dinner.
Michelob "Mich Brett" (9.5% ABV). The big brewer took the "rare beer" appellation seriously: they made only one keg of this unique beer, and served it at the Rare Beer Tasting. It used Brettanomyces yeast to give a "wild" flavor to malty dark lager. The sour taste of the Brett was subdued, and Kathy picked up a bit of metallic taste (which I missed) along with the woody caramel flavor. This is NOT your typical Michelob!
Odell Crimson Shenanigans (10.3%). After tasting this one, I asked brewery founder Doug Odell what style it represented. "I have no idea," he laughed. They started with dark malts and Belgian candy sugar, and fermented it in stainless steel with ale yeast. Then it was transferred to new oak barrels and refermented with Brett yeast to reduce the sugar and dry it out. It spent three months aging on the oak, and finished maturing in kegs. The Brett showed mostly in the spicy-sweet nose. The flavor was surprisingly light for such a big beer: smooth, malty, and caramelly (is that even a word?). I'd love to get some more, but they only made two barrels.
Oskar Blues Wet-hopped Whiskey Barrel-Aged Gordon (8.7%). Oskar Blues calls this a "double-red ale." I call it yummy, reminiscent of a dry barleywine. Lots of malt, significant mouthfeel, plenty of hops, but a nice mild finish for such a big beer.
Rogue Ales John John Hazelnut (6.5%). When I asked Rogue general manager Jim Cline if this was a brown ale style, he said, "It's not a style--it's a creation." Rogue is a distillery as well as a brewery. They're doing three beers in the "John John" series, which is named for master distiller John Couchet and master brewer John Maier. The one we tasted was based on a brown ale (ha!), aged in oak barrels previously used for aging Rogue Hazelnut Rum. It has a unique nutty flavor and a smooth finish.
Sierra Nevada Barrel-Aged Scotch Ale (9.4%). Oh, my goodness. This is one of my favorite styles (the Scottish "wee heavy"), aged for seven months in single-malt Scotch barrels from the Glengoyne Distillery in Scotland. The flavor is a complex blend of malt, oak, vanilla, smoke, and caramel. It's a mighty big beer, and it would be perfect to share with some friends in the evening.
The Denver Rare Beer Tasting was hosted by Wynkoop Brewing in Denver, and they did a mighty fine job of it. The food was excellent (especially the Mexican eggrolls and the big soft pretzels), and the venue was pleasant.
With the event taking place in Wynkoop's brewpub, you'd expect them to have a fascinating rare beer of their own to contribute, and you'd be half right. It was fascinating and rare, alright, but it was mead rather than beer.
Beer, of course, is fermented grain. Usually barley, but there are many fine beers containing wheat, oats, rye, and even corn. Wine is fermented fruit. Usually grapes, but there are more other fruit wines than I can count. Mead, on the other hand, is fermented honey.
Since honey is neither grain nor fruit, Randy Tracy (the Cheapskate Wine Snob) and I have been building up to an arm-wrestling match to see which of us will write about it. Since he has to be careful of his violin-playing hands, I think I'll just declare myself the winner by default and pick up the subject (more on this next month).
Wynkoop produced their Berserker Mead from Colorado wildflower honey a couple of years ago, and it's been aging in a Stranahan's whiskey barrel since January 2008. It's sweet, rich, complex, and packs an 11% ABV punch. I'd drink it in place of a port or hearty Zinfandel. If only we could get it up here...
(We didn't have room in the print edition of the paper for the rest of the reviews. They will be available here on the Web site shortly)
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