Monday, July 11, 2011

Sacketts Harbor Brewing Co - War of 1812 Amber Ale

When I think of the War of 1812, as a miseducated Brit, the first image that comes to my mind is not the Revolutionary War, but the Napoleonic invasion of Russia which inspired Tchaikovsky's overture.  I actually had no idea that anything particularly noteworthy happened this side of the pond in that year until I took a graduate course in history a short while ago.  That raised a few eyebrows among my more patriotically-minded classmates, I can tell you...

So, please believe me when I say that I hold no prejudices regarding tonight's featured beverage on account of its name - to me, 1812 is all about a bunch of garlic-wearing frog-leg eaters being royally kicked in the arse by a hardy people who inexplicably choose to live in a climate where you can buy milk in frozen blocks and store it on your front porch.  The Anglo-American War of 1812 is such a humiliating chapter in British history that it's conveniently skipped over by our embarrassed educators.  A lot of Brits still talk as if America's some kind of socially-backward colony - a behaviour which, in my estimation and experience, masks a deep-seated jealousy of the pride of place America still holds in world affairs and which was once held by the British Empire.  Limeys are generally sore losers.

But speaking for myself?  Like I said, in my mind 1812 is all about cossack-dancers.

Sacketts Harbor Brewing Co are based, unpredictably enough, in Sacketts Harbor, NY.  I've been in their general vicinity - it's right in the middle of the Thousand Island region, about halfway between Rochester and Montreal.  As far as I can tell, they make 3 varieties - 1812 Amber, 1812 Light and Thousand Islands.  I first tried 1812 Amber a couple of years back at the Scotch 'n' Sirloin in Brighton, and remember quite enjoying it.  So I was looking forward to reviewing it for the blog - oh boy, how poorly my memory sometimes serves me...

1812 Amber Ale pours a light amber, with a good white head - not too massive but it's there.  There's moderate carbonation, and the brew has a good clarity.  So far, so good.  Right?

It's when you get to the aroma that things get a bit nasty.  There are some strong phenols, banana-like but verging on the plasticky.  There's a sweet, toffee-like quality, and it's also slightly malty, hops are very restrained.  There's an off-flavour though, and the aroma is a bit artificial.

The flavour starts off pleasantly enough - there's a sweet malt to it which isn't bad.  But then you taste the same banana-ey phenols and there's also a buttery quality, which I think is excessive diacetyl.  It's like an attempt at an English bitter, but something's missing - the diacetyl is too strong and there's not actually enough of a genuine malty backbone to give it the rich quality of an English style.

The body is extremely light, considering the style, and there's low-moderate carbonation.  Not much to be said for the mouthfeel, to be honest.

Overall, it's a disappointing effort - I'm not sure what style they were going for.  It's certainly not an American Amber, the diacetyl is over the top, the plasticky, artificial quality in the aroma is unpleasant and my final impression is that it's a poorly-made attempt at an English bitter.  There are far, far better brews on offer in the Upstate region - none of which make me think of Napoleon, borscht or cultural humiliation.

Here are my scores, such as they are:-

Appearance - 3/5
Aroma - 1/5
Taste - 2/5
Mouthfeel - 1.5/5

Overall - 1.875.  Frankly, a bit of an embarrassment to the incredible craft beer scene we have in our area.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Custom Brewcrafters - Signature Series Mabel

I went to Custom Brewcrafters for my birthday a couple of weeks ago, with some family and friends.  It's an awesome place - with 20-odd craft beers on tap, what beer enthusiast wouldn't be happy as a sandboy there?  They also offer free brewery tours, and your $6 tasting ticket includes a free tasting glass to keep, and a $2 rebate if you decide to buy a growler from them.  They also have a pretty decent kitchen serving a limited menu which changes weekly.  

I was intrigued to see a case of cigars on the bar - I was very tempted to don my plummiest English persona, buy some Cubans, pull out my bow tie and tweed jacket, and retire to the drawing room with the men of our party to discuss the stock market.  

I soon realised this wouldn't work - I don't have a bow tie or tweed jacket currently, my apartment doesn't have anything resembling a drawing room, the stock market is about as interesting to me as a bottle of MGD 64, and frankly I have never even smoked a cigar before...oh well, it was a great plan for the two minutes I contemplated it.  

Then again, who needs cigars when you have genuine smoked beer available to you?

Allow me to introduce Mabel, a self-professed 'Imperial Breakfast Beer' from CB's Signature Series (a collection of limited-edition, high-end beers).  It's a strong, fairly dark smoked beer with a malty backbone and some rich, complex flavours which will keep you coming back for more, even with an ABV of 10%.  It's brewed with maple syrup from Mendon and smoked malts from Germany and Scotland.  

Mabel pours a deep copper with ruby hues (the photo doesn't do it justice) and a very good clarity.  Moderate carbonation is evident.  There's a small, off-white head, which is just fine with me - if you agitate the beer a bigger head will develop, but with a beer this strong you don't want or need a massive head.

Smoky malts and a strong, clean alcohol scent hit your nose with the first sniff.  There's even a touch of smoky Scotch whiskey about it - probably from the peat-smoked malt.  The maple is detectable underneath as a sweet note to the aroma.  

You can definitely taste the maple syrup - it's not exactly sweet but it comes through nicely.  The smoked malts dominate the flavour and that's what makes this beer so deliciously different - smoke adds so many layers of complexity to the flavour.  The finish is fairly dry, although I detected some sweet notes from the maple syrup and the smoked malts linger strongly.

The beer has a medium-full body, with a nice smooth feel, there's a fair amount of carbonation but the high alcohol content softens that, especially as the beer warms from the fridge (carbonation definitely felt higher when it was colder).  The alcohol also imparts a nice warmth that sits pleasantly on the palate.  

Overall, it's a damn fine brew.  The brewer's notes say that Mabel means 'lovable' - it's easy to see why they came up with this name for the beer, because it's a brew which will get under your skin and leave you wanting more.  Here are my scores:

Appearance - 4.5/5
Aroma - 4/5
Taste - 4/5
Mouthfeel - 3.5/5

Overall - 4/5.  I'm not sure whether I should recommend this as 'breakfast beer'!  But I can see this going down an absolute treat with bacon or BBQ, a perfect complement to those cured and smoky meats that we all know and love so well.  Thoroughly enjoyable and well worth a hunt to find it.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Upstate Brews Goes Downstate! Brooklyn Brewery - Local 2

Tonight, I'm defying convention in so many ways.  While Upstate Brews generally only covers beers from breweries in NY state but outside the NYC metro area, I reserve the right to occasionally bend this rule a bit.  Not least because tonight's ale is made by Brooklyn Brewery, a wonderful group of folks based in the Williamsburg neighbourhood of Brooklyn.  This part of New York has attracted a lot of artists, musicians, writers, foodies and general all-round awesome people who, like me, laugh in the face of strict self-imposed rules.

I'm also defying convention in that I've been given two brews: Local 1 and Local 2.  I'd normally go in numerical order (I'm a bit OCD like that) and review Local 1 first.  Thing is, Local 2 declared itself to be 'brewed with citrus peel and honey', and tonight that just sounded too good to pass up.  I'll review Local 1 very soon.

Speaking of defying convention, Brooklyn Brewery were also, in 2003, the first company in New York City to switch to 100% wind-powered electricity.  A microbrewery in the middle of one of the most fashionable areas of the Big Apple, with a commitment to environmental consciousness too!  This is starting to look really interesting...

The first thing I noticed about both of these beers that the labels stated the beer is '100% bottle re-fermented'.  Their website goes further, stating that bottle re-fermenting is 'now rare even in Europe'.  Not entirely sure what they mean by that - do they just mean it's bottle-conditioned?  Hardly rare by any means.  I tried to look around some of the online homebrewing sites I frequent, but none of them could help - I may just have to contact the brewery directly to see what this mysterious technique involves.

The ale, a Belgian Strong Dark Ale, pours a deep copper, with a thick and creamy off-white head - good retention, good lacing too.  It was slightly hazy, with high carbonation evident.

The initial aroma was a slightly bready malt, with some citrus and fruity esters detectable and the honey is fairly prominent - it's a sweet aroma of the kind you'd usually associate with Belgian beers.  That being said, you can also detect a fair amount of slightly spicy alcohol in the aroma too.  There's little to no hop aroma detectable.

When I took the first sip, a prominent alcoholic warmth is the first thing I noticed (this baby packs a 9.0% ABV punch!), and then some plum and raisin esters which make for a rich, fruity taste.  It's a complex but thoroughly pleasant and drinkable ale.  Bitterness is at a minimum, though there's some slightly bitter hop flavour in the finish.  In the aftertaste you also pick up prominent malts and there's a medium-sweet impression overall.

Mouthfeel is medium-full bodied, and there's fairly high carbonation but the alcohol smooths out a lot of the effervescence.

A great, strong, fruity Belgian Dark.  Because the ABV was so high, I've only had half of the 25oz bottle - I will thoroughly enjoy the rest over the Independence Day weekend!  It's a lot like the Trappist and Abbey ales I tried as an undergrad at UK beer festivals - I'm pleasantly surprised that they captured the style so well.  So here are my scores:

Appearance - 4.5/5
Aroma - 4.5/5
Taste - 4.5/5
Mouthfeel - 4.5/5

Overall - 4.5.  I love Belgian styles, and this is a fantastic example.  I'll be interested to see how this compares to Ommegang (Upstate's official Belgian brewery), but Brooklyn have set the bar pretty high with this one.