Top Shelf Thursday, January 2015

It felt good to land back on Thursday nights again.  As much changed rolled out during 2014, culminating at the year’s end, the ritual of setting up, arranging chairs, laying out flight lists, lining up glasses, was terra firma to me.  It was comforting to see familiar faces, shake hands, catch up, find out what’s changed in their lives lately.  It’s exciting, too, to invite & get to know some new folks, learn about their tastes & opinions.  This Top Shelf Thursday felt homey to me, which is important when venturing into this long, dark, cold part of the year.

Speaking of cold & (occasionally) dark – the focus in choosing the line-up was loose, but leaned toward the ephemeral.  The beers selected would only be around for a short time – one-offs, anniversary beers – or had just recently found their way back to The House like some kind of prodigal kid.  Maybe ‘transience’ was the theme, kind of apropos for a new year.  And also a little ironic juxtaposed with the emotional tone I alluded to in the first paragraph.  Anyway…

It just so happened that there were a good many Belgian or Belgian-influenced brews in tonight’s flight.  We started with Zenne Valley edition of Lambickx, from importers & blenders Vanberg & DeWulf, associated with Brewery Ommegang.  This lambic was selected from oak & chestnut barrels from a proprietor in Belgium’s Zenne Valley, then blended to achieve the desired level of flavor & acidity, assertive but not as puckering as some.

We moved from tart & oaky to a tart & sweet mix with Lemon Chiffon Cruller Ale, the fourth in Rogue Ales’ series of collaborations with Voodoo Doughnuts of Portland, OR.  Sweet lemon notes jumped from the glass, buttressed by the use of vanilla beans & marshmallows.  Like or it not, everyone agreed it was like nothing they’d tasted before.

Great Divide Brewing celebrated their 20thanniversary with a beer of the same name.  This Belgian-style golden ale hit the right notes for the style, & was given a boost of sweetness & fruity depth by the addition of Viognier grapes, putting it a little closer to wine territory.  And Browerij Van Steenberge marked their 230thanniversary with a Brewmaster’s Edition of their Gulden Draak 9000 (a blonde quadruple), aged in American whiskey barrels.  The wood lent layers of toffee, banana, & coconut to the already flavorful brew, & a cool back-to-back comparison with Great Divide’s variation on a Belgian golden ale.

Counter to their character, The Bruery decided to color in the lines with 7 Swans-a-Swimming, the seventh in their annual series of Christmas releases.  Rather than using non-traditional ingredients or crazy processes, they stuck to style with a conventional (but exceptional) abbey quad with candi sugar.

Once again, Great Divide took a Belgian style & gave it a fruity twist - this time with Colorado peaches – for their Peach Grand Cru.  The sweet peach flavor took a front seat before allowing the drier body of the golden ale to carry through to the finish. 

Shmaltz Brewing decided to break with tradition as well with Jewbelation 18, commemorating their 18th anniversary.  A dark barleywine with 18 malts, 18 hops, but “only” 12.4% ABV, the flavor hit just where a malty barleywine should (in my opinion), with notes of maple & caramel.

As is their wont, the auteurs at Draai Laag took some liberties with the barleywine parameters in crafting Yodeler, a “Belgian-style” barleywine fermented with four yeast strains, including brettanomyces clausenii.  The result was a full-bodied quad-ish ale with a smoothness that belied its 13.2% ABV & a finish that yielded a little fruity & floral note from the wild yeast.

We trod familiar ground with Huge Arker, an imperial stout from Anderson Valley aged in Wild Turkey barrels.  Make that “familiar, but welcome”, as the bourbon barrel-aged stout was like a hearty, comforting blanket, if just a tad rough around the edges.

And we cracked a new record for strength, topping off an already heady flight, with Dogfish Head’s Raison D’Extra.  This capped the “Belgian gone askew” motif throughout the flight, an 18% ABV strong dark ale with raisins & loads of fermentables, that married dark sugars & alcohol flavors beautifully in a package not too far from rum. 

So we hit some familiar strains, augmented by notes unexpected that somehow still worked.  Again, I think there’s a metaphor here somewhere, as we step intrepidly into a new year.  We let the known ground us, while also moving forward.  The only constant is change, the next step right in front of us.  A big thank you to all who braved the cold to tip a few glasses & embrace the new with us, & have a happy, healthy, & prosperous 2015.    
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