Top Shelf Thursday, March 2015: BIG BEER


As with any trend, craze, or movement, craft beer has a pendulum.  On one end of the arc, it swings toward the conservative - sessionability, cleanliness, simplicity, tradition.  This kind of balance is necessary, lest we get too carried away with ourselves & lose our heads.  The boat rocks in an effort to regain stability & find a center.  The force toward sensible ABV, recipe, scope, etc., is natural &, at times, much needed.  Keeps us sane.

But what would the new world of beer be without the other end of the spectrum?  Craft beer was born of a desire for freedom, to break boundaries & shed the oppressive restrictions of the beer-industrial complex, the tight dimensions of old-style lager.  Craft beer just wouldn’t be itself without the big, crazy extremities!  We gotta embrace the bold, the overstated, the indulgent, & flex those creative muscles.  Most of the time, more is still MORE!  We’re House of 1000 Beers, dammit - why not go BIG?  We chose to roll out our BIG BEER Week to celebrate the aspects of beer that make it fun - BIG flavor, BIG ABV, BIG BEER!  Seemed as good a theme for a Top Shelf Thursday tasting as any, so we highlighted some of the BIG BEERS from our selection (okay, I’ll stop with the caps now).

Belgians know big beer, & American-Belgian intersections are ripe for ramping it up.  We started with a style novel to Top Shelf Thursday - Belgian-style IPA.  Clown Shoes’ Muffin Top showcased some in-your-face American hops, shaped into a whole other animal through the use of Belgian yeast, amplifying fruity esters & colliding worlds.  

One of the grandaddies of big beer is barleywine, a style whose name belies its own heft.  The first in a trio of barleywines this evening, Central Waters’ Kosmyk Charlie’s Y2K Catastrophe Ale hit a pleasant niche between hoppy & malty, with a mellowly citric hop profile & some round, full toffee & caramel notes.  Nogne O’s #100 benefited from time spent crossing the ocean along with some “shelf-aging” - the hops transformed from bitter to a kind of peppermint character, holding up the bready malt base well & showing some of the beauty of a maturing strong ale.  And Great Divide’s Old Ruffian gave us a taste of fresh American barleywine, with an assertive bitterness verging on that of an imperial IPA.

A new little sister to an old name, Gulden Draak 9000 Quadruple was brewed in honor of Gulden Draak’s 25th birthday.  This strong Belgian golden was comfortably homey: sweet, fruity, a little hot, a little doughy, landing it snugly in the territory of many classic, well-crafted Belgian ales.

The tasting’s second half was a barrel roll, as so many big beers marry perfectly with wood.  Thirsty Dog’s delicious imperial stout, Siberian Night, warmed us up with bourbon notes coming through from 11 months spent in bourbon barrels.  The second offering of the night from Clown Shoes didn’t disappoint either.  Ride the Lion matched the caramel notes of a Scotch-style wee heavy to the toasted oak & vanilla of the bourbon barrels in which it was aged.

FiftyFifty Brewing’s Eclipse series required some explanation.  This California brewery takes an 11.9% imperial stout brewed with honey, divides the batch up, & ages it in name-linked barrels from different whiskey distilleries.  We tasted Eclipse in barrels previously used for Four Roses bourbon, a delicious pairing that would make a cool exercise when tasted in sequence with others from this line.  And we played hop frog with stout & wee heavy, landing next on Thirsty Dog’s Wulver.  Whereas Ride the Lion had a strong heat intensity to it, Wulver was all about smoothness & seamless blending, finishing with an aftertaste that just went on & on.

And speaking of blending, the final course showed us what happens when you blend two world-class big beers into one delicious package.  Taking parts from bourbon barrel-aged Serpent’s Stout & brandy barrel-aged Angel’s Share, Lost Abbey’s Deliverance drank like a glass of chocolate cordial, bringing a notable heat to the table but letting it play nicely with the deep malt & barrel flavors.  

This tasting was a prelude to our BIG BEER Week, & by the time this sees light, we’ll be well into a fun week of strong, full-bodied, savorable brews.  Thanks to all who came out & raised a glass to the freedom & pleasure that is big beer.

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