Beer Review 0491: Sierra Nevada/Boulevard Terra Incognita American Wild Ale

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One end of the California Trail meets the other in this collaboration between Chico, California’s Sierra Nevada and Kansas City, Missouri’s Boulevard Brewing Company.

Originally brewed in 2012 for SAVOR, a craft beer and food festival, both breweries decided to do it again in 2013, and are apparently planning to do it for many years to come. Officially named Terra Incognita, latin for unknown land, this beer is all about terroir, or characteristics of a certain place. This terroir is obviously Chico and Kansas City. The first time the beer was made, half came from Chico and the other half came from Kansas City; in 2013, the beer is being made on Boulevard’s system, and the brewing process is set to mimic conditions at Sierra.

The beer is a blend — 45% of the brew is foudre-aged, placed in a high capacity winemaking barrel. 30% is aged in Templeton Rye Whiskey barrels for three months, and the remaining 25% is fresh beer that has been dry-hopped with East Kent Goldings. And if that weren’t enough, the bottled beer is dosed with the wild yeast Brettanomyces, then allowed to age for an additional three months. Terra Incognita is 8.5% ABV (alcohol by volume) and 38 IBUs (International Bitterness Units).

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You will absolutely want to be careful when pouring this one, as the forceful pop of the cork will indicate — even with a slow, restrained pour, this beer still makes a huge head that is composed of mostly large bubbles. The head makes itself right at home, sticking around for several minutes before finally dissipating. Color of the beer is a deep amber-brown, and the body is cloudy, with a light dusting of particles and sediment. I expected lots of thick, puffy lacing and that’s exactly what I got. It’s a nice looking beer, that’s for sure.

On the nose, the aroma is, well, weird. Weird but pleasant — the first thing I was able to pick out were a nice restrained display of herbal and citrus hops; then there was a heavy-handed dose of Brettanomyces, which brings earthen funkiness and a punch of cider vinegar tartness. The rest of the nose is just hints of this and that: grainy, wheat malt, a bit of chocolate, a bit of whiskey barrel, a bit of alcohol, and even some dark fruits. This aroma is all over the place.

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So…have Sierra Nevada and Boulevard created a flavor profile that I can’t describe in words? Possibly; here’s a try: the initial flavors are dominated by the Brett yeast, and it’s enhanced by a fizzy mouthfeel. It’s tart and instantly grabs your attention, but never gets more extreme than just mildly tart and that itself quickly fades. Then, there’s what is akin to a dull thud in the mouth; you’ve got some beer in there, its kind of fizzy, but there  really isn’t much going on other than an extremely earthy, soil-like taste. This disappears  during and after the swallow, bringing on some wheat malt, then a bizarre turn of this and that. The whiskey barrel is in full effect, and it couples with some moderately thick alcohol to create some bitterness. This isn’t pleasant whiskey, it’s medicinal, especially as this brew warms. But let this finish linger long enough and you’ll get some deep flavors of coffee, almost espresso. Keep going and it turns to leather. So weird. Terra Incognita is medium-bodied, with a thin, extremely foamy, gritty, and drying mouthfeel.

In an attempt to summarize: this is a strange beer that never has much focus to it. When you first read about the beer, I’m sure the ‘this and that’ aspect will cross your mind. I know it did mine — I like to cook, and the best dishes are NEVER the ones that cobble together a bunch of ingredients in any order and any amount. I think this could be a great beer if more time was spent on the blending portion, but what do I know? I’m not an expert blender. Overall, this is a pricey bottle that has way too much going on. It’s a sour beer that wants to be barrel aged like an Imperial Stout and it just doesn’t work. I pity the fool (!) who has to drink this entire 750 by themselves! I’m not saying it’s a total disaster, because there are some groovy elements at play here… but this blend doesn’t fire on all cylinders. To think we largely celebrate complexity in beer — but not when the flavors don’t play well together! Think of driving a car that stalls and cuts off…a lot.

Sierra Nevada/Boulevard Terra Incognita American Wild Ale, 79 points. Price: $12.99 US for one 750 ml corked & caged bottle.

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