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Beer Review 0564: Hi-Wire The Contortionist Black IPA

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Hi-Wire Brewing have taken over the old Craggie Brewery location in Asheville, North Carolina, and have just started producing beer. The theme of the brewery is the circus, which they feel embodies the fun, authenticity, and creativity of craft beer.

Only a few months in, Hi-Wire have a dedicated year-round lineup it calls “Main Attraction” beers — a Pale Ale, IPA, Lager, and Brown Ale, which we have reviewed. (See Bed Of Nails Brown Ale, 92 points.) For a new brewery, Hi-Wire are on point when it comes to bottling — they pretty much bottle everything they make in six-packs, and that now includes seasonal releases. In fact, they invented special packaging for their seasonal beers that uses cut out windows to display the actual bottles in the boxes, eliminating the need for four different facings for four different seasons.

We have also reviewed Hi-Wire’s winter seasonal, Strongman Coffee Milk Stout, and gave it 84 points. But, shortly after the new year started, Hi-Wire put out a “late winter” seasonal — they’re calling it The Contortionist, and it is a Black IPA that registers 6% ABV (alcohol by volume) and 84 IBUs (International Bitterness Units). Very cool that a small brewery like this can decide to add a beer to its lineup and have it in stores this quickly.

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The pour made for a small, quickly diminishing creamy head. While the beer looked black out of light, in bright light, it was actually ruby red. Initially, the brew is exceptionally clear with no particles or sediment, but when you reach the end of the bottle, it clouds up significantly. Lacing is fair, only leaving traces of suds here and there.

The aroma is fairly well balanced but serious at the same time — the hops are extremely strong, offering up notes of flowers and pine. The hops quickly hit a giant wall of roasted and toasted malts, bready in nature, laced with hints of coffee and a subtle powdery dark chocolate. Dig a bit deeper and allow the drink to warm some and you’ll begin to pull out notes of orange and lemon peel. The Contortionist has an aroma quite typical of a Black IPA, perhaps just a bit more pungent than one would expect.

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On the taste, this beer is both floral and roasted up front, with underlying notes of sweetened coffee. Middle of the mouth sees a dryness take over, along with a pinch of general dark fruits. This leads to a finish of solidly bitter dark chocolate, black coffee, and pine. The finish is long and pleasant, and if you click your tongue to the roof of your mouth, you’ll get a delicious note of slightly sweetened and  highly acidic coffee. The Contortionist is full-bodied, with a medium, foamy mouthfeel.

Typically, I find the majority of Black IPAs on the market to be somewhat chalky in taste. Not the case here — this has a nice depth of flavor that showcases all the typical fare but is still broad in terms of the story it tells. I would advise that the bitterness level is high, but I found it to be easily drinkable for the style, and that’s not often the case with my palate when it comes to Black IPA.

Hi-Wire The Contortionist Black IPA, 87 points. Price: $2.49 US for one 12 oz. bottle.

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Beer Review 0540: Sierra Nevada DevESTATEtion Black IPA

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Each year, Sierra Nevada (Chico, California) brew up Estate Ale, produced from ingredients that are locally grown at the brewery. The beer is typically a wet hop ale, and comes in a waxed 750 ml. bottle — I’ve reviewed Estate Ale in the past, but wasn’t very impressed; I gave it 75 points.

2013 sees Sierra having to switch the program up a little on what is normally a completely local beer due to weather. High winds and drought conditions arrived in the spring in Chico, destroying the barley used in the Estate beer. Instead of just not producing the beer, Sierra Nevada decided to salvage what they could and continue tradition, if a bit altered. This year’s version is appropriately called DevESTATEtion, and it uses other organic malts instead of those grown in Chico, but keeps the Sierra Nevada wet hops. The style is a Black IPA, and it comes in at 6.7% ABV (alcohol by volume) and 67 IBUs (International Bitterness Units). Hops used are Chinook, Cascade, and Citra, and they are un-dried, picked and shipped from the growing fields within 24 hours, hence the term “wet hop.”

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The pour roused up a large, frothy head that had some long staying power. As it finally diminished, it looked like whipped frosting atop a very dark red beer. The body was clear, free of particles and sediment, and like most Sierra Nevada beers, lacing coated the glass in a thick fog, looking like clouds attached to my tulip.

On the nose, we’ve got the real story of the beer: balance. There’s nice notes of chocolate and coffee, and they mingle very well with tempered scents of grapefruit and pine. Overall, the hops are light and fruity; while they have an astringent grapefruit/pine edge to them, notes of lighter fruits like orange and even tropical fruits overtake and combine with the malts, making for a fruity coffee and chocolate aroma, with a touch of roast and grain. It’s very nice, subtle, and inviting.

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A sharp bite of grapefruit and pine greets the palate, but it quickly smooths with the addition of sweetened coffee and milk chocolate. You’ll immediately notice how creamy the mouthfeel is, which also serves to soften the hops. The finish changes things up a bit, transitioning to citrus hop notes, especially orange peel, and hitting up the milk chocolate again. You know those chocolate oranges you get at Christmas that you smash onto a table to break apart? THAT’s the flavor at work here. As the long finish unwinds, the coffee returns, as does a bit of pine bitterness. I’d call it a drying bittersweet. DevESTATEtion is medium-bodied, with a medium, creamy mouthfeel.

While I like Black IPAs, it’s never been a style that I gravitate toward when just drinking beer. But this beer would change that mindset for me — it’s a Black IPA that doesn’t end up tiring out my palate with so much extreme flavor. This is a very nice brew, and lemonade was indeed made from lemons here. Color me surprised, because I didn’t have high expectations going in. And without a doubt, this brew kills the regular Estate Ale. A blessing in disguise! Perhaps the gods are sending a message…

Sierra Nevada DevESTATEtion Black IPA, 91 points. Price: $7.99 US for one 750 ml. bottle.

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Beer Review 0461: Sierra Nevada Belgian-Style Black IPA (Beer Camp #94)

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Each year, Sierra Nevada put on what they call “Beer Camp,” which is where craft beer enthusiasts, with brewing experience or not, can go to the Chico, California brewery and learn everything there is to know about Sierra. They also brew beer that potentially could find its way into the yearly Beer Camp mixed twelve-pack that comes out in the Summer.

In order to attend Beer Camp, you have to submit a video of yourself at the Beer Camp website (sierrabeercamp.com). Ten finalists are selected by popular public vote, while ten more are picked by employees of Sierra Nevada.

As mentioned, in addition to touring Sierra Nevada, winners get to brew beer. A debate is had amongst winners about what kind of beer they want to make, and nothing is off limits, whether it be beer styles or ingredients. The best of the brews go into the Beer Camp variety pack, which for 2013, was released in July and contains these three beers: IPA, Belgian-Style Black IPA, and Imperial Red Ale. (This is a departure from previous years where four beers were highlighted instead of three — this year, four bottles of the three selected beers comprise the mixed twelve-pack, versus three bottles of four different beers.)

Beer Camp #94, originally brewed in December 2012 and named “Sleight of Hand,” is a Belgian-style Black IPA. Brewed with fruity Sorachi Ace and Nelson Sauvin hops, the beer has a Belgian yeast that is to contribute a second layer of fruit flavors. Beer Camp #94 comes in at 7.7% ABV (alcohol by volume) and 52 IBUs (International Bitterness Units).

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This IPA pours with a large collar of foam, off-white in color and creamy in texture, and it sticks around for a good while. As is typical with most Black IPAs, this beer is indeed black when out of direct light, but when put up next to a bulb, is actually a deep ruby red. Even with Belgian yeast, the body is clear, free of particles and sediment. Lacing is nice, leaving soapy patches, and the head has excellent retention.

On the nose, the oddities of this beer begin to shine through with an immediate hit of what I can only describe as dusty flint and campfire smoke as sniffed from a hundred feet away. That tends to dominate the nose but if you dig deep (easier when it warms a bit) you’ll pull out some of those classic malty aromas like coffee and chocolate, although the coffee is of the instant variety and not fresh roasted. The hops are here subtly with some lemon and a faint tropical juice. Not at all what I was expecting.

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The taste starts out much the same, with instant coffee, and flinty-faded smokiness. But as the beer opens up, some of the flavors you’d expect to be front and center show up in ways that are delicate and actually play well with everything going on; you’ve got some nice lemon-forward tropical fruits, a bit of dry dark chocolate, and clove. The finish transitions into more of a fresh roasted coffee that puffs some lingering smoke and light tropical fruit notes. I found Beer Camp #94 to be full-bodied, with a medium, foamy mouthfeel.

I think after you’ve drank about half the glass, you start to see where the members of Beer Camp #94 were going — a subtle Black IPA with some earthy, spicy attributes that tends to be atypical of the style. This beer is a grower, as in you need to let it warm a bit and see how you feel about it instead of passing judgment immediately. That said, I probably won’t return here, but I did end up digging this more than I initially thought I would.

Sierra Nevada Belgian-Style Black IPA (Beer Camp #94), 82 points. Price: $18.99 US for the Beer Camp twelve pack, where you get four bottles each of three different beers.

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Beer Review 0448: SweetWater Dank Tank Some Strange Black IPA

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2013 marks SweetWater Brewing Company’s (Atlanta, Georgia) 16th anniversary of brewing beer. Founded by Freddy Bensch and Kevin McNerney in 1997, the Atlanta brewery seeks to brew west coast style beer on the east side.

Bensch and McNerney were roommates while attending the University of Colorado, and after graduating, they both decided that their love for beer weighed just a bit more than what they actually went to school for. Both men continued their education at the American Brewers Guild in California, and the subject there: Fermentation Science.

Since 1997, SweetWater have become one of the most successful southeast breweries. Currently, SweetWater offers a solid year-round lineup, seasonals, and limited release “Dank Tank” bottles; these beers are sold in bomber size format and are reserved for experimental offerings.

The latest Dank Tank experiment is a Black IPA called Some Strange. Brewed to 10% ABV (alcohol by volume) the backstory here involves a guy going out, getting tanked, and coming home with a beauty but waking up the next morning to find a beast. And that’s putting the story mildly.

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The pour produced an average size, soapy head that lasted. This beer appeared black in color, but when held to light, it was actually dark red, nearly maroon, and had a clear body, free of particles and sediment. Lacing was quite nice, leaving behind thin but solid sheets of foam as I sampled.

On the nose, we’ve got a big hop blast, but also some nice undercurrents of malt. The hops deliver bold notes of juicy tropical fruits, and plenty of citrus, especially orange and orange peel. There’s a definite lemon and lime presence, and there’s also some veiled sharp grapefruit. As for the malts, they are definitely darker than a typical IPA, but unlike most Black IPAs, they don’t feature obvious notes like chocolate or coffee. Instead, it’s just more of a general roasted/toasted aroma, with a bit of burnt caramel. This is nice because I love how juicy the fruity hops are.

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And in the taste, those juicy hops come to the front big time; the initial flavors are quite sweet and have plenty of mangoes, pineapple, and oranges. In the middle, there is a slow but not complete transition into some malts; there’s a touch of mild roasted coffee and caramel, along with some toasted bread — other than that, the hops continue to play sweet notes and make the finish bittersweet instead of your standard IPA bitter. I found Some Strange to be medium-bodied, with a medium, creamy mouthfeel, and a large alcohol content that was completely disguised.

I’ve had my share of Black IPAs, and I must say, this is a unique take on the style. The hop sweetness is something you don’t generally find in this type of beer; they tend to be really bitter coffee bombs, with large notes of pine and grapefruit. Some Strange is largely juicy hops with a darker malt base than you’d find in a regular IPA. You might even say it is subtle on the malts — I dug it, and I think this is certainly worthy of a drink.

SweetWater Dank Tank Some Strange Black IPA, 90 points. Price: $6.99 US for one 22 oz. bomber size bottle.

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Beer Review 0443: Smuttynose Noonan Black IPA

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Smuttynose Brewing Company (Portsmouth, New Hampshire) have produced a Black IPA in honor of Greg Noonan, one of the brewers responsible for inventing the Black IPA/Cascadian Dark Ale style, which isn’t yet officially recognized fully in the beer world.

In 1994, Noonan and fellow brewer Glenn Walters developed a beer that was dark like a Porter, but hopped like an IPA. Since then, the style has been catching on; slowly at first, but today, there seem to be more and more Black IPAs hitting the shelf each week.

Mr. Noonan’s reputation in the beer world is legendary — he was the owner and brewmaster of Vermont Pub and Brewery, and authored several books about brewing. He was a national judge in the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program), ironically an organization that doesn’t have a style classification for the Black IPA.

Noonan passed away suddenly in 2009 after a battle with cancer. But his legend lives on with this Smuttynose brew, appropriately named Noonan Black IPA, and his picture adorns the bottle label. Coming in at 5.7% ABV (alcohol by volume), which is a little low by most Black IPA standards, the brew uses plenty of hops (Magnum, Bravo, Glacier, Nugget, and Centennial) and undergoes a round of dry-hopping.

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Noonan Black IPA comes out of the bottle with an average size, creamy and somewhat frothy head that is of lasting quality. Color of the beer is dark brown with lighter ruby edges; the body is clear, and free of particles and sediment. Lacing is excellent, leaving the glass nearly frosted-looking, with solid, light tan sheets of suds.

The nose is evenly balanced between hops and malts: we’ve got grapefruit and pine, which mingles with coffee, and general roasted and toasted notes. As the brew warms, some mild hits of dark chocolate come out, and more orange-citrus notes unveil themselves.

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On the taste, astringent grapefruit and pine hops open but soon a wall of coffee and dark fruits take over. But the hops aren’t done, and another wave of moderate to heavy bitter pine washes in. On the swallow, some powdery dark chocolate ushers in the finish  of resinous pine and sharp roasted malt. The finish is quite dry, which takes away from any refreshing qualities. I’d call this one full-bodied even though the alcohol content is average and the mouthfeel is quite thin and foamy.

Overall, I think the lower than normal ABV helps out this brew, and it’s quite balanced if a bit fatiguing on the palate. That said, Black IPAs tend to wear on my taste buds quickly, but this is a fitting tribute to the creator of this style. The roasted malts really amp up the hop bitterness.

Smuttynose Noonan Black IPA, 89 points. Price: $1.99 US for one 12 oz. bottle.

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