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Beer Review 0589: Boulevard Chocolate Ale

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Boulevard Brewing Company started as a traditional Bavarian brewhouse on Southwest Boulevard in Kansas City. The first beer made, in 1989, was Boulevard Pale Ale, and John McDonald, the founder, delivered the first keg of it to a local restaurant. Fast forward to 2006, when the brewery made major expansions, increasing from a modest 6,000 barrels to the aforementioned 600,000 barrels. Quite a jump!

Recently, Boulevard was purchased by Duvel Moortgat, a family-controlled Belgian brewery who also own Brewery Ommegang, another Belgian-inspired American beer maker.

In addition to a full regular line-up of beers, Boulevard makes a “Smokestack Series,” which are all big beers in big bottles. Consider it the experimental side of Boulevard — Chocolate Ale is a collaboration with chocolatier Christopher Elbow, who also conducts business in Kansas City. Elbow earned his reputation by teaming unusual and surprising flavors with chocolate; with Boulevard, Elbow recommended that the beer be dosed with a rare variety of cocoa nibs from the Dominican Republic. For the 2014 version, over 3,000 pounds of Valrhona nibs were added; the outcome was a 9.1% ABV (alcohol by volume) beer that hits just 24 IBUs (International Bitterness Units).

Chocolate Ale is typically released just before Valentines Day — Boulevard skipped the beer in 2013 due to quality control issues, but it returned this year. It typically disappears off shelves quickly.

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The pour produced a large, frothy head composed of large bubbles. It lasted atop a orangeish-amber colored beer. If you were expecting a Brown Ale or Stout, guess again; this is much lighter than anticipated. The body is a touch hazy, but there are no particles or sediment. Lacing never really existed, and you can’t regenerate the head; once this is poured, it’s pretty much flat.

Expectations denied, once again: if you’re expecting a rush of chocolate on the nose, no can do. Be prepared for a ton of Belgian yeast; slight notes of bread, dough, with plenty of orange peel and a bit of banana. There is some milk chocolate here, but it’s very powdery and dry, and most certainly buried beneath everything else going on. As it warms, the chocolate comes out more, but it’s quite mild, and teams with some citrus and herbal hops. There’s no alcohol present despite the big ABV number, but overall, this aroma doesn’t match the hype on this bottle.

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On the palate, the initial notes are of banana, Belgian yeast, and orange peel. The chocolate finally joins in after a few warm-up notes, but it’s milk chocolate, and there isn’t much depth to it. You know those oranges that are actually chocolate and when you smack them on the table turn into about 50 piece of chocolate? This beer tastes like that — and a bit of Tootsie Roll. There’s some pleasant vanilla, which actually overshadows the chocolate, and the finish has some salted caramel notes. But the chocolate is a timid flavor that you have to hunt for, and I’m not very enthused by that considering the name of this beer is ‘Chocolate Ale.’ The beer has a little alcohol heat at the very end; it’s medium-bodied with a thin, foamy mouthfeel.

I was very excited about Chocolate Ale, especially after Boulevard started distributing to North Carolina just last year and decided not to release it due to quality issues. To say this beer didn’t live up to the hype is totally correct. To say it’s a bad beer would also be false. This is a pretty tasty drink, interesting for sure, but it’s no Chocolate Ale. It’s like a cross between a Dubbel and Quadrupel. Oh, well.

Boulevard Chocolate Ale, 81 points. Price: $12.99 US for one 750 ml. corked & caged bottle.

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Beer Review 0553: Dogfish Head Kvasir Ancient Ale

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Here’s the latest in Dogfish Head’s (Milton, Delaware) Ancient Ales series, a group of beers based on recipes that are thousands of years old. All are facilitated with the help of Dr. Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

First off, Kvasir — in Norse mythology, Kvasir was born of the saliva of two groups of gods,  Æsir and Vanir. The beer connection? Kvasir traveled far and wide, spreading knowledge; upon his death, his blood was drained and mixed with honey, resulting in the Mead of Poetry.

Back to reality.

Present-day Kvasir, in beer form, takes inspiration from a 3,500 year old Danish drinking vessel. Made of birch bark, the vessel was found in the tomb of a leather-clad woman, who Dr. McGovern says was likely a priestess. After analyzing botanical and pollen evidence taken from the 3,500 year old drinking cup, some unique ingredients were found to have once been at home — wheat, lingonberries, cranberries, myrica gale, yarrow, honey, and birch syrup.

As with most Dogfish Head beers, we’ll tell you what some of the more head-scratching ingredients are:

Ligonberries – a short evergreen shrub that bears an edible fruit. A staple in Sweden, the berries are tart and often made into jam. For this beer, the berries were bog-grown.
Myrica Gale – a species of flowering plant found in western Europe; has a sweet resinous scent and is a traditional insect repellant used by campers. Was used to flavor beer in the Middle Ages until hops became widely available.
Yarrow – A flowering plant native to Europe, known for its use in clotting blood. In fact, a slang name for yarrow is “nosebleed plant.” Again, used in the Middle Ages to flavor beer until hops became in vogue.

Kvasir comes in at 10% ABV (alcohol by volume) and only 13 IBUs (International Bitterness Units). The beer is a limited release. While all the above ingredients were discovered in the ancient drinking vessel, the bottle says the following: “ancient ale brewed with ligonberry, cranberry, birch syrup, honey, cranberry juice, and herbs.” Your guess is as good as mine if those “herbs” are myrica gale or yarrow or maybe something else. Guess you’d have to know what myrica gale and yarrow taste like to be sure, eh? More on that in a second.

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The pour delivers a beautiful beer, capped by a large, creamy eggshell white head that is long lasting. The beer is a nice deep orange color, with an exceptionally clear body, and no particles or sediment. Lacing is awesome, leaving behind a substantial thick coating of foam, and the head regenerates easily when swirled.

On the nose is where things start to get a bit ridiculous. Kvasir is quite bland; there’s no complexity here, just some wheat sweetness, cranberries, and apple peel. There’s a faint bit of perfume-like aroma hiding in there, which probably has something to do with the yeast, but it mainly serves to enhance the cranberry. There’s a little of the 10% alcohol present, but it’s not in any way overwhelming. In fact, nothing on this aroma is overwhelming. It’s very underwhelming.

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While the flavors aren’t boring, they aren’t all that inspiring, either. There’s cranberry and apple peel up front, two doses of sweet to one mild hit of tart. There’s definitely some herbal notes going on, but I can’t tell you exactly what they taste like — it’s not an herb I’ve had before, so maybe it’s the myrica gale or yarrow? Those aren’t exactly ingredients in, well…anything I’ve ever had, so… The finish ramps up the tartness just a bit, which dries out the palate. Lingering taste includes cranberry and lemon peel — hey, cranberry lemonade! Yes, that’s pretty much what this tastes like, with alcohol. And score one for Dogfish, the alcohol is well hidden. This beer is light-bodied, with a medium, foamy mouthfeel.

Rant mode on: this is Imperial Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Or a beverage of that ilk. Look, I appreciate what Dogfish are doing with “ancient ales,” but where the rubber fails to meet the road is the fact that I shelled out $13.99 for this bottle and the payoff is highly alcoholic cranberry-lemonade. There’s nothing wrong with the taste of this beer. Nothing. It’s pleasant, and I enjoy the interplay between sweet and tart. And I can even, somewhat grudgingly, get behind the history. But when you throw a bunch of ingredients at me that 95% of the beer drinking population has to look up on Wikipedia and then charge premium and we’re left with a beer that tastes good but has no complexity, no challenge to it, nothing worth returning to? I get cranky.

This is the problem with Dogfish Head these days. You know — they should seriously try to make, say, a Pale Ale, and make it a classic representation of the style. No smoke and mirrors, no looking ingredients up on Wikipedia. I bet it would be great. But such is the modus operandi for Dogfish, especially after being on television and achieving celebrity status…

Bottom line: if you can find this at a discount, try it. But don’t pay top dollar for Kvasir. You’ll only be disappointed.

Dogfish Head Kvasir Ancient Ale, 76 points. Price: $13.99 US for one 750 ml. bottle.

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Beer Review 0414: Mikkeller Mexas Ranger Spiced Beer

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Mikkel Borg Bjergsø is THE gypsy brewer. Mikkeller, based in Vesterbro, Copenhagen, was founded by Bjergsø and his friend Kristian Keller as the result of kitchen homebrewing experiments. Keller would depart early, but the name Mikkeller stuck.

Without an official physical brewery, Mikkeller produces beer on location, and the reputation of said brews are stellar. Many of these collaboration efforts involve Belgium’s de Proef Brouwerij, of which today’s beer, Mexas Ranger, is from.

Mikkeller has become known for its use of strange ingredients — this beer doesn’t shy away from that reputation. Mexas Ranger is brewed with spices, almond milk, cocoa, chilies, black beans, and avocado leaves. Yeah, if your eyebrow is raised, you aren’t alone. I know I made a nasty face when I saw the ingredient list, but I quickly remembered all the other Mikkeller beers I’ve tried, and my mind became a bit more open. Coming in at just 6.6% ABV (alcohol by volume), this beer really doesn’t have a style, but I’m assigning it to the Herb/Spice Beer category.

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The pour delivered a large, creamy head that was very dense and had lasting quality. The color of the beer was very dark brown, just a shade away from being jet black. It was opaque, but had lighter cocoa edges when held to the light. The body seemed to be clear and free of particles and sediment, while the lacing was excellent, leaving behind pods of dark brown suds. A fine looking beer!

For all those added ingredients, they don’t show up in the aroma — this is a complete wash of solid chocolate and coffee flavors, with some general roasted notes. There are touches of a light smoke, perhaps from the chilies, and some dark fruits like raisin and fig. The chocolate notes are complex, dark and bold paired with the coffee. Mexas Ranger truly smelled like an Imperial Stout — deep and very expressive.

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The taste proves to be both surprising and exciting. Right away, the dark fruits team with a mildly spicy chili and work some initial magic. The heat from the chili quickly fades, leaving layers of dark chocolate, a hit of grape, and lots of coffee. The coffee and chocolate dominate until the finish, which brings on a heavy bitterness, washing off the tongue and leaving lingering notes of black coffee, dark candy bar chocolate, grapefruit, and pine. The beer is full-bodied, with a thick, creamy mouthfeel and low carbonation.

Out of all those ‘odd’ flavors, the only ones that really made a presence were the chili and cocoa. Perhaps the almond milk and black beans added to the creamy texture. The most amazing thing about this brew (and it is amazing) is the depth of the flavors versus the alcohol content. At 6.6%, this tastes like a 10% Imperial Stout — Mexas Ranger could hold its own with the most imperial of stouts. To me, that shows how skilled the brewer is. Impressive.

Mikkeller Mexas Ranger Spiced Beer, 93 points. Price: This beer was a gift to me, received through a beer club membership I got at Christmas 2012.

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Beer Review 0296: Southern Tier 2XMas Ale

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Southern Tier Brewing Company, based in Lakewood, New York, have a fresh seasonal offering for beer lovers this Christmas season — 2XMas Ale, a double spiced ale brewed in the tradition of Swedish glögg.

What is glögg? Glögg is a Swedish term for mulled wine, which is typically a Halloween/Christmas beverage made from red wine and various spices, served warm. The drink can be either alcoholic or nonalcoholic, and classic ingredients include cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, and orange bitters.

All of that can be found in Southern Tier’s version — their brew contains cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, orange peels, and they add figs, plus four varieties of malt and two types of hops. Southern Tier does recommend that you enjoy their creation chilled, not warm.

Phineas DeMink and Allen Yahn started the brewery in 2002; their goal was to revive small batch brewing. Today, after numerous expansions, Southern Tier can fill about 10,000 bottles per hour, and you can find them in just about any grocery store. A little more than small batch, but they still create some great brew.

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Pouring made for a small, soapy and bubbly head, which quickly diminished atop a vivid and bright Christmas ornament red brew, which had orange highlights when held to a bright bulb. The body was exceptionally clear, free of particles and sediment, and the lacing was non-existent. It’s a nice looking beer in the glass for Christmastime.

On the nose, here come the spices. You get a bit of everything mentioned in the description; there’s lots of cinnamon, ginger, and clove up front, with more background notes provided by the cardamom and orange peel. There’s a bit of normal beer here, as well — a nice caramel malt lingers, but this also has a somewhat off-putting scent of Hall’s cough drops. The residual aroma is kind of a mix between Hall’s cough drops and gingerbread. Strange, but not completely nose-wrinkling.

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Hitting the palate, there’s quite a bit of cinnamon and clove up front, which makes this have a somewhat abrasive texture as it touches the tongue, but it smoothes in the middle of the taste with a soft orange peel and faint ginger. But 2XMas is all about the finish, which plays off complex: mild ginger that lends a tea-like quality, a gentle bitterness and a lingering cinnamon spice complimented by candied orange. This beer is medium-bodied, with a medium mouthfeel that is fairly foamy when swirled around the cheeks.

If you like all the spices this brew contains, then by all means, be my guest. But if you’re looking for something that resembles beer, you might want to look elsewhere. While I enjoyed the flavors here, and appreciated the way they blended together, half a glass was about all I wanted. Perhaps when I sampled this, I just wanted a beer…instead, I got a spiced Christmas drink. Nothing wrong with that, and this is what Southern Tier intended, but just be prepared for it.

Southern Tier 2XMas Ale, 85 points. Price: $1.79 US for one twelve ounce bottle.

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Beer Review 0274: Shock Top End Of The World Midnight Wheat

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What’s this? A beer designed solely around a marketing campaign? You wouldn’t expect any less from Anheuser-Busch InBev, would you?!

Shock Top is a Belgian-style wheat ale brewed by AB InBev, and is meant to directly compete with MillerCoors Blue Moon. The beer we’ll be looking at today is their latest release, which is a variant on the normal Shock Top beer, and it’s especially made for a marketing campaign that goes along with December 21, or the supposed Mayan calendar end of the world. Shock Top have a nifty little countdown clock on their website, counting down the days until the end of the world, and of course, some slick looking videos with a bunch of people slurping this one straight out of the bottle.

Look, I’m not trying to be negative here. I’m totally going to give this beer a chance and fair review, but it is Anheuser-Busch. And it is all about the commercials.

End Of The World Midnight Wheat comes in at 6% ABV (alcohol by volume) and is brewed with midnight wheat, chocolate malt, chili, and “spice,” whatever they might be. Your typical macro-beer-posing-as-a-micro pouring instructions are on the neck label.

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The cap is a twist-off, so homebrewers, this bottle is useless. The pour gave a large, frothy head that had a lasting quality. The beer had a hazy body, and was very deep amber in color (almost brown), with lighter orange highlights when held to the light. There was a light amount of sediment present, and the lacing was sparse, only leaving a few bits. Not a bad looking beer.

On the nose, there’s some faint (read: weak) chocolate, grain, and hints of orange peel. There was also a touch of generic spice, and some musty yeast.

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Taking a sip, there was some bitter grain up front, followed weirdly with sweet orange peel, a combination that wasn’t all awful, but then the finish came on. A big hit of burnt chocolate; thankfully, that disappears fast and what remains a mildly bitter orange juice flavor. It, too, disappears cleanly.

No. This is not a good beer. The 6% ABV, which isn’t high by any means, doesn’t work here, either — this beer drinks like it could be Imperial strength. Maybe that was because the flavors were pretty bad…I had a hard time finishing this one. I couldn’t imagine a six-pack, and if this was the beer I had to drink at the end of the world, I guess my world would end without beer.

Avoid. The label saying “chocolate malt” and “spices” might make you curious (I was) but sometimes curiosity is not what’s best for you.

Shock Top End Of The World Midnight Wheat, 65 points. Price: $1.49 US for one twelve ounce bottle.

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