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Beer Review 0592: Southern Tier Grand Arbor Farmhouse Ale

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Southern Tier Brewing Company have been in the beer business since 2002, when founders Phineas DeMink and Allen Yahn started the brewery with the goal of reviving small batch brewing. At first, this goal was a reality — using equipment gained from the purchase of Old Saddleback Brewing Company, various brews were distributed in and around the Lakewood, New York area. The distribution circle quickly expanded to New York City, and then to the entire New York state. Small batch, not so much.

That’s what happens when you make good beer. The rest, as they say, is history. Since 2009, the brewery has continually expanded, and the bottling line at Southern Tier can crank out 10,000 bottles per hour. The company’s brews are now distributed in about half of the United States and several foreign countries.

At first glance, you wouldn’t think Grand Arbor is a beer from Southern Tier — that’s because the labeling is a departure from their normal style (not to mention the style of beer), thanks to Nate Duval, an illustrator/designer out of Massachusetts. The beer is a Farmhouse/Saison Ale, and is brewed with maple syrup, which is sourced from a farm right across the street from the brewery. Brand new for 2014, Grand Arbor is a one-time release (as of now), and comes in at 8% ABV (alcohol by volume). Presentation is in 750 ml. bottles, and the brew is bottle conditioned, like most traditional Belgian Farmhouse Ales.

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The pour produced a large collar of bright white foam that was creamy and frothy in texture, composed of both large and small bubbles alike. The beer was a vivid golden color, with just a touch of haze to the body; there were no particles or sediment present, but there were plenty of carbonation bubbles zooming to and fro. Lacing was excellent, leaving behind a thick, creamy coating of foam. Grand Arbor is a beautiful brew.

The nose is earthy, featuring a soil-like yeast coupled with herbal hops and grainy malt. There’s notes of orange peel that play nicely with the small touches of funk, then we have lemon peel as well. Unfortunately, as it warms, the fruitiness dies out and the overall nose becomes a bit bland. But don’t worry, we still have the palate…

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…and it’s delicious. Dry orange peel and lemons are up front, with a hit of earthy, soil-like funky yeast. This opens up nicely with some sweetness from the malt and maple syrup; middle of the mouth sees some woodsy, almost oak-like notes play with a light tartness. The finish is dry but refreshing, with plenty of orange peel, some clove, and a hint of bubblegum, along with some alcohol warmth. Grand Arbor is exceptionally drinkable; the beer is medium-bodied, with a medium, creamy (almost velvet-like) mouthfeel. Pouring the yeast dregs in at the bottom of the bottle did little to alter flavor — it only made the appearance cloudy.

To me, this is a surprise from Southern Tier, who typically don’t make beers of this style. I found this Saison to be pleasant and fun to drink from start to finish, and I thought it to be a good value in terms of price. If you like this style of beer, you’d be doing yourself a favor to give this one a try.

Southern Tier Grand Arbor Farmhouse Ale, 92 points. Price: $8.99 US for one 750 ml. bottle.

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Beer Review 0588: Epic Utah Sage Saison

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Epic Brewing Company hails out of Salt Lake City, Utah, and they primarily focus on high alcohol content beer. Operations started in 2008, when Utah modified its state laws and higher ABV (alcohol by volume) beers could be produced — the founders are David Cole and Peter Erickson, both of whom shared a longtime dream of opening a microbrewery.

The company divides its offerings into three different series: Classic, Elevated, and Exponential. As you might expect, the offerings get more extreme and creative with each jump of series; today’s review, Utah Sage Saison, belongs squarely in the Exponential series.

It should be noted before I get into the review exactly how Epic produce some of their brews: they brew by batch, and each batch might be different than previous editions. Each brew is limited to a certain number of bottles; the batch number for this review is #14, which was bottled January 17, 2014. Brewed with fresh sage, rosemary, and thyme, the hops used are Centennial, Citra, and Calypso, while the malts are Weyermann Pilsner, Muntons Marris Otter, 2-Row malt, rye malt, and Muntons Wheat. The ABV (alcohol by volume) is 7.9%.

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The pour roused up an average size, bright white, creamy head that had some staying power. Color of the beer was golden with lighter yellow highlights. The body was hazy to a smidgen cloudy, but there were no particles or sediment. Lacing was good, leaving behind some thin patches.

On the nose, Utah Sage comes off exactly as that — lots of sage, with even amounts of thyme. I didn’t detect any rosemary; there’s a nice hop backing to the beer that imparts notes of light citrus (orange and lime) and tropical fruits. There’s just the right amount of hops here to accentuate the dominant herbs. And lingering in the background is a typical Saison yeast, earthy and a touch funky. The herbal aspect of this brew is quite fresh and really jumps out when laid against the hops. Very nice.

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The taste issues up mild citrus hops to start, a pinch of orange and lemon, then a blast of sage and thyme. It mingles well with the hops, interchanging flavors for several seconds until the herbs begin to take center stage. There’s a bit of pineapple in the middle of the mouth, leading to a finish of sage, thyme, earthy Saison yeast, and hoppy bitterness. The herbs continue to play long after you take a sip. Utah Sage is medium-bodied, with a thin, foamy and drying mouthfeel.

Without a doubt, this is a well-constructed beer, but I suggest you pair this one with food. It’s good alone, but after half a glass, I was ready to move on. The herbs, while fresh and well-represented paired with citrus and tropical hops, do begin to tire the palate. Food (like a pizza or even something heavy like steak) would break a little of the herbal monotony and actually help rest the taste buds, in my opinion. Definitely worthy of a try and a split with a friend.

Epic Utah Sage Saison, 88 points. Price: $6.99 US for one 22 oz. bomber size bottle.

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Beer Review 0584: Victory Swing Session Saison

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I can’t speak for everyone, but it feels like it has been a very long winter. I’m ready for spring — the beer we’re looking at today, Swing Session Saison, is a beer that is supposed to thaw out these last few days of winter and remind you that spring is just around the corner.

The story of Victory Brewing Company (Downington, Pennsylvania) goes all the way back to 1973 — granted, the two principal founders were only in fifth grade, meeting for the first time on a school bus that would take them to a new school. Friends like that are hard to find; the two remained bonded as they went to college, on opposite sides of the coast.

Their names are Ron Barchet and Bill Covaleski, and when Bill finished college, he explored making beer using his father’s home brewing equipment. It just so happened that Ron was into beer, too, and gave Bill a home brewing kit for Christmas in 1985. A friendly rivalry ensued, but the passion for beer caused both men to quit their jobs in the corporate world and seek out brewing.

Bill did his brewing studies at Doemens Institute in Munich, Germany, while Ron also honed his beer making skills in Germany. But before Victory churned out its first drop of beer, Ron returned from Germany and became the brewmaster of Old Dominion Brewing Company, increasing yearly production there from 1,500 barrels to 15,000.

On February 15, 1996, Victory Brewing Company opened up in a former Pepperidge Farm factory. In the first year, they made 1,725 barrels; in 2011, expansion had increased that number to 82,000.

Swing Session Saison is just what the name implies — a “session” beer that is low in alcohol and meant for a session of drinking. Coming in at just 4.5% ABV (alcohol by volume), this beer is brewed with rye, oats, and wheat, and uses both German and American hops. There’s also some spices involved: peppercorns, orange peel, and lemon zest. Ferment all of that with a Belgian Saison yeast, and this is how Victory chooses to usher in springtime.

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Pouring from the bottle issued up an average size, bright white head that was soapy in texture and quickly reduced into just a thin foam over top of the beer. Color was vivid yellow, certainly helped by the clarity — this brew is exceptionally clear, featuring no particles or sediment, only carbonation bubbles that force their way to the top in a hurry. Lacing is good, leaving behind patchy yet bubbly film.

The nose is exactly what you’d expect from a session Saison — the yeast flavors are somewhat muted, but they’re here, with notes of earthy dough and bread. I was surprised by the amount of spicy peppercorn, and there’s plenty of citrus, mainly orange peel. The backing is of straw and grain, with hints of clove, bubblegum, and flowers.

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The taste starts sharp with very lively carbonation, bringing on flavors of peppercorn and orange peel. There’s a solid grain backbone that serves as the canvas; the yeast almost has a Brettanomyces-like feel and flavor going on. The finish dials up the citrus, equal parts orange and lemon peel, while there is some moderate bitterness that dries out the palate and readies it for another sip. Swing Session is light-bodied, with a thin, foamy mouthfeel.

It’s nice to see a session beer that isn’t an IPA, but this one left me wanting a full-bodied Saison. I think they’re refreshing as is…maybe not sessionable. The flavors here (while good) are just a tease. I’d like to taste this beer at full-bore — perhaps Victory could make that possible — still, it’s refreshing and easy to drink, just not the road I would have went down when making a lighter Saison.

Victory Swing Session Saison, 81 points. Price: $1.99 US for one 12 oz. bottle.

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Beer Review 0580: Stone Matt’s Burning Rosids Imperial Saison

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While we very rarely cut and paste information about beer on this website, we feel the story of this beer is best told by Stone Brewing Co; the following text appears on the back of each bottle of Matt’s Burning Rosids:

Life is extraordinarily precious, joyous…and fragile. In 2013, we suffered the tragic loss of our dear friend and coworker, Matt Courtright. In the midst of our grief, we pulled together as the family we are, suggesting and exploring numerous ways to pay tribute to our dearly departed colleague. In the end, we felt there was no finer way to honor his memory than to brew one of his most recent and special beer recipes.

Everyone at Stone recognized Matt’s prowess and passion for brewing. He loved to explore all beer could be, rather than limit himself or his brews to accepted parameters. He conceived a Belgian-style saison with his Stone friend and compatriot, Brian Bishop. Infused with cherrywood-smoked malt, the beer was dubbed Burning Rosids, referencing the rosid plant family from which cherry trees hail.

Matt’s smile and voluminous laugh were infectious mainstays around the brewery. By no means a shrinking violet, he was exuberant, courageous, unfailingly positive and the type of stalwart friend that everyone was happy to have in their corner. He was larger than life in so many ways…and without a doubt, an incredible brewer. We, Matt’s brewing comrades and friends at Stone were proud to hoist our mash paddles and brew this recipe as a symbolic gesture of how much he meant to everyone and how immensely we will miss him.

Rather than regarding Burning Rosids as a somber memento, please think of it as a celebration of Matt. We do. When you drink this very special beer, please join us in raising your glass, both in Matt’s memory and in tribute to everything he so passionately stood for: caring for others, passion and skill for his art, and laughter…lots of laughter. Among the long list of things he held dear were GoDesignInc.org, a charity committed to fulfilling the architectural needs of developing communities around the world; and TKF, a non-profit working to stop youth violence by educating, mentoring and making positive impacts on high-risk communities. We are proudly contributing funds earned through the sale of this beer to this worthy organization in Matt’s honor.

Enjoy, and please remember that life and those we hold dear are precious gifts to be cherished every day. Consider sharing this beer, conversations on life’s passions and, again, lots of laughter, with good friends as we remember ours.

Matt’s Burning Rosids comes in at 10.5% ABV (alcohol by volume) and 50 IBUs (International Bitterness Units).

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The pour produced a small, frothy head that rapidly diminished into just a thin cover around the edges of the glass. The beer is golden-orange in color and has a haze to the body; it’s still translucent and features no particles or sediment. The lacing was good, leaving behind several thin patches of suds. It’s a very nice color and has lots of carbonation bubbles that zoom to the surface.

On the aroma, this brew has a fair amount of Saison funk; the yeast is the first thing I took in, and it’s bready and earthen with a touch of barnyard. The malts are grainy and biscuity, and there are hints of orange peel, clove, bubblegum, and banana character. There’s also some peppery spice, but that seemed to come out more as it warmed. And there, in the background, is a hint of smokiness, complete with just an edge of cherry. No alcohol to be found.

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The taste is a bit rocky initially; you must allow this to warm up ten minutes or so and you’ll have a much better experience. It’s mildly bitter up front, with a stiff smokiness, but it quickly opens to more of a traditional Saison laced with spicy fruit and wood. Notes of orange peel, clove, banana, and bubblegum dominate the middle of the palate, with the bubblegum leading the transition to a finish that is definite cherrywood — the smoke is jarring in the first few sips, coming off somewhat burnt, but when allowed to warm and as the palate adjusts, it’s really more spicy/orange/clove that has smoked cherries as a background player. And yes, I got definite notes of cherry, especially as I worked my way through the last half of the glass. I found Burning Rosids to be medium-bodied, with a medium, creamy, drying mouthfeel. The alcohol isn’t overpowering but there is some warming effect.

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I really enjoyed this beer and by the end of the bottle, I wanted more. I think most people will feel that way — this is a “dabble here, dabble there…” kind of beer, with flavors all over the map. But you know what? It works — and that’s the sign of a brewer that knew what he was doing. You are missed, Matt; and it is with great honor that I got to sample one of your creations. And it is with sadness that I realize you are gone too soon; but it is with happiness that I honor and respect those with the same spirit as you who craft these crazy elixirs that we love to drink. Here’s to good beer, and the hard-working, passionate men and women that make it.

Stone Matt’s Burning Rosids Imperial Saison, 90 points. Price: $6.99 US for one 22 oz. bomber size bottle.

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Beer Review 0520: Goose Island Sofie Farmhouse Ale

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Goose Island (Chicago, Illinois) recently began distribution here in North Carolina, and likely your neck of the woods, too. But here’s the rub: Goose Island is owned by ABInbev, the multinational brewing giant that produces Budweiser, Corona, and Stella Artois. With all those billions of dollars, ABInbev now produces many of Goose Island’s lower alcohol content beers themselves, and uses their massive distribution arm to get those bottles in as many markets as possible.

After seven months of sending NC their “classic” series of beers, Goose Island have finally began distributing their “vintage” line in the state, which are all offerings made at the Chicago brewery, not in an ABInbev-owned facility. Four beers in the vintage lineup have made their way to my neck of the woods, and I’ll be looking at one each Monday for the next four weeks. (Click this tag to see the other reviews from the vintage line: goose island vintage)

Celebrating 25 years in 2013, John Hall was the Goose visionary, and he was inspired by the beers he had tasted in travels across the country. He started the brewery with the notion that drinkers wanted to see their beer being made, so Goose Island began life as a brewpub. In 1995, a dedicated facility was built with a bottling plant to keep up with demand. The sale to ABInbev happened in 2011, with 58% of the company being immediately sold, with the remaining 42% still slated to be purchased.

Sofie is a blended beer, containing 80% Belgian-style Ale and 20% Belgian-style Ale aged in wine barrels with orange peel. The beer is fermented with wild yeasts and comes in at 6.5% ABV (alcohol by volume) with just 20 IBUs (International Bitterness Units). Goose Island targets Champagne drinkers with this beer, and says it can hold up to five years of cellaring. Sofie is a year-round release, available in four-packs.

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This beer pours an average size, frothy and foamy head that is bright white in color and lasting. The beer is a pale straw color that is slightly cloudy; the bottle had yeast dregs, but they weren’t caked on the bottom. Even with the dregs poured in, the beer remained translucent, and there were no particles and sediment floating in the liquid. Lacing was decent, leaving behind patchy suds; no solid sheets.

On the nose, this is a beautifully balanced beer. There’s lots of grain, wheat, and bready notes that mix with doughy and earthen yeast and a touch of funk. You get the orange peel from the barrels as well as some oranges from the hops, as well as lemon and an herbal hit. It’s slightly vinous from the barrel aging. Very nice and inviting.

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The taste presents a ton of wheat and orange peel, which turns into a slightly tart lemon while keeping the baseline of grain. Sofie is bready and has just a hint of funky yeast to her; add in some sweet, fruity white wine character and a crispy, dry finish, and you’ve got quite an interesting combination of flavors. I found the beer to be light-bodied, with a thin, creamy, drying mouthfeel. Carbonation looked like it would be high (you can see bubbles zooming to the top of the beer throughout sipping) but it’s actually soft, adding to the almost silky mouthfeel.

What we have here is a very nice, refreshing, easy drinking beer with enough solid flavors to keep even the most experienced of palates interested. This is one of those rare beers that both experienced and non-experienced drinkers can enjoy and appreciate equally; two hearty thumbs-up from me, and I’m looking forward to enjoying more soon.

Goose Island Sofie Farmhouse Ale, 93 points. Price: $3.49 US for one 12 oz. bottle.

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