Pre-Thanksgiving Tasting

Just before Thanksgiving 2009 [US edition, Nov], I held a private tasting at my apartment in Haidian with two blog readers and also joined by my flatmate, Dan Rosen. Nan Chen (USA) and Chris Kolbu (Norway) were both in Beijing studying Chinese for the fall/autumn semester, and came across my blog.  Unfortunately, Shannon (from my previous tasting) had to cancel at the last minute.  We of course did what we could to enjoy ourselves in his honor.

I had just come back from a visit to the US, and brought along several hoppy, seasonal beers (released in late summer/early autumn).  These needed to be enjoyed as fresh as possible, so I decided to focus on them for the night.

You will also notice a bottle of North Coast‘s Old Rasputin, a Russian Imperial Stout.  This was a special treat I ended up serving as our “dessert beer”.  More on this later…

Chris had also recently attended one of several craft beer educational seminars put on by the Brewers Association of America. Thus he had several extra bottles to contribute:

For most of the night, the beers were accompanied by pizzas from Pyro Pizza of Wudaokou.

I wanted to start off with a “bang”, so I went straight for the Harvest Ale from Founders Brewing of Michigan.  This is a fall seasonal, “wet-hopped” American pale ale – the hops were never dried or processed.  They were put into the beer directly after harvesting, from a locally-sourced hop yard in Michigan.  This is considered an “extreme” form of dry-hopping, and provides some of the freshest hop flavor and aroma you can imagine in a beer.  Immediately, this lovely brew (I had two bottles to spare) cemented its place in everyone’s minds as the star of the night.  Everyone loved the fresh, citrusy hop character, without being too bitter or resinous.  All the more noteworthy was that the hops came from the Midwest, as opposed to the Pacific Northwest, where almost all hops in the US are grown.  Nan and Chris both remarked that it was an incredibly balanced beer, despite being so hoppy.  Meanwhile the malt is pale in color, and gentle in sweetness – primarily there to act as a “canvas” for the “art” of such a wonderfully crafted hop bouquet.  Granted, the fact that China will probably never import such beers in the foreseeable future (due to a need for refrigerated storage and to the short shelf life) quite possibly biased everyone towards savoring it that much more.

Next, I wanted to introduce Sierra Nevada‘s Estate Brewers Harvest Ale, one of the first commercially-available beers to use both hops and barley grown by the brewers themselves.  This is the first “vintage” of an ongoing exploration into the effects of terroir on beer – a product that has historically relied less on the whims of nature and geography than on the skill of the brewmaster to produce a consistent final product DESPITE the inevitable differences between yearly harvests.  Estate Ale has a deeper amber color; [compared to the Founders brew] the malt was much more richly sweet and caramelized, and the hops had more of a citrus rind and pine resin character while also proving much more bitter.  Although we all agreed it was still a good beer, it had the misfortune of standing in the shadow of the Founders Harvest.  I personally find the experiment to be interesting, and look forward to future “vintages” (which may change my mind), but as I mentioned above, I personally find that beer is less influenced by terroir than wine.  The most significant influencing factor on a beer is usually still the brewmaster, who has always been more akin to a chef or baker than to a vintner or winemaker.

As the pizzas came down the final slices, I brought out Hop Stoopid, a double/imperial IPA from Lagunitas, also from California.  While usually one of my favorite beers in this extreme style, perhaps this bottle wasn’t as fresh, or was simply from an “off” batch.  (Unlike the previous beers, it is produced throughout the year.  Lagunitas also doesn’t seem to label their beers with dates or batch numbers.)  Something about it just didn’t settle well with everyone.  Chris even commented that there seemed to be an artificial, sweet character to it – almost like fruit-flavored PEZ candy, with a banana peel note too.  While I didn’t catch that, I agreed with Nan and others that the citrus and pine flavors/aroma seemed out of balance overall.  The mouthfeel and carbonation was deemed agreeable however.

By now, we had finished our pizzas.  Time for a nightcap?  Initially, I tried to see how Chris’ gift of Rogue’s Shakespeare Stout would fare in this role.  However, this is “only” a 6% ABV stout, which in comparison with the 8% of Hop Stoopid, would have a hard time breaking through our already-bombarded palates.  Chris himself was admittedly never a big fan of lighter-bodied stouts to begin with.  Nan however managed to warm up to the brew.  I am also generally a fan of this beer whenever I’ve enjoyed it back in the US, but in the end agreed that its placement that night – at the end of our meal – wasn’t an ideal fit.

With that on my mind, I decided it was time to compensate by opening the Old Rasputin – at a more hefty 9% ABV.  Originally brought in only to the Shanghai market by the American Craft Beer Partners (2010 update: ACBP website no longer functioning) before DXCEL took over operations more than a year ago, the beer unfortunately never “took off”.  Russian Imperial Stout is certainly an acquired taste, even for Westerners, let alone for the Chinese.  Anyway… here’s the old importer’s label, for posterity’s sake.

This bottle was packaged on May 28, 2008, and the importer’s label gives a shelf life of 3 years.  Of course, with proper cellaring conditions, the beer can probably age for a decade or more.  But we’re talking about China here…  This poor thing endured countless temperature fluctuations between winter and summer, such as they are in Shanghai (and eventually Beijing).  I believe Chris was the first to point out notes of oxidation – a sure sign of suboptimal storage.  Nan and I found the flaw harder to pick out.  However we all appreciated the rich coffee and cocoa notes that persisted despite the age and poor storage.  Melding along with the bitterness, underlying acidity, hints of molasses and an alcoholic kick, it still proved to be a worthy “sipping beer”.

At this point, we all still had considerable energy left.  So we decided to go ahead and keep indulging…  Along with some blue cheese, I cracked open the bottles of Rogue Brutal Bitter and Victory HopDevil which Chris had graciously contributed earlier…  ‘Nuff said…

‘Twas a fun evening, although I suppose that goes without saying.  My thanks again to everyone for swinging by, and to Chris for the extra beer!

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