POSTED ON NOVEMBER 2, 2011:
Sip Slowly And Well
Pop the top on autumn's best brews, responsibly
It's in the air. Deep, rich scents of encroaching Winter. The skin grows thicker, the hair longer and the opportunities for layering one's wardrobe become legion.
In one fell swoop the temperatures dropped, leaving just a faint memory of the sweltering summer we reluctantly endured, and ushering in the bonfire-building, football-watching, porch-sitting season of fall. So, what better way to welcome the chill than with a tasting of semi-equinoxal beers in that timeless effort to take the chill off the frigid months ahead?
This is why Autumn Brews has become such a Tulsa tradition. Nobody does events better than yours truly, UTW.
As autumn wraps into winter, breweries and distributors worldwide prepare their offerings for seasonal success. The season of the stout, hearty, thick and flavorful brew is upon us and, like any true beer-master should, we've narrowed down the drinking pool. UTW waded through a sea of frothy goodness and selected twenty five fall-inspired beers for review.
A diverse team of beer enthusiasts, this year's panel consisted of seven local experts and/or almost-experts in all things brewed. Comfortably settled in UTW's "Deep Pearlelm" digs, the seven consultants went to work, carefully calculating the appearance, aroma, feel and flavor of each beer.
The rules were simple and the stage better than ever at our new location. UTW's conference room table -- set with cups of coffee beans to clear the palate, two dumping bins to keep our panelists from going hog-wild too soon in the game, and several cups of water for hydration and rinsing purposes -- invited four local bartenders, one home-brewer and two, for lack of a better description, all-of-the-above beer nerds to taste the season's offerings.
Though our panel ranked each beer thoroughly -- often swishing and smelling and studying a single pour for several minutes -- our goal is to give you, our loyal drinkers, a schematic with which to hunt down the season's best frothy delight.
With 25 beers on the original review list, we thought it best to discard the bottom five -- when there is so much excellence in the world, why bother with imperfection? It will behoove you to know -- those who are not beer gods -- that each beer is reviewed against standards of its particular type. For instance, a porter should have exacting qualities that define it as a porter and our beer experts reviewed each beer according to those qualities, but still took a few liberties for personal preference.
Tap it from the top, you say? Without further ado -- Urban Tulsa Weekly's Autumn Brews selection.
Mustang Harvest Lager
5.6 Alcohol by Volume (ABV)
Last year's Okie brew didn't fare so well with our panel and was described as a boring and light lager. The Mustang brewery went to work on their seasonal beer and the 2011 version of Mustang's fall signature was definitely improved upon.
Still light in comparison to other Oktoberfests, the Edmond crew built up the aroma with a sweet malt fragrance, giving the beer a sweeter finish after an initial lager yeast taste. The copper color was nearly just right though the head left a little something to be desired.
After commenting mostly on the "big" aroma, one panelist gave props to the Edmond folk writing, "Nice job by the local guys."
This might serve as the perfect transition brew -- reminiscent of Oklahoma weather, it's definitely a fall beer but leaves room for summer to creep in from time to time.
Shiner 102 Double Wheat
American Pale Wheat Ale
The Spoetzl Brewery, roughly two hours east of San Antonio, is one of the few breweries that survived prohibition in Texas. As the Spoetzl brand drew nearer to its 100th birthday in 2009, it began releasing celebratory specialty beers. Though the centennial celebration came and went, the specialty program has had a lasting effect on the brewery and its faithful followers. Thus, the birth of Shiner 102 -- given its name for the number of years Spoetzl has been in the beer-making business.
The initial taste of Shiner's latest wheat had an "apples and honey" flavor. The clear golden ale presented with "nice head retention" and a little more hop than was generally expected by the panel. A smooth entrance and exit, 102 offered a sweet taste with a "balanced finish."
One panelist admittedly steers away from wheat beers, bored with their lack of robust flavor but didn't hesitate to declare 102 as "fantastic."
The fruitier side of fall -- in a hoppy, manly sort of way.
Historically, the Germans have done a few things right -- namely sausage, the Volkswagen and the Autobahn. But when it comes to Märzen, our European friends seem to have a few tricks up their sleeves -- and they tend to execute very well. Traditionally Oktoberfest should display a strong hop aroma with a bitter balance.
Warsteiner Brauerei developed an Oktoberfest with a minimal hop flavor and caramel aroma. The malt aspect of the brew was a bit underwhelming and allowed for too much of a smooth, easy drinking experience. The light copper color of the beer was just right and presented with a nice white head and minimal lacing (the pattern left by the head as it moves down the glass).
The slight caramel touch gave this German brew a hint of sweetness. Described as "easy drinking" but with an offer of "good flavor and aroma," one panelist suggested that this would be a good pairing with food due to its light hint of flavor.
Beginner beer, anyone?
Battered Boar Chucks Pumpkin Ale
In the grand scheme of pumpkin offerings, I personally think a pumpkin-flavored beer is brilliant. That being said, some disagree and outright despise a flavor born for pie-making and bread-baking mixed into a frothy, hoppy brew.
This bottle of Chucks Pumpkin Ale caused a bit of excitement when the top was popped -- it literally began gushing and filled the air with an immediate spice aroma, hinting mostly at cinnamon and nutmeg scents. The golden orange hue was to be expected but the head was thinner than most ales. The initial spew is a likely culprit for the lack of head.
Our panel was split on the overall representation. While a sweet and spicy pumpkin, full of flavor was the general consensus, there were a couple of pumpkin-bashers present. For those who welcomed the flavorful froth, it was noted as having a slight taste of pecans in the finish and lingering spice in the nose.
Chuck's should probably be left for those who enjoy the bold taste of fall erupting in your mouth.
Another German brewery, Paulaner makes a full-bodied seasonal brew that proved to be a favorite among the European beers for some panelists.
A "clear golden color" filled the glasses and was topped with a thin white head which left minimal lacing. The aroma was a sweet malt scent that hinted at nuts, but the flavor provided more of a butterscotch and caramel suggestion.
Paulaner's Oktoberfest gave a good showing to the panel but was generally described as smelling better than it tasted. One bartender described it as "a touch of Christmas..."
Samuel Smithís Organic Best Ale
English Pale Ale
Tadcaster, United Kingdom
For the many types, flavors and styles of beer, it seems, somehow, that they should all be organic -- ingredients sprouting from the earth, naturally fermenting, and such. Instead, it takes purposeful effort to concoct a brew of organic origins.
Smith's straw-yellow ale poured a bit cloudy and presented with a small, off-white head that had low retention and no lacing. Several panelists described the nose as "caramel apple," providing a sweet initial encounter.
The flavor was portrayed as "earthy," giving the ale a "bitter" and "dirty" flavor, but left the palate with a "caramel finish." "Good flavor overall," though the "tartness" left one of our panelists nearly speechless -- "I wasn't sure how to feel..."
Newcastle Brown Ale
English Brown Ale
Edinburgh, United Kingdom
One of the more well-known brews in our tasting, Newcastle Brown Ale gave some of our panelists wings, while others were left looking for the metaphoric lifeboat.
The dark copper colored brew poured a thin tan head with no retention. A "thin malt" and "hop" on the nose left some panelists expecting a bolder showing. "Light" in several aspects seemed to be the buzz-word for this British brew.
One sipper noted that this lighter version of a standard brown ale would likely be a good "stepping stone" for those beer drinkers looking to branch out of the Bud-box.
The finish left something of a "malt caramel flavor" and was described as having a "nice clean balance."
"If Newcastle was a woman, I would make love to her for as long as she would let me," came from the pen of one UTW panelist.
Rogue Double Mocha Porter
Rogue Brewery is a suiting name for the flavorful brew-making that pushes the limits of common beer flavors. A porter by name, the Double Mocha serves an extra heap of hops providing a delicate balance with the dark chocolate blend.
A dark brown pour with caramel-colored head, the "earthy chocolate" nose sensation lingered into the flavor. This rebellious brew left a "medium-body" feel in the mouth and the mocha/dark chocolate finish was generally expected to be sweeter.
Mad River Steelhead Scotch Porter
Blue Lake, Calif.
A medium-to-dark brown color, Mad River's porter retained a slight head and had a "very clean aroma" with a "slight peat" on the nose. The peat and wood flowed onto the palate, joined by cocoa flavoring and "roasted malt notes."
The medium-bodied beer gave a robust kick in the finish and was described as "slightly boozy." Despite the strong taste of alcohol, this porter was a favorite among the panelists with comments such as, "good balance for a port," "balanced and easy to drink" and "fantastic."
This brew left more of a creamy feeling in the mouth, as opposed to a froth and maintained its' dry nature despite the strong alcohol tones.
A strong contender in the beer nerd universe.
Not a traditional Oktoberfest, Erdinger mixes it up with a wheat rendition of the fall-inspired beer. A cool, summery, "cloudy straw"-like appearance left a thick white head that seemed to levitate on the glass.
The bready aroma immediately sent some panelists into a fit of Oktoberfest shoulda-coulda-wouldas, but they recanted their rants (mostly) once the "caramel and honey" flavors joined the "wheat smoothness."
The "bread and biscuit" aroma provided clear intentions for the expected taste, though once the beer had moved toward the back of the palate, there was a "slight hop and honey finish."
The wheat Oktoberfest still left some panelists in a bit of a daze but when reviewed on individual standards, the beer was dubbed, "overall -- nice."
Lindemans Faro Lambic
Ahh, Belgium. Another country that knows their brews well and usually manages to tip the scale for the better in the beer-making world.
This golden brown faro hit the nose with "brown sugar...and sour" tones. The initial flavor gave way to "tartness followed by candied sugar and rose petals." Our panelists took their time dissecting this brew, pulling out numerous flavors including "Granny Smith apples."
The "perfect balance of the candy sugar and fruitiness" left most panelists with a "tart" taste that they raved about. The texture of the beer felt "a bit gritty" and was compared in some ways to cider. Lindemans Faro Lambic was a homerun for nearly all the players. One panelists writing, "Some will find the sourness of this beer off-putting, but those people were raised in broken homes and probably don't vote in elections. An awesome beer. Period."
San Francisco, Calif.
The porters have had a strong showing thus far but Anchor's rendition is quickly described as "just what a porter should be," pouring into the glass with a medium body and light-to-dark brown appearance.
When the top was popped, the cacao nibs (pieces of the cocoa bean), caramel and licorice flavors filled the nose. An early shock of flavor toned down once the "dry malty" sensation set in. The taste of alcohol made the porter "a bit astringent," creating a "dry mouth feel" after the initial chocolate flavor.
A balance of hop and bitterness is important to the porter and Anchor manages to achieve this "throughout."
Gordon Biersch M‰rzen
San Jose, Calif.
The Oktoberfest brewed in California caught the panel by surprise. A perfect "copper" and "dark gold" color, Gordon Biersch poured a "light tan head" with "nice head retention and lacing fresh."
"Baked bread and spice" on the nose, the beer hit the senses with "balanced" and "perfect combination" qualities. The "sweet malt and slight hop" finish, coupled with a velvety texture, left most of the panel in beer-wonder.
One panelists wrote, "Is it possible that the best Oktoberfest style is made not in Germany, but in California?"
Marshall Oktoberfest Lager
The hometown boys hit it out of the ballpark this year with a "medium golden color" pour that produced a white head with little retention and lacing. The panelists weren't surprised at the cloudiness since Marshall's doesn't filter their beer.
The malty nose was noticeable but a little light for a traditional Oktoberfest. "A nice full mouth feel" gave the beer a little more breadth. The flavor was "nutty" with a tinge of "coffee" and was described by one panelist as more of a porter flavor with "a lighter finish." Some of our panelists were looking for more of a malty flavor in their Oktoberfest but agreed that for what was presented, the T-Town crew did a good job.
Dark Truth Stout
American Double/Imperial Stout
Kansas City, Mo.
This little regional brewery is known for their sweet summer wheat but branched out under an alias for the stout season. Dark Truth hails from Kansas City's Boulevard Brewery and produced a well-received, "rich," "deep" beer.
A mocha "coffee color with full dark, tan head" filled the glasses, giving off a "coffee and dark fruit" nose. Described as "beautifully opaque," this stout was a hit with our panel. The flavor exuded roasted English malts, which "provides a deep rich texture." This beer was the brew that just kept on giving -- after the initial "bitter" taste, a "juxtaposition of flavor" erupted with a "citrus" and "smoky" finish.
Imperial stouts aren't known for a smooth texture but Dark Truth produced a "pleasant mouth feel." A little heavy on the alcohol taste, our team of beer nerds concluded that this will be a beer to keep tasting as it "will be better in a few years."
Ayinger Oktober Fest-M‰rzen
A medium "golden color" pour produced a white head with "excellent" retention and "great lacing." A sweet malty aroma with a touch of honey beckoned further. "Smooth and balanced with very little hop presence" introduced a "light" and "fruit" taste. Ayinger Oktober Fest seemed to fluctuate between a sweet and bitter flavor while serving a constant hint of malt. There was a little "hop kick" before the "smooth, sweet finish." A light carbonation gave the brew a "bubbly," "effervescent" texture with a sweet and light finish.
"People [who] prefer a slightly less malty Oktoberfest style have found their beer."
Left Hand Fade to Black Volume 2
The porter taking home the top spot is Fade to Black's "thick," coffee colored Baltic. The dark tan head rested on top of the pour with mild retention and there was a "liquid smoke" aroma that filled the nose. A touch of "roasted malts" wafted after the initial smoky inhale. The flavor screamed "coffee right off the bat" and a good chocolate bitterness followed.
Fade to Black Volume 2 had a "velvet mouth feel" and a sweet, touch of toffee finish. "Anything nice I said about the previous porters, I would like to retract. This beer just dominated them."
Rogue Chocolate Stout
Calling all chocolate lovers who happen to be serious beer drinkers -- Rogue gave the best showing of a stout brew for our panel of experts.
As expected, the pour was "dark brown," almost "black" with a "thin caramel head with good lacing and retention." The smell was "perfect," offering "tons of chocolate, browning and cocoa." "Hershey syrup" came to one panelist's mind. The flavor mimicked the smell with "chocolate brownie, caramel and pecans."
A "faint coffee" aftertaste was followed with a "smooth finish." The bitter and sweet produced a perfect balance so that Rogue was "not so sweet" that it was overwhelming.
Germany takes home the UTW gold in the category of Oktoberfest. What were you expecting?
A "deep gold to light copper" brew with "good head retention" and "mild lacing" was described as "beautiful." Our boys and girls really like their beer.
The "malty nose" was coupled with "candied sugar" and "clove" for just the right amount of spice. The taste was "sweet and roasty" but allowed room for ample hops. A "medium mouth feel" gave the beer a good body balance and it had a "spicy finish."
"You'd be hard pressed to find a better Oktoberfest than this."
Of course, the brew that swept the panel goes to Belgium's dessert beer. You can't go wrong with raspberries.
A "ruby" and "dark rose" color pour with a "small pink head," the Framboise exploded with "loads of raspberries and tartness." The flavor, though bursting with raspberries, had a hint of "sour," making the beer "sweet, but surprisingly easy to drink multiple glasses" of. The finish was a bit tart but "not so strong that it will knock you on your fanny."
One panelist suggested combining this brew with the aforementioned Rogue Chocolate Stout for a sweet, chocolate treat. Raspberries, coffee and chocolate? Without hesitation, a few UTW participants dove head first into the bittersweet delight -- it was perfect.
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