Monday, August 1, 2016

Great Exbeeriences

The last thing I would want is for Confessions of a Middle Aged Adolescent to focus extensively on my pursuit of exotic potables, but two consecutive weekends have seen a significant alignment of friendship and beer, so I feel compelled to share them.

Last weekend, our friends Shari and Dave in Red Deer invited us to join them on a Central Alberta brewery tour, since both households were temporarily child-free. I love beer, Audrey loves to travel and was willing to be our designated driver, so away we went.

Our first stop was Olds College, which was a visit overflowing with revelations, including:

I had a pint of their Prairie Gold IPA to complement my bbq beef on a pretzel bun, and it was absolutely delightful; crisp, sharp, and able to hold its own against the sweet and smoky onslaught of the Jack Daniels-based barbecue sauce. At 6.5%, it was just the thing for a one-and-done meal accompaniment.

Afterwards we strolled over to the taproom, where we were graciously offered a small sample of all the taps. Shari got one of her growlers filled there, but I held off, picking up a bomber bottle of their Little Sure Shot saison.

I handed the keys off to Audrey, and from there we were off to Lacombe, and Blindman Brewing. Blindman has had some kegs up in Edmonton that I have tried at Sherbrooke, but was looking forward to seeing what they had in their range.

Blindman Brewing is way out in an industrial park, as is common for microbreweries, with a sun drenched deck that was just beginning to fill up on an almost cloudless Saturday afternoon. Being a pasty sort whose relationship with our life-giving solar orb is best described as 'troubled', I suggested we sit inside instead.

They've done a pretty good job converting the retail front end of their brewery into a rough-hewn but tidy, wood-appointed brewpub, with flourescent lights cleverly hidden between 2 x 6's suspended from the ceiling. They offer flights of beer, four 3-oz. pours of your choice, served on a barrel stave.

Our hosts were already planning on picking up the eponymous Blindman River Session Ale to serve with dinner, so we opted for the more adventurous taps: Saison Lacombe: Été, Kettle Sour #4, a Cascadian Dark Ale, and Robust Porter. The sour beers are a mixed bag with me, generally, and the saison was all right. The Cascadian Dark Ale was extremely tasy and the Robust porter was absolutely fantastic; very dark, a little sweet, but with the roasted malts helping to balance things out nicely. I ended up getting a growler full of this beauty, and will do so again at the earliest opportunity.

After that it was back to Red Deer for the last three breweries on our list. Well, perhaps it is better to say two-and-a-half, since Something Brewing and Drummond come from the same place, and that place was a bit depressing, Less of a taproom and more of a straight-up drinking establishment in an industrial park, our server was completely perplexed as to how she could accommodate us wanting to try the four different microbrews, until one of the brewers who happened to be on hand patiently explained that she could simply pour each can into three smaller glasses.

We tried their Willy Wit (wheat ale), Darkside Schwarzbier, Gimme That Nutt Brown Ale, and their Hop Bomb IPA, and they are all solid brews, although it was disappointing that we couldn't get them on tap. Their brewer was kind enough to give us a tour, but made no bones about the fact that the place is primarily set up to produce mass quantities of economy lagers.

With our expectations lowered significantly, we toddled off to our final stop of the day: Troubled Monk. And were delighted.

First of all, the small taproom and brewpub is clean, bright, and nicely appointed, with a mural depicting the namesake friar taking up one of the walls.

Secondly, the staff were excellent, cheerfully explaining how their flights worked: 4 core beers, and 1 wild card off the chalkboard. I was saddened to discover that we had just missed the end of an ale aged in whiskey barrels, but on their suggestion tried their Berliner Weisse, with homemade woodruff syrup added. Shari tried the same beer, but with raspberry.

Lastly, the beers were excellent. Troubled Monk's Golden Gaetz lager is a solid example of a run-of-the-mill beer you can serve to your friends still weaning themselves of off corporate macrolagers, while their Open Road Brown Ale is one of the best examples of the style I have ever encountered, and soon filled my second growler.

The Berliner Weisse is a bit of an odd duck, having a very subtle and slightly sour flavour of its own, and is traditionally augmented by something like the woodruff syrup I sampled, an aromatic distillation of the herb sweetscented bedstraw (gallium odoratum). When I asked the server what woodruff tasted like, she said, "Well, to me it tastes like Christmas: there's vanilla, hints of cinnamon-"

"Sold!" I interrupted. Sure enough, the smooth and slightly sour taste of the largely wheat Berliner complemented the sweet and savoury woodruff syrup delightfully. I traded sips with Shari and found her raspberry beer equally compelling, and with it's lower ABV, I could see this beer being an excellent summer quencher.

This was also Audrey's favourite stop, as they also brew their own craft sodas on the premises, and as our designated driver, she got a pint of Troubled Monk's small-batch ginger ale for free. We also had some dried sausages from a local deli, and a cheese platter featuring three varieties of gouda from the renowned Sylvan Star cheesery.

After we'd finished our flights and demolished the food, one of the staff offered us a very comprehensive and enthusiastic tour. Despite my knowing very little about the science or business of brewing, I couldn't help but be captivated by Neil's optimism and obvious love for the topic. Things are going pretty well for Troubled Monk, but their success hasn't dampened any of their penchant for experimentation. They are now getting into barrel aging some of their beers, including an IPA aged in a tequila barrel that I cannot wait to try!

Spending an afternoon with friends this way was absolutely tremendous, and reflecting back on all we had seen over dinner at their place was a perfect cap to a wonderful day.

This weekend saw us visiting our friends Jim and Carol in Calgary, brought on in part by our desire to re-visit OEB for brunch and some Soul-in-a-Bowl. I brought along the Robust Porter from Blindman, but Jim had something extra-special in mind, libation-wise; something he described as the 'most sparkly of unicorns' in the world of highly sought-after beers.

While dinner cooked, and we enjoyed the porter, he brought forth a gleaming coppery container, cunningly modeled after a brewing kettle, and announced it as being the 2013 edition of Sam Adams Utopias. He handed me the descriptive tag, and laughed as my jaw dropped.

The copy described an ale that straddles the line between beer and spirit, boasting an astonishing alcohol by volume of 27%. A beer not only aged in whisky barrels from Buffalo Trace bourbon, but also port barrels, and even incorporates a wild ale aged in oaken Hungarian tuns.

To say I was intrigued would be a gross understatement, and after dinner, I stood spell bound as Jim opened the bottle and invited me to smell this unearthly nectar. Rich and sweet, punctuated with a yeasty tang, it smelled like all the best elements of a booze-soaked Christmas cake. Jim carefully poured two servings into bespoke glasses, and after another calibration sniff to ensure I wasn't experiencing an olfactory hallucination, I took a sip.

The darkness and high alcohol content had put me in mind of a Russian Imperial Stout, one of my favourite styles, but this was nothing like that. Utopias is like no other beer I have ever tried.

Utopias is dark and sweet and rich and carries  both the tastes and scents of dark fruit, like raisins, black currants and cherries. The sweetness is offset slightly by the malt character and the high ABV, and it has a finish that lingers on the tongue afterwards like an icewine. As the beer warmed, it grew in complexity, with hints of the bourbon and port barrel aging coming to the fore. As we sipped, I would sometimes shake my head and mutter, "Astonishing!" to no one in particular.

At the risk of overstatement, it was less of a beer, and more of an experience. Certainly, I am unlikely to repeat this experience, given the exclusivity of this particular brew; only 15,000 bottles were made in 2013, and I don't believe any has been bottled since.

I think it is fair to say that the only thing Jim likes better than finding these rarest of brews, is sharing them with other like-minded individuals. He brought a Utopias with him to GenCon last year, and the response was very similar to mine: a mixture of awe, wonder and gratitude.

Beer, to my mind, is a wonderful beverage all on its own, but like so many things, is at its best when it brings people together.

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