At a recent preview tour of the new Monday Night brewery on Atlanta’s Westside, our guide asked whether anyone could name the four basic building blocks of beer. Of course, a whole bunch of hands shot up, and at least one person shouted out the tried-and-true answer: water, malt, hops, yeast.
Nowadays, though, those ingredients are just the bare essentials. In the Belgian tradition, many beers are dosed with candy sugar and flavored with fruit and spices. Or in American extreme fashion, they’re jacked up with chocolate and/or coffee, or inebriated in wine or whiskey barrels.
Casks, once the vessel of English mild session ales, have become a delivery system for all sorts of wild flavors.
Some of the winners at the 2012 Sweetwater Brew Your Cask Off competition were named “Nuttin Butter,” “The Chubby Chocolate Bunny” and “The Elvis Peanut Butter and Banana Porter.” And at the most recent Atlanta Cask Ale Tasting, Sweetwater made “Sad Ending,” an Imperial Stout with Hostess Cupcakes that tasted as advertised.
I don’t have a problem with any of that, really. Being an omnivore, I always get a kick out of challenging my palate with new, different, bold flavors. But often, the old taste buds just get tuckered out and protest: “No mas. Stop with the chile pepper and sweet potato pie beer, now, please.”
This month, a trio of California beers that push the flavor envelope in different directions came my way. What they have in common is a kind of satisfying complexity that doesn’t rely on novelty.
Green Flash Palate Wrecker — This really big hoppy double IPA is stylistically straightforward, though the brewing process is actually quite complicated. It’s mashed and sparged with hopped wort, in addition to layers of Columbus and Centennial hops. The result is a profoundly bitter beer that lives up to its name. Green Flash claims the bitterness was tested at 149 IBU (by comparison, Sierra Nevada Celebration is 65 IBU). I’m not usually up for this kind of hop overkill. But this one seems to work its magic with a big caramel malt backbone.
Lagunitas Sucks Brown Shugga’ Substitute Ale — An American strong ale brewed with a four-grain medley of of barley, rye, wheat and oats and dry-hopped, this limited release has a storied history because it was first brewed when Lagunitas didn’t have the capacity to make its popular Brown Shugga’ seasonal. Now it’s a winter staple with a hoppy aroma, fruity almost tangy essence, and piney, resinous flavor. I’ve seen some of the original Brown Shugga’ around lately, too, which is always worth a taste.
21st Amendment Marooned on Hog Island — Oyster stout is a historic style of sweet stout brewed with oyster shells. 21st Amendment’s take is a collaboration with San Francisco’s Hog Island Oyster Co. Made with rolled oats, Carafa, chocolate and wheat malts, plus, of course, oyster shells, it’s an opaque black brew with caramel, chocolate and roasted flavors and a subtle touch of briny minerality in the nose and finish. I have happy memories of eating Hog Island oysters at the Ferry Building market on San Francisco Bay. I’m looking forward to pairing Marooned with some fresh oysters, though I wonder about the sweetness.
— Bob Townsend, AJC Drink blog