Monthly Archives: May 2012

Driftwood Bird Of Prey: Flanders Red

Apparently the first of a series of sour Belgian-style beers, Driftwood released their one-year-oak-aged (American & French Wine Oak) Flanders red last fall. If you’re unaware of this style of beer, lambics are sour, acidic, wine-like beers that have undergone spontaneous fermentation/re-fermentation through exposure to wild yeasts and bacteria, particularly saccharomyces, lactobacillus, and brettanomyces. These bacteria, while not causing any ‘harm’ — toxicity — to the beers, degrade the consistency of the liquid, causing it to impart a ridiculous amount of flavour. The complexity of lambic, or lambic style beers, is unparalleled.

Their are many styles of lambics: geuze, which is a blend of young (1 year) and old (3 years or more) lambics; faro, a blend of lambic and freshly brewed beer; kriek, a lambic where sour cherries have been added and the beer undergoes spontaneous re-fermentation within the bottle; and several others, including other fruit added variations, are also considered lambics . Technically, Belgian sours such as Flanders red and Flanders brown, also known as Oud Bruin, are not lambics; they are traditionally produced in a different area of Belgium — West Flanders — use indigenous bacteria to that region, and may use a different strain of malt, such as red malt for Flanders Red. Comparing Flanders red and traditional lambics, such as geuze, is like comparing Cognac and Armagnac — essentially it’s the same thing. In the end, all undergo spontaneous fermentation; all are sour; all are aged in oak barrels; all utilize wild yeasts and bacteria; and all Belgian sours, despite having a similar effect on the palate, are intricate, complex, and, ultimately, unique.

– Kamran

*****

When I first had this Flanders red, I was still a novice when it came to sour beers. I had just recently grown accustom to their flavours, but I still wasn’t fully enveloped in the world of lambics. The Driftwood Bird Of Prey Flanders Red is the beer that put me over that edge. Ever since tasting this delectable beer, brewed by my second favourite Vancouver craft brewery, I have looked for lambic or lambic style beers everywhere, and each time I see them on tap — Alibi Room serves Storm Brewing’s Flanders Red as well as a seasonal Oud Bruin from Ian Hill, the Brewmaster at Yaletown Brewing — I jump for joy, knowing I will get to try an incredibly complex, highly flavourful, and relatively obscure beer.

When it comes to aesthetic appreciation, of anything of perceptible qualities, even beer, I believe that one must familiarize oneself with the medium and formal intricacies of the work. I typically discuss this notion when referring to art, such as music or film (see my film blog: Aesthetics Of The Mind), but I believe the same fundamental notion applies when it comes to taste as well. From a cognitive perspective, it seems that once one has experienced a particular impulse a few times, it becomes easier for synapses to get the message across clearly — something like muscle memory. So, familiarizing yourself with something, especially something as complex as a lambic-style beer, makes it more approachable, and ultimately, more pleasant. In the end, one may cultivate an appreciation for something that first appeared disturbing; one’s mind just needed to break it down, simplify it, and make it understandable.

That said, if you’ve tried a lambic or Flanders red before, and didn’t like it, keep trying. Some people frown at the saying, “you just don’t get it” — it appears condescending — but sometimes it’s appropriate. And it’s not a negative thing, it simply means you’re missing out on what makes this thing great. I know, personally, that sour beers are a taste one cultivates; they grew on me.

Now, to the review. Driftwood’s Bird Of Prey: Fanders Red opens with a strong tartness. A reason many may not get into sour beers is that they don’t let themselves experience anything more than the tartness. Amidst this acidic flavour though, are notes of yeast, barnyard, sour fruit, sweet fruit, sour candy — think cherry warheads — oak, orange peels, wildflowers and bacteria — think rotten fruit or moldy bread, but in a pleasant way, complemented by acidity (yes, I’m serious).

The level of sourness differs between all the styles, and even within particular styles; Driftwood’s Flanders red is certainly highly sour, but not extraordinarily so. The sourness is not overwhelming, and I actually find tamer lambics quite boring, so Driftwood basically hit the nail on the head with this one. Despite the sourness, which makes it more of a sipping beer, it’s quite light and easy on the palate. Though I never got to do it with this particular beer, I have had several instances at Albi Room where I drank sour beers all night without tiring of them. While the tartness remains, the level of acid makes the finish extremely crisp. It’s kind of like the crisp finish that a highly bitter IPA imparts, except with a remaining sensation of sour sweetness rather than bitterness — quite an appealing pleasantry. I really wish I had realized it at the time and bought a case while it was available.

Nose: 24
Body: 23.5
Taste: 24.5
Finish: 24

Kamran: 96 pts. 

*****

Well what’s left to be said after an expose like that?!?! Lambic 101 and a review! I’ll keep this short and sweet. This was my first foray into lambic beers and by God did it make a damn fine impression. Even when I first tasted this beer I noted, “a privilege to drink!”, and to the others agreed. While I applaud some of the other lambics available in Vancouver, as mentioned by Kamran, Driftwood’s still stands out as a memorable beer.

The nose was appealing and similar to Belgians I had had before (sweet, fruity, even citrussy), but unique unto itself. From the scent alone you could not determine this beer was packing a sourness to it. The body too had a nice mix of sourness and floral belgian fruity combinations that tickled the tongue. It was not overpowering and a nice light consistency.

The taste was “zingy” as my notes recorded. In finish, the beer lingers slightly over a brief period (I wished it would last longer), but is light and makes you wish you could open another once the bottle is finished.

Overall this beer put me on the path to try other lambics, which are my favourite variety of Belgian beer. I do hope that Bird of Prey will return again later in 2012 but somehow I feel I shouldn’t set my hopes too high on that as sources say this was a one-off production. I’m just glad I could get my hands on it!

Nose: 25
Body: 23
Taste: 24
Finish: 22

Tristan: 94 pts.

*****
Final Average: 95 pts.

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Tree Spiced Reserve

During the holiday season, Tree Brewing, a relatively-larger-but-still-craft brewery from Kelowna releases their Spiced Reserve. It is one of only a few products they release in tallboy bottles — what is typically considered part of a Brewmaster special. In the case of their Spiced Reserve, Brewmaster Stefan Buhl uses a variety of Christmas-themed spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and whatever else Buhl throws in on a whim.

Upon first opening, Tree Brewing was larger than your typical craft-brewery. Using shaftebury’s old equipment, and going through several management and ownership changes, they have become larger still. In fact, they are one of few BC craft breweries that have product available across Canada — Ontario in particular. As a result, of course, the quality of their product has lessened to a degree — brewing on a large scale seems to necessarily yield some loss of quality — but I have to give Tree credit where it’s due, since they have managed to expand without losing their characteristic flavour — something I feel Granville Island and Okanagan Spring have all but lost.

– Kamran

*****

Tree Brewing is certainly up there with my favourite craft breweries, despite the fact that I don’t really love any of their beers. While their Hop Head Double IPA — enjoyed on tap at the alibi room, since it’s not bottled — is my favourite, I am quite pleased but rather indifferent to the rest of their beers. I think the Cutthroat Pale Ale, Thirst Beaver Amber Ale, and Kelowna Pilsner, although not ostensibly ‘great’, are some of the best everyday beers out there, and, in tallboy form, some of the most economical as well.

The Spiced Reserve opens up with a strong spice character. Under its copper-brown hue lies a myriad of holiday flavours; notes of various spices, such as nutmeg, clove, and pepper, amidst a robust floral-citrus hop profile come clear on the nose. Although there is a reasonable amount of hops, there is a sufficient amount of malt to balance the flavours; in fact, in terms of its hop-malt balance, I’d compare the Spiced Reserve to Phillips Double Dragon Red Ale, a seasonal that attempts to perfectly balance its hops and malts. This feat gives the beer much richness, but the body is still rather light and smooth.

The spices are quite abundant, but not too overwhelming. Still, because of the spices, I wouldn’t want to drink more than one of these. Nutmeg and cinnamon, I would say, are the most liberally spiced, while the beer finishes with a long, slightly bitter, cinnamon-hop aftertaste.

Nose: 20.5
Body: 19.5
Taste: 20
Finish: 21.5

Kamran: 81.5 pts.

*****

Well as I may have stated before, I’m not the biggest fan of overly bitter beers…. Combined with spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg, two things I tolerate sparingly, this beer was doomed from the moment of pouring. That might be a slight exaggeration, but still I felt a little let down by this beer.

The nose was initially malty, with the spices and hops aromas. In body it was bitter and not so smooth. It had a malty sweetness to taste  that was not unappealing, but nothing special in my opinion. The finish was short lived and consisted of spices and hops.

Unlike Kamran, I did not fully appreciate this beer. It wasn’t my style. I’m sure other found it great seeing as Tree is a very respectable brewery, who made the best winter ale I’ve ever had, but this sadly was not one I enjoyed. I look forward to trying more of their beers in future, just less bitterness and spice for me please!

Nose: 18
Body: 18
Taste: 18
Finish: 15

Tristan: 69 pts.

*****

Final Average: 75.25 pts.

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Ebulum Elderberry Ale

Last in our Historic Ales Of Scotland collection from Williams Brothers. This review came later than the others since, considering how dark it is — Guinness black! — we tasted it later in the evening. As you ought to know now from what we’ve said about the Williams Brothers collection, it uses a specific historical ingredient — one which was used for centuries of beer fermentation before it inexplicably ceased. In this case, elderberries are used!

– Kamran

*****

The nose is quite inviting. As one would expect of a dark beer, it’s relatively malty, making it fairly sweet; however, complementing the sweet malt smell are notes of fruit — elderberries, blackberries, blackcurrants, etc.. Moreover, the beer must be using roasted malt, because there are notes of coffee and burnt chocolate. This is typical of stouts and porters, but a beer need not be a stout or porter to contain roasted malt. These flavours likewise fall on the palate, with notes of blackberries — probably elderberries too, but I don’t recognize them as well — and roasted malt being the clearest expression of the beer’s unique character. While I initially found the nose quite profound, the taste blew me away — this is a highly flavourful, well integrated beer.

Although quite dark, even darker than the Big Smoke Ale we just reviewed, it is fairly easy drinking. This is likely why it’s not considered a stout/porter — the body just isn’t there. In other words, there are flavours typical of stouts/porters, but the texture just isn’t there. While I’d prefer a bit more body to it — the flavours deserve some extra substance — it’s refreshing to have such a dark beer that doesn’t weigh you down. The finish is quite long and pleasant; however, after just a few seconds the sweetness instilled by the elderberries — the fresh and fruity sweetness — dies off and leaves only the taste of the malt.

The Ebulum Elderberry Ale is quite delicious, and one of the best beers we have tasted thus far. Also, it’s the beer we have come closest to meeting each other’s scores, with the diversity of our scores being merely a few points apart; this certainly speaks to its approachability, since we clearly have different tastes. While I prefer the Fraoch Heather Ale, the Ebulum Elderberry Ale is a close second from the Williams Brothers. It’s too bad that they don’t release singles of this guy; I’d love to try it again, and I guess I’ll just have to wait until the collection comes back next Christmas.

Nose: 21.5
Body: 20.5
Taste: 23.5
Finish: 21.5

Kamran: 87 pts.

*****

My favourite of the mixer pack, this beer was such a unique surprise that its originality won me over! While I have not had much exposure to elderberries outside of their incorporation into certain bake goods, this beer changed my opinion of them. And it’s not just elderberries, as mentioned by Kamran there are a variety of fruity/berry flavours contained in this dark beer.

The fruity sweet nose is also herbal and malty and frankly the best part of this beer. Only a couple of beers have beat the score I gave for the scent of this beer which says a lot. The darkness of this beer makes it appear to be heavier then it actually is, but in reality it is a smoother less creamy texture than Guinness or other stouts or some porters. However, if asked what type this beer more closely resembled, either a stout or porter, I would have to say it is closer to the latter. The taste of the berries is unmistakable amongst the  malty tones, allowing for a sweet refreshing ale. The finish is not prolonged. It is smooth and almost chocolaty from a roasted malt, yet simultaneously herbal. A unique and enjoyable combination.

This beer is more than a one-off. It’s complex, smooth and it’s memorable! Good for a session ale with friends, it further proves that not all black coloured beers need be “liquid bread” and super filling.  I look forward to its return in Canadian stores.

Nose: 24
Body: 20.5
Taste: 21.5
Finish: 20

Trisan: 86 pts.

*****

Final Average: 86.5

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Storm Brewing/Russell Brewing Big Smoke Ale

This limited release collaboration beer between Storm Brewing and Russell Brewing has been around for just a few months. Producing one of the first of a slew of collaboration beers that have been released over the past several months, brewmasters Jack Bensley (Russell Brewing) and James Walton (Storm Brewing) are pioneering a kinsman-like spirit for the Vancouver craft beer community.

The name Big Smoke is derived from its unique approach to beer fermentation: using peated malt! Well, some peated malt — 10% to be exact. If you’re unaware, peat is vegetation that is primarily used in Scotland to dry barley malt. This technique, using peat fires, is especially used in Islay single malts, and gives it that characteristic vegetal flavour — grass, moss, dust, dampness, etc.. It’s a little difficult to describe, but quite obvious once you’ve tried a peated whisky. Because of its association with drying of the malt in peat fires, peat flavours often come in tandem with a smoky quality. Peat is, in fact, often mistaken for smoke; truth is, while these two aspects typically come hand in hand, they are not inextricable — there are some very smoky, lightly peated whiskies, as well as some highly peated, lightly smoked whiskies, but this is all relative.

When it comes to beer, peated malt is unusual, but can be quite the pleasantry for a whisky drinker. Some other peated beers include Unibroue’s Raftman, Williams Brothers Fraoch Heather Ale — where the peat and heather come in part from the water sources of Scotland, and, though not actually using peat, (whisky) barrel aged beers — Phillip’s Double Barrel Scotch Ale, Driftwood’s Singularity etc. — tend to give off some peat flavour. Besides the peat, the Big Smoke is a heavy, malty, thick, dark, high percentage beer; a true sipping beer that’s not for the faint of heart.

– Kamran

*****

Amidst the light, effervescent peat smoke aroma is a solid malt backbone. As a single-malt enthusiast who loves his peaty scotches — Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Ileach, etc. — I was rather disappointed that the peat does not shine through as much as I’d hoped. In fact, the malt all but overwhelms the notes of peat. That said, with careful concentration, one may extract moments where peat instilled flavonoids connect with one’s receptors. The feeling is quite pleasant, however, this is much too much work, and I don’t want to have to pay such careful attention to access the best parts of a beer; these parts should be the forefront of the beer.

While the body is enjoyably creamy, the beer is quite heavy. You certainly don’t want to be drinking more than one of this tallboy bottle badboy. Though not considered a stout, it reaches certain stout-like parameters — heaviness, thickness (the definition of stout), and darkness. While the malty taste is excellent — especially the initial flavour — it does not last; the finish, while retaining the taste of alcohol, loses its sweet malt flavours.

All things considered, the Big Smoke is an exceptional beer, and while not fitting for all occasions, there are some instances — perhaps while sitting in front of a fire on a cold night — where it would be perfect. So, don’t miss out on it while it’s still around!

Nose: 20.5
Body: 21
Taste: 23
Finish: 21.5

Kamran: 86 pts.

*****

As you can tell, Kamran has left little room for expansion on this particular beer; I suppose he really enjoyed it!  Just along the basics of this beer then, I found it to be one of the best beers we had that night.

The nose was a rich malt that, while stronger than the peat notes, was still an enticing factor to salivate for this beer. The body was a thick and heavy combination that went down creamy and smooth, much like certain stouts. The taste was naturally malty and slightly peaty to my senses, but it also possessed a slightly cocoa-like flavour. The finish is a brief encounter to say the least. It fades rather fast for my liking, but it is a smooth malty presence that is enjoyable prior to dissipation.

This beer is one I’ve had on a couple of occasions since the tasting, and I have to say, it is a nice treat to have and even share late at night. Well done Russell/Storm, but you’ve now set a high standard for any future collaborations!!!

Nose: 21
Body: 24
Taste: 22
Finish: 20

Tristan: 90 pts.

*****

Final Average: 88 pts.

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Beer Reviewer’s Lament

Unfortunately, we have all-but-lost one of our contributors. Our friend, James, has gone to England for an indeterminable amount of time. As a result, he, of course, will not be able to join us for tastings, or even access the majority of (Vancouver Craft) beers that we will be imbibing. James has agreed to continue contributing as a solo reviewer, guest writing on some of the beers and spirits he may taste there.

In a way, this may benefit the site. We have not been entirely productive, especially in the last few weeks, and a major cause of this is in coordinating three people — both for tastings and reviews. From now on, since there will just be the two of us, Tristan and myself,  you may confidently expect a higher level of activity and enthusiasm. At least until July 4 when I leave for Europe.

Rather than saving drafts and publishing only once all reviews have been written — a feature which has certainly slowed us down — we will now post as soon as one of us has written our review. This should give you something to engage yourself with, as well as indicate that another review — written by the other person — will arrive soon. With two people rather than three, the game of catch-up should be quicker, and we will more easily be able to motivate each other.

Thanks for visiting the site, and expect plenty of reviews to come soon!

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