by Evan Hernandez and Paul Deines
We return, as promised, to Firestone Walker and the Proprietor’s Reserve Series. For those who haven’t read Part 1, this series is consists of the esteemed Paso Robles brewery’s most beloved barrel-aged ales. Yearly, local vintners compete to create the tastiest blend of these beers, which is bottled as the annual Anniversary Ale. This week, we’ll tackle two more Proprietor’s Reserve brews and the 2014 anniversary blend.
I’m joined by frequent Curiograph contributor Evan Hernandez, who will offer his two cents on a much-revered ale in the Firestone Walker catalogue. But first, I review of one of the more opulent Proprietor’s beers:
Stickee Monkee (Belgian Quadrupel Ale, 13.4% ABV, 2014 Vintage) My first Imbibliography article was about Westvleteren 12, that most storied of Trappist quads. I love a good quadrupel ale, but only on special occasions. They’re big, mash-intensive brews, and their high ABVs are as prohibitive as their MSRPs. So, it’s a dangerous proposition to see what a year in bourbon and brandy barrels might do to one.
Stickee Monkee pours the same burgundy as a traditional quad, though a little darker than your Westy, Rochefort or St. Bernardus. The nose is dominated by vanilla extract and brown sugar. There’s a little fig and plum, but mostly the Monkee smells like a particularly smoky bourbon. I note on first sip that this isn’t far removed from the bourbon-y barleywines in Firestone Walker’s catalogue. Yes, there’s a stronger raisin presence, but overall we’re talking Russell Stover butterscotch. To my taste, Stickee Monkee is too sugary to be enjoyable. A quad is already larded with malt, heavy on candi sugar, and spiked by tangy yeast, so to then age it in bourbon and brandy barrels seems, well, excessive. Monkee might be too decadent for Caligula.
In recent weeks, I’ve been able to enjoy a few glasses of the FW’s barrel-aged blonde barleywine Helldorado. I didn’t take any notes on it (hence not reviewing it here), but it’s a good counterbalance to Stickee Monkee. Both are spirit-tinged strong ales. But whereas Monkee has an impenetrable raw molasses quality, Helldorado is mellow, both in its dusky straw complexion and its bread-and-toffee flavor. Helldorado’s more to my taste, but as they say: you mileage may vary.
Now, Curiograph all-star Evan Hernandez contends with the most popular of Firestone Walker’s barleywines.
§ucaba (English Barleywine, 13.5% ABV, 2014 Vintage) If a §ucaba is set in front of you, you would be forgiven for mistaking it for a glass of Coca Cola. The appearance is identical, but the smell instantly dispels that illusion. The distinct fragrance is rich, and yes, a touch sugary in a dark cocoa sort of way. Then there is a whiff (dare I say, a draft?) of alcohol to warn you a kick to the head is contained within. Minimal foam, rich caramel color, it screams delicious. There's a pleasant tingle of carbonation, even on the first sip. The flavor – roasted coffee, more chocolate, caramelized sugar... bourbon. And yet, it remains light and thoroughly sippable. This is a first rate dessert beer. No question. It resembles an alcoholic milkshake. Try it with something salty for a nice contrast and do yourself a favor: share the bottle. (EH)
(Editor’s Note: For anyone wondering about §ucaba’s curious name, here’s the origin. This ale started life as Abacus, but Firestone Walker found themselves in a name dispute with a winemaker. So, they reversed the name and changes the S to a nifty §. Moving on …)
Firestone XVIII Ale (Blended Strong Ale, 13.0% ABV, 2014 Vintage) I’ve had the fortune of enjoying several Firestone Walker’s Anniversary ales. Each year is a different beer, though as I’m sure you’ve noticed, the Proprietor’s Reserve series hews heavy on barleywines. Not surprisingly, the anniversary ales I’ve tried have been barleywine-esque. But the 2014 blend – created by Russell From and Philip Muzzy of Herman Story Wines – leans hard on Parabola, a Russian Imperial Stout. In fact, Parabola and Velvet Merkin (Oatmeal Stout) constitute 42% of the melange, the rest being mostly composed of Helldorado, Stickee Monkee and a bourbon aged brown ale called Bravo.
So, XVIII has the same impenetrable black visage as Parabola and Merkin, with only a fleeting cappuccino head. The smell is nutty Max Brenner cocoa, with tempering notes of marshmallow and leather. The barleywine comes through on the tongue, though, which finds plum and dark cherry fighting hard against the brownie batter. Other notes include burnt toffee, lemon and cloves. Nutella lingers on the tongue, matching this brew’s viscous, sticky consistency. All very tasty, but like the other anniversaries I’ve tried, there’s a Frankenstein-ed quality to it. This ale is, in the end, less than the sum of its parts.
I mean, there’s no such thing as a bad Proprietor’s beer. And, of course, the brewer will keep innovating and building on an already stellar repertoire. That said, if you, dear reader, are looking for an entry point, I’d urge you to start with one of the component ales before the anniversary blends. I mean, don’t go turning down an anniversary ale if it’s offered. I’m just saying I’ve yet to have one that can match a Parabola, a §ucaba or a Double DBA. And there are other entries that I’ve yet to try, many of the brewery-only releases. Helldorado, mentioned above, is seeing distribution, but I hear wonderful things about the buckwheat stout PNC (no longer bottled) and the coffee-infused Parabajava (sold out almost immediately at the release).
And that’s not even mentioning this brewer’s amazing shelf repertoire, which includes exemplar IPAs, stouts, bitters and pilsners. Oh, and they have a dedicated sour ale offshoot brewery. So, I’m giving you all an assignment: go to the nearest place selling an FW beer (they distribute to about half the country) and grab yourself a sampler. You cannot possibly be disappointed.
Also, Evan and I will be back in the coming days with a dual review of two Oscar-season films. Stay tuned!