The Curiograph - Art, Politics, Craft Beer - A Compendium of Worldly Facts

Art, Film, Literature. Politics and History. And most Importantly: Beer. Paul Deines informs and opines on Marvel and Pasolini, Obama and Edmund Burke, Coors Light and Westvleteren 12. A top to bottom exploration of all that is necessary in life. A Compendium of Worldly Facts

IMBIBLIOGRAPHY - Review: Grimm Rainbow in Curved Air

by Paul Deines

Last year, I wrote about Other Half Brewing, the super-hyped Brooklyn crafter of big IPAs and saisons. In the intervening months, Other Half has gathered steam, and more broadly, the brewing scene in New York keeps getting better. More selection, more experimentation, more excitement. These days, walking into a beer bar in my neighborhood is like dropping by a Harlem jazz hall in the 1940s. Vibrant and sustained brilliance.

At such a bar, I can try ten awesome tap offerings produced within the five boroughs, all likely kegged within the last couple weeks. Call this repping for the home team, but it’s exhilarating, the breadth of solid local products. And there’s a defiance to this boosterism in the midst of a beer-drinking community that deifies rare, limited releases. Who needs Pliny the Younger when I have All Green Everything? Why KBS when there’s BQE?  Forget the cannonball run to Hill Farmstead: just crack a Telekinesis.

That last example is a delicious farmhouse ale from Grimm Artisanal Ales, a gypsy brewer based out of Brooklyn. Founders Joe and Lauren Grimm home-brewed for a decade before deciding to sell their wares in 2013. There’s no Grimm brewing facility, though: the couple produces wort at facilities in western Massachusetts and northern Virginia. Over the last two years, their beers have become mainstays of New York shelves, with striking labels – designed by Gretta Johnson – that often resemble Magic cards as drawn by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Grimm became part of my standard rotation after I purchased a bottle of their robust Baltic Porter, Cassiopeia, at the late, lamented (more in theory than in practice) Eagle Provisions grocery. It’s always exciting, since Grimm is not married to one style or tradition, and they put out a new recipe virtually every month. As Joe told me when I asked him how they decide what’s next: “We consider the season and how the beer will pair with the weather.  Then we do whatever we find exciting and relevant.”

So, as the weather turns warm, they’ve rolled out Rainbow in Curved Air, an easy-drinking sour farmhouse ale, brewed with peaches, fermented with wild yeast, then conditioned on oak and dry hopped. I’ve been on a massive saison kick of late, so this was an easy sell.

Rainbow in Curved Air pours straw gold. Its nose is more earthy than tart, with a lot of wet grass and lemon. Rainbow in Curved Air isn’t particularly sour or particularly fruity. There’s a blast of unripe apple and citrus with the first sip, but the taste is still mustier than I would expect from the label. The peach notes are slighter, more incidental, and tamed by the pronounced hoppy grapefruit pulp on the back-end. My favorite component of Rainbow in Curved Air is how it weighs in your mouth, substantial but still refreshing, with the heavy water quality of a good saison.

It’s unfair to compare Rainbow in Curved Air to something like the stratospherically loved Peche ‘n’ Brett from Logsdon Farmhouse Ales, but that is the most obvious counterpart. Both are farmhouse ales. Both involve wild yeast, oak barrels and peaches. Whereas Peche ‘n’ Brett is a luscious, juicy bomb (in part because of its higher ABV and the peaches being added later in the process), Rainbow has that subdued earthen musk that is unlikely to inspire a cult of devotees.

But, as I’ve protested in the past, not every beer needs to exist as a meal unto itself.

“We are very focused on elegance and crushability with our sours.” Joe says. “They should be drinkable, refreshing.  The acid should be in balance, not melting your face off with vinegar.”

He says he Rainbow in Curved Air is a great hot-day break beer, but I think it cries out for a food pairing. It would be a magnificent mate for a summer salad and some ceviche. I want to eat some shrimp tacos loaded down with cilantro and pico de gallo, and wash them down with this balanced, sweet elixir. That’s the place where this particular ale lives. It’ll never be my favorite saison, but if Grimm brews it again, I’ll grab a few for a picnic.

Which brings me back to where I started: the unprecedented boom in local brewers across this country. The really great thing about this renaissance isn’t resurrecting extinct beer styles or taking market share from AB-InBev. It is that in almost any town in America, there’s a small, scrappy craft brewer close by. Chances are, in fact, there are several. They won’t all be winners, but when you have dedicated craftspeople like Joe and Lauren Grimm providing a fresh, handmade product – well, that kind of access is something beer drinkers haven’t had since before Prohibition. It’s what you call a gift.

RAINBOW IN CURVED AIR (Grimm Artisanal Ales) As stated above, Grimm releases new beers on a generally-monthly basis. Rainbow in Curved Air is still on shelves, but it’s going fast. Bear in mind that Grimm only regularly distributes to New York and Massachusetts, but they do allocate some of their beers to Shelton Brothers, who sprinkle them across the country with no discernable pattern. I’ve seen bottles in Kentucky occasionally, so keep your eyes open.

IMBIBLIOGRAPHY - Review: The Wee Heavy, Times Three

by Paul Deines

Every beer lover has the story of his (occasionally, her) first furtive craft experience. It’s generally something akin to an awkward, sometimes handsy, slow dance at homecoming. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of mine:

I was interning at a regional theatre in central Florida the year after college, and part of this internship involved running the light-board for shows. One night after a performance of a David Ives play, Michael the assistant stage manager – a hulking West Virginian who shot the shit with me about James Bond movies, sitcoms and lefty politics – asked me if I liked beer. The question seemed peculiar: who didn’t like beer? I mean, I could crush some Rolling Rock.

Michael was not talking a pitcher of Bud, of course. Instead, he took me up the road to a craft beer bar called Stubbies. That night and several more over the coming weeks I had my first Abbey Ale, my first Double IPA, my first Lambic, Coffee Stout, Dunkelweizen and on and on and on. The aromas and flavors – dark breads, stewed fruits, campfire, chocolate, meat – were unlike anything I’d had before, and the consistencies: sometimes heavy water, sometimes malted milk. I was staggered by the sheer variety of experiences that could be categorized under beer.

(Sadly, Stubbies shuttered in late 2014, though I’m pleased to read it was an early incubator for Sixpoint Brewing’s Heather McReynolds)

One night, a Scottish ale caught our eyes. It had the nondescript name of Skull Splitter, and we felt compelled to give it a whirl. This thing was thick and sweet: Michael called it the beer equivalent of a milkshake. We each scarfed one down, only to belatedly feel an alcoholic tide wash over our brains. The next morning, we were both a little creaky and agreed that Skull Splitter was the most diabolical beer we’d ever had.

So last month I decided to pick up another bottle, a decade after my first (and last) time drinking it. I was shocked to discover that it was a scant 8.5% ABV. Not light by any stretch, but hardly the booze-bomb I remember it being. I’ve gotten older, of course, and learned to drink a bit. I’ve had substantially higher ABV ales, as well as ones that genuinely have the heft of milkshakes.

Skull Splitter is the flagship ale of Orkey Brewery, one of two Scottish brewers owned and operated by Norman Sinclair since the early-2000s. The brewery has been in operation on the remote northern isle since 1988. Skull Splitter is a Wee Heavy, the biggest and highest-ABV form of the traditional Scottish Ale.

The Scottish style of brewing is a mirror of England’s. England has long delineated its ales – Pales, Old Ales, Barleywines – based on hue and potency. North of Hadrian’s Wall, the Scots similarly categorize based on color and gravity. Their ales lean heavy on black malt, which is steeped alongside crystal and pale malts, so Scottish ales – even at their lightest – are darker than English. They’re also less thoroughly hopped and undergo longer boils to draw out a more sugary toffee taste. The gravity designations were once referred to by their tax levies: 60, 70 and 80 shillings. Skull Splitter would have fallen under 80.

Named, according to the label, “after Thorfinn Einarsson … the 7th Viking Earl of Orkney,” it pours a glassy ruby-amber with a creamy off-white head. There’s a nectary malt nose full of pumpernickel, plum, caramel, orange bitters and cinnamon. The beer tastes of caramel, chai, and raisin. Skull Splitter is actually reminiscent of a Belgian Dubbel. It’s heavy but quite drinkable, hardly the full wallop that felled me at 22.

So, having dispelled my youthful memories of a monster beer, I decided to approach some American-brewed examples of the Wee Heavy. I started with Founders Brewing’s Backwoods Bastard. I’ve talked Founders in previous posts, and Backwoods Bastard is a bourbon barrel-aged version of the brewer’s Dirty Bastard. It’s a limited seasonal offering, like the ballyhooed KBS. Everyone goes crazy for KBS, but many over-it beer nerds insist Bastard is the superior barrel-aged ale. If KBS is The Godfather, Backwoods Bastard is The Conversation. KBS is OK Computer, Bastard The Bends. And so on.

It’s a foggy mahogany ale with a slight tan head. Nutty, with vanilla and butterscotch. For a bourbon barrel-aged ale, there’s not much fruit or smoke in the nose. It tastes lovely and decadent, though: hazelnut, cinnamon-raisin bread, molasses, with finer hints of banana and plum. This is a heavy, hot ale, on par with a stout, and you definitely feel every point of the 10.2% ABV.

I also snagged a couple bottles of Wulver, a similarly barrel-aged ale made by Akron’s Thirsty Dog Brewing Company. Wulver is aged 11 months in bourbon barrels, and it’s currently the top rated Wee Heavy on Beer Advocate. Deep mahogany, it smells of toffee, vanilla, date and worn leather. Smokiness explodes as it hits the tongue, then the taste opens into lots of sweet smoky bourbon, cinnamon toast, fig and a touch of lemon. Lighter than Backwoods Bastard, Wulver is easy drinking, though at 12% it’s as strong as a Wee Heavy gets.

Ten years later, I look back on the night in Stubbie’s when Michael and I drank our first Scottish Ales, and I thought I felt my skull split. Today I’m less enchanted by this style’s booziness than its bready, fruity maltiness. The two American variations on the Wee Heavy are bigger and hotter, and there’s a fine historiographic symmetry to the barrel-aging, for the men who distilled corn-whiskey in Kentucky were the ancestors of Scots-Irish settlers who settled in the Appalachian Hills before there was such a thing as the United States.

It’s a beautiful marriage – one that’s been sanctified at Cigar City, Clown Shoes, AleSmith, and many other brewers – but it’s a little dull. Backwoods Bastard and Wulver taste great, but they’re essentially lighter forms of the equally-hyped barrel-aged Barleywines. They’re enjoyable but a tad derivative. That’s definitely dismissive and probably unfair, I know. I’ll continue drinking Backwoods Bastards a year, but if someone asks me about the Wee Heavy, I’ll probably recommend one that’s never seen the inside of a whiskey barrel.

SKULL SPLITTER (Orkney Brewery) Available year-round where this brewer is distributed, which is pretty much across the whole US. Go to your local bottle shop or specialty food story, and you’re likely to find it.

BACKWOODS BASTARD (Founders Brewing Co.) Available across Founders’ distribution footprint in November. I still see 2014 bottles on the shelves from time to time, but if you don’t have it in your area, there’s only 7 months to wait for the next batch.

WULVER (Thirsty Dog Brewing Company) Available throughout Thirsty Dog’s footprint – primarily the East Coast and New England on a rotating basis. Keep your eyes open.

IMBIBLIOGRAPHY - Review: Fantôme Saison and Hill Farmstead Anna

by Paul Deines

Oh, the saison. God bless the saison.

This beer is a marvel. A table drink, it goes well with just about any meal. I’ve brought big bottles saisons to my last two Thanksgivings: a farmhouse ale for a farmhouse meal. One of my favorite meals of the last few years was at the late-and-not-so-lamented DUMBO restaurant ReBar, a dinner of raw oysters, truffle-and-egg polenta and a couple glasses of Radius from Brooklyn Brewery (also defunct – the beer, not the brewer). Killer combo. And to think the saison was nearly an extinct style as recently as the 1990s: today it’s a staple of any beer seller worth its real estate.

The style originates from the French-speaking Wallonia region of Belgium, and these Walloon drinks are kin to the Gallic bières de gardes. Both styles are the product of agrarian peoples, built from locally-harvested ingredients. They provide refreshment from the heat (saison is French for season, and the season in question is summer) but are sufficiently fortified to last into the cooler months. Gustatorily, saisons are sweet and mealy, spicy and earthy, tart and refreshing. They’re full-bodied but easy-drinking, with mineral-rich water and playful yeast strains that fully attenuate (that is, convert a high percentage of sugars into ethanol) and can impart a puckering wild character.

I wrote about a Crooked Stave saison in 2013, but it’s about time I discuss some world-class farmhouse ales in detail. See, I’m interested what a purportedly off-the-charts saison would taste like, because these beers are often so mutable. It’s why they pair exceptionally well with food. I’ll cap a night with a top-notch kreik, a barleywine or a huge stout, drinking it by itself. But I cannot imagine knocking back a farmhouse ale without some nosh to accompany.

So today, I’m talking about two of the most storied saisons in modern tippling: Fantôme Saison and Hill Farmstead’s Anna.

The Brasserie Fantôme is located in Soy, in the Belgian region of Luxembourg (not to be confused with the independent principality, which is next door). Fantôme has been producing seasonal farmhouse ales since 1988. Its house Saison is brewed anew annually, each year bringing a new variation on the traditionally sweet and heavy recipe.

The Fantôme Saison is a hazy goldenrod with a surprisingly meagre head. A second after pouring, there’s nothing but some weak island suds atop a mostly tepid drink. It’s worth noting that the farmhouse ales of Fantôme, while beloved, are notorious for their wild quality variance. In his book The Great Beers of Belgium, the late beer writer Michael Jackson called founder and head brewer Dany Prignon “the epitome of the brewer as artist.” That’s a nice way of saying that Prignon is not always the most disciplined. I’ve resolved to review this particular bottle of their Saison, but my immediate sense is that it hasn’t primed adequately. Certainly, this isn’t helped by the fact that this ale is on the boozier end of the style (8% ABV). Its nose is still reasonably bright: wet straw, lemon peel, plenty of pepper, thyme, apple and dark grainy bread. Its tastes mealier that just about any saison I’ve ha, with graininess accompanied by orange and herbal notes, and some bitterness cuts through the end.

This is a medium weight ale, but its tepidity makes it feel heavier and less crisp than other Fantôme offerings I’ve loved. It’s a disappointment, but not a drain pour.

Next up is Anna, probably the most acclaimed American saison that’s brewed on a regular basis, but the brewer is Hill Farmstead Brewery in Greensboro Bend, Vermont. As I discussed in a previous post, Hill Farmstead has a vicious combination remote locale, small-batch products and extraordinarily good craftsmanship. So even a rotating release like Anna (named, as nearly all the regular beers from the brewer are, after one of founder and head brewer Shaun Hill’s ancestors; in this case, his grandfather’s sister) can be brutal to acquire.

Anna pours glassine golden straw with a robust, rock-and-cream head and a central column of effervescence. The bouquet erupts from the glass, dominated by green apple, wet grass and honey (a key adjunct in its production). The taste opens with a mix of tartness and earth, but this gives way to a biscuit and spice finish. If there’s one adjective for Anna, it’s dewy. This is a sweet, pastoral ale, mixing citrus, bread, honey, apple and hints of ginger, brown sugar and pepper. Anna is full and zesty but also refreshing. Hill draws the water for his ales from his own well, and this is a product that showcases the liquid component as strongly as its malt, hops and adjuncts. It’s just so damn drinkable, you have to stop yourself from swilling it down.

I’d hate to end this piece telling you that the super-hyped, nearly-impossible-to-acquire Vermont saison is better than the one that may actually be in a store near you. But that is the case here. Now, the caveat here is that I probably had a sub-par bottle of Fantôme. And as I said repeatedly, the farmhouse ale should be consumed with food, and there are many fine and available ales you can get right now that will fit that bill perfectly.

SAISON (Fantôme Brasserie) Available year-round wherever Shelton Brothers distributes. Fantôme has a cult following, so it might get swept up fast. But keep an eye out and you’ll eventually find some.

ANNA (Hill Farmstead Brewery) Are you in northern Vermont? If the answer is no, you are not likely to see this anytime soon. But Hill Farmstead regularly collaborates with other brewers on a series called Grassroots Brewing, and this sees much wider distribution.