04 November 2016

Curiosity and the skunk

I went to the USA with a small mental list of well-known American beers that tend not to get described in the general beer discourse. They're frequently mentioned as background references, as though everyone already knows what they taste like, so other beers can be said to be like them, or indeed unlike them. I needed to try them for myself.

And at the top of that list was New Belgium Fat Tire, a beer which sits alongside Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Samuel Adams Boston Lager as the most mainstream of craft beers. And yet... it's the one I've never seen on this side of the Atlantic, and also the only one of these three I actually saw on tap in America. So I ordered a pint. It's an amber-red colour, quite heavy of texture and very sweet. The aroma is verging on sickly while the flavour piles on toffee. Too much toffee, in fact. There's a vague green hop bitterness but not enough to balance something that would sit very comfortably among the sweet red ales of Ireland. I'm quite surprised this beer has any credibility at all. Takes all sorts.

Second on that list was Yuengling Lager, a beer which occupies that weird hinterland between craft and mainstream. The brewery claims to be America's oldest and survived both Prohibition and the predations of mid-20th century brewery consolidation. It's ended up big enough to be well distributed and popular in its home territory yet small enough to just duck into the Brewers Association's definition of craft, turning out about as much beer as Boston Beer Co. does these days. Not seeing it on tap anywhere, I picked up a six-pack in a grocery store in mid-town Manhattan and worked through that over a couple of evenings. It's a dark orange-brown colour, nicely full-bodied with soft carbonation and a cereal malt flavour topped with a light central-European-style grassiness. All of which would make it an accessible classically-styled pils, or even a hoppy Vienna lager, if it hadn't been absolutely outrageously skunked. The shop must have been keeping it on a tanning bed overnight. It was horrible, though just about tolerable when fully cold. Beware bottled Yuengling, is my takeaway lesson.

Last on this list was Texas classic Shiner Bock, another Prohibition veteran. It's a dark red colour and all about the malt, mixing in dry grain husk with a light caramel element. It's perhaps not that different from ol' Fat Tire up there, but I enjoyed it more, perhaps solely because my expectations were lower. It may lack distinctive flavours but it's a perfectly satisfying conversation beer, and pretty much on-style, for the dunkel side of the spec.

A few other bottled odd and sods before we go. I had expected to see lots of Southern Tier beer around the place but there was surprisingly very little. In one Williamsburg restaurant Southern Tier IPA was the most interesting choice. It's a heavy clear 7%-er, orange in both colour and taste, and I guess you could regard its hot sweet candy character as some way classical for American IPA. I just found it tough drinking and totally lacking in refreshment power.

At one point I ventured into the classy Manhattan food hall Eatily, just for a looksee, but ended up gravitating to the beer section, and ended up buying some bottles to take away. They had Dogfish Head! I wanted to see how that brewery was getting on since it ceased exports a few years ago.

Namaste is a witbier, employing lemongrass and peppercorns alongside the usual stuff, and brewed to a refreshing and approachable 4.8% ABV. It's a pale hazy yellow, as one would expect, with a solid jaffa orange flavour at the centre. The spices are just present on the edge of perception, adding an understated complexity, and there's a certain lemon-cookie citrus bitterness as well. But you don't need to deconstruct it: it works equally well as a down-the-hatch thirst-quencher, something well-made witbier is especially adept at.

Burton Baton is a very different proposition altogether. I honestly wavered a bit at the thought of buying an oak-aged IPA: it does sound like a recipe for disaster. But in Sam we trust and it was duly purchased, opened and consumed. The biography is that it's a blend of mild and aged IPA and that's very much in its favour as it means fresh hops are still part of the flavour profile. It's also 10% ABV and has a thick napalm heat and a sweetness that sometimes verges on cough mixture. By way of balance, as well as the hops, there's a strong jasmine spice, though thankfully no oaky vanilla. I thought the wood was going to ruin this but really it's just the sheer strength and density of it which make it difficult to drink. The concept is otherwise fine and I'd like to try a lower-gravity version of it.

And that was my last beer in New York, sipped and scribbled about as I packed up and got ready for the following day's journey west. The next landfall was in Chicago for a swift change of planes, but not so swift that I couldn't perch at O'Hare's Goose Island bar long enough to drink an overpriced pint of Green Line pale ale, a new addition to their core line-up. And there was me thinking the IPA already filled that pale ale niche. This is, understandably, a simple affair: yellow with a slight haze to it, tasting pleasantly and accessibly sweet, the hops offering a modest flash of cheeky peach before it all wraps up neatly and drily at the end. It's another perfectly decent conversation beer: you can decide for yourself whether that gets classified under "sessionable" or "boring". I was just glad to be able to put it away quickly before running for the next plane.

The adventure continues in Portland, Oregon, next week.

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