Last week, a friend very generously brought me six 22oz bottles of craft beer from California. I have been sampling them ever since. As expected, hops is very evident, with many double-hopped brews, but there's also a very interesting range of flavours and styles.
Lagunitas Lucky 13 (8.9%) is an orange-amber ale, bright and the colour of caramel, sparkly in the glass and looking almost exactly like Irn Bru. It has a strong fruity hops aroma, but with more berry than citrus; sharp at first taste, sparkly on the tongue and oaky. Mellow and smooth in the mouth, with hints of gooseberry or greengage, but an intense bitterness that lingers, and coarse on the swallow, with a sappy, slightly smoky finish with just a hint of capsaicin. Very complex and pleasing. (This ale lost points on the slightly cheesy label design, although some liked the tattoo-style quality of the image.)
Deschutes Hop in the Dark C.P.A. (6.9%) (from Oregon) is an opaque, darkest brown ale, syrupy with a creamy meniscus. It has a sweet hoppy smell of green fruit, with an undertone of fresh cacao beans. It was very sweet indeed, like mango or pineapple on the tip of the tongue, leaving a lingering hint of rose, and then an intense woody bitterness when swilled, with a suggestion of cherry and liquorice, but surprisingly mild on the swallow, with liquorice root and cardamon. A very interesting beer that mixes the hoppiness of a pale ale with the dark, sweet maltiness of an old or English ale. Not sure how well this would scale to an evening's drinking, though.
Russian River Pliny the Elder (8%) is a famous ale, especially among classicists (!), which certainly deserves its reputation. A light, honey-amber beer, still and clear and almost the exact colour of precious topaz, with the hoppy odour suggesting peaches and a carbonated soft drink. The first taste is of sour hops, but with an overwhelming sweetness of peach or very ripe pear, and then sharp green hops throughout, with a hint of honey and fresh mint. Most surprisingly, though, Pliny is very smooth and subtle on the swallow, with no roughness at all but the soft smokiness of caramel or crême brulée. Like its namesake, this beer is very cleverly put together, almost recherché, but perhaps too much to really enjoy it unpretentiously. A very fine pint, but not a quaffing ale.
Bear Republic Red Rocket Ale (6.8%) is a beautiful beer to look at, very dark red, like an auburn standing in the shadows. It fills the nose with malt and yeast as well as that undercurrent of tropical fruit so popular in these American ales, but has plenty of treacle and berry on the tongue; not very sweet, surprisingly, but with a coarse, hoppy overtone. It finishes with a deep satisfying swallow, with hints of elderberry and wild nettle. Not a bad beer, but not terribly memorable.
Speakeasy Betrayal Imperial Red (8.2%) fills a glass with very clear ale the colour of dark morello cherry or cola. The aroma is of dark chocolate and dried fruit, like a delicious rum and raisin fruit cocktail, and it is shockingly sweet on the tongue, like drinking a glass of port. In the mouth it is smoky with the bitterness of cold coffee, but leaving a chocolaty residue, and a bit too intense on the swallow; I couldn't help thinking that someone had spiked my beer with Vermouth. I wanted to like this beer, as all the ingredients were right, but I couldn't have drunk another glass of it.
Lagunitas Imperial Stout (9.9%): this impressive, pitch black ale is completely opaque with a brown-tinged foam ring, and smells gently hoppy with a hint of molasses. Sweet at first taste, with caramel and lime and a smoky spiciness which I can only describe as like chipotle, it is warm and chocolaty in the mouth, with hints of barley and malt, a really lovely balance of ale components. The strength really hits you on the swallow though, like downing a Tia Maria; it is sharp and bitter and syrupy, but also coarse and nutty. Unlike the Lucky 13, the Imperial Stout feels every inch of its 9.9% alcohol, and could never become a session ale in my book.