In one week in November, I received three different visitors from the USA, who between them brought me over a dozen bottles of American craft real ale. I promised I'd share my notes on them, and here are the first few. (I don't remember who gave me which bottle, now, but needless to say it was all massively appreciated, even the ones I may be snarky about below.)
Cosmic Ales, Cosmonaut California Blonde Ale (5%): this bottle has an absolutely adorable label with a way-over-the-top cartoon space scene, which always goes down well around here. It's a slightly cloudy golden beer with an ephemeral head of froth, and a cheeky aroma of orange, pollen and spring berries. A first taste of light fruit and flour is a bit sparkly, turning sour quite quickly in the mouth, but with a lovely sweet/hops balance. In fact it's very smooth all the way down; the pithy bitterness isn't very complex or lingering, but it was a very pleasant pint for a Fall evening.
People's BBL Aged Porter (5.8%): this North Carolinan ale, aged in old bourbon barrels, is an almost black, ruby dark ale with a frisky foam that collapses fast like a French lager. You can smell the bourbon right off, as well as berries and leather. It's tart and sparkly, with peppercorns and apple-flesh on the tip of the tongue; then smoky, chocolate fruitcake, date paste or the most delicious soft wood (yes!) in the mouth; and an intense, sappy coffee or barley-drink further back. This beer is far too in-yer-face to drink with food (although it was great with chocolate!). There's a hint of whiskey in the aftertaste, lingering peat, but the smoother bourbon flavour predominates. This is not a session ale, obviously, but it's not too strong to enjoy a large glass of, and it is very nice.
Lagunitas, Wilco Tango Foxtrot (7.9%): the joke name on this Californian dark ale doesn't really tell you very much about the beer, unless they really were trying to express "WTF?", in which case they're not doing it any favours. Very dark red verging on clear brown with a thin, creamy head, this ale has a strong, malty smell like sweet break, yeasty and fruity. First red cheery effervesces on your tongue, then cognac and strawberry liqueur develops, almost sickeningly sweet, but intensely bitter at the same time, robust on the tongue, burning in the throat. Lingering aftertastes of cassis and radicchio stay warm all the way down. Someone who liked spirits would probably enjoy this beer more than I did, but I found it harder work; there are some very good individual parts, but they add over to an overwhelming, over-sweet, and ultimately unsatisfying whole.
New Belgium, Ranger IPA (6.5%): from the internationally famous Fort Collins brewer, this ale is the colour of very pale straw, with the faintest meniscus of a head. The smell has hints of wheat, and orange-flower honey; the sparkly and sappy first taste is faintly reminiscent of mango or pineapple. In the mouth there is grapefruit pith and zesty lime, with a sourness overwhelms and obscures a much more subtle aftertaste of fruit peel and crushed pits that lingers, almondy and citrusy, for a long time. I could drink a lot of this—luckily it comes in a small bottle! Gets my seal of approval.
Speakeasy, Payback Porter (7.5%): a very dark, olive-brown ale with dusky froth, a smoky treacle aroma with a hint of red fruit. A sweet and smooth first taste, with slightly gritty caramel sugar, buttery fudge leading to creamy coffee further in the mouth. A bitter, powdery chocolate accompanies the traditional hoppy swallow, and the aftertaste has a mature, winter ale feel to it. This beer has everything I ought to like in a strong porter, and most importantly it doesn't have the cloying, sweet brandy yeastiness that often lingers in a beer this intense and dark, so it's certainly drinkable, yet somehow it didn't blow my head off. I'd really like to taste it with cheese some time; I think it might come into its own then.
Strand, White Sand Imperial IPA (8.5%): this is a lovely, smooth-pouring red/amber ale with light brown foam, and a rich lime zest aroma with notes of fresh-cut green saplings. The powerful first taste has fruit pith and elderflower, with sweetness and kick in equal measure. The beer is a bit sparkly, with sour notes dominating in the mouth, both live yeast and a range of hops combining strongly to lose any remnant of sugary flavour. The bitter is less intense in the swallow, but coarse, smoky and satisfying, lingering with more zesty fruit and crushed orange pit. A hefty bitterness, in the end, but not as overwhelming as some double or triple dropped Imperial IPAs; it doesn't really taste as strong as it is. A very interesting beer—the subtle hints of pine and caramelized sappiness keep it lively, and the flavour noticeably changes over time; it became more malty and tasty ten or fifteen minutes after opening the bottle. Overall quite a heavy beer, but it's delicate enough to really take your time and enjoy, as well as just be impressed by.
Harpoon, Saison Various (6.1%): as the bottle announces, this is a blended ale, a mix of four saison-styled beers each crafted by a different Harpoon brewer in their Boston Mass. or Windsor Vt. sites. It is a golden, slightly cloudy beer with a big mad head like a badly poured panaché; the froth fades quickly to naught but a hint of bubbles around the rim of the glass, though. The odor is floury, with a bouquet of apply and wildflower honey. The beer is sparkly, tart and almost peppery on the tip of the tongue, plenty of evidence of hops and yeast but none of the promised sweetness. I caught a hint of grilled lemon-flesh in the mouth, with a hint of of the acrid smokiness of burnt peel. But it was not very bitter; strangely the swallow is where hints of zesty orange, breakfast grapefruit and crystalized honey come through again, still very sour, and leaving an impression of a beer a lot stronger than the ABV listed on the label. A little bit of green wood and spice linger in the aftertaste, but on the whole this is a less complex swallow than its vaunted blended origin would suggest. (The four white boys pictured on the back of the label don't show much variety either, so maybe I'm disingenuous to be surprised.) The whole has a smell of Belgian beer about it—or rather the variety of that style favoured by American brewers: slightly hoppier, less fruity, less umami or marinated herbs, less references to mental illness in the marketing. It's a pretty good beer, with nice and strong flavours, not one to drink quickly or from a straight glass, but rewarding a leisurely sip (and very good with sausages!). If what you were after was an adventurous, unusual, experimental or exotic offering, however, you'll be disappointed. This would be the least surprising ale you could drink in a Boston pub.
Clown Shoes, Vampire Slayer American Imperial Stout (10%): brewed by Mercury Brewing Co. in Ipswich Mass. I have to confess that it was with some trepidation that I opened this bottle: almost like opening a bottle of wine in the knowledge that you're going to drink it all yourself. As I've pointed out before, my tastes lean toward session ales; one of my criteria when judging a beer is, "Would I drink three pints of this if I found it in my local pub one evening?" I explain this by way of frank disclosure, before starting what is as always a very subjective review. A syrupy thick, opaque treacle-coloured beer, almost still with very little head (an ephemeral brown meniscus effervesced around the rim as the beer settled in the glass), which has a faint buttery caramel aroma, just a hint of smoky oak more promising of blended malt whiskeys than of ale. The first taste is sweet, yeasty and raisiny, like biting into a fruit loaf that was aged for three days before baking in a very hot oven. Further in the mouth there's more of the traditional old ale notes of syrupy yeast, brandied red fruit and fresh-roasted black coffee, more charcoal than hops in the bitterness of the swallow. The aftertaste doesn't linger very long at all, but what there is mixes chocolate and coffee liqueur and makes me want to break into another bag of crystalized ginger to wash it down with. Although strong and cloying and quite hard to finish a 20oz bottle of without feeling a little bit queasy, Vampire Slayer (which I'm sure doesn't *really* contain holy water, pace the label) is an excellent example of its style. Contrary to all expectation, gets my thumbs-up.