Thursday, 17 February 2011 09:06

Beer University - Strong Ales

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There’s beer…and then there’s BEER.  Beer U will help YOU know and more importantly, enjoy, the difference.
Beer U is actually the shortened version of Beer University at Stone Brewing Co.  A typical rundown of classes includes: Beer 101: Intro to Beer, Beer 101: History of Beer, Beer 101: Sensory Evaluation, History of Brewing in San Diego, Strong Ales (one of my personal favorites), Stouts, Double IPA, Cellaring Vintage Ales, Into to Belgian Beer Styles, Sour Beers, Abbey Ales and The World of Lagers. Every class includes several samples of exceptional craft brews. Seriously, this is a course catalog I can really get into.

The first Beer U sessions were held in 2006 and then became a regular installment in 2007. Stone occasionally featured local brewers and other beer experts as “guest lecturers.” Held at the Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, the bar, restaurant and upstairs “class” area are pretty much how I had envisioned it.  It’s an 8,500 square feet cool, modified warehouse space complete with high ceilings, beer bottle sculptures and a rock pond. The brewery itself is visible from the bar/restaurant through the glass walls. It just oozes cool.

I had the awesome pleasure of attending one of Stone Brewery’s beer classes at the Bistro, Strong Ales.
The class was fearlessly headed by “Dr.” Bill Sysak, Beverage Supervisor & Certified Cicerone at the Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens. A Cicerone is to the beer world what a Sommelier is to the wine world.

So, what exactly is a strong ale? They can loosely be grouped in the following Beer Judge Certification Program categories: Old Ale, Extra Special Bitter, Winter Warmer, Strong Scotch Ale, Barley Wine, Russian Imperial Stout, Wood-Aged Beer, Specialty Beer and Belgian Strong Ales. Typically, the aromas have a rich maltiness, fruity esters, caramel/molasses overtones and sometimes alcohol. The appearance ranges from a lovely deep gold to deep, reddish brown to an ominous, jet black.  Many of the beers in this category are superb for aging and are perfect for the winter chill. Their often wonderful paired with rich cheeses and make an excellent dessert beer.

Fullers Vintage Ale 2010 – this limited edition Ale was an incredible way to start the class.  It seemed like it was “Dr.” Bill’s way of saying, ‘yeah, I don’t mess around.’ This reminds me, a side note: if you decide to have a full beer or two to celebrate having participated in such an awesome event, after the class, (yeah, of course I did. I had a driver after all!) be careful. Even though they pour sample size beers, this class in particular, really lets you know who’s in charge. The beer. But, back to the first ale. Fullers is dry hopped during fermentation and processing using Goldings and Target Hops. The 8.5% ABV 2010 Vintage was brewed for the second year running with Tipple variety malted Barley. The first sip more than hinted winter fruits, like fig. Caramel was also present. The finish has a rich orange taste, only after a slight alcohol sensation. It’s so unique and rich that it would be wonderful for collecting and aging. Age this for five to six years for the perfect mellowed, yet complex ale.

The second strong ale sample was Lukcy Basartd (yes, this is purposely misspelled), also coming in at 8.5% ABV. We can’t have a beer class held at Stone Brewing Co. without a Stone beer after all. Considered an American Strong Ale (because, well, it’s American and strong), one feels like a lukcy basartd when drinking it because it’s a blend of Arrogant Bastard Ale, Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale and Double Bastard Ale. Given that it’s a Stone beer, there’s of course a big hop flavor, perhaps even more punch that the regular Arrogant Bastard. It pours a deep mahogany. In the nose there's a big initial splash of juicy tangerine and piney resiny hops.  As it warms, the nose brightens and becomes a mixture of tropical fruits. There’s a nice taste of pine and some hot alcohol, with slight woodsy undertones. Overall, a nice complex beer.  It will be interesting to see if blends of flagship beers - like Arrogant Bastard Ale - are going to be the next trend.   But, I digress…

To top it all off, accompanied with this amazing selection of ales, was a wonderful array of cheeses. Having just done a radio show ( about beer and cheese pairings, I was absolutely giddy to see the spread on the tables. They truly were a lovely accompaniment with the beers. The following cheeses were displayed on every table:

Tomette des Alpes- raw goat and cow from France
Point Reyes Blue- semi firm cow’s milk from Point Reyes Ca.
La Chevrot- soft goat from France
Ewephoria- Firm aged sheep from the Netherlands

Third in the arsenal of decadent sampling of strong ales was Dupont Avec Les Bons Voeux. A bold 9.5% ABV Saison, Dupont is the premier producer of Saisons in the world.  To have a Saison in the mix of Harvest Ales and American Strong Ales was a pleasant surprise. This beer has a strong and complex aroma; barnyard funk and a honeycomb sweetness.  I immediately noticed the spices, like black pepper.  “Dr.” Bill also suggested white sage, of which I quickly began nodding in agreement. The taste is fruity with a grassy hop bitterness and possible pureed banana, which hides the high ABV well. It’s truly a well brewed Saison and at 9.5% ABV, this beer could keep your spirits warm on a cold winter night.

As the evening progressed, my smile seemed to widen. After all, there were still four more beers to be sampled – after already having tasted three amazing strong ales.

Dieu Du Ciel Rigor Mortis Ale was just mouth-watering with the Ewephoria cheese.  Coming in at 10.5% ABV, this is another big beer awesome for aging. “Dr.” Bill noted that the bigger the beer, the more forgiving it is to age. Immediately, I tasted some cheery and date sweetness along with some spicy notes. A Quadrupel is the strongest abbey style ale, heavier and darker and warmer than a tripel.

Following that dangerously drinkable Quadrupel was an eye opening Stout. The beers just got bigger and stronger as the class went on.  Alesmith Speedway Stout was served and coming in at 12% ABV, AleSmith is another awesome San Diego brewery known for their big beers.  This Imperial Stout had nice coffee and chocolate aromas. The taste was pleasantly more of the same. The roasted malt really hid the alcohol level. This beer's refinement is obvious.  I’m not a coffee drinker, but I loved this beer.  If you love coffee, you need to try Speedway Stout.  You won’t be sorry.

Sample #6 was one of the strongest ales of them all. J.W. Lees Harvest Ale is an 11.5% English Barleywine that’s aged in port barrels.  Reminiscent of wine, a barleywine is a very strong beer whose high alcohol content lends a sweet, viscous quality. Aging beers in a spirit barrel began in 1992 and the Goose Island Brewery in Chicago. Reminiscent of port, this world class beer smelled like alcohol, along with dried fruit and molasses. A great suggestion from “Dr.” Bill was to pair this with a cigar. Yeah, I can see that. This is a spectacular winter beer, providing just the right amount of heat and sweet malt toffee with a faint touch of chocolate.

The final beer was another special treat. It was an American Barley Wine, Angeles Share 2010 Brandy Barrel, coming in at 12% ABV (yes, I was definitely feeling the effects of these fine samples). The 2010 version is a brand new beer from neighbor brewery, Lost Abbey. I’m not even sure it was publicly available yet. Description: ‘Down in Kentucky and across the pond in Scotland, distillers who age their whiskeys for many years refer to the evaporation of the spirits from their barrels as “The Angel’s Share.”’ It smelled delicious…brandy of course, slight fruit, roasted malt.  Tastes were similar, along with vanilla and caramel notes.  This is a fantastic sipping beer.

From beginners to beer snobs, Stone’s Beer U classes are sure to educate, enlighten and entertain.  Since the very beginning, Stone has approached these events as a marketing/educational enterprise rather than as a revenue generator. As such, they often feature very rare and special beers for an extremely modest ticket price.  Stone’s goal is to both introduce newbies into the world of great beer and delve in depth into certain specific craft beer topics such as sensory evaluation, barrel aged beers, abbey ales, the craft beer industry in So Cal, etc. Beer U has received a lot of buzz and classes continue to sell out in advance.

I can see why.
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