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Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016 12:11 am

Here’s to you

Fall beers abound

Samuel Adams Cream Stout, Paulaner Oktoberfest, 4 Hands Brewing Co. Chocolate Milk Stout, Obed and Isaac’s Microbrewery and Eatery Cocoa Mingus Milk Stout and Samuel Adams 20 Pounds of Pumpkin
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

 

This is not – repeat, not – a scientific exercise.

Professional beer judges will, and do, say that discretion and restraint are necessary to properly judge ales, lagers, porters and so forth. They eschew mixing and matching: Today, we will sample only pale ales, tomorrow it will be stout. Nothing more substantive than unsalted water crackers to cleanse the palate, no more than eight or so flights at a sitting to guard against palate fatigue.

But let’s not get too persnickety.

“Organizers have wide latitude to create a unique competition experience,” decrees the Beer Judge Certification Program, a division of the American Homebrewers Association, in official rules for beer-tasting events.

And so, in keeping with tradition, we again sampled 31 beers, one for each day in October, in our annual guide to the best beers of autumn. We settled on the number by accident, having ended up with exactly 31 beers during the event’s first year as local distributors donated product and we picked out a few of our own, and well, one thing leads to another, and before you know it, the fridge runneth over. We make no apologies. Why not start out bigger and better and just keep going?

The goal here is to identify beers most likely to appeal to a broad spectrum, and so our judging panel included an even mix of beer snobs and less-filling-tastes-great neophytes. They were a determined lot, gazing and sniffing and sipping and asking for more as the hours wore on. Down the stretch, “99 Luftballoons” got played twice, in German and in English, and one judge, in the mistaken belief that we’d run out of knockwurst, prepared himself a sauerkraut-and-Cambozola sandwich using a hotdog bun, with Dijon mustard garnish. Like Michael Malloy, who survived a sandwich of rotted sardines mixed with pieces of metal served up by impatient beneficiaries of a life insurance policy, the judge declared his veggie hotdog delicious and demanded more beer. We grew concerned.

Maybe as many beers as Baskin-Robbins has flavors (almost) really wasn’t such a great idea. But shortly afterward, this same judge nailed essential attributes of a porter, detecting the same sweet tones as other judges, then went on to rightly pan an overly spiced seasonal ale, of which there is no shortage come the fall season. Taste buds, it seems, can be remarkably resilient. Our faith restored, the judging continued.

The results, in no particular order, appear on these pages. We do not declare winners, nor do we mention beers not worthy of mention. The tasting was blind from a pool that included a half-dozen beers brewed in central Illinois as well as a selection of microbrews from across the country and imports from around the world.

Some of these will be easy to find, others you will have to hunt down, given limited supplies and the seasonal nature of the brewing business. So drink ‘em while you can.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.



Hacker-Pschorr Weisse, Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest, Redhook Brewery Extra Special Bitter Ale, Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale and Paulaner Oktoberfest
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

 

20 Pounds of Pumpkin
Samuel Adams

If there’s anything we’ve learned from this exercise over the years, it’s that Samuel Adams makes excellent beer, no matter the challenge. In this case, the challenge is pumpkin, a plant that belongs in beer as much as Donald Trump belongs in a monastery. Each fall, nonetheless, brewers feel duty-bound to make beer from pumpkins – after all, the Pilgrims did it. Well, the Pilgrims did a lot of things, not the least of which was nearly starve before the Indians took pity, and they surely would have eschewed pumpkin for proper malt if any had been available. Today’s pumpkin beers are almost uniformly awful, sickly sweet and overly spiced so as to disguise whatever flavor a pumpkin might have. But Samuel Adams has managed to make a version that, most remarkably, doesn’t come across as what it really is, a remarkable achievement considering that this seasonal includes ginger, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg. “Good balance of hops with slight fruit flavor,” one judge remarked. Another praised the caramel color and declared it crisp yet substantial. “Great fall beer,” one judge wrote. “I would drink this and look for pumpkins.”
5.7 percent alcohol by volume


Cocoa Mingus Milk Stout
Obed and Isaac’s Microbrewery and Eatery
Judges loved this stuff brewed in Springfield, and with good reason. It’s a veritable brewer’s bridge between the warm days of Indian summer and the bite of late autumn. Flavors of coffee and chocolate come to the forefront, fooling one judge into mistaking this for a coffee stout, with plenty of malt flavor. Judges liked the dark color and substantial head that lingered, with one describing the flavor as  a tad sweet and nutty. “Warm and dusky,” declared one judge on her score sheet, which seemed to sum up nicely what everyone thought. A true joy, and worth ordering every chance you get.
5.6 percent alcohol by volume


Weisse
Hacker-Pschorr

We screwed up. When we went beer hunting, we meant to grab the Oktoberfest version of Hacker-Pschorr, one of the world’s oldest breweries, that’s served in Munich tents each fall. Instead, we got the wheat version, but judges weren’t complaining, although one noted that this wheat beer from Germany is, perhaps, better suited for summer than a fall day or evening. “Refreshing, full-bodied – well-balanced,” wrote one judge. “No overwhelming flavors.” The dark, gold appearance drew praise, as did a hoppy aroma. “Great beer for year-round drinking, including fall,” one judge concluded.
5.5 percent alcohol by volume


Chub Step Porter
Half Acre Beer Co.

Brewed in Chicago and released only in the fall, this porter can be hard to find in Springfield, but it’s worth the hunt. The taste is smooth yet authoritative. This is a complex porter that’s well put together, and it proved one of the most interesting beers of the evening. One judge called it “proper, in your face.” Tasters detected a variety of notes. “Good chocolate flavor, nuts with a roasted coffee back,” one taster enthused. Another remarked on a hint of caramel. The dark appearance and good head retention drew notice.
6 percent alcohol by volume



Oktoberfest
Sierra Nevada

This is, for our money, perhaps the best Oktoberfest sold outside the beer tents of Munich. Sierra Nevada was also deemed among the best during last year’s tasting with a panel of different judges. This year, several deemed it on the light side. “Crisp and easy on the palate,” declared another taster. “Good, refreshing beer – doesn’t scream ‘fall’ to me.” With that in mind, perhaps Sierra Nevada, which says that it collaborates with a different German brewer each year to make this seasonal, could start brewing Oktoberfest year round. We wouldn’t complain.
6 percent alcohol by volume



Chocolate Milk Stout
4 Hands Brewing Co.

This stout from St. Louis gives Willy Wonka a run for his money. “It tastes like Hershey’s made a beer and sprinkled it with love,” opined one judge, which was, if anything, understating things. “Double f’ing chocolate!” raved another. Beyond in-your-face cocoa with a hint of hazelnut is the silky finish. It goes down so smooth, so creamy, that you can almost imagine it’s a milk shake, an illusion helped by a label featuring a caricature of a smiling cow dressed as a milkman that would be at home on any 50s era drive-in sign. Surprisingly light, so you can have more than one, regardless of whether the weather is mild or crisp.
5.5 percent alcohol by volume


Indian Brown Ale
Dogfish Head

This old-school microbrew that debuted in 1999 remains a solid choice for autumn and beyond. The brewer calls this a hybrid that blends Scotch ale, IPA and brown ale, which seems an apt description. Our tasting panel found it delicious, with just the right amount of malt to balance out the hops – there is plenty of flavor here, but no one element overwhelms another. Despite the moniker “dark IPA” that appears on the label, a great choice for reformed IPA heads who have learned that there is more to great beer than hops. One judge noted a hint of chocolate. The aroma and deep copper hue drew raves, with one judge calling the smell “sweet and malty.” It is a bit heavy with a relatively high alcohol content, so you’ll do well to sip in moderation.
7.2 percent alcohol by volume


Cream Stout
Samuel Adams

“A basic, no-frills stout,” one judge wrote, and that sums it up beautifully. From its near-black color to the malty aroma to the caramel-colored head, this stout was popular across the board. As one judge noted, this stout is lighter than it looks, but that only increases its drinkability, particularly among folks who claim not to enjoy the darker end of the beer spectrum. Plenty of flavor to tickle and intrigue the palate. “Deep richness, with coffee and chocolate notes,” one judge observed.
4.9 percent alcohol by volume



Single Wide IPA
Boulevard

An India pale ale that’s right for fall can be tough to find, given that hops are a given. There is nothing wrong with hops, of course – after all, we wouldn’t have beer without them. But come the cool weather of fall, the in-your-face hop taste of so many IPAs isn’t the same as in summer, when we seek refreshment as opposed to contentment that comes with a maltier approach – we want something that pairs well with the first frost and covered-dish casseroles. This said, Single Wide from Kansas City proved a favorite with judges who didn’t object to citrus flavors. “Orangesicle in a glass,” one judge quipped.  Another judge who knows a thing or two about beer declared this “a good West Coast pale ale,” an apt description save that the brewery is in the Midwest. And we’re glad for that. After all, a good IPA is always a good thing, no matter the season.
5.7 percent alcohol by volume


Nut Brown Ale
Samuel Smith

Brewed in England, this is a classic, and rightfully so. The brownish copper hue screams fall, and the taste will please a wide range of folks. This ale goes straight down the middle with no dominating flavors. One judge detected a boozy aftertaste. “Overall, very good for fall,” he wrote. A good counterweight to heavier stouts and porters, if you’re having a few during the course of an evening. “Light, but lip-smacking,” one taster said.
5 percent alcohol by volume



Chocolate Stout
Rogue Ales

We had many styles in the tasting pool – ales, Marzen (better known as Oktoberfest), lagers and more – but the judges particularly liked stouts, especially ones that taste like chocolate, and Rogue Ales’ take on chocolate stout certainly qualified. “Coo coo for Cocoa Puffs!” one judge wrote of this escaped-from-a-candy-store elixir that hails from Oregon. This is one of two chocolate stouts brewed by Rogue, which also makes double chocolate stout. So far as judges were concerned, this version has plenty of chocolate, and not surprisingly, plenty of heft. “Full bodied and creamy,” one taster said. “Good taste, but you couldn’t drink more than one.”
5.8 percent alcohol by volume


Oktoberfest
Paulaner

There’s a reason that this German beer is served in Munich beer tents each year during Oktoberfest. After hundreds of years of practice, Paulaner has the art of brewing Oktoberfest down to a science, with just the right amount of hops and caramel flavor. “Solid,” wrote one judge. “Hits the fall mark without an overwhelming spice, apple or pumpkin taste.” Judges loved the copper (or amber, take your pick) color. Thankfully, Paulaner, unlike many brewers who release Oktoberfests only during the fall, makes their version year round, and it is worth seeking out.
5.8 percent alcohol by volume


Extra Special Bitter Ale
Redhook Brewery

One of the oldest American craft brews, this ale that originated in Seattle has been around since the 1980s, and it still satisfies. Introduced as a winter seasonal when Reagan was in the White House, it’s now available year round. Despite its roots as an ale sold during winter months, the judges found it light. “Crisp, grassy summer flavor,” wrote one judge who favors hefeweizens and other fare that tends toward the light side. “Quite pleasurable, I would drink this to quench a thirst on a hot fall day.” Another judge noted distinct hop flavors with a hint of vanilla accompanied by a mild aftertaste.
5.8 percent alcohol by volume

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