Friday, August 9, 2013

A West Coast Beer Sampling, featuring Deschutes Obsidian Stout, Port Brewing Mongo IPA, and Stone Old Guardian Barley Wine

As I go through everything I meant to write over the past two months but didn't find the time for, here's a post highlighting some of the best stuff that came back with me after a quick trip to the west coast earlier this summer: the beer.

It's kind of sad to think that, as a California boy, I didn't really get into craft beer until I was long gone from the state, and I've since discovered that there are some really great west coast beers that we don't have access to on the east coast.  I would have liked to have gotten my hands on some Pliny, but there wasn't any available in the areas I traversed--except for the Davis Beer Festival, where Russian River had a tent and was pouring out some Pliny the Elder.  I got a small taste, and yeah, it was very good, but I'd need a bottle to savor at home to really get a sense of how it compares to so many other great double IPAs out there.

But I can't really complain.  I got to try a ton of great beers at the festival, and the beers I was able to try while there--and bring back with me to New York--were varied and all quite good.  I can't talk about them all here (and I'll have a post coming soon highlighting a variety of just Sierra Nevada beers and another on saisons), so I'll pick the three that stood out to me the most.

Deschutes Obsidian Stout

This may have been second on my list of stouts from Deschutes, behind The Abyss (which wasn't available), but it turns out that the Obsidian Stout was a great concession prize from the Oregon brewery.  Honestly, there are very few stouts I can think of that I've enjoyed as much as this one--maybe Bell's Expedition Stout and Left Hand's Milk Stout.

I don't think that's an exaggeration, either--which is an easy trap to fall into with the whole "absence makes the heart grow fonder" syndrome that I think can come with beers that you know you can't get your paws on regularly.  So I'm trying to avoid that here.

The Obsidian Stout was thick and creamy--you can see it in the picture here, the head reminding me of a mini version of what you get from the Milk Stout Nitro--and the flavor strong but still balanced.  It covers ground we're used to with the average stout, but amps up those flavors; you've got the chocolate, the maltiness, the hints of coffee, maybe a bit of smokiness.  Very good.

Port Brewing Mongo Double IPA

I'd heard a lot of good things about Port Brewing, one of the many top-flight San Diego breweries, over the years, so I was excited to find their Mongo Double IPA on the shelves at Total Wine.  Couple that with the great label on the Mongo bottle--featuring a cartoon version of the brewery's late cat, Mongo, riding a huge wave--and I was sold.

I've tried a lot of double IPAs this year, and I'd put Mongo in a very good second tier, just behind Lagunitas Sucks, Firestone Walker's Double Jack, and Ithaca's Flower Power.  Mongo comes in at a strong-enough 8.5% ABV, and it's well-hopped, that's for sure, with a lingering bitterness that's a bit stronger, I think, than those three I just mentioned.  Maybe that's the key for me with double IPAs--enough balance to make it so the bitterness isn't overpowering.

I thought the Mongo fell just short on that front, but still brought a lot of great flavor--some of that classic double IPA grapefruit, plus a decent piney taste.  Maybe it could use a little more balance from the malts.  But I'm being a tough critic here--this is a really enjoyable beer that should definitely be tried if the opportunity arises.

Stone Oak-Smoked Old Guardian Barley Wine

Here's the thing I love about Stone, one of the great west coast breweries, also based out of San Diego: they have such a strong base operation, with wildly popular classic styles, that they're not afraid to experiment frequently.  Instead of just rolling along with what I'm sure is a good barley wine (their regular Old Guardian), they're taking the opportunity to put a very effective spin on it this year.  From the website:
"Our 'Odd Beers for Odd Years' program has afforded us the happy opportunity to experiment beyond our customary annual recipe tweaks and unleash a second version of this tasty brew in tandem with the classic release. We added a substantial dose of German oak-smoked malt to this year's odd year brew, enveloping it in a generous smokiness that complements its rich malt character and slightly dry finish without diminishing the vivid hop flavors and bitterness."
I've always fairly enjoyed the barley wine style beers I've tasted in the past, but I doubt I would have picked this one up and brought it back to New York with me if it weren't for the oak-smoked part.  I'm glad I did, for you won't often find beers that employ smoky flavor as effectively as this version of the Old Guardian did.

Being a barley wine, this is a rather boozy beer, at 11.4% ABV, and you sure can taste it.  But it blends well with the smoke flavor.  The other flavors, such as the bitterness provided by the hops, are fairly smothered by all that smokiness, however, so while I enjoyed this beer, I'll admit it doesn't come across as the most complex tasting of beers.

It is a rather unique beer, and it helps to show why it's great to be able to try beers from all parts of the country that you might not be able to find at home.  But as much as I enjoyed these beers, I'm also reminded once again of the great variety we have available to us here in upstate New York.  We can get a lot of great beers from the west coast, and sometimes, whether in beer or literature, like in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, unrequited love can make for a good story.

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