ARTIFICE VS. ARTFULNESS

Tasting Notes 5 and 6 (of 7) from Doc and Barley’s Killer Beer Night

There are over 1,500 breweries in America today. How can they all remain financially solvent? Some crush the competition with clever advertising and volume (Bud), some produce a time-tested winner that never goes out of style (Anchor, Sierra Nevada), some become so intimately connected with a particular region that their beers become the drink of choice for locals (Sam Adams, Yuengling)…and some simply become synonymous with high-quality products (Rogue, Stone, Dogfish Head). Good marketing is important, of course. A killer flagship. A charismatic CEO. A little bit of luck. All of these are helpful in keeping a small brewery afloat. But there’s another way to stand out from the crowded marketplace: Brew something “different”.

Experimentation is the heart of the craft brewing movement. Any brewer worth his salt can create a palatable, inoffensive brown or pale ale. But it takes a brewer with experience, creativity, and chutzpah to crank out wildly inventive beers. Aleheads are a notoriously difficult-to-please lot, but one way to endear yourself to us is to try something unique. That might mean combining two disparate styles (Terrapin is a master of this). Or reviving old, forgotten styles (look no further than Pretty Things). Or brewing with esoteric or outlandish adjuncts (see Dogfish Head). Whatever the approach, more and more breweries are taking the road less traveled…and Aleheads are reaping the rewards.

But there are good and bad ways to approach experimentation. I’m not saying there’s a “right” or “wrong” way as far as running a viable business (I may be delusional, but I accept that I don’t know the first thing about helming a successful ale factory). But I do think there are legitimate reasons to “play” with beer…and some not-so-legitimate ones that smack of gimmickry. For a case in point, let’s compare offerings from two fascinating breweries…BrewDog and The Bruery.

BrewDog is actually a Scottish outfit. We’ve written about them a number of times, mostly in regards to their escalating war of high-ABV beers with Schorschbrau…a German haus best known for crazy-strong Eisbocks. As of this post, the Germans are winning with a 43% ABV brew, but BrewDog is no doubt back in the lab cranking out a 50% version. This, to me at least, is the very essence of gimmickry. There are some exceptional high-ABV beers out there. Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA and Raison D’Extra being prime examples. But the ABV percentages in those beers are simply by-products of the styles being brewed…not the sole reason for the beers’ existences. Compare that with something like BrewDog’s Tactical Nuclear Penguin (32%) or their Sink the Bismarck (41%). Those beers were expressly created to push the envelope of how strong a beer can be. That might be an interesting experiment in a lab, but by sacrificing everything else on the altar of ABV, BrewDog kind of misses the point. In my (admittedly limited) experience with the brewery, that tunnel-vision approach to brewing seems to be BrewDog’s stock in trade.

Take the BrewDog Paradox. On the surface, it should be a winner…an Imperial Stout aged in Scotch barrels. BrewDog uses casks from a variety of distilleries…Arran, Speyside, Springbank…the one Doc and I drank was aged in Glen Grant barrels. Sounds promising! The Aleheads are all Scotch-lovers and those of us that have sampled Harviestoun’s Ola Dubh line all came away thoroughly impressed. Harviestoun instilled the essence of Scotch in their beer without drowning out the characteristic flavor of the brew. The “base” beer was an excellent Old Ale that absorbed just enough of the Scotch flavor/aroma profile without hurting the underlying suds.

The Paradox, unfortunately, does no such thing. The Imperial Stout that makes up the base isn’t particularly good…and the Scotch aging just makes it taste like Scotch. There’s no balance or subtlety. It’s like a Rauchbier that only tastes like smoke or a Pumpkin Ale that’s nothing but liquid cinnamon (sorry, Winter Warmer…no hard feelings?). If I wanted pure Scotch, I’d pour a glass of Laphroaig. I ordered a beer, dammit!

The Paradox pours “nearly” black, but with a definite dark-brown edge. A wisp of toffee-colored head pops in just long enough to say “Hi” and then disappears. Lacing is oily and fades fast.

The nose is sweet roasted malt which is VERY quickly drowned out by whiskey and alcohol noseburn. Any complexity in the aroma is crushed under the weight of the booze. The taste is very much the same. A hint of dark chocolate and burnt, bitter coffee, followed by a rush of Scotch and a boozy finish.

Mouthfeel is thinner than an Imperial Stout should be. Not light and creamy like Sweetwater’s Happy Ending…just thin and watery. Drinkability is nil…as is often the case with gimmick beers. Interesting to try once, but I have no need to repeat the experience. 2 Hops for a beer from a brewery that tends to focus on the wrong things.

On the flipside of BrewDog’s “experimentation for the sake of experimentation” is the thoughtful playfulness of The Bruery. The Orange County ale factory has been producing exquisite, well-crafted brews since their inception. We’ve written about their Rugbrod and 2 Turtle Doves…both fascinating beers in their own right. During our bender, Doc and I tucked into their Black Orchard, a now discontinued brew that is a funky combination of a Belgian Dark Ale and a witbier. Is it the finest beer in the world? No. But unlike BrewDog’s offering, the Orchard isn’t trying to wow you with something outlandish. It’s complex and unique, certainly…but it’s also clearly a beer crafted by brewers who care more about creating a decent beverage than creating headlines.

The Black Orchard started out a tad inauspiciously with an overflowing gusher of a bottle. That’s not unheard of for a bottle-conditioned brew, but it’s a little odd for a pricey, high-end outfit like The Bruery. Once settled, it poured black with a tan, velvety head and excellent lacing.

The aroma is a big hit of fruity, spicy yeast followed by a mellow, rounded malt sweetness. A bready, biscuity note is present after a few whiffs. That bread note actually dominates the taste…like a dark, whole-grain loaf. Fruity banana esters come out to play in the middle and the finish is phenolic and spicy. Little to no alcohol is noticeable in this 5.7% brew.

The mouthfeel is light and airy…LOTS of carbonation (a Bruery staple). Drinkability is OK…it’s not a heavy, palate-crusher by any means, but it’s substantial enough that you wouldn’t want to drink the Black Orchard all night. As a beer, the Black Orchard has some problems. It’s not that well-balanced and the aggressive carbonation is actually a detriment to the drinking experience. But the beer has promise and character like all of The Bruery’s offerings so I’ll give it a gentleman’s 3 Hops.

Between the two, I’ll take the Black Orchard over the Paradox any day of the week and twice on Sunday. I, for one, would rather drink a noble, but flawed experiment than a calculating marketing gimmick. Rising above the crowd is important for any small, young brewery. But it’s important to rise above through innovative ideas and thoughtfully crafted brews…not through artifice and stunt brewing. It’s a fine line, but that’s why the Aleheads are here…to tell you about the breweries doing it the right way.

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