Slouch Sixpack beat me to the punch in posting the first Cigar City tasting note. Oh, and thanks for giving Mrs. Sixpack credit for sending those two 750 ml bombers your way. Who do you think picked those out???
As Slouch mentioned, Cigar City is a relatively new brewery that has exploded into the US craft scene with innovative high gravity and barrel aged offerings. Except for their Maduro Brown Ale series, pretty much the full line falls between 7.5–12% ABV, so the focus is big beers and big flavors. In homage of Tampa’s cigar producing era prior to the Cuban embargo, a rotating selection of their beers are aged in Spanish Cedar (the Humidor series), in addition they also use oak and sometimes infuse with other ingredients during the barrel aging process.
On a recent trip to visit family, I had the opportunity to visit the Cigar City tasting room, which is conveniently located near the Tampa airport (so it can be the first place you visit after landing and the last place you visit on your way out; book tickets appropriately).
Recently, the Cigar City tasting room was granted final approval from the local government, after a long battle and threats to close its doors. It seems some city council members had concerns about the effect of a brewery on the community.* Driving to the brewery I could see their point. I would really hate to see a top notch, innovative business drive down property values of the sewage treatment facility two blocks away and those wonderful big box stores across the way hawking crap built in China.
*or donations to their re-election campaigns and/or pocketbooks. This is Florida after all.
Currently Cigar City distribution is fairly limited. You can find it at good stores all over Tampa and Florida, and there is limited distribution in some other southern States as well as New York City and Philly. I believe they plan on wider distribution but this is still a small operation.
Pulling into the parking lot, the first thing I saw was the Cigar City beer truck— a modified midsize SUV with a sweet paint job and six taps sticking out the side— Sweet! Also notable on the exterior was the use of grain chaff (what is left over after the “good parts” are extracted for beer) instead of woodchips as landscaping material. Refreshingly eco-friendly, in a state where it is easier to run over a manatee with a motorboat than to encounter a facility to recycle glass.
The tasting room was medium-sized, with room for about a dozen people at the gorgeous mahogany-colored hardwood bar (served by two bartenders) and about ten tables. The staff was very friendly and happy to answer questions. In addition to beer on tap to taste, there were 4-packs, 6-packs, and 750ml bottles, and growlers of brew for sale as well as schwag such as pint glasses, snifters, and t-shirts. The tasting room had a nice ambiance, with classic rock playing (but not too loud). The tasting room also features several “guest taps” which feature top quality drafts from other top quality craft breweries.
Eight Cigar City brews were available on-tap for our visit, though the bartenders said they frequently offer as many as twelve at once. Apparently they are having some growing pains, in that their beer sells faster than they can brew it, thought they are currently expanding to address this issue Cigar City only brews two beers (the Maduro Oatmeal Brown Ale and the Jai Alai IPA) year round, which means the rest of the taps are seasonal beers and experimental one-offs. Best of all, beer was available for taste in pints, snifters, and a flight of four 4-oz servings (only $6 a flight, a tremendous value and a great way to sample everything). I ordered two flights to taste the complete sample.
The first three beers were all brewed with the same base recipe, and had similar appearance, malt, and hop profiles:
Maduro Oatmeal Brown Ale – 5.5% ABV:
Let me start by saying that like many Aleheads, the Brown or Nut Brown is not my favorite style. Not that they are bad, or that I would turn one down if handed to me, but I don’t seek them out and they just never seem to wow me. Well, this is probably the best brown ale I’ve had. Perhaps it is the use of oats, perhaps it is just a better recipe or better ingredients. Whatever the case, the beer is mahogany in color, with a smooth malty flavor and a relatively strong (for a brown ale) yet balanced hop finish. At 5.5%, the Maduro’s drinkability is sky-high, it is probably the only true session brew that Cigar City produces, and it’s a good one. 3 Hops.
Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Ale – 5.5% ABV
Overall this beer is very similar to the Maduro, but is brewed with some spices (cinnamon and cloves rule the aroma). I firmly acknowledge and embrace the power of suggestion, and agree that yes, this beer tastes a lot like an oatmeal raisin cookie. The spices are subtle though, and meld well with the beer. Drinkability was similar to the Maduro. This was an interesting beer, and worth a try if you have the chance. 3.0 Hops.
Bolita Double Brown Ale – 9.0% ABV
So remember how I said that a brown ale had never wowed me? Well… wow, the Bolita is some beer. The flavors are similar to the Maduro, but about 3x more potent, with a bright malty sweetness (almost reminiscent of a wee heavy) and a sizable hop bite to counterbalance. This beer makes me realize that what many brown ales I have sampled lack is good flavor. The alcohol was present, but not overpowering. This is a big beer, so drinkability is moderate, although the sample went down with eaze. 3.5 Hops
Jose Martí India Porter – 8.0% ABV
At 8.0%, the ABV and the flavors of this porter borders on an imperial/double style. The beer pours dark brown with a tan head which dissipates quickly. Aroma is not particularly strong. Chocolate roasted malts and some espresso flavors dominate (especially in the finish), with a huge hop profile for a porter. Like brown ales, I often think that porters are a little too watered down, but this one is solid, and the “India” style hops add significant interest. This is a big beer, but drinkability is dangerously high. One of the best porters I have had, however it this strays from a typical American Porter some with the big hop finish, so I’m not sure if a comparison is fair. But who really cares, because this beer is fantastic. 3.5 hops.
Jai Alai IPA – 7.5% ABV
Like the Jose Martí Porter, this IPA is on the border between a single and a double style. Pours slightly cloudy and coppery red in appearance, with a subtle malt backbone and a strong, bitter hop finish. While a nice brew, it carries a hefty pricetag of $13.99 a sixer, and I think there are similar or better options in the same league for $10.00 or less. This maybe overly critical, but in a top notch IPA I want the bouquet of hops to gradually evolve and the flavors to shift as the beer swirls and warms on the tounge. In the Jai Alai, I thouht the hop flavors through all their cards down immediately. Still a great beer though. 3.5 hops.
Tocobaga Red Ale – 7.2% ABV
Very similar to the Jai Alai in many respects, but with one fundamental difference: a more dynamic hop profile! I’m not sure what hops are used, but there was plenty of grapefruit, pine and maybe some tropical flavors lik passion fruit in there. The longer I held a sip, the more different flavors came out. This beer is everything I wanted from the Jai Alai. Though labeled as “red ale” it is only slightly redder than that Jai Alai, and is just hoppy as if not hoppier. Unfortunately, this beer isn’t bottled yet though I really wish it was. 3.5 hops.
Bin 69 Double Cream Ale – 10.2% ABV
This beer is a total conundrum, unlike anything I have ever tried before. The pale color is incredible deceiving for this huge, strong ale. The use of corn (and rye?) malts in addition to the barely results in thick, syrupy, creamy brew which coats every part of your mouth, tongue, and throat. I think the beer has roughly 1 million calories per serving, and I mean that as a huge compliment. To put it another way, you could wash it down with bacon and feel refreshed. As for taste, this isn’t your skunky Genny Cream Ale. The malt and hops are mild, pleasant, and unobtrusive, and really texture takes the center stage, then the alcohol. Lots of sweet, sweet alcohol. The aftertaste (including an informative belch) has just a hint of an American Lite Lager. Drinkability was low, yet I couldn’t put it down? If this review doesn’t make sense, then I captured the essence of this beer. The brew is truly innovative, a well crafted, interesting twist on an otherwise dull, bland style. If you ever have a chance to try this unique beer (I don’t think it is bottled yet) by all means try it. 3.5 hops.
Double India Black Ale – 11.2% ABV
The India black (or Cascadian Dark) is a style I haven’t been able to try much yet, as currently zero beer distributors in my current residence of Kansas carry a single one. Thick, tan head, and black as night in color. Rich, chocolately roasted malts and a strong hop profile. This beer seemed pretty similar to a RIS to me, but perhaps with a touch more hop bite in the finish. A solid brew, which I believe is still in the experimental stages and only available at the tasting room? 3.5 hops
Kopi con Leche – ??? ABV
After asking the bartenders about some of the brews, I was poured an additional free taste of another experimental beer from a “hidden” tap not on the menu. The bartenders said they weren’t pouring much of it for customers, because they wanted it to themselves, and after tasting it I know exactly why. I don’t know much about the beer, except that it is a blended collaboration with Danish brewery Mikkeller (a highly regarded brewery known for producing their beers in 12 oz. singles, at price points most craft brewers reserve for 6-packs), and that it was phenomenal. I believe it is a blend of a Mikkeller sweet/milk stout with the Cigar City Cubano Expresso. The beer features an un-relentless thick dark brown head, and a black color which absorbs all nearby light, darkening the room around it. It tastes like an espresso chocolate milkshake. That’s right, Cigar City created the Frappe of beers, a chocolate-espresso-milk-stout, or a least I think they did. I would definitely call this a dessert beer, though it actually wasn’t overly sweet on the palate. The texture was smooth and creamy, and the body was that of a 1000 lbs gorilla. The original gravity must have been something like on Jupiter. That said, the beer was pretty drinkable though I think a small pour after dinner would do the trick. The alcohol was well hidden, though given the huge body, and that it is a stout brewed at Cigar City, my guess is that it is high (maybe the 8–10% range). Another incredible, unique, and interesting beer from Cigar City. 4.0 hops.
I probably could have just given all of these beers 4 hops, but I figured that would be over the top for my first tasting notes on the site. I can’t wait for another trip to Tampa to go visit…”family.”