Among the perils of being out in the world actively searching for new and exciting fermented beverages (others of which include being arrested, punched, dumped, excommunicated, and at least in the Commander’s case, stabbed) is the possibility of consuming some truly foul brews. Some breweries make brilliant small-batch beers most of the time, some less frequently, but even the best have their misses. As Aleheads, I am sure that all of us have come across some absolutely undrinkable messes from time to time. And so, this week’s Conundrum (a gem from the unlikely source of Slouch Sixpack) is as follows: What is the worst small-batch or “one-off” beer you’ve come across?
If you happen to have a runner-up in mind that you feel deserves mention as well, go for it.
HERR HUMULUS HORDEUM
This is an easy one. A couple years ago (2008?) a roommate brought home something different from the local suds shop. He has eclectic tastes in beer, sometimes coming home with Leinenkugel Berry Weiss, and other times bringing back a decent Scotch ale to share. This time, despite his best intentions, he found possibly the worst beer I’ve ever come across: the Sam Adams Triple Bock. At the time, I didn’t do much online research on beer, so we had no idea what we were in for.
Here is some background: Unbeknownst to us, my roommate purchased a 15-year-old bottle of beer “on sale.” the Triple bock was brewed once, and then released in three separate vintages (1994, 1995, 1997). Some people credit the beer with starting the “extreme” beer movement, and at one point it was the strongest beer in the world at 17.5%. Apparently at one point it was also an interesting and intriguing brew, if you look around on the net, you can find some favorable reviews, mostly a few years after the beer’s release. Apparently Sam Adams made way too much of it, and now it is just extremely bad.
The Triple Bock poured like cold molasses. When we opened the bottle and turned it upside down, nothing happened at first. The beer challenged physics. The appearance was nice enough, thick, black, viscous. And then the aroma ruined everything: Rotten Asian food. And not the good, intentionally rotten funk of fish sauce (which is delicious), but the bottle of soy sauce that you find at the back of the bottom shelf at your local, slightly spooky Asian grocery store that was brewed around the time the Chairman’s little red book was first making its debut. And then we tasted it. Again, like soy sauce, but linked in unholy union with maple syrup. You know what? I don’t want to think about it anymore. I just threw up in my mouth a little.
I’m sure in its prime this was a quality brew, but its time had passed.
BROTHER BARLEY MCHOPS
Sadly, for me, the Triple Bock isn’t even close to the worst one-off I’ve had in my day. I’ve always enjoyed trying the more esoteric offerings at various brewery tasting rooms and brew-pubs. Sometimes they’re exquisite…often they’re nothing special. One-off brews are a chance for brewers to really experiment and have fun, but that doesn’t always translate to a quality beverage. That’s OK…as long as the brewery doesn’t ramp every weird experiment up to production level like a certain douchebag brewmaster in Delaware, I have no problem with occasionally terrible one-offs.
Well…”almost” no problem. Because sometimes a beer is just so goddamn awful that it makes you want to track down the brewmaster and dump your unfinished pint over his stupid head. Case in point, the Boston Beer Works Chocolate Cherry Bomb.
Many beers ago, a much younger Brother Barley ventured to Boston Beer Works on that most useless of holidays, Valentine’s Day. Boston Beer Works is a fairly well-respected institution in Beantown that helped pave the way for successful brewpubs in the Hub. There are two locations in Boston…one located across the street from Fenway Park and the other right near the new Boston Garden (or whatever the hell they call it now). There’s actually a third branch in Salem, MA…near to where Doc, Sudsy and I grew up (and where the three of us spent entirely too much time).
Boston Beer Works has a reputation for making pretty hit or miss brews (though I should point out that the Salem location, where Alehead fave Nate Heck brews, has a much higher success rate). I generally enjoyed sampling their wares when I lived in Boston…even if there was inevitably a clunker or two on draught. But on that particular Valentine’s Day, nothing could have prepared me for the sugary sweet putridity of their Chocolate Cherry Bomb.
I suppose the beer was some sort of variation on a milk stout, but instead of just a touch of lactose, it was brewed with 10 pounds of milk chocolate, 20 pounds of semi-sweet chocolate, and then primed with cherry syrup (you bet I still remember the recipe). Readers might reasonably ask why I would order such a beer in the first place. I honestly have no idea…I guess it was like driving by a particularly gruesome car wreck…I know I should just keep driving, but…well…I’m a curious guy!
The beer drank like the dregs of a cup of burnt hot chocolate mixed with the liquid from a jar of obnoxiously red maraschino cherries. The head was as flat as a pancake and no carbonation escaped the murky, black depths of that monstrosity. I needed an insulin shot after a few sips but the odd thing was that, despite the overwhelmingly awful sweetness, that strange, bitter, burnt chocolate flavor was what I remember most. Perhaps it’s because I’ve had plenty of overly sweet malt-bombs since that day, but that acrid, charred flavor has never been replicated. I think I switched exclusively to drinking Scotch for the rest of that Winter in the hopes that the pure fire and smoke of whiskey would scour the taste of the Chocolate Cherry Bomb out of my mouth. It worked…but scouring my memory has proven to be a much more difficult task. That flavor still lingers there…just writing about it makes me cringe.
The horror…the horror.
While never one to focus on the negatives in life, when the siren of Beerford’s Conundrum calls out through the mist and haze, I must respond (unless the topic is stupid or I’m feeling lazy). To answer this particular question, I need look no further than the recently subsumed Magic Hat Brewing Company. While MH will always hold a sentimental space in my heart due to its temporal and geographic proximity during my beer-swilling formative years, their ability to put together some experimental stinkers is well documented. Foremost to blame in my own tale of woe is the state of Pennsylvania’s Liquor Control Board and the inconvenient and senseless distribution laws it enforces. Unlike most other states, it is impossible to buy a six-pack of beer in PA. Beer is only sold by the case of 24. If you only want to sample a new brew, you must go to a bottleshop and purchase individual bottles at a dramatically inflated price. Thus cost-conscious Aleheads are swept out and forced to navigate the deadly waters known as “The Sampler Pack”.
The year was last year. The date was some random weekend. The occasion was football, and the Alewife was requesting beer. More specifically apricot beer, which left me with few options- this was a case for Magic Hat #9.
But I didn’t want a case of #9… I wanted 6 of them, for it would take weeks for the Alewife to consume 24 of these beers. The rest would have to be stored, stepped over, and passive-aggressively glared at by yours truly. So upon entering the beer distributor, I did what any sensible Alehead would do- I grabbed the Winter Sampler.
Magic Hat loves them some Sampling. If variety is the spice of life, then Magic Hat is the adjunct ingredients list for Harpoon’s Winter Warmer. They have samplers for every season, federal holiday, and sectarian life event. They have a Sampler Pack specifically formulated to bring as a gift to prison weddings. The weird thing about all these packs is that they all have #9. Apparently apricot Pale Ale goes down as well playing volleyball on Spring Break in Daytona Beach as it does ice fishing on Lake Minnetonka in February. Either that, or the #9 is their only “good” beer (i.e. the only one that sells) so they stuff six of them in every lame-ass mixer box they peddle.
Unbeknownst to me, I was walking into a vortex of fermented bile known as the Odd Notion Winter ‘09. The Odd Notion series is Magic Hat’s offering of seasonal beers, and is one of the least compellingly monikered beer lines ever produced. Thoughts can be categorized thusly:
- Great Idea- We should make a high end gaming PC that pours beer!
- Bad Idea- We should make a beer sling shot!
- Odd Notion- I wonder if God is a gay turtle?
You see? Odd notions are random, nonsensical thoughts that flit through your mind uncontrollably and are soon lost in the ether. Well, Magic Hat decided to write down their odd notions, make them into seasonal brews, package them with a certain popular apricot ale, and unleash them upon an unsuspecting Alehead populous.
The Magic Hat Odd Notion Winter ‘09 is allegedly a 4.5% American Wild Ale. It poured a clear amber hue with yeasty flakes and little to no head. Lacing? Ha! It smelled vaguely sweet. It tasted vaguely tart, with a sour milk finish. Like an STD it arrived, caused an unpleasant sensation, and drifted away never to be seen or heard from again- a fate all “One Awfuls” deserve.
DR. RIPPED VAN DRINKALE, III
This is a tough one because it’s my own damn fault for getting into this mess. I’ve had duds from many breweries and certainly gotten my hopes up for a beer that quickly disappoints, but for the most part I knew what I was getting into and I had every reason to be optimistic about any new offering I tried. With this beer though, there’s simply no excuse. I should have known better.
Brother Barley and I have talked at length about the merits and faults of a certain Rogue Ales out of Newport, OR. They make a ton of beer and have an offering from just about every style one could ever imagine, but like all things, sometimes there’s just too much of a good thing. Great, great beers they will produce, but truly mediocre beers they will be known to pack on the shelves with the same gusto. Every time, and I mean every time that I grab a new (or new to me) offering from Rogue I’m scratching my head as to why I wasted the money. Then I grab a bottle of the Brutal Bitter or Shakespeare Stout and I’m back on the horse wondering if I should keep going back to the well. As I mentioned above though, there’s one offering from Rogue that I should have known better to avoid. What was I thinking when I purchased the Rogue Dad’s Little Helper Malt Liquor?
There is no answer to that question, I wasn’t thinking at all. I’m guessing I felt that it was a cute idea and the price wasn’t too bad, but again, anything that says Malt Liquor on the label and actually means what they say is a very, very bad thing. I don’t really want to talk about the taste, I’m sure you can figure that out on your own. Corn, stale bread, day-old cider and/or cheese – It’s just absolutely awful. And it should be awful. I guess that’s the success of this bottling. They set out to a brew a beer with flaked corn that tasted like your typical corner store “fo’ty” and they did just that. I’m still trying to figure out how they crammed a 40 into a 22oz bottle though. I guess I never really understood that “conservation of mass” thing.
COMMANDER PINT O. CHUG
As usual, I’m not answering the question. I blame all of you for your misfortunes. There is a difference between being an adventurous drinker (and I think we can all agree that Brother Barley and his drunken alter ego, whom we affectionately dubbed “Questor” in college, is nothing if not that) and ordering stupidly.
I won’t touch a one-off unless it is (a) from a brewery I have tremendous faith in, (b) recommended by someone I have some degree of faith in, or (c) a style that I am highly likely to enjoy. (There’s also the occasion when I have no choice–rarely the case for a one-off.) Otherwise it’s just a waste of money and brain and liver cells. Every one of the above responses fails those tests:
- Sam Adams Triple Bock – it’s made by Sam Adams and it’s a bock. ‘Nuff said.
- BBW Chocolate Cherry Bomb – this loses on all fronts. It’s made by a brewery across the street from Fenway Park that sells mediocre beers at a premium. It contains fruit. When the most reliable source who recommends a beer is the bartender at the brew pub where it’s made, that’s not a good sign either.
- Magic Hat Odd Notion – a wild ale from a brewery whose flagship contains apricots. Recommended by 22-year-old females everywhere. NEXT!
- Rogue Dad’s Little Helper Malt Liquor – remarkably, this is the closest beer on the list to one I would have tried. I agree with Doc’s thoughts entirely: a well-credentialed (if not actually good) brewery making a malt liquor? And it’s called Dad’s Little Helper Malt Liquor? I could see myself paying $5 to see how it is.
Not that I’m immune to trying a bad one-off occasionally. Of the three tests for trying a one-off, the “recommendation of someone I have some degree of faith” is the most malleable–“Some degree of faith” is a low bar. It’s similar to my logic for trying beers in a brewery’s normal lineup, and is how, from time to time, I’ll try a real stinker from a reliable brewery, like the Bell’s Cherry Stout. But on beer generally (again, not just one-offs) I’ll take the advice of just about any bartender not pushing the bar’s own brews, which has gotten me into all kinds of trouble, like the Minhas Brewery’s Lazy Mutt Farmhouse Ale–possibly the worst beer ever sold to the public. Even “Lord” Copperpot suggests anything from Ithaca Brewing Company, probably whether he’s tried it or not, and yet I do have “some” faith in his recommendations.
In closing, don’t blame the brewery. Blame yourselves. May god have mercy on your souls (for those of you who have one… Slouch, may god have mercy on your next beer). I’m still chuckling about Dad’s Little Helper Malt Liquor.
There are clearly things that shouldn’t be put into beer, and beers that shouldn’t be either brewed in the first place, nor purchased and consumed in the second. Alas, every once in a while a perfect storm of circumstances come together to put a beer that shouldn’t exist into the mouth of an Alehead who shouldn’t be drinking it. In my case, this perfect storm resulted in my unfortunate sampling of Fort George North the Fourth. As this is the only beer I’ve sampled from Fort George, a brewery out of Astoria, Oregon, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that this was a horrific accident that will not be repeated. But goddamn was this a miss.
I’m a firm believer that spruce tips are the dumbest thing anyone’s ever put into a beer (OK, that’s obviously not true). If I wanted to drink a pine tree, well, screw that, I just don’t want to drink a damn pine tree. Along with 40 pounds of spruce tips, the brilliant folks at Fort George decided it’d be fun to dump in a couple pounds of candy canes, sixty pounds of cranberries, and every spice they could think of. Basically, they decorated their Christmas tree and then chucked the whole thing into the fermenter. And then they were kind enough to not give me any kind of notice that this beer was car-air-freshener-flavored, but rather just gave it a kitschy holiday name and handed me a glass with a smile at the alefest I was attending. I don’t know where the cranberries went, because this beer just tasted like a minty piney spice rack. Two sips was as far as I made it into this festive holiday delight before going in search of a Quad to rinse my mouth out with.
Naturally I don’t encourage you, dear readers, to hesitate in sampling the interesting one-off and novelty brews that your favorite breweries produce. Most will be drinkable, and even the worst will at least give you something to bitch about on your beer website. But please do be careful, and watch out for the occasional dog crap land mine while you’re out there. I guess it’s not always easy to…