One of my greatest and simplest pleasures is the tasting of a new beer. Aficionados treat the experience the way one would a fine wine: carefully pouring it into a glass, sniffing the aromas to detect subtle notes, and taking a small sip to ascertain the flavor and character of the beverage before digging in. This is not how one would treat beer such as Miller or Budweiser; the ritual would be pointless, as these are meant to be chugged in mass quantities without really being tasted (which is how they get away without having much flavor at all). While there are a few mass-produced beers worth an enthusiast’s while, the real gems are to be found among smaller craft breweries.
This is Craft Beer Week in Louisville, and it kicked off with the Craft Beer Cask Festival on Friday at the St. Matthew’s location Bluegrass Brewing Company. Twenty-two breweries from around the country (and one from Canada) presented thirty-three taps and sixteen casks of varying styles. A $30 ticket got attendees a six-ounce BBC taster glass and unlimited beer samples.
The action occurred in the BBC’s parking lot, a portion of which was roped off and tented. A wise move – it was a lovely, cool evening, which made for a pleasant drinking experience.
The selection ranged in strength and potency from the lighter lagers, pilsners, and hefeweizens to the dark and heavy stouts and barleywine. I was actually surprised to see a lager present. Serious beer drinkers tend to shun the lager, as it is the least notable beer style. However, if well-made, they can be a respectably smooth and refreshing thirst quencher. Such was the Riverton Brewery Helles Lager, a very pale specimen which tasted subtly of sweet malts. I compared this to my next taste: the Upland Preservation Pilsner.
It should be noted that the name “pilsner” is somewhat deceptive. The label originally referred to a lager brewed in the city of Plzeň, Czechoslovakia – specifically the well-known Pilsner Urquell. Now, pilsner is often interchangeable with “lager,” although pilsners usually have a bit more of a hop presence. Such was the Upland example: smooth and malty, but slightly bitter.
Hefeweizens, or German-style wheat beers, are a personal summer favorite. A cold hefe on a warm day can be just the thing to drive the heat away. The Avery White Rascal was a typical wheat ale: pale and murky in color, with notes of banana and clove.
I was very excited to see a couple of Unibroue beers on tap. A brewery from Quebec, Unibroue brews complex and exciting beers of disparate styles that deny specific classification. Take, for example, my favorite of their offerings – the Trois Pistoles. It is dark and silky and almost oppressive on the palate; it tastes slightly of overripe fruit. Drinking one of these is a unique experience; I have never before found anything even remotely similar.
I was not at all surprised to see an abundance of pale ale styles present – sixteen, to be exact (out of forty-nine beers – a whole third of the options!). While I personally have to be in the right mood to properly enjoy one (my preference is dark, roasty brews), I have found that very hoppy beers are extremely trendy right now among craft beer enthusiasts, and it is easy to see why: the pale ale is the antithesis of the lager. While lagers are often dull and sweet, pale ales burst with flavor and bitterness so intense that those unaccustomed to the experience find it unbearable. I sampled the New Albanian Henna Black IPA. Black IPAs, while a bit oxymoronic, are made with roasted malts, which gives them their dark color. It also adds a slight roastiness to the brew, which, if done right, mingles pleasantly with the heavy hop presence.
While wheat beers are great for summer, fall is just days away, and for that I demand autumnal beverages. I had the opportunity to visit the Great Lakes Brewery in Cleveland a few weeks ago, and I was thrilled to see them represented here with their Octoberfest ale. It is a delicious amber-colored brew, malty with notes of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg. It tastes like fall: cool weather, colorful leaves, and lingering sunsets.
The St. Louis-based Schlafly is one of my top-three favorite American breweries, and I naturally had to sample their offering of my favorite autumnal brew: the pumpkin ale. Similar to the Octoberfest, there is a sweet-spiciness, but the addition of pumpkin makes it taste like liquid pie. Schlafly’s Pumpkin Ale is incredible, and second only to Dogfish Head’s “Pun’kin” (which, sadly, wasn’t there that evening).
The most interesting beer of the evening was the BBC Melby Dick White Porter. A porter is a heavy, dark beer, just one tier under stout (which is really just a particularly strong porter), so the idea of a white porter intrigued me. The Melby Dick possessed all the taste qualities of a classic porter – strongly-flavored maltiness, high alcohol content, heavy mouthfeel – but the malts had not been roasted, so it came out pale-colored.
All-in-all, I was able to sample nineteen beers (at an average of two or three ounces per taste) before I realized my ability to detect subtleties in flavor was compromised. This is a fantastic event which is definitely worth attending next year.
In the meantime, Craft Beer Week is in full swing, and there are many more opportunities to taste and discover more wonders in the world of beer. A full list of events can be found here.