I had such ambitious plans for my next homebrew project. But after some reflection and consideration of my brewing skills, decided spending more than $1 per serving on the ingredients could not be justified.
So, I've been on the hunt for a good amber ale recipe, something with a nice color and a balanced flavor. I plan to give some away to friends and family and with any luck, start the process of weaning them from their slavery to American conglomerate beers.
I picked up a few Amber ales at Bubbles and Gomers, but the offerings are all over the map. Many American craft brewers tend to throw hops at their Amber ales at a rate similar to an IPA style. Others treat Amber ale as an opportunity ring up high unit margins by skimping on the malt and hop bill.
I eventually abandoned a taste search and just built a recipe using the calculator at beertools.com and various examples I found online until I arrived at a balanced formula at an acceptable cost:
Looking ahead, I envision said friends and relatives knocking down my door for more of my fermented manna, after being blown away by my Allegory Amber. Therefore it would be prudent to have something on hand to fulfill this demand. I feel a good choice might be an English style IPA, which I would expect to not be overly hoppy, have a nice malt backbone and a fairly dry finish. I think a dry finish helps make an ale acceptable to the delicate palates of my BudMillerCoors Light drinking brethren. Over a seven day period, this quest led me to try 7 different pale ales.
I began my endeavor at Gomers. I would pick up a Samuel Smith India Ale since there was no doubt about the style. After that, my approach was reduced to surmising the style from the packaging. I should have considered the sage advice about books and their covers, because it mostly applies to beer also.
When I saw the Schalfly Export IPA I was pretty sure this would be an English style. Just look at that label! The sun never sets on the British empire, mateys!
That label and well, the blurb on the package:
This full-bodied traditional English-style ale is brewed with a high gravity and extra hops, which originally helped to preserve the beer on long voyages from England to India.
I left Gomers with a 22oz Samuel Smith India Ale and a sixer of the Schlafly Export IPA.
Day One: Samuel Smith India Ale
DanielDanza at BeerAdvocate has a nice review of the Samuel Smith:
Pours a nice amber with a good fluffy head, with typical light carbonation. It improves in flavor as it warms; I'd love to try this on cask. The hop profile is tame by American standards although it is not an overpoweringly malty beer. The flavor is somewhat fruity with a definite cereal note which is not at all unpleasant.
I agree with all of the above, including the presence of "a definite cereal note." Unfortunately, I found this to not be pleasant at all. I'll not be trying to clone this beer.
Day Two: Schlafly Special Reserve Export IPA
This is much darker than the Samuel Smith and has a nice malty aroma, cookies and caramel. Really well balanced, the cookie sweetness is backed up with a nice hop spice finish. Good stuff. It seemed likely it might fit the bill for my next brew.
The next day I volunteered do some grocery shopping at HyVee, knowing I could peruse their single 12oz bottle offerings and perhaps build a choice six pack. This day the selection was fantastic. I picked up one each of Southhampton IPA, Grand Teton Lost Continent Double IPA, O'Dells St. Lupulin Extra Pale Ale, Avery IPA and Bell's Two-Hearted Ale.
Day Three: Southampton Publik House IPA
The Southampton description really raised my expectations:
Balance. That’s what separates India Pale Ales. And that’s the difference between the Southampton IPA and most others.
Southampton IPA is balanced between the hopped-up West Coast-style IPAs and the Old World characteristics of a traditional European IPA. You could say that Southampton IPA is located somewhere between Europe and California, figuratively and literally.
It features more balance than any other IPA brewed in America. The result is an American-style IPA with the Old World characteristics of a traditional European IPA.
With two English style IPA's already tested and the one in my hand touting its balanced profile, I really felt like I was on a roll. It poured golden and bright with nice carbonation, but immediately the aroma was troubling. There was no malt aroma or hop aroma either, just alcohol. The first sip confirmed this. The taste was positively medicinal. Did they arrive at a balance by taking out the malts from the English style, the hops from the American style and just leaving the ethanol? BeerAdvocate gave it fairly good ratings, so I'll just chalk it up to a bad bottle. That is a risk when buying single bottles, they are rarely the freshest beer. Oh well.
Day Four: Grand Teton Lost Continent
I'm not familiar with Grand Teton and after the disappointment with the Southhampton, I approached this beer with some trepidation. I was drawn to the bottle by what looked like a world map, which I felt might be an English style indicator. Of course the "Double IPA" style is American inspired and the map is of an imaginary continent, not India, but I knew that to arrive at the high ABV of the Double IPA style, they could not skimp on the malt bill. Hopefully this would result in a balanced profile.
A drawback to purchasing single bottles of unfamiliar beer: Without the cardboard carrier, you're likely to miss out on some of the brew's published characteristics: This is on the Grand Teton Brewing website:
In recent years, American brewers have created a new style: “Imperial,” or “Double” IPA. Our version is brewed with twice as much malt and hops as our everyday Sweetgrass IPA, dry hopped with American Cascade and Amarillo hops, and fermented to 7.5 percent alcohol by volume. The hops provide citrusy, resinous spiciness, making this beer a great match for any bold, flavorful food.
Uh, that sure didn't sound like an English style. Gueuzedude from BeerAdvocate describes the flavor well:
The taste is not quite as sweet as the aroma would have suggested and actually starts out with a clean hop character. Towards the finish the cloying crystal malt provides muddy caramel notes and ample toasty malt flavor before a light for an IPA bitterness is able to kick in. The malt never leaves the finish though and comes to make the palate forget the bitterness existed at all. Sticky caramelized orange zest flavors, stewed grapefruit and some sweetened pine needle flavors struggle through the murky malt character here. The hop character provides a green, somewhat astringent, herbal, pine biting bitterness throughout the flavor profile; this makes a valiant attempt at cutting through the malt focus, but in the end isn't quite up to the task.
Pine and stewed grapefruit! It's not an English style by any means. I was not bothered so much by the malt focus, but I knew I wouldn't be trying to clone this beer. So far Schlafly is still the front runner.
Day Five: Avery IPA
Nice "Old World" map and they don't even use the IPA acronym. There is the whole word "India" spelled out in a nice, Kiplingesque, India Tea style font. The opening page of Avery's website touts their eccentric ethos:
...we brew what we like to drink--with utter disregard for what the market demands-- and search out fans with equally eccentric palates.
One sniff and I knew this was going to be a highly hopped American style-pale ale. It is fine to push the limits of style, but why put it in a package that screams traditional English style IPA? Can't you give a fellow a clue? Perhaps an "Old World" style map of Colorado. Or maybe a glowing green hop bud replacing all instances of the lowercase letter "a" in "India Pale Ale".
Here's garthicus from RateBeer,
Appearance: Golden yellow with a nice amount of carbonation and a nice white head. Aroma: Ahh cat piss! Lots of hops, bitterness is mouthwatering, malt, peaches - very nice. Flavour: Cat piss again, delicious, lots of dry bitterness and a pine resin in the finish.
Gotta love a beer that tastes like cat piss! Actually it is a good pale ale, a good American Pale Ale.
Day Six: Bell's Two Hearted Ale
I've tried this before and I knew this was not the style I was after. Even though they call it an IPA, they put a trout on the bottle and claim Hemmingway might have toted this brew around. No chance anything reminding you of Rikki Tikki Tavi is going to come out of this bottle. Since I thought I was carting home a bunch of English style beer, it seemed reasonable to have something familiar for comparison.
This is a very good good beer, beautiful color and the citrus aroma is wonderful. Hops are up front, but it is tempered by the malt without being sweet. It finishes dry but not bitter. Very good, but I don't think it deserves the 100 rating on RateBeer.
Day Seven: Odell's St. Lupulin
The label was somewhat ambiguous and the "Extra Pale Ale" moniker somehow did not register with me. The wordcraft on the label was intriquing though,
A mystical legend echoes in our brewhouse - that of St. Lupulin(loop-you-lin) the archetypal hophead. He devoted endless summers to endless rows of hops, tending to the flowers and the beloved resin within - lupulin Extraordinary oils in this yellow resin provide this dry-hopped extra pale ale with an undeniably pleasing floral aroma and clean, crisp finish. One sip of this seasonal summer ale and you too, will believe.
HarseBrau of Kansas City tried it on September 9th and wrote this on RateBeer:
Sliced thin aroma of floral and hop normalcy. Oak wood color minus any grain plus a touch of caramel. Flavor is hoppy bitter with gnashed up flower stem aftertaste. It is crisp and fruity at the start though and the combo isn’t bad.
Isn't bad? Good god, HarseBrau, that "gnashed up flower stem aftertaste" is pure heaven. The complexity of the hops aroma and flavors in this beer are the closest thing to an LSD trip this side of the latest Prius commercial.
I did not want to stop smelling this beer and the only thing that could compel me to drag my nose out of the glass was my brain screaming at me, "Take another drink, damn it! Take another drink!" So I would start drinking and the explosion of citrus hop flavors of orange and a hint of lemon would hit my mouth and I reflexively braced for the pain of the hop bitterness except just enough malt sweetness would well up to compensate, then a flowery aroma would fill my nostrils and throat with a nice dry finish. Then I would start sniffing again...
The beer pours a beautiful pale gold color (HarseBrau said Oak?) with a fizzy head that laces and never completely dissipates. As the beer warms up the hop resins become more assertive and a slight bitterness creeps in and lingers at the back of the throat. Lingers and beckons, lingers and beckons. More sips and an alcohol warmth combined with the spicy hop resins begin to rise up in the cheeks, brow and ears.
Ok, screw the English style IPA, I need a case of this stuff!
This beer was a revelation. The symphony of flavors and smells swirling, rising and falling finds me grasping for descriptions. Like a fine musical composition, each serving a performance with nuances waiting to be discovered at every turn.
I will still brew my modest amber this go around, and I'll probably try my hand at an English style like the Schlafly Export IPA after that, but this beer will be calling my name the entire time and I will be that much more diligent in my efforts so that someday, perhaps, I might concoct a brew even half as enchanting as St. Lupulin.