Wednesday 15 February 2012

SF Beer Week: Tuesday

Although the events for SF Beer Week start as early as 11.30am, we were still so jet-lagged that we couldn’t even consider a beverage until after the sun had started going down here. While we originally intended to try to visit as many different beer bars as possible while we was here, we ended up back at City Beer Store for a Firestone Walker night – again, this was the influence of Mel, who told us that they’d be tapping a special keg of a barrel-aged stout called Velvet Merkin. So how could we resist?

I first became aware of Firestone Walker when reading this excellent piece on David Walker, one of the brewery’s co-founders, written by the Independent's Will Hawkes. However, I’ve not had the pleasure of trying any of their beers before, as I’ve not seen them in even the most specialist of beer bars or shops in London. I’ll definitely be looking a lot more closely for them after tonight,

The main attraction was the aforementioned Velvet Merkin (also known, in its non-barrelled version, by the less titillating and entirely inexplicable name Velvet Merlin), an oatmeal stout that enjoys a good long rest in an oak bourbon barrel. If the side-by-side tasting of the BA and non-BA versions of Lost Abbey’s Serpent Stout yesterday was a good example of what bourbon barrels can bring to a beer, this was a bit of a masterclass. I can honestly say that the Merkin was one of the best beers I’ve ever drunk. The barrel aroma is softer and more mellow than most the BA stouts I’ve tried before. The vanilla and wood are still distinct, but you appreciate the subtlety.  Thick and rich on the palate - the result of 15% oats in the grain bill – the flavour profile is milk chocolate, roasted hazelnuts, a touch of coffee, cream, and a very gently bitter finish. At any point when the flavour might pull in one direction or another, it balances itself out – never too sweet, never too rich, a tweak of bitterness on the finish… It’s the best beer I’ve drunk so far in 2012. Sadly, as it’s only available on tap, this is probably the only time I’ll get a taste of it. As a bonus, it was being served with free cupcakes, which was a generous touch.

(On the right, Double Jack. On the left, the Velvet Merkin - cupcake not pictured)

The other FW beers were also very tasty, and only one was a miss. Double Jack, their imperial IPA, was exactly what you’d expect from the style – a floral tropical fruit scent, a big gust of malt through the middle, and a smack of piney hops in the back. Delicious. The miss was Bravo, a barrel-aged brown ale that split us all – Mel loved it, but for me it was too much like a sherry, cloyingly sweet and honeyed, with no real balance until it finished with a sort of acrid bitterness. And you could really taste its 13.5% ABV – some beers can disguise their alcohol quite well, whereas Bravo dresses it up in a sparkly catsuit and sends it out to parade in front of you. This one came with a brownie, which was a bonus.

Finally, Sucaba (the beer formerly known as Abacus, apparently) – a barley wine that, once again, had known the inside of a bourbon barrel. More wood and vanilla on the palate here, but much dryer and less sweet than the Bravo, despite again being a very strong beer (12.5%). With a kick of roasty tones, a bit of cigarette smoke and dark chocolate to round it out, we thought it was very enjoyable. But also at that stage we were starting to feel the effects of those high percentage beers.

(Mel's choice of finisher, the 2009 Cellar Reserve edition of North Coast's Old Stock Ale)

Naturally, we felt we had to have just one more, so Mel picked out a special bottle from the CBS fridges for us – North Coast’s 2009 Cellar Reserve edition of their Old Stock Ale, which was a real treat. I didn’t take notes as we shared it round and sipped it, but from the top of my head, it poured a deep, rich brown, like a cognac. It has a fantastic, mouth-coating creaminess that turned into caramel and then into raisins… and then it was all gone.

And just to complete the theme of the night, I should point out that, of course, it had been aged in a bourbon barrel.


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