Thursday 16 February 2012

SF Beer Week: Wednesday

If big bourbon barrels defined our Tuesday drinking out here, today was all about huge IPAs. One of the features of the first week of February in California is the release of the almost mythical Pliny the Younger, Russian River's triple IPA that features regularly in may beer aficianodos’ best beer in the world lists. Their double IPA, Pliny the Elder, is available on tap almost year round in California, but Younger, which has an even bigger hop schedule, is only available for the first couple of weeks of February. If you follow any American beer bloggers on Twitter, you’ve no doubt seen some kind of acerbic comment about the frenzy that accompanies the release of Younger. e.g. 'what is this 'Younger' and why do we have to queue for him at 7am!?!?'. And so forth.

When we sorted our trip to California, seeking out a taste of the Younger was one of the first things on the agenda. Now that our jet lag had finally worn off, it was out best opportunity. We’d been tipped off that the Toronado would be putting a fresh keg of Younger on every day until the end of Beer Week, but as they open at 11.30am every day, we didn’t want to waste any time, so headed off down Haight St. Drinking a huge IPA before lunchtime might seem insane, but if the alternative was missing out on Younger altogether, then we were game for some early-bird boozing.

When we finally found the Toronado, it was a fantastic sight. A stable door at the entrance, Chimay signs outside, neon signs and paraphernalia for all the great breweries of the world hanging inside, and more than 20 beer lines to deliver an incredible range of beer. I wish I’d taken more photos of the place – when you walk into somewhere like Brewdog Camden and see what they are trying to achieve in their house bar, this must be the sort of place they have in mind. Jukebox in the corner, every seat filled by 12.30 with people drinking double IPAs or Belgian-style quadrupels or imperial stouts… Perfect.

The scoreboard-style list of beers on draught didn’t seem to be up to date, and on approaching the bar they told me to refer to that day’s printed beer menu, and to order by number. Disappointingly, there was no Younger, so I went for a 'number 2' – Pliny the Elder, the little brother of younger, but still an 8% double IPA. While I was waiting for it to be poured, the guy at the bar next to me said ‘You do know they have Younger on, the bigger version of Elder? They just don’t put it on the menu.’ – and so I asked for a Younger to go with its big brother. Clearly, ordering Younger requires a bit of inside knowledge, a secret password, or something similar - but anyway, I was finally in and ready to try some PTY.

(l-r - Russian River Pliny the Younger, Russian River Pliny the Elder)

When it came – in a miserly 6oz pour – Younger was lighter than I thought it would be, and lighter than Elder in colour. Check the photo to see what I mean. I’m glad I’d ended up ordering the Elder first, as tasting them both side by side showed up how much difference there was between the two. Elder was a classic California double IPA – big on the floral aroma, thick malt backbone, piney bitterness to finish. But Younger was something different – where the hops took it beyond what you’d expect from a beer. Conventionally, you’d think that the more you hop a beer, the more bitter it is and that has to be balanced by more malt. However, at no point while drinking the Younger do you feel that the hops are leading the beer. It is, by all accounts, an insanely hopped beer, with three hop schedules, according to Russian River’s website, but because the balance is so good, you taste an intensity and subtlety of the hops that I’ve never tasted before. All kinds of citrus peel and tropical fruits come to the fore but never dominate. I’m not a good enough writer about beer to really describe it, but I could have drunk it all day. And when dealing with a ‘triple IPA’ with an ABV of 11%, that’s a very dangerous thing to say.

Once the sun had gone down, we headed over to the Amsterdam CafĂ© in the Tenderloin (despite instruction from the porter at our hotel never to venture into that area on safety grounds… sorry Johnny). Their line-up of SFBW events is superb – if it hadn’t been for the intervention of our friend Mel, we would almost certainly have given their Mikkeller night a look on Tuesday. Wednesday belonged to Dogfish Head though, with ten different brews on draft and another 8 in bottle, including a few rareties. We had to wait for 10 minutes to get into Amsterdam as the bar was absolutely rammed, but queuing up outside was a small price to pay for what we found once we got in.

(The bar at the Amsterdam Cafe - we'll definitely be back here before we fly home)

As I said in my introduction to the blog, DFH are largely responsible for my conversion to America’s fantastic beers, but because they are so hard to find in the UK, I haven’t touched a Dogfish beer since New Year’s Eve 2010. Walked into a bar where they’re casually tapping 120 Minute IPA is like striking the motherlode, and that’s exactly what they were doing at Amsterdam. I started off with a glass of that, and it was everything I hoped it would be – huge sweetness and bitterness, with a distinct orange marmalade flavour mixed with that classic Scottish liqueur Drambuie. It was brilliant.

To provide a bit of a contrast, we had 16oz of their Chicory Stout, and while DFH are known for their experimental brews, their more conventional beers can still be a knockout. This was full of rich, dark flavour, with a hint of chicory bitterness – although G complained that it was a bit lacking in depth (something I’m going to put down to a couple of days of drinking massive barrel-aged stouts).

Something DFH have been trying over the past few years is to recreate past beers drunk by fallen historical empires, which brings us to Theobroma – recreated after analysing pottery found in Honduras that may once had held a cocoa-based beverage. Dogfish used this analysis to create this beer, bewed with chillies and cacao. I was expecting a dark beer, so when I had a glass of pale ale handed to me, I had to check that it wax definitely what I’d ordered! This reminded me a little of De Molen’s hugely disappointing Bed and Breakfast coffee beer – plenty of bell pepper in the palate (the Bed and Breakfast is dominated by this, in a bad way), before giving way to some coffee and then a mouth-filling chocolate character. There was no chilli flavour, which was disappointing considering that that was what had been billed as the main influence on the beer apart from cacao, but we still enjoyed it nonetheless. It was refereshing and never overwhelming, and I’d love to try this again.

(Dogfish Head's Theobroma aztec cacao beer - not the big dark beer you expect!)

To finish the night, we decided to try Faster, Bigger, Better Bolder, DFH’s collaboration with the Bruery on a Japanese beer, in aid of the victims of the 2011 earthquake that devastated the country. The promise of two kinds of sesame seeds, ginger, cayenne and a sake yeast was clearly a draw for the crowd at Amsterdam, as unfortunately it was sold out when I ordered it. A kind gent next to me at the bar let me have a taste of his bottle, and it was exceptional – slightly savoury, dry, quite thin, a little spicy and undeniably Japanese. In search of something else to drink, we opted for the honey-laced imperial stout Bitches’ Brew, created in honour of the Miles Davis record. Roasty and rich, it was just what we needed to finish our session.

(Dogfish pay tribute to Miles Davis with Bithces Brew - big, dark, roasty and tasty)

The day belonged to the big IPAs though, and Younger and 120 Minute IPA are examples of the kind of niche, off-kilter, massive-hop beers that I love to drink. And long may they continue to be brewed (even if I have to travel thousands of miles to drink them).

PS Brewdog have pre-announced a 16.5% triple IPA - Anarchist Alchemist - with a massive hop bill and an extensive dry-hop schedule, which they should be releasing during the spring. So perhaps I won't have to come all the way to the US for my big hop fix in future...


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