None of the three beers you’re about to read of here is brand new. This was, in fact, just the result of a casual, Saturday afternoon, walk-through of my local beer shop and, in two cases, are beers I already tasted but thought needed a little time in the bottle to get where they were headed. In the case of all three, the reactions were, “Wow!”, “Oh, Wow!”, and “Holy S__t!”
I first tasted the Strange Craft Brewing “Cherry Kriek” back when the brewery, down there in the shadowy nether-regions of semi-industrial Denver, was just called “Strange Brewing”. This seems like aeons ago, before they were besieged by some ignorant jackass home-brewing supply owner from Massachusetts who claimed – in one of the most irrational and self-important pieces of threatened litigation that’s ever arisen in the American Craft Beer community – that Strange Brewing, a small craft brewery that was, at the time, even obscure in Denver, was trading off his even more obscure company’s “massive reputation”. Setting aside for a moment the FACT that both that knucklehead and Strange Brewing stole the name from the Rick Moranis/Dave Thomas movie and/or the old Cream song, it takes a certain kind of over-inflatable ego to presume that your Massachusetts brewing supply company that has maybe two dozen customers anywhere west of the Mississippi (we DO have brewing supply places out West, folks) has any “reputation” off which one could trade. But it became a cause célèbre for a LOT of American craft fans and blew up so badly on the silly twit in Mass that eventually he was forced to settle for the real Strange Brewing being called “Strange CRAFT BEER Company“, when he had originally insisted that they drop “Strange” altogether. The real Strange got a more distinctive name and the itchy type in MA got a wave of hatred that would peel the paint off a Shelby Mustang. Sometimes life does work out just right.
That preamble was to say that, the first time I tasted Cherry Kriek, at their well-hidden, no-frills location on Zuni Street, (there’s a Denver neighborhood called “Cherry Creek”, so the name accurately describes the Americanized Belgian fruit-beer style AND makes a Denver connection) the brewery was going through a bit of turmoil, so any shortcomings I perceived then had to be revisited after all the dust had settled. BUT, I’ve been so universally disappointed with most American fruit beers that I hesitated to even taste it. It was a brutally hot day, so I finally caved, on the assumption that something with cherries would be refreshing. It was that. It just wasn’t all that good.
But, since then, with legalities long-since tucked away, I retasted Cherry Kriek, out of a bottle that our son shipped up to us for Christmas. In the interim, it took a Gold Medal from The World Beer Cup, so obviously something had changed from that original, somewhat under-realized effort.
Let me just say this plainly: Strange Craft Beer Company “Cherry Kriek” is a GLORIOUS ale. Freakin’ mouth-watering, soulful, deeply satisfying, beautifully made, alarmingly easy to drink – and it takes zero advanced beer acumen to enjoy it. The cherry flavors explode upon the first millisecond of the first sip and just keep expanding as the beer gradually warms. It reminds me – VERY remotely – of the brilliant Unibroue “Quelque Chose“, in its all-out commitment to delivering mega-tonnage of cherries. It’s considerably less sweet than its Canadian cousin, which is, for me, what puts it smack in the wheelhouse of all those, like me, who are wary of infused ales.
Strictly speaking, it’s not a Lambic-style ale, which is where the term “kriek” (German for “cherry”) comes from. This one doesn’t really have that tart, almost sour bite to it, as the best Belgian Flanders cherry ales do. But quibbling with that distinction does a disservice to what Tim Myers and his crew have done with this. One of my biggest complaints with any infused ale is an infusion underdone. It especially irks me with smoked ales, when I have to sit and focus fervently and search for the smoke. I want a smoked ale, an Islay Scotch, or even smoked sea salt to taste like it sat in a smokehouse for two days like a Carolina pork shoulder. I want it to practically still be smouldering. And with cherry ales, My God, I sometimes can’t even detect cherries at all. Strange’s version is like eating a spoonful of Morello cherry jam while drinking a nice farmhouse ale; a bright, fresh, silken, voluptuous mouthful of fruity goodness that does not obscure what is a very good base ale that contributes a grainy, warm underpinning of malts to the flavors, graced by a discreet but effective dose of punchy, citrusy hops. This is a beautiful ale but you’re probably going to have to get it by either swinging by Strange’s crowded-but-comfortable taproom on your next trip to Denver or get a Colorado pal to ship ya one. Trust me, if you like fruit ales, it’s well worth the trouble. 97 Points
Just as pleasing, if in a slightly different style, is NoLi Brewhouse “Mosh Pit”, a chewy new four pack of 12 oz. bottles that scores BIG points just for coming up with a new way to say “cherry”. Mosh is a “tart cherry ale” that reminds me most of Liefman’s “Fruitesse” Kriekbier – just a hint of that tartness and a dry, crisp, brutally refreshing finish that just begs for another sip. Like the Strange, this gorgeous NoLi cherry is madly user-friendly. NO, it is absolutely NOT some kind of soda-pop beer aimed at non-beer fans. The base ale here is a creamy Amber/Pale that shows assertively through the elegant wash of pie cherries and offers a tad more hops than the Strange and no more than a touch of tartness; certainly not anything like the puckery astringency of a better Belgian Kriek. But the cherry character is very transparent and present and shows the amazing bounty of agricultural brilliance that is Washington state. NoLi “Mosh Pit” is one of those landmark NW ales that takes the idea of a cherry ale in a totally different direction from what we’ve seen in the very aggressive Lambic-style ales from Cascade and Logsdon or the black cherry liqueur notes of a dark ale like Walking Man’s titanic Black Cherry Stout. There’s a definite place in the palette of NW fruit ales for something lighter and less confrontational and it comes as NO surprise to me that the wonderfully rersurgent NoLi, a brewery which has literally reinvented itself over the past three years, was the one to make it to the new territory first. 94 Points
The third ale I tasted this weekend was nothing short of revelatory. How Jamie Floyd, brewmaster/partner in Eugene, Oregon’s splendid Ninkasi Brewing, met Jason Oliver, brewmaster for Devil’s Backbone, hasn’t been explained but I suspect it had something to do with GABF, where Jamie was a lecturer/judge and Jason was renting U-Haul trailers to cart away all the medals DB was winning. These two formidable brewing minds got together to produce what I think is one of the two or three best ales I’ve tasted in the past five years. Ninkasi/Devil’s Backbone “The Devil Went Down To Oregon” is a masterpiece; a hedonistic, exquisitely-crafted Dark Rye Ale that reminds me strongly of my all-time favorite beer, Deschutes “Jubelale”. Stylistically, the two beers are not really all that similar but in net effect – the striking richness and hoppy edge and luminous malts and just plain ol’ deliciousness – they’re spiritual twins.
The chewy character of the rye gives this ale a rib-sticking quality that I find wildly appealing and the array of spices, grain notes, warm caramel malts, and lovely hop tanginess that shows as citrus and wild herbs mesh seamlessly with the lurking notes of molasses, vanilla, and cigar box that provide the bass notes. It is as purely delicious an ale as I’ve ever come across and, here in the dead of winter, gives all us weather-battered Americans a perfect bridge beer between the warmth of the vanishing Christmas/Winter seasonals and the pale spring lightness to come. This is just an absolutely fabulous ale, easily the best American dark Rye Ale I’ve found yet. The HopHead kids on the beer rating sites will, lemming-like, find Devil less bitter than they tell themselves a beer just MUST be, which means that you and I should be able to find it for a bit longer than its sheer quality would suggest. I’m really hoping that – as happened with the sublime collaboration between Ninkasi and 21st Amendment that resulted in “Allies Win The War” becoming an annual event – smart craft beer fans will lobby both breweries to do this again. I’ll certainly advocate for it and trust that one tasting of it will be more than enough to get a LOT of other people to do the same. 99 Points
It’s nice to Ninkasi & Devil’s Backbone make a beer that highlights different malt characteristics so well, so many brewers are making way out of balance RYE IPA’s with a “just add rye” mentality versus this beer where they clearly deconstructed and reconstructed a beer style to make it fantastic.