Stone Brewing may just be America’s Best Brewery…And The Proof is in the Bottle.
I have a quotation I’ve used a lot, in the past, to describe someone or some group who accomplishes things with such off-hand grace and seeming nonchalance that it makes what the rest of us would struggle – and usually fail – to do seem as easy as pouring creamer into our coffee. Michael Jordan received that comparison from me, as did Eric Clapton and Anthony Hopkins and Robert Redford and Jacques Pepin and Tony Hawk and Rudolph Nureyev and Russell Wilson. Wolfgang Mozart said it, in response to a journalist’s question about how difficult it was for him to write that crazily complex music…
“I write music,” he said, “As a sow piddles.”
That stayed with me forever for its succinct and tossed-off essence. Mozart had as little ability to tell anyone how he did what he did as he had to stop doing it, and the remark to the writer contained a cleverly disguised but biting “Eff you, Jack” while answering the question perfectly.
In today’s American craft brewing culture, that appearance of such casual and effortless grace and skill – and I say “appearance” because, as every brewer with whom I’ve spoken has clearly told me, brewing is not easy – is what separates the elite from the pretenders and aspirants. I judge beers and breweries on the complete and unmistakable solidity and skill that comes through with each sip, and very, very few breweries ever reach the level at which their expertise shows itself as a certain, elusive Something that strikes you as you taste their wares; an impression, even if you don’t know beer well at all, of rightness, of balance and judgment and a mastery of the craft.
As my gorgeous Domestic Partner and I were tasting two new beers from Stone Brewing of San Diego, just last evening, she remarked on how we rarely taste anything from anybody that reaches the level of fully-realized excellence we found in those beers. I didn’t start this conversation in any way. This was all coming straight from her brain, the one that I drag around to brewery after brewery, sometimes when she’d probably rather be doing something else, prompted by her own growing and impressive judgment and tastes as a beer fan.
“Jeez,” she said, after a thoughtful sip, “Around the Northwest…man, there’s Reuben’s Brews and Holy Mountain and Sound Brewery and that one from Idaho…?“
“Selkirk Abbey,” I smiled.
“Oh, yeah, that one,” she continued, “And Fort George and Big Block and pFriem and Deschutes, maybe most of all, and…“
“I’d add Logsdon and deGarde and Upright and Hair of The Dog,” I added, “And I’m probably forgetting a couple.”
“Yeah,” she said thoughtfully, “Point is, there just aren’t many breweries that can do this and even the ones who can don’t do it every time, except for maybe Reuben’s and Deschutes.“
“Amen, sistah,” I replied, “And a lot of breweries never do it at all.“
Stone brews beer as Mozart wrote music. I didn’t use the actual analogy because, well, sow piddle and beer in the same metaphor…I’m gonna back off that. And I’m quite sure that Mozart did have to put quite a bit of effort into the actual writing of the music, even if it was just battling writer’s cramp. I’m also sure that Stone does, once in a while, try some mad idea that they wind up dumping down the drains, there in Escondido. But in what they bring through the process and bottle and pass along for our enjoyment, Stone’s batting average is as high as any craft brewer in the US and probably the world.
And these two we received from our pals at FedEx raise their own dizzying bar to a level that even they may have trouble hitting again.
Let me say this unequivocally: Stone “Americano” is THE best coffee Stout I have ever tasted from any brewery in the world. Period. Whatever’s in second isn’t really even very close. Stout freakazoid than I am, I’m about as capable of passing up a chance to taste a new Stout as I am of slithering down your chimney ala Eugene Tooms. Thus, I’ve tasted every freakin’ Stout that I’ve been able to lay hands on for the past fifteen years, bought every one that wasn’t sent for review, and attend the one and only beer festival that I just cannot miss – now that I’ve permanently sworn off the pointless frat-boy kegger that is GABF – the “Festival of Dark Arts” at Fort George Brewing in Astoria, Oregon, which is coming up again NEXT WEEKEND!!
Okay, better now. “Americano” combines a massive and beautifully hopped Imperial Stout with an espresso infusion of a hefty 250 pounds of custom-roasted beans from San Diego’s Ryan Brothers Coffee Company for every 120 barrel batch. True Stone Geeks will remember Ryan as the firm that supplied the beans for one of Stone’s most lauded beers of the current decade, the 2013 Stone ESPRESSO Imperial Russian Stout. That basic concept was used as the basis for this ale and Ryan worked their magic again, turning out a roast that admits just a flattering hint, a whisper of the charred character that forms my complaint with most coffee beers. Char is a great grace note. It is NOT a great primary flavor, and this Ryan roast, in brewmaster Mitch Steele’s capable hands, shows a subtle, smoky underpinning of char that plays off the vibrant Columbus, Amarillo, Chinook, and Cascade hops absolutely perfectly. “Perfect” is a word I don’t use a lot because, after living with anything in a glass for more than seven or eight minutes, I will find some tiny something out of place. Here…perfection. Stone’s PR materials say that, “Over time, all flavors will meld together, allowing more toasted grain character to shine through.” This is a 65 IBU ale containing four legendary hops and the brewer is saying, “Age it.” In this idiotic era of “Born on Dating” and beer geeks bitching about any beer that’s been in a bottle for longer than three days, this is an act of bravery on the order of sticking your head into a crocodile’s mouth. But I plan to buy a case of this stuff (or four) and do my own experiments because, yes, it is exactly THAT good.
Every single one of the requisite flavors and virtues of a great American-style Imperial Stout is in this beer: molasses, chocolate, licorice, figs, dates, vanilla, wood, smoke, an uber-chewy viscosity, grace notes galore…and the miracle is that, unlike 99% of all the coffee stouts – hell, coffee dark beers of any description! – I’ve tasted, this beer is every bit as much about Stout as it is about coffee. The innate flavor set and the assertive coffee infusion are in perfect balance. You can switch back and forth between appreciating the Stout flavors and dwelling on the java at will, as though clicking the “recall” button on a TV remote. Neither dominates and both support and complement. The interplay between the hops and the coffee is just…mind-boggling. Most coffee Stouts sleaze some of their bitterness out of the burnt coffee flavors, usually resulting in a bright, metallic off-note that lingers on the finish. In Americano, the hops and the coffee mesh seamlessly, with no trace of an off note at all. It’s a modern form of alchemy that only the truly great breweries can pull off. Even my gorgeous gal-pal, who is not really sold on all dark beers, looked up at me with a smile and said, “Damn, I want to get a case of this!“, the only time she has ever uttered that phrase and not been talking about Deschutes “Hop Trip”.
I’m gonna use that word again: Perfect.
Period. 100 Points
For anyone who is thinking that nothing can follow a review like that, let me say this: “Au contraire, mon frere.” Stone “Pataskala” Red X IPA is very, very nearly to the Red ale what Americano is to the coffee Stout. We tasted Pataskala first and just literally could not do anything, after that first sip, but make happy animal noises. Judye’s first intelligible English utterance was “Oh, WOW!” I was thinking very much the same. Pataskala’s story is almost as good as the beer. Stone CEO, Greg Koch, is from a suburban town in Ohio, Pataskala, about ten miles east-northeast of Columbus. A high school student at Koch’s alma mater, worried about their school system’s plan to cut funding for programs like athletics, music, and arts, contacted Koch and asked if there was anything he could do to help. His solution? Brew beer, the thing he does best, and told the students to go ahead and publicize that Stone would be brewing an ale as a fund-raiser to help keep the school curriculum intact. That got enough people’s attention that, when the budget was put up for a revote, the school levy passed and the programs were saved. Koch then came through with the beer – made by Stone’s Liberty School location brewmaster Kris Ketcham – which was first brewed for local distribution around Pataskala and Columbus. Koch personally celebrated with his homies on release day and the beer rasied $10,000 for the Watkins Memorial High High School Band Boosters and the Ally’s Warriors of Stone Foundation.
I’m frankly a little jealous that the folks around Pataskala got to taste this first. Only my own sense of altruism and firm belief that ALL schools MUST have music, arts, and sports to be a complete education prevents me from outright whining but I must tell you that my pantheon of America’s Best Red Ales had to have a wall busted out and an addition built on to accommodate this absolutely stunning beer. My previous Best of Red list was very precise and hasn’t changed much in five years:
- Bend Brewing “Scarlet Imperial Red”
- Speakeasy Brewing “Prohibition”
- 21st Amendment “Toaster Pastry”
- NoLi Brewhouse “Spin Cycle”
Technically, NoLi “Spin Cycle” – formerly the 2012 GABF Gold Medal winner “Crystal Bitter” – is not a “Red ale” in the same way that its cousins are and Pataskala is more akin to Spin than to the other three. Both Spin and Pata are based on a bill of German malts (Pataskala features a newly-available malt called “Red X”, from German malt house BestMalz) that are normally used in lagers. Red X, in fact, is rarely used in aggressively-hopped beers, as is the case with Spin’s German malts that are made into the style of a British ESB. Both beers represent true outside-the-box rethinking of the Red ale style and the trick is turned masterfully in both. The difference is that, in Pataskala, Stone takes the concept, pushes it past the parameters set by NoLi, and makes it work in truly stunning fashion. Pataskala is BIG; an assertive, lusty, hoppy, expressive ale that serves up the brilliant flavor aspects of its peppery/spicy Amarillo hops and the more classic flowers/citrus/spice and pink grapefruit of some truly vivid Cascades. In tandem with the tangy, savory Red X, these hops show everything they’re capable of and the beer showers the palate with that fat pink grapefruit, jasmine, honeysuckle, tangerines, a dash of pink peppercorns, teaberry, lime, peaches, and cherry fruit leather. Complexity, for me, is as much a virtue in beer as it is in wine and Pataskala’s complexity is off the charts for an American Red ale. But its drinkability is maybe even greater. This is a beer that even the most inexperienced craft beer wannabe can enjoy and embrace instantly…
…which leads me to my main point about Stone:
For its entire history, Stone Brewing has made its bones on the building of massive, aggressive hop-monsters like Arrogant Bastard, Double Bastard, Lukcy Basartd, Ruination, Thunderstruck, and endless variations on those themes. They virtually owned the Hop Bomb beer category for over a decade, seriously challenged only by Dogfish 90 and 120 and, to a lesser extent, Moylan’s “HopSickle”. But in later years, Stone has begun to branch out in their relentless experimentation with what their signature hoppy beers can be. With Delicious, Enjoy By, Go To, Sorry Not Sorry, Lemondrop, and a dozen others, Stone has shown that they may very well also be the country’s foremost maker of lighter, less aggressive, more user-friendly IPA style beers and Pataskala straddles their Old World and New Direction as nimbly as any beer they could possibly have concocted. That’s why Pataskala also gets my highest rating… 100 Points
These are serious candidates for Best Beer of their types ever brewed in the United States. Both are available in six packs, starting February 1st and lasting until they’re gone. If you love craft beer and you don’t try these two magnificent ales, two things:
- Your knowledge of American craft brewing is woefully incomplete, and…
- You should immediately seek professional help.