Great beer is being made everywhere, these days, and little surprises like these, from my FedEx Beer Pimp, deliver the truth of that statement to my door regularly.
The FedEx guy is my beer pimp. Unintentionally, of course, but in the past month or so, that guy has dropped off some seriously superior stuff on my narrow little front porch and, if he keeps this up, I see a fruit basket in his future.
The first was a couple of cans from a brewery about whom I’ve been crazy intrigued for several years now. Upslope Brewing, located in one of my favorite places on any map – Boulder, Colorado – has been on tap a couple of times when we’ve been in Denver, visiting our son. I first tasted their IPA and Brown at a bar in Denver’s Larimer Square, back in 2015, and was instantly a fan. They weren’t distributed in Seattle, though, and I struck out, back then, in finding anything in packages to take home. Those two stayed with me, though: the seamless, resiny, finely-malted, user-friendly character of the IPA and the malty, subtly spicy roundness of a truly fine Brown. So, when I opened the box to find two cans of their new Upslope Citra Pale Ale, I was instantly excited, both because of the brewery and my ongoing quest to find that ultimate Citra Pale or IPA that I can imagine but have not yet found.
When Matt Cutter, Danny Pages, and Henry Wood founded Upslope, they brought a broad spectrum of worldly ideas about flavors and styles with them. Matt, a homebrewer from Cleveland, contributed his own experimental beers. Danny, founder of a brewery in the world’s southernmost city, the fascinating Ushuaia, Patagonia, Argentina, dragged along some truly exotic concepts; the sort one might expect in brewing at the literal end of the Earth. And Henry, a self-described “backcountry bum”, from Atlanta, tossed some rural charm into the mix. Result: Upslope beers are familiar in their make-up but not exactly like anyone else’s take on their particular styles. Great God Almighty, GIMME a brewery that’s not trying to be different but just is, fundamentally.
There has been in every Citra ale I’ve yet tasted, an earthy, twisted, almost defiant overtone of a flavor which I can’t quite pin down. It’s reminiscent of what I can only describe as what would happen if you heated a baseball mitt and then sucked on the leather. It’s an almost meaty note that presents right up front and makes Citra one of the most instantly recognizable hops currently being used in American craft brewing. In certain ales that feature prominent Citra, that note becomes cloying and pervasive. The entire flavor profile becomes submerged in it and I find the beers almost impossible to drink. In this new Upslope, that flavor, somehow, magically, Works. It works like a dozen teamsters trying to offload a ship faster to pick up bonus money. It presents right up front, of course, but then recedes; melts into a wash of bright citrus, tropical fruit, sugar cookies, subdued spices, apple butter, gooseberries, and a fine hint of caramel cream that embraces the rest of it warmly. The hops lean toward floral notes and express big pink grapefruit and sweet herbs, while the bitterness edges up toward aggressive and then…stops. This is a delightful Citra Pale; on a par with the best Citra ales I’ve tasted from anybody and the spiritual cousin of our local Seattle Reuben’s Brews Citra Crush IPA, an ale with a similar dead-on integration of this assertive new hops and a malt framework that lifts it above the mundane. This is a sneaky little minor masterpiece and just confirms my initial suspicion that there is a LOT going on at Upslope in terms of Brewing Outside The Box and making styles with which we’ve all become maybe too familiar breathe,dance, and sing again. This is a seriously fine Pale and, Hallelujah!, it’s in cans! 96 points
I was also able to lay hands on something new from the first brewery in North Carolina to milk that undeniable fact that I do play favorites when it comes to sports and BBQ and music and most of what makes my old home state wonderful. Highland Brewing of Asheville has spawned a terrific new Low-ABV IPA that neatly avoids every single cliché of brewing up reduced-octane, hops-forward light ale. Highland Brewing “Daycation”is a bright, crisp, wildly refreshing beer that marries a really interesting and even complex malt profile that crouches underneath its volley of citrusy resins and lifts this beer above what most “session” IPAs have yet achieved. A crafty combination of Mosaic, El Dorado, and Azacca hops weave an intricate tapestry of uber-fresh citrus peels, tropical fruit, wildflowers, jasmine, grapefruit, spruce resins, and even a hint of honeysuckle that show up immediately, on the front of the palate, and then broaden into a creamy, bright flood of those aforementioned flavors and some engrossing little grace notes, as well. I’ve contended for a while, now, that the trick to making a great reduced-alcohol IPA is to play up the broad spectrum, of hops flavors, emphasize citrus and florals and spices, and not insist on trying to satisfy the Hops-Freak crowd (which a “sessionable” IPA probably won’t do, anyway)and make the IPA-ish aspects more about flavors than bitterness. Bellevue, Washington’s great Geaux Brewing and its brewmaster, Jeremy Hubble, have turned this trick neatly, already, with their brilliant “Gulf Coast” IPA and this Highland gem is very much on a par with that little masterpiece.
Highland is one of the oldest craft breweries in the Southwest and what Oscar Wong and Holly Stephenson are doing there fills me with a very real, hickory-smoked, sticky-heeled sort of Carolina pride. I will confess to having tasted beers from a large and growing number of NC breweries which is just thought really had some growing yet to do. Not so with Highland. You plop this outfit down in the middle of Bend or San Francisco or even Denver or Portland and it is still an exceptional brewery. If Daycation is indicative of what the quality level is, as of February 2017, Highland is a must-visit and must-find for anyone planning a Beercation to the Old North State or choosing something off a shelf, anywhere Highland is available. Which is, currently and sadly, not Seattle…damnit. 95 Points
Down there in good ol’ Bourbon-soaked, horse-crazy, Bluegrassy Louisville, Kentucky – a town I truly love, an older brewery has lately remade itself, refocused its goals, and become something of such great promise that I am literally on Red Alert to see what Goodwood Brewing does next.
Goodwood is the former Bluegrass Brewing Company, a project started in 2001 as a fairly normal brewery that made fairly normal beers that other breweries also make routinely, but given some of the best names in the history of American craft beer. It was the names which first got me interested in BBC, in fact; monikers like Horse Piss Beer, Hell for Certain, Homewrecker IIPA, Gloomsucker Black Ale, and Mind Numbing IPA. I tasted several, courtesy of some friends from KY, and easily the most memorable was the Bourbon Barrel Bearded Pat’s Barleywine, a towering, big, boozy masterpiece that led me to write that Louisville colleague and say, “Hell, these guys should just concentrate on their barrel program and leave that other stuff to the fairly-goods.” (I slip into Southern idioms when writing to Southern friends) Well…funny thing about that: a few years fast-forward and that’s just what BBC has done. The revamped BBC, now called Goodwood Brewing Company, is All About That Bass; that round, fat bottom end of whiskey and wood and boozy mellowness that can only from time, barrels, and patience.
I received four samples from Goodwood, two bottles of their wicked Bourbon Barrel Stout, and one each of Bourbon Barrel Ale, Brandy Barrel Honey Ale, and Walnut Brown Ale, aged in new oak barrels. The stand-outs were the Stout and the Brandy Barrel Honey Ale, which came as a surprise, as most honey ales I taste are, to me, just beer in a glass. Goodwood Brandy Barrel Honey Ale is brawny and boozy and tastes very much like a barreled Scottish Ale, with that signature touch of sweetness and full-frontal Brandy character that wafted from the glass like a stick of incense. At 8.7%, it is, in fact, more like a Scottish Strong Ale than the usual, wimpy honey ale that is, IMO, usually more about the power of suggestion inherent in the word “honey” than about beer. For me, this was really a whole new experience in the Honey Ale continuum and the chewy, dense caramels, Mead-ish honey notes, that azz-kickin’ Brandy cast, and grace notes of burnt sugar, lemons, graham crackers, and pears added up to something that belongs more in the Strong Ale category than the low-ambition stratum of Honey Ales. The accompanying notes state that this ale is barreled “several times longer than our other beers” and that is dead-obvious from the first sip. Goodwood Brandy Barrel Honey Ale is a landmark beer in rethinking existing styles and is simply, flat-damned delicious, to boot. 94 Points
It will shock no one, I’m sure, that a brewery located in the heart of Bourbon Country would be able to get hold of magnificently wet, well-seasoned whiskey barrels but, if there was any lingering doubt, the Goodwood Bourbon Barrel Stout erases those instantly. I don’t know if it’s even possible to oak-age a Stout and then add Bourbon to approximate that residue-rich stuff tat accumulates at the bottom of an actual, well-used production Bourbon barrel of not but this is definitely no approximation. Wood and whiskey and huge caramel and pervasive vanilla notes are all over this flavor profile and gives it a sensory completeness that its rather medium-bodied texture might have otherwise lacked. In drank this and wondered, the entire time, what would happen if Goodwood decided to make a full-throttle, balls-to-the-wall Imperial Stout on the order of a Parabola or The Abyss or Dark Lord and laid it up in these barrels. I have freely admitted, often, that I prefer those dense, New American-style 30-weight Stouts to the more traditional English style and this one is actually the first in quite a while that I have thoroughly enjoyed without feeling the need to rationalize anything. Even at this modest weight, this a totally successful Stout, crawlin’ with dark, roasty goodness, and given a firm viscous texture from the oak tannins that are clearly still present in the casks. In that sense of reaching beyond the stylistic limitations of the base ale, this Stout is a real revelation; a lighter-bodied style that still packs in bullseye-accurate flavors and graces it all with massive Bourbon notes that lift it above the ocean of ordinary Stouts we all swim through in the American craft scene. While I’m waiting for that massive Bourbon Barrel Russian Imperial Stout from Goodwood, this lovely little cousin will definitely do for your Barreled Stout cravings. 95 Points
The Goodwood Bourbon Barrel Ale and the Walnut Brown are both excellent ales that leave nothing tobe desired in their particular styles and if they are, in fact, a bit less noteworthy than their two splashy brothers above, you could still pur either in 1,500 other breweries and they would be the stand-outs of your tasting. The Goodwood Bourbon Barrel Ale is technically an American Strong Ale and has that heft about it, even if the ABV does weigh in at a modest 6%. But in flavor, this is brawny, mellow, vanilla-tinged, caramelly as all git-out, and dripping with pronounced Bourbon flavor. It’s deadly easy to drink and shows ample grace notes and has a tremendous mouthfeel. A lovely. luminous copper in the glass, this ale is, I’m certain, an absolute treat on tap and is the sort of beer to wear exceptionally well over repeated tastings. NICE stuff. 93 Points
Finally, Goodwood Walnut Brown Ale is a solid, malt-forward Brown that shows the classic Brown Ale character of graham crackers, roasted nuts, subtle cocoa, and that laid-back, mellow, pervasive presence of walnuts that fill out all the dark corners of the flavor profile. The oak barrels, here, express wood shavings and vanilla and an oaky warmth that gives the finish a warm and appealing smoothness. As just a basic Brown Ale, it’s a tad less expressive than several of the best ones I’ve tasted but the barrels and walnuts uplift the profile and make it uber-tasty and nicely satisfying. I think a bit of time may be all this ale needs to achieve genuine greatness but it is still a rock-solid, very drinkable beer that brown fans should definitely check out. 92 Points
Those of us up here in the Pacific Northwest and in Denver and San Diego and Grand Rapids are prone to thinking that our regional beers are the Be All and End All of American craft beer and there is ample evidence to support those ideas. But great beer is being made everywhere, these days, and little surprises like these, from my FedEx Beer Pimp, deliver the truth of that statement to my door regularly. When you travel – anywhere! – be on the lookout. Something Great is probably brewing, right around that next bend in the road.