While other, less fortunate drinkers were watching beer-pong tournaments and passing out from heat-stroke, I spent Saturday in the cool, blessedly beer-pong-free environs of the Odd Fellows Lodge in the Heights. I was there for Camp Beer VII: The Golden Beers.
It was my first Camp Beer experience, and I wasn't sure what to expect. An email from Cathy Clark Rascoe, Camp Beer organizer and President of Live it BIG, had provided some suggestions for camper preparedness. With capitalized sincerity, Clark reminded campers to "PLEASE EAT A HEAVY MEAL BEFORE YOU COME AND ARRANGE FOR ALTERNATIVE TRANSPORTATION." This camp means business.
Of course, being the ridiculously unprepared individual that I am, I had done neither. The morning was spent arranging alternative transportation, but for my kids, who had a conflicting engagement that day, and would not be missing it so their dad could go drink beer. Don't mess with a third-grade pool party.
After dropping the kids off and reminding my mom (alternative transportation) not to let them drown, we raced toward the Heights. The week prior, blissfully unaware of the conflict, I had entertained somewhat grandiose notions of taking my wife out for a nice lunch before heading to Camp. I was thinking of Feast, which is both delicious and perfectly capable of delivering the recommended heavy meal. Instead, I crammed a quesadilla in my face as I drove, hoping the combo of greasy cheese and tortilla would be enough to soak up the impending onslaught of beer, and not turn our lack of alternative transportation into an issue.
As we walked up what is certainly the creakiest staircase in Houston, there was a sense of excitement in the air. The room was small and packed, with cafeteria-style folding tables and chairs flanking the space. At one end, Kevin Floyd, the beer brain behind Anvil and Hay Merchant, went over his notes one last time. A few minutes after three, Clark Rascoe moved to the front of the room and welcomed us all to Camp Beer.
A brief introduction gave the history of the Camp, and of Cathy's charitable organization. "We really are a 501(c)(3)," she assured us, eliciting a knowing chuckle from the crowd. One camper, I think it may have been Kyle Nielsen, chimed in "I checked," getting another round of giggles. That was it for the fun and games, though, as we were quickly on to the beer. Kevin Floyd stepped to the front, wearing a microphone so as to actually be heard over the inevitable din of 60 or so people working their way through more than 20 beers.
We started off the session with a succession of IPAs, Kevin providing history and insight into the style's origins and the often serpentine and ambiguous paths it has taken in modern brewing history. I didn't much care for the stridently hoppy and one-note bitterness of a Ninkasi Total Domination IPA, finding it more interesting than enjoyable. I much preferred the Firestone Walker Double Jack Imperial IPA up next. Rather than simply focusing on the bittering aspect of hops, this beer's languid, round malt profile was enhanced by the fruity, spicy, and floral qualities of its hops. It was boozy but balanced, and very enjoyable.
Next up came a collaborative offering from Brew Dog and Mikkeler (the "Gypsy Brewer," as Floyd put it). While the collaboration and its respective brewers were praised for their unflinching experimentation, Floyd noted that a lot of their beers are really, really terrible. A lot are great, too, but you have to expect some flops when you produce something on the order of 70 new beers in a year, as Mikkeler did in 2010. This one, the I Hardcore You Double IPA, was pretty good. With a nose redolent of caramel, coriander, and just a bit of funk, this barely carbonated beer seemed like it was going to be the anti-IPA of the bunch. A sip, though, proved the hops lurking in the background, with plenty of floral, slightly citrusy spiciness rushing in alongside the heavily malted sweetness. It was dusky, peppery, heady, and delicious.
Following the collaborative offering, we next sampled Mikkeler I Beat You Imperial IPA. It was an interesting side-by-side experience, as this was like its predecessor, post liposuction. Dry, reedy, with just a hint of malt sweetness that came on with an unexpected tang, it somehow managed to hang on to its rich and heavy character, while abandoning the more succulent nature of the collaborative beer. I would be curious to have that pairing again, consumed in reverse order.
Another collaboration - this time Stone, Green Flash, and Port - came in the form of Highway 78 Scotch Ale. This was a beautiful beer - dark umber, slightly hazy, and barely carbonated. It was at once deeply flavored and amazingly clean and light. Heavy, dark roasted flavors of coffee and dark fruit sat alongside slightly boozy brandy notes, and yet the beer still finished clean. Heavy and sprightly at the same time, like a linebacker-ballerina.
Firestone Walker Union Jack, the Single IPA version of the prior FW beer, came next. It was like a more genteel, restrained version of the Double Jack, with a cleaner flavor and aroma, with more focus on tropical fruit hops character, but retaining that undercurrent of malty richness. It was more what you'd expect from an IPA than the Double, though lacking the depth granted via barrel aging.
An out of sequence mis-pour confused everyone momentarily, though all was forgiven upon one taste of the Hair of the Dog Doggie Claws Barleywine. Fitting for the style-that's-not-a-style (according to Floyd, Barleywine easily becomes a catch-all corner for big beers that defy other categories), this was a huge, boozy beer. The flavors ran deep and complex, digging through caramel and nuts, toffee and plums, with just a hint of citrus. Sprightly carbonation kept it from feeling overly heavy, despite having a very mouth-filling texture. While the flavor was predominated by malt, it finished with a surprising drying bitterness, serving almost as a built in palate cleanser.
That was the third-cum-first of a trio of Hair of the Dog offerings, followed up by Adam Old Ale and Fred. Adam gets the benefit and the curse of being a reproduction beer, capturing a style never before tasted by any living drinker. I have no idea if it's accurate, nor does anyone else. Smoke, chocolate, coffee, and dark fruit dominate this one. It's complex and almost overwhelming, though it masks its 10 percent ABV admirably.
Fred followed in Adam's footsteps, with raisins, chocolate, and dark-roasted malt predominating. The 10 varieties of hops included made for a host of spices in the nose and on the palate, ranging from lemony pepper to a hint of nutmeg. A bit more restrained, but still a pretty aggressive beer, again hiding it's 10 percent ABV with aplomb.
Alpine Duet IPA came next, a straightforward and refreshingly citrusy offering. Its clean, vibrant orange-tinted hops and bright flavor were the perfect foil to the aggressively complex string of beers preceding it. Just before palate fatigue came in, this beer brought everything back to life.
An interesting take on a classic Belgian style came next in the Left Hand St. Vrain Tripel (2006 vintage). Trappist styles, Floyd told us, are not meant for aging. I can kind of see why, though I found this beer intriguing. The nose offered a funky tart punch, not unlike what you might expect from a mild lambic or saison. On the palate, the funk and sourness fade to the background, and heavily yeasty sweetness takes over, though it seems somehow twisted. Pears and some hint of the expectable banana are there, but not quite themselves. Mostly, this tasted confused, and I think that was the consensus response from the crowd.
Another oddball aged offering from Left Hand followed, a 2006 vintage of their Chainsaw Ale Double ESB. I can't say what this was like fresh, but the aged version was heavily malty and slightly yeasty. It was deep, but one note and oddly flat, with a biting, acerbic quality that I couldn't quite place, and really didn't care for. While the Tripel took its age in interesting ways, I felt this beer merely suffered for it.
Again finding a good point for refreshment, AleSmith Horny Devil came up next. A Belgian Strong Ale brewed with coriander, this managed to be both heady and refreshing. Up front alcohol paired with a spicy and fruity character that came on surprisingly dry. Among the lush tropical and citrus fruit and zingy yet earthy spice (pepper and fenugreek alongside baking spices), I detected a hint of soapiness, almost as if the beer had been brewed with coriander leaf as well as seed. It had an amazing depth of flavor for feeling so light on the palate, refreshing and intriguing in equal measure. My wife picked this as her favorite beer of the day. I'm not far behind.
A Bruery Saison de Lente Belgian Saison Alt followed, and won mixed reviews with its funky wild yeast character and slight sourness. I loved it, finding the vinegary punch the perfect foil to its warm spices and yeasty undercurrent, with just the right amount of musty wildness. It was light and crisp, yet still ruddy and well structured.
A Mikkeler Koppi Coffee IPA was up next, both reinforcing Floyd's earlier assertion about the hit-and-miss output of this particular brewer, and affording me the opportunity to gross my wife out with the explanation of the coffee's provenance. Really, it just tasted like a pretty straightforward IPA, but kind of missed its own point. There was no coffee to be found, only a slight bitterness, and a clean but ignorable profile otherwise.
A Ninkasi Spring Reign American Blonde came up next, with a rich and bready nose followed up with a little bit of malt and slight skunkiness. This repeated in the flavor, with the typically rounded flavor of a blonde, the comfort food of beer. Toward the finish, the rich smoothness was masked by overly aggressive bitterness, making it not what I'd reach for if I were craving a blonde, and reinforcing my belief that Southern Star Bombshell Blonde is my favorite in the style. Fitting, then, that a few cans of that were passed around for our "break beer," as people got up to stretch their legs and empty their surely-swelling bladders.
I was glad to have had a break, because what came next was almost certainly my favorite beer of the day, and very likely one of the best beers I've ever had. This is a beer for which I would drive cross country, which would be necessary, as it's not available in Texas, and likely never will be. As we were sampling, Floyd opined "I hope you enjoy it; it's probably the only time any of us will ever taste this beer." A bittersweet event, to be sure.
Oh, you want to know what it was, don't you? Lost Abbey Framboise de Amarosa Ale. It was bright and fruity, but exceedingly dry. A sure but gentle-edged acidity informed the experience, but it was not bracing or aggressive. It was refreshing and light, but also deeply earthy and nuanced.
The slightly grassy bitterness of unripe raspberries played against the deep-fruited red of the ripened fruit. An entire herb-garden flickers through underneath, along with the taste of rain-freshened dirt. You can taste the wood and the wild; the entire process of brewing makes sense in the glass. This, more than any beer I've ever had, tasted like a living thing - untamed and slightly dangerous, but deeply beautiful. Sorry for the purple-prose, but this beer was truly tremendous. If I never get to taste this again, I will be truly sad.
Nøgne Ø 100 Barleywine (don't ask me, or apparently anyone else, how to pronounce this) had a tough job, following a beer like that. It tried its best, and failed miserably. In other circumstances, I think I really would have liked the booze-soaked brownies and dried cherries, unsweetened cocoa and dark-roasted coffee notes in this beer. As it was, it just felt heavy and a bit oafish next to the sprightly and incredibly complex lambic before it.
Goose Island Matilda sparked a lively discussion of the changing landscape of craft and macro brewing. Where it could easily have turned into a finger-pointing session of sellout accusation, Floyd offered a different perspective. AB-Inbev's takeover of one of the nation's most cherished craft breweries might be a good thing. Perhaps, posited Floyd, the Goose Island move is a way for the money and infrastructure of a huge macro-brewery to take a turn toward creative ends. Imagine the possibilities of nearly limitless resources all employed toward the goal of creating new, exciting, worthwhile beer. I'd love to think that's a possibility, but I remain skeptical, along with most of the room. As for the beer itself, it was sweet and boozy, with a saturated taste redolent of coriander and honey. Let's hope the big boys drink it, learn from it, and go with it.
Saint Arnold DR#11 finished the mapped tasting, and it's still delicious. If you want details on what I think of this beer, go here. It hasn't changed, yet.
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A delicious extra, courtesy of some fellow campers, came next, a Cigar City Humidor Series IPA. I could eat this beer. It tastes and smells like the cedar on which it's aged, and from which it takes its name. Smoky, woody, earthy, spicy and powerfully savory, this is one of the most delicious beers I've ever tried. Second favorite of the day, hands down. The crowd had decidedly mixed opinions, and it's easy to see why. It's an odd mix of flavors and aromas, and one most are not used to associating with beer. I loved it instantly; like some sort of law of beer physics, just as many had an equal and opposite reaction.
The final beer of the day was Camp Beer Beer. Floyd brewed this one himself, using six varieties of hops that had been procured for discussion during the previous Camp Beer. It was bright and vaguely skunky, with a dry and spicy hop flavor and medium bitterness, with a bready and malty finish. I'd drink it again, and hope Floyd continues the tradition of brewing for the camp. I, in fact, propose a future Camp Beer focused on just that. What say you, campers?