This week's adventure into a random beer (Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale from North Coast Brewing Co. in Fort Bragg, Calif.) has one key justification.
This past Sunday, December 13, was the day in 1789 on which the Austrian Netherlands declared independence as Belgium, starting the history of a country known for frying potatoes twice, getting invaded and, most relevant to us, inventing beer styles (some 692, I was told during a visit there).
Let's drink to that, and to master jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, for whom the drink is named (we suggest listening while you quaff). Though we just discussed some Belgian holiday beers last week, it's their friggin' independence day, folks, and besides, we actually went with a domestic copycat. This style falls under the brewery's "American Artisan" series; we found it in a 750-milliliter bottle on the top shelf at Central Market (for $7.49).
First, the brew has an alcohol-by-volume of 9.4 percent. (For the uninitiated, a Bud Light is 4.2 percent, and for those scoring at home, that means drinking one Brother Thelonious equates to pounding 4.75 Bud Lights). Equally important, however, is that the booze is almost completely hidden.
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The alcohol does burn the roof of the mouth, lends some bitterness when swallowed and tingles the mouth pleasantly throughout, but one of the most endearing qualities of these types of dark Belgian ales is the thick, malty jacket the alcohol wears. It's just so darn smooth. To succumb to Budweiser's bastardization of the language, the drinkability (tomabilidad, if you prefer to bastardize Spanish) is high.
Also clear immediately is that the booze carries all the weight for the bitter team. The hops must be on injured reserve. The bitterness measures (yes, non-beer nerds, people pull out spectrophotometers and measure these things) 32 International Bittering Units; strong India Pale Ales can top 100. IPA freaks aren't likely to go for this brew. It's unapologetically sweet. For newcomers, as a general rule, a sweet beer is an alcoholic one, because yeast turns sugar into alcohol during fermentation.
The color is rich, auburn, turning a deep ruby red if held to light half-empty. The head is thick, a caramel-tan. (I acknowledge it also belonged in a goblet and not an English pint glass, because North Coast really nailed the aroma. It smells as sweet and as full as it tastes).
"James" at Central Market was right to "pick" it, even if that was just a crafty ploy to get it off the shelves.