La Socarrada: Herbal Abuse, Inadvertent Tracheotomies, and Spanish Ale

My wife loves herbs. She doesn't necessarily understand them, but she loves them. Rosemary is a particular favorite, due in no small part to the fact that it's the only herb we can consistently keep alive in the mess of barren pots and dead-heads that passes for our garden. As a result, she's developed an odd habit of putting it in everything.

Roasting a chicken? Stuff it with garlic, lemons, and rosemary. Baking a few loaves of bread? Minced rosemary can be a fine addition. Fresh, bright tomato sauce? Maybe not so much. Unless you're my wife. When it comes to rosemary (and garlic, for that matter), my wife knows neither reason nor restraint. I can't count the number of times I've nearly suffered an inadvertent inside-out tracheotomy, the victim of a particularly stubborn needle added incongruously to a pot of pinto beans*.

I still love rosemary, but as a result of my wife's bizarre zeal, I've developed a bit of a fear of the stuff. If I walk in the door and smell that piney, resinous villain, I tense up a bit. I'm constantly waiting to be sucker-punched, which makes me wonder why I bought La Socarrada in the first place.

When I picked up a bottle at Whole Foods Kirby, it was a definite impulse purchase, and one I was certain I'd regret, even as I walked it to the register. Rosemary is such an overpowering herb, and honey such a strong flavor itself, that I feared the combination would run roughshod. "Bong-resin and Ricola" kept running over my mind's palate. Fortunately, La Socarrada had something else in mind.

A bottle-conditioned ale, La Socarrada pours an appropriately cloudy burnt amber. A creamy, off-white head provides little lacing. If you want to get all cute about it, the beer actually looks a bit like honey.

Where I'd been expecting the aroma to be a bit like huffing the melted remains of 1,000 pine-scented air-fresheners, what I was met with was more like the specter of Rosemary's ghost. The rosemary was there, and undeniably so, but in a much more restrained fashion than I'd have thought possible. Underneath the nuanced herbals rides a strong current of yeast, fresh-smelling and bready. It took me a while to place it, but the smell reminded me strongly of the little fresh-baked yeast bread T'Afia used to serve. They were studded with rosemary, and bore the same hauntingly light impression as La Socarrada. I inhaled those things every time I went, slathering them with butter and a pinch of salt...

Oh. Right. Beer.

As with the aroma, the beer leads with rosemary on the palate, but, again, in a gentle and easygoing way. It's the polar opposite of my wife's Rosemary Pesto**. After the initial, curtsying introduction, the rosemary fades out to allow the malt through - a medium-caramel richness, very dry, with only the vaguest hint of that deep, savory undercurrent that honey has. There are some additional yeast components that follow the malt, mostly clove and bubblegum. Rosemary bubblegum sounds awful on paper, but I'm now thinking it might be really good.

All in all, it's a very well balanced, very subtle beer, especially considering its very aggressive ingredients. As impressive as the gentle introduction is the long finish. It takes a full minute for the taste to fade, morphing through flavors as the rosemary returns, transforming into a nutty flavor somehow reminiscent of Fino sherry. Just when you thing it's done, there's a slightly bitter twist, and then a calming return to bready yeast.

This is one of those rare beers that does double duty. Of the three bottles I've enjoyed so far, La Socarrada has played dishwashing beer, paired well with a fall-ish soup garnished with eggplant and vadouvan, and has enjoyed my full attention as I mined it for nuance and dorkishly obsessed over same. For a beer to be an easy-drinking refreshment, pair well with food, and warrant exclusive focus is not an easy feat, and this surprising beer does it with aplomb. I even hear tell it's been showing up on the lists of some of Houston's finest new restaurants. . .

*I may have taken some artistic liberties **I have definitely taken some artistic liberties

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall