Saint Arnold Icon Red Winter 2014

"I have to be able to drink a pint and want another."

And thus, Brock Wagner of Saint Arnold Brewery, 2000 Lyons Avenue (713-686-9494), expresses his philosophy of brewing succinctly. No matter the style, the gravity, the strength of the beer, if having one doesn't make him want to have another, he's not interested in putting Saint Arnold's name on it. That goes for lighter styles such as the Lawnmower and Summer Pils, as well as more intense beers like the Pumpkinator: No matter how light or dark, how weak or strong, something about it has to make him want to come back.

It's that idea in part that powers this winter's Saint Arnold Icon Red. By starting with a Belgian-style Dubbel, Saint Arnold has a beer that has plenty of malty body and flavor and is strong on the alcohol (8 percent). But it's the selection of hops that really makes this beer unique: By balancing Sterling hops for bittering with Sorachi Ace hops for finishing and dry-hopping, the result is a beer that begins and ends in a much more light and refreshing manner than its other characteristics would suggest. And it's that refreshing finish that makes it easy to want more.

I was quite impressed with the way the beer seemed to meet all its goals. Each sip had three distinct stages. (While any good beer or dram has a nose, a body, and a finish, it's rare to find each stage so distinct in flavor and texture as they were here.) The first was the nose, lightly spicy and herbal with hints of lemongrass. As the nose gave way to the body, the richness of the flavors and the full mouthfeel had hints of dried fruit, and reminded me of nothing so much as my favorite sherry-aged Scotches. (In fact, I quite wonder what this would taste like distilled into a whiskey-- I'm aware that other beers such as Bear Republic's Racer 5 IPA and Rogue's Dead Guy Ale have been distilled into whiskey, but I haven't tried them.) However, the beer did not finish with a heavy or cloying feel as one might expect; instead, the dry hopping gave it a remarkably crisp, mouth-smacking feel I would expect to find in lighter IPAs and the like. That finish really primed the palate for another sip, which was very impressive. It's rare to find a beer that manages to be rich and flavorful while staying crisp and refreshing enough to make the drinker immediately reach for another.

It's a unique brew that manages to combine the rich flavors of Belgian beer with the crispness of hoppy beers. Uniqueness is another idea behind the Icon series; Wagner says one goal with the series is to brew beers Saint Arnold has never done before, and the brewery has never made a Dubbel, in fact only dabbling in Belgian-style beers a few times in the past.

Brewer Eddie Gutierrez came up with the recipe. He said he liked the flavor and style of a Belgian Dubbel, but wanted to try something that hadn't been done before. Wagner allows his brewers freedom to experiment, and while experiments often fail, especially in a first batch, many of those experiments end up becoming the specialty releases we see in series such as the Icon and Divine Reserve series. Wagner had particularly high praise for Gutierrez's recipe; while he often gives notes after trying a first batch-- "I like to feel I contribute to the process," he deadpanned-- he said Gutierrez's initial recipe came out so well that he didn't need to offer anything.

The Icon Red was released to stores before Thanksgiving, and should be increasingly available as supplies of Icon Gold are depleted. It's expected to run from December to February, before the next beer in the seasonal Icon series takes its place. Even if Belgian-influence or hoppy beers aren't your style, if you like beer at all, this is worth trying.

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Nath Pizzolatto