On a recent trip through Massachusetts I stopped at what was probably, in terms of beer selection and price, one of the most impressive beer stores I’d been to.
While not all that crafty looking on the outside, the massive inside had a decent section dedicated strictly to craft beer from all over the the world, including a large number of hard to get or limited release beers from some cool brewing companies both local and global. In an effort to curb my enthusiasm (read: spending) for some of these white whales, I limited myself to only one (or two) and stuck with smaller, more reasonable bottles. I ended up getting around 30 bottles for $90, including a $15 bottle I couldn’t pass up. All in all, a good haul. Anyway, in the midst of all this beer, I came to a Firestone Walker Brewing Co. section, and decided to stock up.
I was always under the impression that Firestone Walker was a hard ticket to get on the east coast, being all the way from California (I’m still pretty sure you can’t get it in Maine), but they must have a pretty big area of distribution. Even better for me. Anyway, rather than drink these one at a time I decided to do a one-night tasting.
I had a hard time knowing which beer would be my starter, but I settled for the Pivo Pils to kick things off. Internet ratings of this beer aren’t all that great, but I have to disagree with that consensus. Even aged a little bit longer than preferable, I thought this beer was a great tribute to the Czech pilsener with only a slight hint of hoppiness, which is actually what traditional pilseners should taste like – crisp, light and a nice zing of hops to close out. Nice.
I moved onto another light hoppy beer next, Pale 31, which is touted as a California pale ale, so it’s really just an American pale ale. A little bit more body on this one, but still crisp and hoppy. Both beers are great for a hot day or washing down a light meal ranging from salad to maybe a pizza.
I picked up Double Barrel Ale without having a clue as to what style of beer it was. Turns out it’s an English pale ale, so having it as beer number 3 seemed to be a good placement. I thought it was right on par with what I might expect from a beer by a UK brewery like Samuel Smith’s. It’s malty and medium-bodied, but still light and drinkable – probably great with fish and chips or a mac and cheese.
I knew the lighter beers were out of the way, and deciding not to have two IPA’s in a row, I went with Union Jack IPA, Firestone Walker’s most popular beer. Despite the obvious homage to England (Union Jack), this was undoubtedly an American-style IPA rather than an English one. In fact, this is probably pretty close to being the standard setting beer for American IPA’s. Lots of grapefruit and passionfruit aromas, good fruity sweet taste and a nice hop bite on the back-end make this a very solid and complex IPA with well hidden alcohol content.
A lot of folks like to end with a dessert beer, but I usually like to have a beer after dessert. So my second to last beer was Velvet Merlin, another bang-on to style beer. Oatmeal stouts generally have the added benefit of being extra creamy, and here the creaminess came up big. I always ask people who are afraid to try dark beers if they enjoy coffee – my thinking is that the two share a lot of the same aromas and flavours, though admittedly I’m not a coffee guy, but I think I’m not wrong in assuming there are a lot of similarities. Anyway, Velvet Merlin has all the coffee notes on the nose and tongue, is close to pitch black, and has bold flavours and a nice bitterness on the finish, and again, Firestone Walker pulls a lot of flavour out of a beer with a relatively low abv. My kind of dessert beer.
My chosen Firestone Walker finale was Double Jack, a big double IPA that approaches 10%. Like Union Jack, it has fruity elements and nice hoppiness, but, to put it bluntly, doubles all those features for twice the in-your-face smells and flavours, and yet it still manages to hide almost all traces of alcohol, except maybe a little bit of alcoholic warmth at the end. Yum.
My impression of Firestone Walker is this: They make several styles of beers, and yet they all seem to be examples of said style. Even in an age where the average brewery will cross style-boundaries, rarely do you see one brewery do a German styled beer really well, an English styled beer really well, and American styled beers really well – to the point that you try those beers and think, “that is exactly what a (insert style) is supposed to taste like.” Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a brewery trying new things, being creative and pushing the boundaries. We need people like Sam Calagione in the brewing world. But sometimes it’s just nice to find a classic style, an original (or one that very closely emulates and original) beer that has been brewed the same way for centuries. After all, that’s what ultimately wins medals.