Winter beer tasting

Omniboire has been threatening to do a beer tasting for many moons now, always stepping back from the precipice just in the nick of time. Fear was the major factor, for while we know a little something about wine, and can touch on spirits a tad, beer is, in comparison, tierra incognita. When we decided to take the plunge, it was clear that help would be required.

Fortunately, HELP was available in capital letters in the form of Travis Poling, the Current’s beer columnist and co-author of Beer Across Texas, and Brian Tarver, certified cicerone (the beer-world equivalent of a sommelier) and honcho of the beer and wine department at the Alon Market H-E-B on NW Military. We decided to concentrate on beers mostly available all year but especially suited to crisp days and nippy nights. They picked the candidates; we sat back and reaped the benefits.

Also tasting were Scott Anderson, computer wrangler by profession and home brewer out of passion, and Stephen Jeffcoat, a manager and bar steward at Lüke — which just happens to have a very impressive beer list. And, as we were being hosted by the restaurant, an equally impressive array of beer-friendly appetizers appeared, courtesy of Chef Steven McHugh. Choucroute, patés, rillettes, meat pies, Alsatian onion and bacon tarte … yes, it’s a tough life.

But we did have to work. We have always suspected, just from looking at the selection at Central Market (to pick one good source other than Alon), that beer was way more complex than most in a Bud Light town may think. And, we learned, beer tasting has its own very specific rules — not to mention that beer tasters don’t spit, they swallow. Radical. Also, beers are judged even more specifically against type than wine, and as we were tasting our way through a range of categories, the pros deemed that blind tasting, the usual MO for wine, would be both futile and frustrating. An open mind, we hoped, would contribute to a prepared palate.

There was a remarkable degree of unanimity, as it turns out. Right off the bat, one beer was disqualified for a “skunky” aroma, giving the pros opportunity to pontificate about the sins of packaging in clear bottles, while also admitting that the light-exposure aromas occur often enough that some people actually come to like them. (Think cat pee as a positive descriptor for some white wines.) We were now down to nine, and the winner, by a whisker, was …

Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout. No, it’s not Russian, but rather made in California in the style of 18th-century British brewers who supplied it to the imperial court of Catherine the Great. (We said this was complex.) “There’s so much going on; it’s a great version of a great style,” offered Anderson. “Everything I smelled came through in the taste,” said Jeffcoat. “It really coats the tongue — it’s a food in and of itself,” remarked Tarver — which didn’t stop Poling from suggesting a pairing with gorgonzola cheesecake. “You’ll still taste this one in the morning,” he said.

Coming in closely behind at number two, Omniboire’s favorite was the G. Schneider & Sohn’s Aventinus — a Bavarian brew so distinctive it has inspired its own glass shape, crafted to emphasize aromas. “It’s a fun beer, you pick up so many things … like banana nut bread. It’s a great dessert beer and goes with our bread pudding,” averred Jeffcoat. “Bubble gum and banana esters,” claimed Tarver, adding, “I don’t like this style, but I like this beer.” “The wheat base brings it alive,” thought Anderson — who was a big fan of the style, while Poling detected underlying dried fruit and warned that “it’s also dangerous — you don’t notice the 8.2-percent alcohol.” Oops.

Local beer makes good with number three, the Ranger Creek Mesquite Smoked Porter — a beer only available on tap at select restaurants and bars. The name alone scared us, as we imagined acrid barbeque aromas running wild. But no. This San Antonio “brewstiller” (they’re also making a bourbon to be released in the spring) does make mention on its website of cured meat, pepper, and leather, but that’s the extent of barbecue nomenclature; they actually smoke only the malts in-house. “You either like smoky or you don’t … and this one went from sweet to smoky in 1.6 seconds!” said Anderson — who liked it. “The nose isn’t as smoky `as you might think`,” said Jeffcoat, who carries it on tap and envisions serving it with mesquite smoked ribs. “Yes, it’s made for food,” claimed Poling, who also found chocolate and coffee notes.

In a tie with Ranger Creek was an oak-aged Kansas City “wheat wine” (a strong ale style) from Boulevard Brewing Co. Called Harvest Dance, it weighs in at a whopping 9.2-percent alcohol, and serves up with an exuberantly foamy head. Most tasters got citrus notes, apparently from a particular type of hops. “Grapefruit phenolics,” noted Poling, very specifically. “Orange,” thought Jeffcoat. But Tarver was reminded of fresh bread with pear jam, and Anderson conjured up curry — a meal in a bottle and an excuse to drink your dinner, in other words.

Could be that it was the swallowing aspect, but this was Omniboire’s most leisurely tasting to date. Nonetheless, we will now sprint to the finish. Beer number four was the monastic dark mahogany Westmalle Dubbel Trappist Ale. “Stronger, darker than the `Trappist` trippel style, with rich malts — but this bottle didn’t grab me,” offered Tarver. “I’ve had it often, but was surprised by the hoppy bitterness,” said Poling. Another taster thought it should have been served warmer. Real Ale Brewing Company is another local company, and their seasonal Coffee Porter, our No. 5, is made with “organic, fair trade” coffee according to the website. Omniboire ventured to suggest that there was too much coffee at first, but it faded. Jeffcoat, who doesn’t drink coffee, thought “it was a good beer — just not to my taste.” Anderson, who does, noted that “`the coffee` is easy to overdo, but this was well-balanced.” “You can often get a green coffee flavor, but not this; I get nice mocha,” deemed Tarver.

Omniboire was just happy to have made it out alive — though we are now ready to do this again. There’s much to learn. •


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