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2009 Specialty Beers
Exploring the Foamy Fringe of Beer

Posted: October 16, 2009

By Jerald O’Kennard

Every year in the World Wine Championships, we dedicate one session to specialty styles of beer that include fruit flavored beers, beers made with unusual fermentables, barrel aged beers, and some Belgian specialty styles like lambic. When you open the door to brewers to send it their unusual creations you can be sure that you will get things that you’ve never seen before both good and bad. However, what’s interesting to me is that very concept of an “unusual” beer is almost passé in the era of “beer imperialism” and “extreme beers”.

The pendulum of taste swings on and radicalism verges on traditionalism, and people are more open to experimentation than they have ever been. Sure there is a good deal of nonsense and maladroit one upsmanship going on in the brewing world but for the most part new styles that have merit are becoming refined, maturing and becoming the norm. Take the very notion of a barrel aged beer. Storing beer in neutral wood was commonplace in preindustrial brewing, became obsolete with clean stable modern metals, and now storing weighty craft beers in non-neutral wood of all times is becoming so common that we will be taking the category out of our specialty tastings next year and incorporating those barrel aged products into their respective barleywine, strong ale, stout, or porter tastings.

The top beers from this year’s tasting, despite all of their flavor divergence all had a few things in common. Namely, depth, balance, purity of flavor, things that you would expect to separate the wheat from the chaff in any style of beer. Perhaps the real defining term and lightning rod for specialty beers is creativity. The Mona Lisa was a very creative endeavor, but so was Frankenstein’s monster…

Highlights of this year’s specialty tasting included two from Brouwerij Lindemans of Belgium, the Cuvée René Oude Gueuze Lambic (94 points) and the Pêche Lambic (92 pts.) both great examples of their type: dry, vinous and food affined gueuze lambic and more easy going, yet complex and pure fruit flavored lambic. Also on the fruit flavored frontier, the Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery Raspberry Ale (91 pts.) has instantly appealing sweet berry fruit, but also the complex woodsy, brambly dimension of fresh raspberries that is very difficult to capture and balance in any beverage. And speaking of wood and steins, it was great to find a galvanization of the two in the Woody Stein (92 pts.) where the mad brewing scientists at the Grumpy Troll Brewery successfully aged a steinbier in a barrel a created a dark, smoky, gentle giant of a beer that will be stunning with artisanal sausages, smoked gouda or Morbier cheeses.

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