Sumatra Mountain

Maker: Founders, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USAwp-1469491924785.jpg

Style: Coffee flavored Imperial Brown Ale

ABV: 9%

MSRP: $12 (4 pack)

Appearance: Light coffee brown with a big foamy head.

Nose: Roasted coffee, chocolate syrup, brown sugar.

Palate: Dark roast coffee with 3-4 packets of sugar in the raw, a little malt and bitterness, dark chocolate.

Finish: Sticky but not really sweet. Almost exactly like dark roast Sumatra but without the smoke I often get in that coffee.

Parting words: From the folks who brought the world Breakfast Stout, now we have another coffee beer. I like that it’s more than just that, though. They’re using Sumatran coffee (working my way through a bag of Sumatra Mandheling from Chazzano right now, actually) provided by Ferris & Co. roasters of Grand Rapids (details on their Sumatra are here). They also used two types of malt, Aromatic and Munich, and two types of hops, German and Perle. In sum, Founders put a lot of effort and care into this, as they do with everything.

That said, I think this beer missed the mark. There’s too much sweetness here for my taste. It comes off closer to a fudge or milkshake stout than a coffee-flavored brown ale. $12 isn’t crazy for an imperial seasonal offering but it’s too much for something I’m not particularly fond of. Sumatra Mountain is mildly recommended.

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El Rojo Red Ale

Maker: Griffin Claw, Birmingham, Michigan, USA2016-01-04-15.00.40.jpg.jpeg

Style: Red ale

ABV: 6.5%

Price: $8/4 pint cans (Holiday Market)

Nose: Roasted malt, caramel, dried fig.

Palate: Medium bodied and semi-sweet. Toasty on the back end.

Finish: Toasty and slightly bittEl Rojo Red Aleer, with a little sweetness for balance.

Parting words: Griffin Claw is a relatively new (2013) brewery in metro Detroit. Dan Rogers, seasoned craft beer veteran, is the master brewer. They have a limited portfolio but all of it is good. Their Raggedy Ass IPA is probably their best known beer, but they also make Screamin’ Pumpkin Ale, Grind Line Pale, Grand Trunk Pilsner and El Rojo.

Griffin Claw’s website says that they’ve entered El Rojo into contests as an English-style brown ale and I can see why. It’s closer to that style in flavor than it is to what I expect in something called a red ale. Whatever one calls it, it’s good. Pairs well with food. I’m not sure what the story behind the bandito caricature is though. Anyway, El Rojo is recommended.

Trader Joe’s Vintage Ale Triple-Triple Head to Head: 2013, 2014, 2015

Brewer: Unibroue, Chambly, Quebec, Canada2015-12-21-15.33.33.jpg.jpeg

Style: Spiced dark ale

ABV: 9%

Price: $6

Me= Me

Jessica= J

Brian= B

Served in snifters.

Appearance: Coffee brown with a big, but short-lived head (all).

2013

Me: Orange, ginger and malt on the nose. Light on the palate with a little gingerbread. Mild finish.

J: Smells fruity but doesn’t taste fruity.

B: Nose and palate are very different. Much less flavor on the palate than there is aroma in the nose. Mild. Watery.

2014

Me: Mild nose, mildly effervescent on the palate. Spicy and stronger on the palate than 2013. Booze more obvious. Favorite of the three.

J: Not as spicy. More malty. Palate is more consistent with the nose. Finish lingers in the tongue. Elusive whiff of chocolate.

B: “ooh!” Much better on the palate. Agree with J. Malt is prominent but there’s underlying clove and nutmeg. Favorite of the three.

2015

Me: Stronger on the nose and in the palate but less balanced than 2014. Orange peel and potpourri nose, malty on the palate.

J: Stronger “beer” flavor. Lager-like. Smells younger, a little grassy. Favorite of the three.

B: Spices are barely there, except for some clove and nutmeg at the end. Least subtle of the three. Strong tasting.

Parting words: Every year around this time, I buy at least three bottles of that year’s Trader Joe’s Vintage Ale. I always plan to drink them six months to a year apart but sometimes I forget they’re in my cellar or I get thirsty and drink one early. I forgot about my last 2011 and I drank it at about three years old and I drank my last 2012 shortly after that. I decided to get serious this year and do a three way head to head tasting. Normally I would enlist my wife to help, but she’s pregnant, so I enlisted the help of a beer-loving couple we’re friends with, Brian and Jessica.

We tasted over dinner (all three were OK with food) and I tried to take notes as best as I could. 2013 was the least favorite for all of us. It wasn’t bad, it was just bland on the palate. Jessica preferred the stronger taste of the 2015, but Brian and I liked the 2014. That said, we all agreed that 2014 and 2015 were both enjoyable pours. One remaining question is whether this beer rebounds after an apparent dip after two years in the bottle, like wines sometimes do. Maybe next year we can answer this question! Trader Joe’s Vintage Ale is recommended new and at a year old.

All Day IPA

Maker: Founders, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

Style: Session IPA

ABV: 4.7%

Note: No photo due to phone camera failure.

Appearance: Medium gold with a big foamy head.

Nose: Mild floral hops.

Palate: Spicy hops with a sweet malt background. Bitter, but not obnoxious.

Finish: Mild but with plenty of hoppy bitterness.

Parting words: As always, Founders delivers. All Day IPA delivers plenty of hoppy IPA punch at a low ABV for “all day” enjoyment. This beer has become my go-to beer for parties, lunches at home or having beer drinking friends over. It’s available on tap, in bottles and even in a 15 pack of cans (my preference). It’s also available at just about every party store, grocery store and gas station in these parts. For simple hoppy drinking, All Day IPA can’t be beat. Highly recommended.

Grand Circus IPA

Make: Atwater, Detroit, Michigan, USAwpid-20150622_193214.jpg

Style: Session IPA

ABV: 4.5%

Appearance: Dark copper with a big sudsy head.

Nose: Very sweet malt, citric hops

Palate: Medium bodied. Hops, balanced by malty sweetness. Hops are present but not overwhelming. Bitterness on the back end.

Finish: Bitterness intensifies and lingers.

This is a part of Atwater’s series of beers named for places around Detroit. The name may sound strange but any clowns one may encounter in Grand Circus Park are purely coincidental. Grand Circus is a semi-circular park in Downtown Detroit that was created as a part of a planned (then abandoned) city-wide network of hub and spoke style roads. In 1865 George Armstrong Custer delivered a eulogy for Abraham Lincoln there and now the park is home to the Russell Alger Fountain, which was designed by Henry Bacon with the statue sculpted by Daniel French, who both did the same for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. The park is adjacent to many of downtown’s most important buildings including the David Whitney Building, David Broderick Tower, Central United Methodist Church, The Detroit Opera House and Comerica Park.

Grand Circus the beer is billed as a session beer and it fits that bill. It’s a porch sippin’, food accompanyin’ beer. I got a pack of twelve cans of this for a party so that there would be something hoppy there that everybody could enjoy. It was moderately popular. If you’re a hop head, this probably won’t satisfy your lust, but I liked it, even more since it’s available in cans. Grand Circus IPA is recommended.

Cup A Joe

Maker: Short’s, Elk Rapids, Michigan, USAwpid-2015-01-05-20.53.18.jpg.jpeg

Style: Coffee Cream Stout (made with FTO coffee from Higher Grounds roasters, Traverse City, Michigan).

ABV: 7%

Purchased for $12/6 pack

Appearance: Dark coffee with a short-lived lacy head.

Nose: Fresh ground coffee, sour yeast, cocoa.

Palate: Coffee with extra cream, and a little bit of funk.

Finish: Bitter and caffeinated like your ex but with a sweetness he or she lacks.

Parting words: This is one of my favorite styles from one of my favorite Michigan breweries, so buying it was an easy decision to make. I was not disappointed. The coffee, stout and cream elements blend together seamlessly and the result is a great after-dinner (or as-dinner) stout. Doesn’t do too bad with food either, at least with (electric) grilled pork chops. It’s pricy but worth it. Cup A Joe is recommended.

Strange Stout

Maker: Lily’s Seafood Grill and Brewery, Royal Oak, Michigan, USA

Style: Oatmeal stout

ABV: 5.2%

Price: $5/pint, $12 growler refill

Appearance: Dark chocolate with a light lacy head.

Nose: Milk chocolate, caramel, toasted pumpernickel

Palate: Medium bodied. French roast coffee, cocoa powder, dark whole wheat toast.

Finish: Charcoal smoke, roasted barley, lingers for a good length of time.

Parting words: Lily’s is one of Downtown Royal Oak’s best regarded and longest operating restaurants. It’s named after Lily Strange, grandmother of the restaurant’s founders. Lily was born and raised in Scotland so the place has a vaguely Scottish theme.  In addition to serving great seafood (and other stuff), Lily’s is also a brew pub with consistently good beer. It’s a testament to how good that beer actually is it thrives in an area saturated with brewpubs and bars selling craft beer. In addition to this stout, they also make a light lager, hefeweizen, red ale and at least two seasonal offerings.

Strange Stout is a very good example of the style and the smoky finish adds and nice extra dimension not usually found in the competition. Don’t look for something to rival stouts from Bell’s or Founder’s, but this is a solid brewpub stout. Strange Stout is recommended.

Soft Parade

Maker: Short’s, Bellaire, Michigan, USAwpid-2014-08-18-20.21.51.jpg.jpeg

Style: Strong rye ale with pureed strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries.

ABV: 7.5%

Purchased for: $11

Appearance: Golden brown with a hint of pink. Lacy head.

Nose: Roasted malt, fruit juice.

Palate: Medium bodied and nicely balanced. Hot cereal, Hawaiian Punch, wild blackberries.

Finish: Dark rye toast, with a tiny bit of mixed berry jam.

Parting words: Summer is the time for fruit beers and this one is very popular in these parts, and not just because of the great label art. It’s everything a fruity summer beer should be. It’s fruity and refreshing while still having the character of the “base” beer, in this case a strong rye ale. The ABV is sneaky and could take one unawares, but there’s nothing not to love about this beer except maybe the price. Soft Parade is recommended.

Uncle Steve’s Irish Stout

Maker: Short’s, Bellaire/Elk Rapids, Michigan, USUncle Steve's Irish Stout

ABV: 5.5%

Purchased for $9

Appearance: Black with a foamy chocolate head

Nose: Dark toast, molasses, malt.

On the palate: Medium bodied, dry and effervescent. Dark roasted malt and a little sourness. A little sweetness at the end.

Finish: More dark toast and bubbles. Fades fairly quickly.

Parting words: It doesn’t take a lot of guesswork to figure out what brand of beer a craft “Irish Stout” is aimed at. If you like Guinness, you’ll like this. It’s a bit of an improvement on Guinness, but not enough to make it a repeat buy for me since I’m not a fan of that style of stout in the first place. I prefer my stouts more flavorful and chocolaty. Uncle Steve’s Irish Stout is mildly recommended.

The Lost Abbey Serpent’s Stout

Maker: Port, San Marco, California, USALost Abbey Serpents

ABV: 11%

Price: $14/750 ml (Binny’s)

Thanks to Rhiannon to help in acquiring this bottle.

Appearance: Black coffee with a big frothy head

Nose: Faint. Coffee.

On the palate: Full bodied and rich. Roasted malt, effervescence, chocolate covered raisins, Ethiopian Harrar coffee.

Finish: Bitter and slightly sweet. Coffee and dark chocolate stick to the lips for a long time.

Parting words: Lost Abbey’s Serpent’s Stout is one of the best stout’s I’ve ever had. It’s fantastic beer that has a strong classic stout profile but is has a complexity and balance that puts it ahead of the competition. The fruity notes were a bit of a surprise but a welcome addition. As usual, I feel like I’m reaching for descriptors for a beer. I all have left to say is that one tastes really good. Lost Abbey Serpent’s Stout is highly recommended.