A couple of days before Christmas, a large box emblazoned with labels denoting fragility found its way into my hands. Yes, my (wonderful, thoughtful, and benevolent) girlfriend had ordered for me no less than 12 beers to whet my whistle over the Christmas break. Having picked up a polypin of Cullercoats Winter Warmer that would not last the week, I put the bottles aside to focus on the cooking and celebrating at hand.
What I have to drink today are a few bottles from Dark Horse Brewing, a brewery whose beers I sampled at Michigan’s Summer Beer Fest in Ypsi, but whose premises I never had the chance to visit. Their tent/s had the greatest number of beers available (if I recall correctly, which I probably don’t, as beer festivals tend to get a bit hazy by the end), but their beers were also the most consistently interesting and enjoyable. I made a striking mental note to sample more of their brews, and today is my day.
First up is the Amber Ale. It pours with a high degree of visible carbonation, yielding a foamy, off-white head, and gives a copper/amber hue, deep with haze and sediment. The bottle was left with appears to be a half-inch of sediment as well. The head quickly began to vanish, leaving no lacing. While sweet floral notes and a little Belgian funk are detectable on the nose, nothing particularly malty jumps out. Mouthfeel is light, with minimal but sharp carbonation. The sweet Belgian nose follows with a similar flavour, and if it had been a blind tasting I would’ve assumed it was a light Belgian ale and not an amber ale. The flavours are a little muddled with caramel, citrus, banana, and a late bitterness all coming through. At first I thought the light feel and mild fruity sweetness might make it a good session beer, but honestly it just doesn’t have enough flavour to hide what quickly becomes a chore of a flavour palette. It’s like sweet Coopers Sparkling without the hops up front. Given a little more malt and a thicker mouthfeel it could be more like a Belgian, but again, it comes up as lacklustre. A quick look at its RateBeer entry shows a collective vote of 48/100. I agree. IT also states an abv of 5.5%. Could’ve fooled me.
Next up: the ‘Boffo’ brown ale. Now, I’ve never been a huge fan of brown ales (though there have definitely been exceptions), but I’m keen to crack on and discover a Dark Horse gem. This one pours thick and dark, with a foamy brown head, and yes, some sediment in the bottle. I wonder how long these had been sitting on the shelf? Don’t Londoners drink American craft beer? But anyway, this beer’s head does fall away to exhibit some lacing, and the body is so dark that light will not penetrate it. The nose give faint caramel and chocolate malt. In the mouth, it is a mildly carbonated but solid ale. Thick and bitter. I’d like to imagine that with time the carbonation could develop from foamy to creamy, because that probably the only element of this beer holding it back. The strong bitterness remains from start to finish, finally dissipating to leave you wanting more, and beneath it, roasted malt, chocolate, coffee, and hazelnut jumps forth. This is a damn tasty beer. Again, in a blind tasting I probably wouldn’t have judged it by the style it says on the label, but I’m not complaining. The Googles informs me that it’s 6.5% alc, which probably contributes to the elevation in standards after its lacklustre sibling. 15 minutes on, enjoyed it to the last drop.
Now normally if I’d hit a 6.5% beer on my second of a five beer tasting I’d be worried that I’d not ordered them very well. Next up is a scotch ale, and though it doesn’t say how alcoholic it is (none of these damned American beers seem to anymore*), I’ve learned to be wary around scotch ales. This is the Scotty Karate scotch ale, and the label sports a psychedelic Viking one-man band. Again, be wary around scotch ales. The Three Floyds one was an eye-opener too. This one pours with a creamier head and more lacing than the last two, and despite the apparently typical, thick layer of sediment in the bottle, the beer remains clear, with a deep red hue. Carbonation is there, but not overwhelmingly. On the nose I get mild malty nose and a bit of bit of fuit – maybe citrus or raisin, but it’s faint. Upon tasting, mouthfeel is light, but alcohol is definitely noticeable. If feels nice and creamy, with an ideally mild carbonation that makes it easy to drink. It’s boozy, but pleasantly so. An initially sweet finish fades to reveal the alcohol and stonefuits, raisin, toffee, malt, and a slight late hop bitterness. A stellar beer. If I had to pick a fault, it would be the foaminess of the carbonation/mouthfeel. It does, however, have a hint of that stereotypical Mikkeller burnt sweetness/booziness thing going on. I’m not sure if anyone else gets that, but I can always tell a Mikkeller by that same distinctive flavour, and I love it. While I’m sitting here enjoying it, a quick perusal of RateBeer informs me of an abv of 9.75% and an overall rating of 97. I can believe the alcohol, but I’m surprised by the rating. I love the beer, but I’d have pegged it at about 92-95. Maybe once I’ve had a six-pack of it I’d be ready to give it a 100 and tell it that ‘no, you! I love you!’, but for this excellent tasting beer with unrefined carbonation, 93 is my vote.
The penultimate beer in this tasting is the Double Crooked Tree IPA. The pour greets me with the familiar sickly sweet but piney, hoppy aroma I have come to love from such beers as Lagunitas IPA, and Dogfish Head’s 60/90/120 Minute (Imperial)/IPA/s. The beer is murky with visible layers of sediment and sports a reddish, almost blood-orange-cum-watermelon hue. A quickly dissipating foamy head forms splotchy lacing on the sides of the glass. Mouthfeel is a shock; it’s surprisingly alcoholic, and with very little carbonation. Alcohol and bitterness seem to be the name of the game. Here the foamy mouthfeel that has pervaded the previous of tonight’s Dark Horse beers is actually of benefit – it breaks up the liquid in your mouth so you can really feel the potency throughout. Every sip has me wide-eyed and twitching a little, and I begin to wonder how I’m going to go finishing a whole bottle (FWP, I know). Where the Dogfish Head Imperial IPA is perfectly balanced but also supercharged, this is strong but a little wonky. There’s a slight empty metallic tang with the late bitterness that lingers and distracts, and while notes of straw and toffee do come through, the strong bitterness and element of booze overpowers all. I jump on RateBeer to look up the alcohol content, and jesus, it’s 13.6%. Wow. I would love to try this on keg as I’m sure tropical and citrus fruits would abound. The RateBeer community has rated it 99/100, an incredibly high rating, and while the more I drink the more I enjoy it, it still falls short of the other imperial/double IPAs I’ve had in the past. It’s (unfortunately) a little headache-inducing, and that’s to a hop-head like myself**. All in all I say it’s worth buy a bottle to share among friends. It’s a tasty beer that will go down great if you’ve had a few or several but there is a burn and it’s not *entirely* even enough to get 99/100. Perhaps 95. And really, this feels like an India Barley Wine! Given the Dogfish Head Imperial IPA was 9% and came off as perfectly balanced, I don’t quite see the need for the 13.5%abv of this brew. Maybe I’m still in shock and feeling bitter. Either way, I’d be keen to see what other people think.
Feeling like my lack of research prior to tasting had led me to jump the shark again, I am now writing from day #2 of the tasting. What was labelled a double IPA and turned out to be an Imperial IPA/Barley Wine had left me with the Dark Horse Sapient Trip Ale, a Belgian style trippel with a label sporting a grim reaper wielding a mailbox, and wanting to be able to enjoy it, I took a wee break and resumed my drinking today. It pours a peachy amber, with a fluffy white head that creeps slowly down the glass to leave minimal lacing. It smells almost wheaty with banana, but the sweet funk lays subtly underneath. The nose is fresh, complex, and inviting. Mouthfeel is light, with bitey carbonation and a foaminess that dissipates to leave with feels like a fruity mineral water. It’s really very refreshing. After the initial carbonation buzz dies down, thick spatterings of lacing are adorning the glass, and this is looking like a great beer. Taste-wise, it’s balanced, with a veritable fruit bowl of esters and floral hop characters – banana, citrus peel, and tropical fruit juice. The Belgian yeast is there with some banana and bubblegum notes as well. The late hop bitterness isn’t resiny, but fresh, and perfectly balanced with the other flavours. I’m not one to fly the Belgian ale flag, but if this is the future of the style, I’m on board. It makes me wonder how far from the style it is (that I like so much), but I’m not complaining. A trip to the internet reveals an alcohol content of 9.5% (which is largely well hidden), and a rating of 86. Given that the RB community gave the Double Crooked Tree 99, I feel as though this beer has been cheated. Dark Horse made a 9.5% Belgian style ale almost sessionable, and it was the wonky, unbalanced Imperial IPA that people gave almost top marks too? Perhaps this is a symptom of the hop fad**. This is a solid, complex, well-balanced beer that ticks every box for me. I’d love to a pint from a fresh keg to see how it tastes brand new.
As with all my beers in this review, they’ve been bottles that I can only assume had been sitting for some time, so the dynamics have probably changed. Maybe the Double Crooked Tree is well-balanced and smooth when straight from the brewery. Maybe the Scotty Karate truly is a 97/100 when fresh. All this tasting has shown me is that Dark Horse makes some damned flavoursome beers, and that I can’t wait to get back to Michigan to drink these straight from the… er… horse’s mouth. Scratch that. But you know what I mean. They’re fun to drink, and some are pretty damned sessionable. Dark Horse remains one of my favourite breweries and I’ll try my darnedest to get along next chance I get.
*I’d love to know if it’s a part of the restrictions on labels that American breweries *can’t* advertise how alcohol their beer is, or whether they just choose not to. Common sense would dictate that those who wish to drink responsibly be provided with information about how much alcohol is going into their system, but maybe it does drive alcoholism.
**Yes, yes, I love hops. I love growing my own hops, making my beers super hoppy, and part of the reason you haven’t seen me post about any English beer is that only a handful of English breweries actually have the inclination to use hops to a noticeable degree. What I don’t agree with is wasting hops by overhopping a beer to the point where it stops you from enjoying it, or overshadows any of the other flavours in a beer. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved beers that have technically been ranked at ~150 IBUs, but they were always balanced. Ain’t no need to make a shitty beer just to highlight what everyone knows – that hops can be flavoursome.
P.S. I love you guys, and I love seeing that my old posts are still getting read. It’s quite the boon to my drive to write to log in and see the hit counts still climbing. I’ll be back soon.