An introduction to Firestone Walker

The next few posts will review beers from Firestone Walker, my new favorite brewery.  Within the last year Firestone went from unseen to relatively common in Chicago, and can now be found at numerous locations.  So far, everything I’ve had from the brewery has been nothing short of excellent.

What makes Firestone Walker unique is their brewing process. The brewery employs a process popularized in 19th century England called the Burton Union.  The Firestone Union is a take on the original and uses a system of oak barrels during the brewing process to create incredible flavors.  The goal of the brewers is to make beers that have “extraordinary character and complexity,” and succeed with flying colors.  Every beer Firestone makes is crisp and presents a full flavor that is complete and satisfying.  The founders, an American raised in wine country and a Brit, use barrels to the fullest to produce beers that are robust in flavor and always leave you satisfied.

Of the Firestone Walker products I’ve had, I’ve found possibly the best American IPA and double IPA out there, in addition to other wonderful creations.  I’ve wanted to review several Firestone beers for some time, so I felt the need to write an intro.  At this point, I put so much faith in the brewery I can’t imagine them creating anything bad, or even subpar.  Wherever you are, if you see anything from Firestone Walker, I strongly encourage you to try it.  You won’t be disappointed.


Bell’s Amber Ale

For a style in which beers can have varying amounts of malt and hops, shades of color, and thickness, Bell’s Amber Ale is a very solid representation of the style.  Hops and malt are balanced nicely and don’t produce too strong a flavor, which works hand-in-hand with the relatively light mouthfeel. Each sip begins with very light malt flavor and is refreshing.  Malt is the principal flavor, though it’s mild and yields only a slight sweetness.  The flavor is never overpowering and doesn’t fluctuate throughout the sip, but what makes this amber ale good is the balance of ingredients.  Because of it, each sip is smooth and yields a malt flavor that emerges just enough to notice.  Only in the middle of each sip does the hop element emerge to make itself known, and is so light it subsides before the finish. Though the hops are subtle, they lighten the flavor just a bit, which seems difficult due to the existing lightness.  After a while it can become a little filling, though it has nothing to do with the flavor, and a slight aftertaste can accumulate.  Bell’s Amber Ale is simple, but done well, and is a very good amber ale.  If you’re looking for a beer with richer flavor and a stronger malt element, you’ll want a brown ale, but this is perfect if you want a refreshing beer with a little extra flavor.

Overall                 8/10
Color                    6
Thickness            5
Hops/Malt          7
ABV                       5.8%


This is the second schwarzbier I’ve reviewed, and is also a good one.  It’s a little late in the season to find Howl, one of Magic Hat’s winter seasonals, but when I came across it, I thought better late than never.  Howl has much acclaim, and while it’s not the best schwarzbier out there, it’s still very good.

Compared to the other schwarzbier I reviewed, Black Forest, Howl has more stout-like qualities.  This doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just means it strays a touch from traditional schawrzbier characteristics. Black Forest is basically a very dark lager, with the same mouthfeel as a lager, but with the flavor of a black beer.  Howl is a little creamier, like a stout, and has chocolatey notes, also like a stout.  As I said, this doesn’t make the it bad, it’s just worth noting.  As a whole, Howl is a wonderful beer.  Black in color with a brown head that’s equally creamy and foamy, Howl also has a nice malty aroma.  Creaminess greets you from the start and is consistent throughout, leaving no strong residue from the sip, especially at the finish.  Howl’s creaminess, however, is very light.  Many stouts are light in mouthfeel and still creamy, but Howl’s is even lighter.  The lager component is strongest in this quality, because while it’s creamier than most schwarzbiers, it’s lighter than most stouts.  It’s an interesting combination, and you notice a very tiny bit of carbonation, like a lager, in each sip, which lightens the mouthfeel even more.  This refreshment teams well with the flavor, which is very tasty, consisting mostly of roasted malts and slight chocolate that aren’t overpowering.

Howl is a very good beer, and another notable schwarzbier.  What sets it back just a touch, for me, is that the flavor gets old after a while.  It doesn’t get stale, but it doesn’t keep me interested.  Aside from that, it’s an excellent beer, and because it’s one of the most readily-available schwarzbiers, it can easily satisfy any black beer itch.

Overall                 8/10
Color                    10
Thickness            4
Hops/Malt          8
ABV                       4.6%

Edmund Fitzgerald

It’s taken a while to review Edmund Fitzgerald, but what I’ve known for some time is that it’s one of the best porters you can find, and probably the finest produced in the United States. This is a perfect porter, using dark flavors wonderfully and taking advantage of some subtle qualities porters have.  A roasted aroma greets you, and once you start drinking, flavor follows suit.  A fantastic combination of roasted malts, chocolate, and slightly smoky and coffee flavors create a savory and smooth sip each and every time.  Despite the complex flavor, it’s never overpowering and always smooth.  From start to finish you get full flavor that is consistent and refreshing, and even though the beer is on the weightier side, it’s won’t weigh you down.  Because all the flavors blend seamlessly, it’s hard to notice them individually unless you’re conscious of them.  The two flavors that do stick out more than others, however, are subtle chocolate sweetness and smoky flavors.  Chocolate adds smoothness to the already smooth mouthfeel, and the smoky element adds even more complexity to make the flavor perfect.  At the end of each sip the smooth finish leaves roasted flavors and smokiness that aren’t bitter or stale, but sweet and nourishing.

Porters have the ability to utilize smokiness more than stouts, but rarely do they use it to their full capacity or as well as  Edmund Fitzgerald does.  Many times my main issue with porters is they’re not as smooth as they could be.  This porter has a mouthfeel more like a stout, while still keeping the flavor profile of a porter.  If you want to find an outstanding porter, look no further than Edmund Fitzgerald. Once you have this you’ll start comparing all porters to it, which is too bad for other porters.  Simply, when you have Edmund Fitzgerald you’re having one of the best.

Overall                 10/10
Color                    10
Thickness            7
Hops/Malt          8
ABV                       5.8%

Wachusett Blueberry

This was the one beer I was really looking forward to before my trip, and of all the beers on my radar to look out for, the only one I was going to make sure I found. My old roommate brought this back from Massachussetts on a break from school and said I had to try it.  It was fantastic.  I was wary about it being a fruit beer, but he assured me it would be good, and it was great.  After enjoying it here and there while in college, it had now been almost five years since my last, and I eagerly awaited the opportunity to have it again.  One of the first things my friend and I did was go to the store to get a case of this.  Many years later, Wachusett Blueberry is still the best fruit beer I’ve ever had.  Nothing from the Wachusett Brewing Company can be found west of New York, so if you’re out east, do yourself a favor and find it.

What sets Wachusett Blueberry apart from most fruit beers is that the fruit flavor seems one with the beer, naturally occurring and not added.  Most fruit beers give the flavor of juice, possibly added to a beer, and the flavors don’t meld well.  When a beer tastes like fruit juice has been added, the flavors are dissonant and you can clearly distinguish the beer element and the fruit element.  The best fruit beers weave fruit flavor with the beer so naturally you can’t tell where the fruit ends and the beer begins.  Wachusett has this down to a science.

With a light golden color typical of fruit beers, though slightly cloudy to prepare you for a smooth creaminess, the most striking thing about the pre-sip is the aroma.  It smells of subtle, slightly sweet blueberries reminiscent of a blueberry muffin.  Compounded with the cloudy color, you expect a smooth and creamy wheat mouthfeel to go along with the blueberry.  Upon drinking, all your expectations are fulfilled.  The medium mouthfeel is smooth, and while it could do a touch better with creaminess, for a fruit beer I can’t ask for anything more.  Far too often I’ve had fruit beers that look to have a creamy, refreshing and subdued wheat element, only to taste it and be overpowered by bitterness, weight or stale wheat flavor.  With Wachusett, the wheat component is light enough to refresh without jeopardizing flavor, while any extra would make the beer too sweet and weighty.  The blueberry sweetness is one with the beer, never surfacing too much as to stand out, and is consistent throughout.  The only variation of flavor comes at the finish, when the sweetness from the blueberry rises just a bit to satisfy, then quickly subsides to leave no aftertaste or residue from the blueberry or the wheat. Just when you think the sweetness might accumulate, it completely disappears. You’re left wanting more, and due to the lightness of flavor and mouthfeel, you won’t get filled up.  Wachusett Blueberry is very easy to drink, not that carbonated and very refreshing.  I actually feel a little bad about this review, because as in-depth as I went, one of the best qualities of Wachusett Blueberry is it’s simplicity. It doesn’t try to do too much and instead has all it’s parts in balance.  All fruit beers should be this simple: balanced, not too sweet, not too juicy, medium wheat and refreshing.  As a whole, you’re left with about as nice a fruit beer you can have.  This isn’t a dig to fruit beers, but a compliment to Wachusett.  If all fruit beers were this unassuming and easy to drink, they’d have a much better reputation.

My gut tells me Wachusett Blueberry is an 8/10, but what bumps it up a notch for me is how drinkable it is.  I never get tired of drinking it, no matter the time of year.  If you’re in New England, especially the Boston area, look to get this on tap, where it is served with a single blueberry in the glass.  Simple yet refined, it sets the stage perfectly.  For me, as I finish one now, I have the craving for some blueberry pancakes.

Overall                 9/10
Color                    3
Thickness            4
Hops/Malt          6
ABV                       4.5%

Otter Creek Alpine Black IPA

I had only briefly heard of Otter Creek Brewing when I stumbled upon Alpine Black IPA in a bar at the base of Okemo Mountain in Vermont.  Among the Magic Hat, Long Trail and Samuel Adams on tap, this was the only choice I’d never had, so of course I had to try it.  I didn’t know what to expect because dark takes on IPAs can vary from very good to very bad.  What I chose is one of the best dark IPAs I’ve had.

For starters, watching this beer being poured was exciting in itself.  It’s hard to find an outstanding dark IPA, so the anticipation that this would be a good one was a factor.  More importantly, though, was the creamy head that seemed to grow exponentially during the pour and add texture to the black color.  Once the head subsided and I was finally able to drink it, the anticipation was well-earned.  The best way to describe Alpine Black IPA is a mix of an excellent roasted porter and a good American IPA.  When you first start drinking this beer the balance of malt and hops is done so well it’s hard to pick out the flavors.  Malt is the overwhelming flavor, yielding roasted and caramel notes that are smooth and creamy, and noticeable for the majority of each sip. These flavors aren’t overpowering, though, and leave room for the sweetness of the hops to shine through at the end of each sip.  While malt is the dominant profile, it’s creaminess fuses well with the hops, and in the end you’re left a slight hop aftertaste with the satisfaction of drinking a very nice porter.  The flavors might sound to be too contrasting, but they work very well together.  The hops really only appear at the end of each sip, and while the malt flavor is good enough on it’s own, the mastery the flavors are mixed with is what makes this so good.

Once you get a grasp on how the flavors work, it’s easier to notice the hops throughout each sip.  Despite the predominant malt flavors, an underlying sweetness from the hops lightens the beer and then pops through more before the finish.  It’s nice to be able to pick out the differing flavors throughout each sip, but I actually prefer the first tastings.  It was nice to get a well-flavored porter style for the majority of each sip and transition seamlessly to the hops.

If you’re going to try a black IPA, I would put this at the top of your list.  I couldn’t decide whether to give this an 8/10 or 9/10, and decided to give it an 8 because I feel the need to have it a few more times to fully figure it out.  This doesn’t take away from how good it is, though, and to me is the benchmark of the black IPA style.

Overall                 8/10
Color                    10
Thickness            6
Hops/Malt          4.0
ABV                       6.0%

Blackbeary Wheat

My old roommate used to bring Long Trail’s Blackbeary Wheat back to Syracuse after going home to Vermont for breaks.  It was always something to look forward to and was a nice beer to help change the season from dreary and cold to sunny and warm.  I really liked it, but it did have a novelty to it because we could only get it after breaks.  I was anxious to give it a go many years removed from the original tasting, so I picked up a six-pack last weekend.  While not outstanding nor terrible, Blackbeary Wheat is a very respectable fruit beer.

Upon pouring into a glass, you first notice two things: the aroma and color.  The first thing that strikes you is the bouquet.  It’s not overwhelmingly sweet as to turn you off, but enough to make you thirsty.  Dark berry notes are less intense than lighter ones, and thus more inviting.  The second thing is the extremely light, completely clear color, which is as light as an American light beer (the head is also reminiscent).  Above the curiously light color, though, the aroma is what grabs you most.  Upon drinking, you’re met with a remarkably light mouthfeel that feels like you’re drinking a light beer.  The weight, or lack thereof, is consistent through the finish and crisp the whole way. The blackberry flavor meets you immediately and offers a different type of fruit not commonly found in fruit beers. It’s very nice and has a subdued sweetness compared to other berry mixtures that are more common.  The fruit sweetness starts lighter and builds slightly as the sip progresses, reaching it’s peak at the finish, although it’s not too high of a summit.  The end of the sip has just a bit more sweetness than the rest of the sip, and the fruit flavor finishes off nicely without much aftertaste.

While not an outstanding beer, Blackbeary Wheat is one of my top choices for fruit beers.  One reason I prefer Blackbeary Wheat to others is that it’s a beer first and the fruit comes second.  Far too often fruit beers hit you too hard with sweetness, leaving you with a beer that tastes like it’s half juice-half beer.  In this case, the beer is a vehicle for the fruit, not the reverse.  Another quality this beer boasts is the sweetness doesn’t accumulate to the point that it makes you full. Because it’s so light and the sweetness isn’t overpowering, you’re not left with a strong aftertaste that will turn you off to having another.  It’s also very refreshing, and with 4.0% ABV, is very sessionable (although I dislike the term).  Compared with other American fruit styles, Blackbeary Wheat more closely resembles a lambic, the Belgian farmhouse style.  Despite it’s attributes, for a wheat beer it’s not very wheat-like.  There’s no cloudiness or creaminess to it, and a little extra from the wheat would fill this beer out nicely.

If you really like fruit beers, or are still searching for the right one, you’ll like Blackbeary Wheat.

Overall                 7/10
Color                    2
Thickness            3
Hops/Malt          5
ABV                       4.0%

Shoals Pale Ale

I was in New England last weekend and knew I would have the opportunity to enjoy a plethora of great beers.  I wasn’t let down, and the next few posts will reflect most of what I tried.  I’m prepared to review four beers, and all are pretty darn good.  Two I’d had before and was waiting to try again, and two were new to me.  All of them are very regional, so the posts will be of immediate assistance to those in the northeast, while most of you will have to make a point to find them when you’re in the region.  Either way, once you get the opportunity to try them, I think you’ll be pleased.

This English pale ale from Smuttynose, New Hampshire’s most famous brewery, is absolutely delightful.  A fantastic reddish color, cloudy appearance and creamy head mouthwateringly prepare you for this beer, and the high hopes are fulfilled. Shoals provides very full and balanced flavor from start to finish. Each sip begins with full-bodied mouthfeel that, while slightly heavy, is still very refreshing.  The hops are very subtle yet produce tangy refreshment. The sip progresses to yield more-pronounced flavors of both malt and hops, but both are in perfect balance and work wonderfully together.  The malt adds the right amount of creaminess while the hops provide the right amount of sweetness to lighten the mouthfeel and flavor.  Each sip ends the way it progressed, leaving malt and hops on the back of your mouth, not too heavy, but enough to finish off the full-bodied beer nicely.  Any less flavor at the finish would seem off-balance with the rest of the sip.  Instead, Shoals keeps the same mouthfeel throughout and is incredibly consistent.  In fact, aside from the slight change of flavor in the beginning of each sip, the flavor never really changes.  For some beers this is a problem, but when it tastes as good as Shoals does, it’s an attribute.

Another attribute Shoals can boast is that it tastes just like it looks it should.  Too often reddish beers look like they’ll produce certain elements, such as rich creaminess, but when it comes to flavor, they fall short.  Coupled with great flavor, Shoals is just about the complete package.  The only thing holding it back for me is that it’s just a touch too hoppy for an English pale ale.  The malt is done so well I want a little more.  Smuttynose has the widest circulation of the upcoming beers, and it’s in your best interest to give this one a try.

Overall                 9/10
Color                    7
Thickness            7
Hops/Malt          4
ABV                       5.4%

Two more from New Glarus

I was in Wisconsin a few weeks ago, and of course I was looking forward to having some beers from the New Glarus Brewing Co.  I more than satisfied my Spotted Cow craving, and in addition was able to enjoy many other of the brewery’s offerings.  Though I’m not prepared to review them all, I am ready to discuss two.  The first is Fat Squirrel, a brown ale; the second is Hop Hearty, a seasonal IPA.  Both are very good, so remember to grab some next time you’re in Wisconsin.

Fat Squirrel

This year-round nut brown ale is very refreshing, something you don’t always find with nut browns. Many times nut browns, intended to produce a distinct malt character, can be overpowering. It’s not uncommon for nut browns to be too thick, not smooth and have a nut flavor that is unbalanced and leaves a stale residue.  Fat Squirrel doesn’t have any of these problems.  Sitting on the lighter end of the malt and mouthfeel spectrums, yet still providing full flavor, is what sets this nut brown apart.  From the beginning of each sip the lightness sets the tone.  The malt component follows suit with a mild sweetness that isn’t overpowering or stale, and doesn’t change intensity during the sip.  The nut element emerges about halfway through each sip, matching very well with the malt sweetness.  A slightly sweet and mild nut flavor, reminiscent of hazelnuts, fuses with the malt.  Even though the flavors don’t hit you right away, by the completion you’re satisfied, and at the end of each sip you’re left with a sweetness that’s not overpowering, but enough to let you know you’re drinking a brown ale.

What is especially unique about this nut brown ale is the refreshing aspect.  Every time the malt or nut flavors emerge, refreshment comes with it.  Most times bursts of malt flavor are accompanied with weight, not lightness.  It’s a nice change of pace from traditional brown ales, and is done very well.  Because of it’s lightness Fat Squirrel is very drinkable.  While this nut brown deserves all it’s accolades,  I would still prefer a slightly stronger flavor.  Too much would throw off the balance, but a touch more would add a little more creaminess and body.  Overall, though, this is a brown ale you can enjoy any time of the year, and if I lived in Wisconsin, I would.

Overall                 8/10
Color                    8
Thickness            5
Hops/Malt          7
ABV                       5.8%

Hop Hearty

For some reason I didn’t have high expectations for this American IPA.  Whatever the reason for my skepticism, it disappeared quickly after trying Hop Hearty.  This is a fantastic take on the classic American IPA.  It won’t “wow” you with an incredible amount of hops and doesn’t use a random, interesting ingredient to make it special.  Instead, Hop Hearty is a simple, yet wonderful, take on the style.

A nice reddish-golden color greets you with a fresh hop aroma.  The bouquet leads you through each sip, which is smooth and evenly-hopped.  Light in mouthfeel in the beginning and only slightly heavier on the back end, the citrusy sweetness of the hops is consistent throughout.  The hop sweetness that starts you off remains on the tip of your tongue as the sip progresses, and as the back end approaches, the sweetness begins to wane and gives way to savory and somewhat syrupy caramel notes.  It might sound like a drastic change, but it’s not. Hops are the clear focus here, and they form a solid backbone.  The new sweetness only emerges just enough to end each sip smoothly and without any bitterness, yet without compromising any of the great hop flavor from earlier in the sip.  You come for the IPA, and as a bonus get some sweet, darker notes.  The only issue is that after a while the slightly syrupy consistency can become a little much.  This is definitely a beer you can enjoy many of in one sitting because it’s not very heavy, but the back end might become a little much after too many.

If you’re looking for hops that will blow you away, you won’t like Hop Hearty. This IPA isn’t extreme in any way, but for me, that’s one of the reasons it’s so good.  It’s simple and understated, yet still delivers enough hops to meet an IPA craving. You won’t be disappointed with this beer, and if you’re looking for a standard IPA, you’ll love it.

Overall                 8/10
Color                    5
Thickness            5
Hops/Malt          3
ABV                       6.1%

Saranac Hiatus

My last post, reviewing Saranac Pale Ale, will be my last Saranac beer for a while. I have now reviewed 20 Saranac offerings, including all six core beers and many summer, fall and winter seasonals.  I’d like to thank you, for two reasons, for sticking with me while I reviewed all of them.  First, Saranac isn’t widely distributed across the country, and because they aren’t readily available, many of you weren’t able to give them a try.  Second, if you were seeking a wider variety of beers from different brewers, you probably got tired of seeing Saranac on the site. I can see how either could be frustrating or annoying, and I apologize because of it.

It was a personal mission to review these beers.  Many of them were some of the first beers I had when developing a conscious and palate for beer.  It meant a lot and was a lot of fun to revisit these beers – some of which I hadn’t tasted in 5 years – to see how they stacked up to everything I’ve had since.  I’m glad to say that most were pretty good, some were exceptional and a few were just as good as they were the first time I had them.  All sentiment aside, I was happy with what the brewery had to offer.

So, once again, thank you for bearing with me.  I have an abundance of ideas for future posts that I look forward to bringing you, so be sure to stay tuned.

Until next time, bottoms up!

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