The Idiot’s Guide to Holy Ales

Alaskan IPA with a hoppy halo

Sure sign of a Holy Ale

Lots of ominous signs in the news these days.  North Korea is preparing to immolate Manhattan or launch a cyber attack against the online reservations systems of Nobu and Daniel to send New York’s well-healed foodies into a tizzy (not sure why they’d need to go to any of that trouble after simply sending Dennis Rodman back).  Assad may be using chemical weapons against Syrian rebels.  A Kardashian is apparently pregnant (with a reality fetus), Lindsay Lohan is still Lindsay Lohan, and the Virgin Mary appeared on a taco shell.  I’d be truly impressed if she showed up in the gelatinous coating surrounding Spam.  To each his own when it comes to Holy signs.

Mother Mary & The Stone Gargoyle have been said to appear .  Commence the pilrgimage!

Commence the pilgimage!

That got me thinking about craft beer (you wondered – me too – if I was going make that connection somehow).  Specifically, I started thinking about my term for the rare, the mythical, the “ungettable” craft beers: Holy Ales.  I wrote about one of my Quests for a Holy Ale last week but realized that I’d never given the topic of Holy Ales all that much thought.  Why are some Holy and others just spectacularly pious (really good)? Is it all about the beer itself or is there something more? A matter of faith or a matter of taste?

I figured the best way to understand how a beer achieves Holy Ale status would be to take a look at the ones already on my altar:

3 Floyds Dark Lord

3 Floyds Dark Lord

  • Russian River Pliny The Younger
  • Three Floyds Dark Lord
  • Deschutes The Abyss
  • Surly Darkness
  • Bell’s Hopslam
  • Founders KBS and CBS
  • Alchemist Heady Topper
  • Ballast Point Sculpin
  • Rogue Voodoo Doughnut (since defrocked)
  • Stone/Maui Coconut Macadamia Porter

That’s not the whole list but it was enough to get me started in trying to identify common traits implying Holiness (aside from the fact that darkness and evil seem to be tickets to my craft beer heaven.  Probably won’t be sharing this list with my Rabbi over a pint of He’Brew Glorious Jewbelation during Hanukkah).

First of all, there’s virtually no chance that any two craft beer fans will have identical lists of Holy Ales – just too many choices and too many varied tastes out there.  Regional availability plays a huge role as well.  In simplest terms, it’s all about basic economics but on a very personal scale: Supply vs. Personal Demand.  Milton Friedman had it figured out a long time ago and probably tweaked his theories at the Map Room Pub.

So now that I have the basics down (sort of), here are my Rules for attaining Holy Ale status.  Thine craft beer mayest be worshipped as Holy upon satisfactory passage of the following (and I’m not calling these commandments because I’m already in enough trouble and don’t want to be pummeled by frogs – I’m wearing red today and would end up looking like a Jewish Christmas Tree – like I said: enough trouble already):

  1. AVAILABILITY (or lack thereof).  Goes without saying that scarcity is a huge factor.  If you can your hands on a particular brew almost anytime you want , it just doesn’t feel “special”, though it may still be spectacularly pious.
  1. GEOGRAPHY.  Relates to availability.  What’s rare and difficult to get in one area may be a snap to obtain somewhere else. I don’t have Troegs Nugget Nectar on my list primarily because I can get plenty of it out here when its available – I love it.  It’s a special IPA.  I know many people think it belongs in the conversation with Hopslam, Pliny & Jai Alai.  If I lived in Fon Du Lac it would be Holy but I don’t, so it’s just a really fine sinner.

    Brewed every 50 years

    Brewed every 50 years

  1. REGULARLY (even if sparingly and only occasionally) BREWED.  That’s my way of saying one-offs don’t count.  I’m primarily talking about firkins.  Some of them are fantastic and highly prized but if we allowed them to attain Holiness the craft beer scene would resemble Pete Townshend’s  prescient lyrics of Exquisitely Bored in California: “pray TV looks like pay TV to me.”  In other words, there’d be too many Holy Ales preaching from the tap handles and we’d have a hard time finding our true prophets over profits.

I actually had a few other factors but then recognized that they all related to personal taste and that’s really where every craft beer geek’s list is going to go their separate ways.  I’ll never worship a Barley Wine, Belgian Tripel, or Doppelbock but others may brand me a blasphemous heretic for my beatification of IPAs or Double IPAs.

At the end of the day we all see the Holy Ale signs we want to see in the lacing.  I’m still waiting for the Stone Gargoyle to appear in mine.

What about your Holy Ales? Agree or disagree with my rules?  File an appeal with a comment…

Cheers!

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Beer Review (Quest) – Ballast Point Indra Kunindra

I don’t remember where I was or what I was doing when I read about a beer brewed with coconuts, kaffir lime leaves, cayenne pepper, and madras curry but I know I was intrigued.  And pissed.  I also know that I was most likely minding my own business while possibly working up my design for Bose Fool Cancelling Headphones™ (more on that another time).  Then I read what had to be a preview of this very limited release by Ballast Point in San Diego and all bets were off.  So much for minding my own business.  Now I had to make it my business to get a hold of that beer when it was released.  That’s where the pissed comes in (I’m pretty sure nobody else typed those words in that exact order anywhere else in the world today – or yesterday – and I should probably apologize for it but I’m in a bit of a mischievous mood so I won’t).

Indra Kunindra Label - Its All In There

Indra Kunindra Label – Its All In There

Ballast Point is a pretty small operation in the first place.  They pulled distribution of their regular lineup from NJ (and I believe the rest of the Least Coast) for a couple of years around 2010/2011 because they couldn’t consistently meet demand.  Fortunately, Philadelphia is their top distribution market outside of San Diego and Southern California so if I needed a fix of Sculpin or Sea Monster it was occasionally available across the bridge (although you’re really crossing the river and since the river and the bridge are, by necessity, perpendicular, you can’t cross both at the same time.  Geometrically impossible.  Maybe the people with bridge phobias simply figured that out a long time ago).

So anyway, the words “very limited release” really meant “no f’n way you’re getting your hands on this one out in New Jersey.”  Very well.  The coconut shells and imaginary horse are next to the craft beer fridge for a reason.  The next Quest for the Holy Ale is on! Soon enough, some reviews are popping up about Indra Kunindra.  I managed to ignore the details (didn’t want to be influenced and they’d probably be wrong anyway) and focused on the location of the reviewers:  all San Diego/SoCal.  Appeared to be no distribution outside of that region.  Not one to be easily turned into a newt I started practicing my coconut shell clip-clops.

Most of the reviews were from people lucky enough to sample it at the source – the brewery at Scripps Ranch.  Thanks to my newfound fear of bridges I didn’t see myself driving out to San Diego anytime soon.  Especially not with that huge river bisecting the country – pretty sure I’d need to use a bridge to get across it.  Hope of a successful quest was beginning to fade when an opportunity presented itself to actually go to San Diego on an airplane.  No need to confront a bridge.  I hadn’t been to San Diego in over 10 years and the closest I came then to craft beer was craftily throwing back insults at Dick’s Last Resort in the Gaslamp Quarter.  The timing was perfect – or so I thought.  Indra was still pouring in the tasting room based upon the website and Twitter feed.  The day before I left they let me know that they thought I’d arrive before it kicked.  Panic.

No time to pack the coconut shells or invisible horse.  Not sure how the TSA luminaries would handle them anyway.  The Quest was going old school:  Planes, Trains & Automobiles (moving walkways replacing the trains).  I arrived mid afternoon and headed straight for the prize.  Finding the brewery proved a bit challenging.  I passed it twice before realizing that it’s a stealth brewery.  Completely unassuming space in a small section of a large corporate park facility.  No glitz, glamor, or stools in the tasting room either.  No matter,  I’d been seated in a D14 next to a custom chicken coup designer for the past six hours so I didn’t need a stool – I needed an Indra Kunindra.

Ballast Point Brewery Tasting Room (Scripps Ranch)

Ballast Point Brewery Tasting Room (Scripps Ranch)

Just in time! If I’d gotten there a few hours later I’d have been out of luck (though they still had some Indra bombers in the fridge to take home as stowaways – which I took advantage of).  The pint glass at the lower right corner above is the beer I’d flown 3,000 miles for (well, not exactly but we’ll go with that for now).  More often than not I find that beers brewed with unusual ingredients are actually quite tame.  The exotic additions used so sparingly as to require focused dedication just so that you can say, with absolute confidence, that you’re pretty sure you taste them.  Not so with this brew.

Indra Kunindra is everything the name implies – whatever that is.  It’s nothing short of astounding in terms of huge, aggressive, diverse, and completely unexpected flavors – despite the fact the label tells you exactly what flavors to expect. It’s that different.  Pours a clear onyx with faint ruby highlights with a very thin disk of a medium brown head.  The aromas more than hint at what’s to come.  Lime, toasted coconut, cocoa, and anise fill the nose.  The first sip is borderline stunning.  If you didn’t pay attention to the aroma or to the label you’d probably think you were having a sensory seizure – signals crisscrossing and colliding at frightful velocity.  The tart kaffir lime smacks the front of your tongue followed by heavily roasted barley, coconut, dark chocolate, curry, and burnt toast.  Three or four sips later I’m wondering if I missed the lit matches I must have unwittingly swallowed before realizing the the letters on the label spelling out “cayenne pepper” meant that cayenne pepper was in here too – and a healthy dose at that.  The mouthfeel was silky with prickly carbonation and the finish extremely dry.

I love Thai food but hate Thai beer (the real Singha Thai beer that is).  Ballast Point’s Indra Kunindra is Thai Coconut Curry in a pint glass.  That said, I wouldn’t necessarily pair it with Thai Drunken Noodles or Evil Jungle Prince Curry – the flavors are too similar.  I loved this beer but couldn’t drink two of them.  Probably couldn’t drink two in a week.  It’s just that intense.  Certainly not for everyone.  A polarizing brew to be sure.  I was able to bring a bottle home to share with G-Lo of the Booze Dancing Crew and his impressions were similar to mine.

 Turns out that if I’d been more patient I wouldn’t have had to endure airport security lines or a TSA fondling because this past winter Ballast Point ramped up production of Indra and it’s been freaking out lesser brews on craft beer shelves all around here.  I even had a chance to share a one-off Sculpin at Philadelphia’s Good Dog Bar  with the brewer who created Indra’s recipe and earned the chance to brew it at Ballast Point (later to be hired there) during Philly Beer Week last year.

Like I said, Indra Kunindra is not for everyone, not by a long shot, but I really enjoyed it.  Then again, I really enjoyed One Crazy Summer and Fog Of War too but don’t hold that against me.

This guy really liked it too:

Elf on a Craft Beer (be thankful its not an animated GIF)

Elf on a Craft Beer (be thankful its not an animated GIF)

Let me know how much you loved, hated, fear, or need to find this brew…

Cheers!

A Taste of Craft Beer History Reveals Today’s Higher Standards

A few weeks ago I hit one of the larger craft beer retailers in the area in search of nothing in particular.  Just looking to pick up a few options for the coming weekend.  No agenda.  All Quests for a Holy Ale temporarily suspended.  Just as well, I’d left my armor and coconuts at home and had I encountered Tim or a ferocious rabbit in the tequila aisle I’d have had to have run away for I’d also left my Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch in the booster seat of my car – the pink one (the seat – not the car).

Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch

Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch

Anyway,  unprepared to dispatch with a mortal foe I suspended the Quest and perused the aisles for less dangerous options.  Then a powder blue six pack in the Sam Adams section caught my eye.  New Albion Ale.  What? I’m pretty sure I would have noticed a tricked out DeLorean in the lot so I didn’t think this beer was delivered in a time machine.  Probably a good thing because I doubt the hops would have tolerated close proximity to a flux capacitor.  Something tells me florescent lamps are far more friendly.  OK, so if it wasn’t transported in time from circa 1980 then it had to have been brewed recently.  Turns out it was.  Samuel Adams brewed it using the original recipe with New Albion founder, Jack McAuliffe.  News to me.  So much for keeping up with he latest craft beer news.

New Albion Ale (brewed Samuel Adams)

New Albion Ale (brewed by Samuel Adams)

New Albion Brewing didn’t have a long run.  Even though they were only around for 6 years (1976 – 1982), their flagship hoppy pale, New Albion Ale, was critically regarded as a game changer.  It was one of the original legitimate craft beers along with Anchor Steam (already an elder statesman having been first brewed in 1971) and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.  Considered revolutionary in 1977 when Alan O’Day ruled the charts with Undercover Angel, I wondered how it would stand up to my modern palate.

Anchor Steam and Sierra Nevada Pale are brewing stronger than ever.  They’re practically living craft beer dinosaurs like Galapagos Tortoises, Gila Monsters or Abe Vigoda.  As much as I still love to grab an Anchor Steam from time to time, I don’t feel as though I’m tasting history when I pour it.  New Albion, on the other hand, speaks differently to me.  Samuel Adams revived the wooly mammoth with this one and I really felt as though I’d be drinking back in time as I poured it, appropriately, into one of their glasses.

Nice rich amber pour.  Modestly hazy.  Supporting a short, dusky white head.  Good looking brew.  Not a whole lot going on in the aroma.  A little citrus.  A little toasted malt.  Unfortunately, the wallflower aroma was telling.  Sadly, the flavor was uninspiring.  Modestly hoppy with caramel and milk chocolate notes.  Nothing wrong – not unbalanced, just not worthy of having been a wingman in craft beer’s first attack squadron.  Was I being too harsh?  I have that tendency from time to time so I thought I’d check with the crowd over at RateBeer to see what the wider consensus was.  The reviews of New Albion largely agreed with my basic impression.  Nothing special here.  Not a drain pour by any stretch but certainly not a world class brew.

Not by today’s standards.  And that’s where the magic and legacy of Jack McAuliffe became apparent.  Our standards have grown with the wider variety and bigger, bolder brews that New Albion helped pave the way for. We expect more.  Hell, Sierra Nevada Pale barely gets noticed against a backdrop of today’s hoppy standard bearers like Pliny the Elder, Hopslam, Ruination or Nugget Nectar as a result of its own success.

So in the end, New Albion Ale came across as, well, ordinary, but thanks in part to the handful of years when it was regarded as a pioneering brew, it set the stage for today’s extraordinary brews.  Cheers to the hoppy history lesson!