New York: Variety 12- Pack, Cooperstown Brewing, Milford

Another big buy from my trip a few weeks ago to the Party Source in Syracuse, NY. The case of this happy vista upon cracking the cardboard. Cooperstown Brewing is not actually in Cooperstown but is a proud cornerstone of the Milford, New York business community.

Like the Smuttynose case review posted ten days ago, I will work through the varieties included in this combo pack and give my impression of what the brewery is up to. One preliminary point, however. In this pack there are twelve bottles of six types as opposed to the four types. For me this takes out the “what do you think opportunity” – I don’t mind sharing a third but I think two bottles separated by a couple of days helps me think about whether I like a brew or not. Also, without having had one, drop the “golden ale”. Maybe once I have popped them, I will feel differently but to me that sounds like a pale ale that can’t work itself up to call itself even that. Plus, having sneaked one each of the stout and porter already, I know you could drop the stout. The porter is a real winner but the stout is not. You are trying to win me over with these mixed cases, so my advice is play your best cards.

I will review all six ales – and they are all ales which is a plus from the get go – as I pop ’em.

Golden Ale: I am not sure whether I have to retract what I wrote above, now a few days ago, but I am also not minding this light ale. That is what it really is at 4.3%. The brewery says:”Nine Man” is a golden ale, brewed from English pale and crystal malts, and with torrified wheat. It is bittered with Cascade and Cluster hops and finished with Cascade hops. “Nine Man Ale” was first brewed as a summer seasonal beer in 1996. It was kegged the first season but not bottled until the opening of the baseball season in April 1997.

– Original Gravity 1.045 / Final Gravity 1.012 /4.3% abv.

There is more body in this than a supposedly full-bodied Canadian macro-ale like Labatt 50. The hop selection and timing provides a good edge to the brew without florals or fruity flavour – maybe a wee lemon rind thing. The crystal malt gives it a slight nutty tone as well. Nothing remarkable except that at that moderate alcohol level, it does not come across as any kind of compromise. The beer advocatonians are a little restless with a 19% thumbs down rating. Here is one unhappy soul’s tale:Found this to be a decent, quaffable light ale. It has a pleasant medium gold appearance with a slight head. The aroma has hints of mown grass with some hints of Saaz hops. Tart, slightly fruity flavor. At the end, find it to be a bit clingy and starchy on the aftertaste.That reviewer rated it 2.9 out of 5. What do you want from a light ale?!?! But that is it! It is not called a light ale or even a lite one but a golden one. By not admitting what it is, has Cooperstown lost a market? Perhaps. For now, I say leave three of these in the box…maybe as a summer seasonal.

Pride of Milford: Strong Ale. The brewery says 7.7% which is about 2.2% higher than I would have guessed from the mouthfeel. It is rich but not Belgian fruity, more restrained like a low-end barley wine. The excellent Lew Bryson in his excellent, nay, seminal New York Breweries (1st ed. 2003 Stackpole Books) calls it at page 166:…a big beer that showcases the beautiful character of the Yorkshire [Ringwood] yeast. It’s malty, cookie-sweet and touched by fruity esters and Ringwood nuttiness that I love…I would agree with everything but the “cookie-sweet” unless we are talking ginger snap or milk lunch. I think this is actually moderately rich and dry – think amontillado or oloroso rather than fino if we were taking sherry which we are not but I thought I would say it anyway. The brewery says:

“Pride of Milford” is a very special ale with a tapestry of complex flavors and aromas. It is brewed with five malts and fermented with the Ringwood yeast at a higher temperature which gives this beer a uniqueness all its own. “Pride” has a distinctive reddish copper color. It is strong and rich beer. When “Pride” was first brewed in December 1999, many thought the flavor and aromas of this beer had fruit overtones. No fruit or adjunct flavoring is added to this beer. The unique flavor comes from our special brewing process.

It is not particularly pungent and has a soft mouthfeel, which would make it quite sneaky if one faced an afternoon at a cottage in winter with a fridgefull. Which raises the question of why this would be included in a case in July. I say include three of these in the case in winter replaced by the Golden Ale in the summer. I think beerish advocates would agree.

Strike Out Stout: The head fizzed like a Coke as it was poured and dissolved away within ten seconds. A nice flavour with chocolate and dry darker malts but subdued, a lighter bodied stout. An oxymoron. Fades in the mouth leaving a cocoa-chalky feel then just a little sour tang. The brewery is kinder to itself:

“Strike Out” is brewed with 6 malts including a balanced portion of chocolate and crystal malts. It is also brewed with 5% flaked oats for a velvet-like mouth feel. English pale, Munich and black malt, plus roasted barley round out the malt bill. Considerably lower in alcohol than both Benchwarmer Porter and Old Slugger Pale Ale, “Strike Out” is a well-rounded stout, opaque black in color with a roasted palate.

        People looking for a stout will be disappointed, especially with the 4.6% but also the crystal malt, quite off style, even for an oatmeal stout. Consider these

two great oatmeal stouts

         easily accessible to someone in the east end of Lake Ontario region. Both have richness. Strike Out does not. It should be reformulated with some body added or it should be called a dark ale, a lesser style. The yeast is a bit sour, too. Not really on for the style. I think I have made a stout like this and not been that proud of it.

One unhappy beer advocate

       captures my thoughts:

Almost black. Big Huge fizzy brown head. Good retention. Head forms craters as it dissintegrates. This beer appears to be very charged up by its appearance. Coffee bean, soap and leather are present on the nose. There’s something wrong with this beer. (Actually, many things.) Mouthfeel is way too carbonated. I get so damn much gas in every gulp that a burp is always the aftermath. The taste is astringent. Husky. Tannin like. Soapy. Stale. No stout qualities to speak of. I haven’t dumped a beer in months, but I just don’t feel like burping 20 times by the time I finish this one.

      So ditch this beer, Cooperstown. I think I am going to like the porter better from the recollection of the first. Leave this one out of the variety case to make some room of the seasonal.

Old Slugger Pale Ale: If there are two words that are bad in beer they are “Mt.” and “Hood”. Some call them spicy. Others, like me, rough and dirty, like a little bit of bark in every sip. I didn’t know what was so odd about this brew until I saw those two words – then I knew. Al Korzonas in his text Homebrewing – Vol. 1 (Sheaf & Vine, 1997) writes:

Another recently released American-grown cousin of Hallertauer Mittlefrüh. It is spicy (cinnamon), resiny and slightly sweet. It is recommended for any German or American lager. It is quite close to the Hallettaur Mittlefrüh in character, perhaps a little spicier. I recommend against using this hop for beers in which you want dominant bitterness – in a recent experiment I found its bitterness to be slightly abrasive when used in a recipe where the bitterness strongly dominated the malt.

      Not good news for a pale ale – that fairly malty, fairly bitter style.

Don’t get me wrong. This is an ambitious brew – ringwood yeast and its sour, woodsy thing; three very different hops, Mt. Hood as well as twiggy Fuggles and citrusy Cascade; as well as four barley malts including two types of crystal. For all that work there is an absence of finesse, the balance that makes all that flavour pull together. What would help? There is butterscotch but it is sitting there in a gap that needs to be filled up with biscuit. Again with the body…Cooperstown is just making them too light for the amount of flavour they want you to take in. Like the stout, it leaves you with an impression that it is thinner than it ought to be. Also like the stout, the head disappeared fast. The beer advocates give at a fairly low average for a micro.

Back Yard India Pale Ale: The head sustains longer than the stout or the pale ale. This is a good sign. The first taste is of vegetative rather than herbal hops. Clover sweet. There is a rough malt grain edge but is works in this one. This beer would go well with rich earthy flavours like ox-tail soup, parsley potato soup or roast squash. You know what I saying. I know you do. Maybe it is just that the ringwood challenge has been met with this one. A full three ales in the variety pack year round.

Interestingly, the unhappy beer advocates are talking about gushing bottles, cloudy ale and high burposity. These comments all go to problems at the brewery. My bottle was nothing like this, fairly still and balanced. So be prepared for bottle variation. The brewery says something very interesting:

English pale barley malt is predominant in this beer with just a small amount of crystal malt. It is well bittered with Cluster and Cascade hops and finished with a mix of local hop and larger amounts of Fuggle hop.The southeast zone of the leather-stocking region in New York (west of the Syracuse-Binghampton corridor south-west of Albany) was a hop growing area before the west was truly won and a local hop is a good hop if it is a heritage variety as this claim might be taken to imply. All in all, I am very happy with this beer. No Flower Power IPA from Ithaca but a worthy if less brassy neighbour. Redemption in the case.

Benchwarmer Porter: Comfort beer and, again like the IPA, a worthy placement in the case. The head is rocky and tan. The mouthfeel is full and full of mocha and fresh picked unsweetened black current. A beer fit for the Ringwood, but porter usually is. I used to make Ringwood pumpkin porter in my homebrewing days…but less about me, more about the brew. The brewery says:More than 4% chocolate malt, which is the most similar to the brown malts of the early 1700’s, gives “Benchwarmer” its dry coffee-like finish. It is fermented with the Ringwood yeast which is an excellent yeast for the brewing of porters.I am buying it but are the beer advocates? 43 reviews all all positive. One says:

Big foamy head and very dark color, but not opaque. Lots of hops for a porter, and they work well in drying out a slightly chewy mouthfeel, as well as imparting nice hints of herbs and dry leaves. Very tasty underlying flavors of espresso, dry molasses and earth. The finish is dry, with the coffee/espresso flavors lingering with a touch of alcohol. Really complex on tap.

Many reviewers taste some smoke which I did not get at all. Oh, well. Such is life. Very decent porter.

So all in all this is an ok variety pack but I now know what I will buy in a six and what I will not. Some concern for production quality but when they do well they do well. Nothing life changing but they are thinking and they are achieving – two things I have to remember to get around to from time to time Work on the stout and the pale ale, mix up the case to go with four styles not six and you are going to be ok.

Five…Seven…err…Eight English Pales Ales

Unlike my recent exposé on Belgian whites, this collection took at seven minute trip to the local LCBO and cost between $2.75 and $3.00 CND per 500 ml bottle. The seasonal selection of beers they bring in is quite good and you can find some nice choices in a single style to compare. These are all English pale ales of a strength that might qualify them as extra special bitters (ESB) rather than the weaker ordinary bitter (3-4% roughly) or the higher test India Pale Ales (7% and over). As I crack them open, I will add to these reviews.  The beers should reflect four things – quality grains, pure water, intellegent yeast selection and a balancing bite of top notch hops. Beyond that there are some characteristics that go to the brewer’s technique.

Later: Further research funds have been located and two more examples acquired from the LCBO, Black Sheep and Old Speckled Hen. I know Ale Fan is a fan of the latter, it being from his home town but it would be interesting to get some thoughts on the Black Sheep and other the other pale ales.

Later Still: …and how could I leave out Fuller’s London Pride?

Here are my comments:

Hopback Summer Lightning – The first beer in the group I have tried is Summer Lightning by the Hopback Brewery of Downton, Salisbury, England. At 5% it is not a huge beer by Canadian standards – where 5% is our norm. It is, however, as lovely as your average Molson’s or Labatt’s product is not. A hopback is a vessel used in the brewing process before kegging which is basically a bucket of hop blossoms which the beer is allowed to wash over. I would have though with this name, the beer would be a massively bitter ale. It is not. The first thing you smell is the grain – “best Barley malt” says the label. I am used as a lapsed homebrewer to actually knowing the strain of barley malt being used. Have a look at the grain selection at Paddock Wood, Canada’s great Prairie homebrew supply shop. I would like to think that the lads at Hopback would like to tell me if this is Maris Otter pale malt or not. The Summer Lightning label, however, tells me more about Zeus for some reason. Nice enough but still somewhat lame branding. And completely unrequired as the CAMRA and other brewing awards on the label proves. A lovely rich ale which would serve anyone well as an introduction to the style.

Marston Pedigree. Such a interesting beer but as this graph tells, it is a different world since Maggie held the reigns. “Brewed in wood” the cap says but there is little to recommend this ale in light of the other options. Stale? Over manufactured? Bland? It may be brewed in the wood but there is so little of the wood left in the ale that there may as well be a line on the label that says “a tad of caramel added”. There should be more than a slight astrigent tang and some caramel to justify the claim to wood brewing. Am I too harsh?

Later: I think I have been too harsh and wonder whether a wood brewed and aged ale is too different an animal to compare.

Wychwood Brewery Fiddler’s Elbow. Hoppy hoppy hoppy but not Burtonized water – below the hops it is fairly soft. It says on the lable that it is a blend of barley and wheat malt hopped with Styrians. I don’t know what “hopped with Styrians” means to non-beer-nerds but it is a variant of Fuggles, an early UK hop, which is grown in the Czech Republic. Tangy and with the lack of acidified water fairly green and organic. If you think that Smithwicks is a classic pale ale, you will find this like drinking ice tea that the 20 bags per litre have been left in overnight. Great on a hot day.

Old Speckled Hen. If Wychwood is a hop fest, OSH is an elegant expression of the same theme. The malt is biscuity, like in some champaign. Then the sweet of the crystal malt and the sweet of the alcohol add up to a butter toffee thing. The hops are pronounced and green on top with a rough bitter edge as well leaving a sour grapefruit tang. The water is not as soft as the Wychwood and there is a faint smokey thing in there, like Islay malt whisky over apple fruit yeast. This is a fine ale with many levels. It must be amazing on tap at Bury St. Edmunds where it is brewed by Greene King. If in Ontario, splurg on the bottle rather than the can. If you can only get the can get the can.

Black Sheep Ale. This is fairly austere, not unlike a richer version of a Canadian pale ale, perhaps what Molson Stock Ale or Moosehead pale ale red lable might have tasted like 50 years ago. Drier with rougher hops than the Old Speckled Hen. The bitterness has no green to it and it is more grainy than malty – pale malts with maybe a little rolled barley or rolled wheat even. Black Sheep is a yorkshire pale ale so wheat would not be unexpected. Very well balanced and if you are looking for something to start into the English ales from Canada and wanting to avoid the brown crayon water called Smithwicks or whatever, this is a good one to try.

St. Peter’s Summer Ale: The first thing that strikes you, after you have opened the distinctive flask like bottle, is the big body. It is a surprisingly big as Black Sheep was lighter than expected. The hops are very herby – not just grassy green but heavy like basil can be. Every beer I have had from St. Peter’s is a revelation and I think this one is the use of liquorice. I had an ale a few years ago called Hop and Glory which had liquorice in it. It creates body and enriches the hop complexity. Both Al Korzonas in Homebrewing, Volume One and Dave Line in The Big Book of Brewing treat it as a background ingredient in big beers like stouts or dubbles. In this case, with a lighter style, it creates a sort of salad in a glass effect through wise hop selection. It might make a great chaser for Pernod or even a poaching liquid for salmon.

Fuller’s London Pride. Balance between hop and malt, sweet and dry, real body and refreshment. Fuller’s flagship brand. David Line wrote in his 1978 book Brewing Beers Like Those you Buy

If I had to select just one beer to drink the rest of my days it would have to be “London Pride”; a classic example of a true English Bitter Beer.

Twenty years later, Roger Protz in Brew Your Own British Real Ale wrote:

An astonishingly complex beer for its gravity, fine for drinking on its own or with full flavoured food. A multi-layered delight of malt and hops and a deep instense finish with hop and ripening fruit notes.

Gravity is the measure of a brew’s potential for alcohol. In the bottle, it comes in at 4.7%. What else to say? The placement of the edge of bitter mimics a much higher alcohol ale while the malt display a real fruitiness that is amazing when you know it somes from the manipulation of a grain. I am fairly confident in saying it is Maris Otter pale ale that gives the apple and caramel background. Worthy without a doubt.

Hook Norton Haymaker. Haymaker is a great name for a pale ale. We think of it in North America as a euphamism for a knock-out punch but it was also a trade, a person who made hay. This ale is evocative – only sold in summer, full of fruit and hop, a reminder that beer, like wine, is a means to store the harvest. At 5.0%, for the UK market it would also be seen to pack a bit of a punch. The brewery’s web site states it is only available in July and August. The aroma and first flush in the mouth is rich and floral but not cloying, with a hint in the background graininess that reminds me of Moosehead products like their Ten Penny or Red Label Pale Ale as they were brewed in the 80s, with a bit of the smell of an attic in an old house, slightly stale old wood. Somewhere in there is sweet old stored winter apple as well. Again, it puts me in the hayloft of an old barn when the cicadas buzz late on a hot August Saturday afternoon. I think of all the pale ales I have reviewed this is my favorite, an excellently balanced celebration of good pale malt.

For now I will leave this post at the eight reviewed above. If anything, this is confirmation for me of the excellence of the LCBO and its ability to place great product on the shelves. Perhaps this is only my years on the barrens of PEI speaking – which to be fair drove me to homebrew well, examine my love of beer closely and form a library of now pushing 40 books on the subject. Last night after soccer in Belleville, I drove back with a few beer lovers who were amazed to know there was much to know about beer other than how to find the opener. Halfway through life, I can say that I look forward to knowing more.