Wednesday, September 9, 2009

09.09.09 Stone Vertical Epic

Stone Brewing's doing this -- oh hell, you all know what the Stone Vertical Epic is. I'm not telling you something you don't know, except I will reinforce that it's a thing of real scope and genius. Anyway, Stone sent me a sample bottle of 09.09.09, and I got it today, and for once, I'm not forgetting or hoarding, I'm drinking. Here's what I "tweeted" (and I put it in "quotes" because I think the word's "stupid", not because I didn't know what it meant, or because I thought you might not) about it:

Stone Vertical Epic 09.09.09 is black, smells of roast malt and sweet orange, roasted bitterness, not heavy, and just slightly medicinal... it's like an herbal tonic. Stone says: "Belgian porter." Reminds me strongly of the Ellezelloise Hercule Stout.

That's actually pretty high praise -- I really like the Hercule Stout -- but it makes me wonder: has Stone, in brewing this beer, created a style? Will there be more? Will the GABF include a "Cali-Belgian-style Porter or Other Dark Ale" category in their continuing efforts to suck up to the brewers of California?

Yeah, I'm a bit burnt about the whole "style" thing lately. This isn't a "style," and if there isn't a "style" that contains a beer like this so that contests can "judge" it and award it a "medal"... Well, that's a flaw in the whole idea of contests. And it can't be fixed by adding more semi-styles.

Back to the beer. Cathy went to bed, so I'm stealing hers. I'm picking up some unsweetened chocolate as it warms up, and a bit more malt sweetness under the overlying draw. The finish hangs in the mouth -- black coffee, maybe grounds -- but is refreshed with each sip as that sweet orange hits and fades, leaving the dry roasty bitterness. Good stuff, and hats off to the brewers.

This isn't an easy beer. It's not expected (well, unless someone said, "Hey, try this, it's a lot like Hercule Stout!"), it's not bitter or funky or super-strong. It's probably not something you'd move to just after mastering Samuel Adams. But it's very well-made (as should be expected from Stone these days), it's intriguing, and it's unlike 99+% of other beers. For a once-a-year one-off release? That's perfect.

23 comments:

the infamous roger said...

Stone certainly isn't the first brewery to brew a black belgian beer, let alone a porter-like belgian beer.

I can't agree more with your sentiments on adding categories for competition, unless it is a one-off type thing that is announced well in advance.

As for sucking up to california brewers... this is a point I think I'd like to see you expand upon.

Pivní Filosof said...

And why should it be a style to begin with? Can't it just be a beer?

Alan said...

...but you need to preface with the general principles of sucking up, the pros and cons and especially the implications of facing the suck when it comes to rock stars who aren't, you know, stars of rock.

"Belgian" has gone full circle in my brief beer career. In the 80s when I started home brewing I heard a line that stuck about beers that failed - "it's not off, it's Belgian!" Now anything gets labeled "Belgian-style" if it is the slightest bit twangy, yeasty or just singular. The Magic Hat Odd Notion Fall 09 is even labeled a Belgian dark by the BAers when it's just a stout to its own brewers. A really good stout, mind you.

Loren said...

I can't believe you forgot McKenzie's 5 Czars Belgian Imperial Stout already! It was created in homage to Hercules. Or at least that's what Scotty M. and his able helpers tried to do anyway. No orange peel!

This sounds...interesting to say the least.

Lew Bryson said...

P.F. -- Yes...and no. This one, definitely, they're trying to make a beer, not hit a mark (at least, I think so). But when a brewer's trying to hit a target, a beer like others but different enough to stand out, then I look at it differently. Fair? Right? I don't know. What part does intent play in a beer's taste? Maybe too much, when you get too damned thoughtful about it. OTOH, I like getting too thoughtful sometimes. Other times, I mostly like to drink beer. Good beer.

You're a devil. A lot to talk about in those deceptively short two lines.

Lew Bryson said...

Alan and roger,
I'm afraid the 'sucking up' thoughts were just throwaways for now, something that flitted through my head while drinking a southern California beer that has the geekerie (and eBay) wetting their undies (perhaps more for the concept and the collectibility than the beer, and that's something I've seen in whisky, too).
roger, you're right, "dark" variations of expected beers is 'hot' right now, like the wave of "dark IPAs" that's rising. Big deal, seen it before. We'll see it again.
And yeah, Alan, I remember the "Belgian excuse" from back in the day. Like I said to Pivni Filosof, what part does intent play? You're the attorney, what's your take?!

Lew Bryson said...

Loren,
Didn't forget it: never had it. Scotty gave me one bottle, bless him, but it's one of the very few bottles of beer (14 and counting in 30 years) I've broken. I don't want to talk about it; I'm sure you understand.

Anonymous said...

I'm anxiously awaiting the first extra special amber belgian lambic imperial double hopped sour smoked framboise oak whisky barrel aged bottom fermented gonzo big ball big butt ruminator bleach blonde stout ipa on nitrogen. Or has someone released it already, I haven't been paying attention?

Ron Pattinson said...

It's perfectly easy to have beer competitions without ridiculously precise "style" definitions. I judged in one this week. We were specifically told not to mark to style.

The madness has to end sometime. Doesn't it? How many categories are there at the GABF? (Just looked it up: 121.) Will they stop when they get to 200 or just keep on going?

Lew Bryson said...

Does that count sub-categories, Ron?

I judged at Mondial de la Biere in June, and it was defiantly non-style, they didn't even 'lump.' It was invigorating to just rely on whether it tasted good, was well-made, balanced, and, well, had some decision to it. Can you do that when there are 1600 beers in a competition? Maybe not, but you could certainly lump and do it. There would be a lot fewer medals, of course...

Ron Pattinson said...

Yes, that includes sub-categories.

I think you've hit the nail on the head there: it's all to do with the number of medals they can hand out. There are already almost as many medals as exhibiting brewers. Enter in enough categories and you're almost bound to pick up a medal or two.

Russ said...

When it comes to commercial beers, I've always viewed styles as a cue to the consumer. If the style (even a made-up one) gives me an idea of what to expect from the liquid inside the bottle, then it's done its job. I haven't had the Vertical Epic '09, but certainly the term "Belgian Porter" suggests a certain flavor profile.

Ultimately, aren't styles just signposts to help us navigate through the spectrum of beer? People can debate whether "Black IPA" is an oxymoron (and I have a Black Witbier on tap in my basement so you know my take on the issue) and whether it should be recognized as a style, but it's just as descriptive as a Dunkelweizen if you think about it.

Lew Bryson said...

Actually, Russ, I think that's the strongest argument for styles that there is. It's shorthand for the consumer. My only caveat: if a brewer's going to use a 'style' to describe a beer -- and "Belgian porter", black IPA, and even black witbier all do that for me -- I'm going to be kind of pissed if it's misleading.

Pivní Filosof said...

Well, I consider myself a style anarchist, but I do agree with Russ that styles do serve a good purpose when it comes to getting an idea of what to expect from a beer you don't know.

But there are a lot of people out there that believe that styles are something monolithic that should not change, ever, and that is what I think it's wrong.

I always tell those people the following: Let's say you've just drunk a beer, you loved it, it was the best beer you've had in quite sometime. For the sake of the argument, let's say that its profile tells you it is a Dunkles. You ask the brewer and he/she tells you "well, that's my stout".

Will the beer be any less wonderful now that you know that?

Alan said...

Intent? Apart from the happy experiment gone mad with a surprise result, I suppose style matters somewhat but is it fundamental? After all, if you are playing pool and calling the shots for money you need to make the shot you called and not something else. But beer is not like that, not to style. It is yeast herding, grain spoiling for fun.

For me, it is not true that "the term 'Belgian Porter' suggests a certain flavor profile." Because I have not engaged heavily with style in my beer consumption, I don't think I am that guided by it in that way. I am not suggesting Russ is wrong - just that my brain doesn't work that way.

Where Ron is going with his higher level of abstraction in relation to beer groupings is what I naturally gravitate towards. Beer is malty or not, hoppy or not, dark or amber, ale or lager, sweet or sour and all points in between. Maybe that is about it before I get into the particulars of the taste in the glass before me.

If this is not useful for competitions, well, that makes sense as well because I don't really care about the success of a beer in someone else's glass, just mine.

sam k said...

OK, I'll equate this discussion to one that's been going off in my head for thirty years.

I'm a country music fan. Real Country Music...Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Ricky Skaggs; hell, even Gram Parsons and Highway 101. That's the foundation.

You can go off on tangents as much as you like and still stick to the style...to a point. When we get to vapid, spineless music from the likes on Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, and Taylor Swift, all artists who now rule the country charts, we're actually listening to some derivation of pop music that has almost no country influence whatever.

Same with beer. Do whatever you'd like within some stylistic framework, but keep true to the roots if you insist on tying yourself to those roots at all. I have no quarrel with Keith Urban per se, just don't try to tell me it's country music.

I really like the open-ended beer judging concept, and it makes increasingly more sense as we ramp up ever more guidelines to include innumerable and questionable "styles."

Just go for it, fer cryin' out loud!

Anonymous said...

Holy Freaking Crap. Yeah, lou, sucking up to california. ALWAYS sucking up to california. Caus PA is perfect. Why not drag some kind of Raiders/Steelers rivalry in to the picture too? Wahh wahhh wahhhh, let me call you the wambulance caus you need to see the wahhhcter at the waahhhhspitol.

Fact is there are some damn good beers coming from california and you would be wise to recognize that. Damn good beers come from the east coast too.

Jeff Bearer said...

Styles are important when talking about beer. Saying a style name often better describes the flavors to those in the know than trying to describe it from the elemental components.

On our show I often use a style as the foundation of the description then talk about how the beer differs from the style. I'm always conscious not to convey the fact that a beer is not good because it's off style. If it's not good, it is because of some other reason.

Style is the beer writer's photograph, it's worth a thousand words, well at least one hundred words.

Lew Bryson said...

Raiders-Steelers rivalry, that's pretty funny. Philosophy question for ya: if the Raiders were in a rivalry with another team, would the other team notice?

Look, it's not about whose beer is better. California beers are great! I love visiting. I just think it's ridiculous how when three brewers in California start making similar beers, the GABF seems to knee-jerk and declare it a style. More a shot at the GABF than at California, but suit yourself. Touchy, maybe? No need to be: California beers are great!

stonegreg said...

Hey Lew! Thanks for the good word!

Actually, I stopped reading past "...a thing of real scope and genius."

OK, not true. After the fifth read of that sentence, I managed to make it through the rest (and all the comments, none of which included an insightful phrase such as yours above).

I'm looking forward to what everyone's going to have to say about "bashah" the BrewDog / Stone collaboration we brewed together at their brewery in Scotland. The style? Well, a Black Double Belgian IPA of course!

Or, is it a Double Black Belgian IPA? Or a Belgian Black Double IPA? Or a...?

Nevermind! I just can't wait to try it (they bottled it at BrewDog just yesterday)!

Cheers,

Greg

Lew Bryson said...

You're welcome, Greg, thanks for the great beer! And the laughs, it's been a long afternoon.

Looking forward to the Double-Black Belgo-Indian Not-So-Pale-Ale.

Anonymous said...

In the context of judging, style guidelines are in place to provide an objective frame of reference for what is undoubtedly a subjective task. Otherwise it would all boil down to who-likes-what... and while there are certainly non-style competitions as you guys reference, that's not always the point.

There are always specialty categories to account for beers that don't fit inside one of the standard categories. In this case, a Belgian Porter could be entered in a homebrew competition under category 16E - Belgian Specialty or 23 - Specialty (which is a catch-all), at which point it would be judged more subjectively and evaluated on how well the brewer executed the concept, the balance and drinkability of beer, etc.

http://www.bjcp.org/2008styles/style16.php#1e

http://www.bjcp.org/2008styles/style23.php

Does any of this mean that a beer that doesn't neatly fit into a category is "wrong?" Not at all. When I'm out drinking I don't think of style unless I've been given something that is just clearly wrong (an IPA with very weak hop presence, or something called a Saison that tastes like a Kolsch). I'm just enjoying the beer in my glass on its own merits. But when it comes to judging there needs to be a framework in place IMO.

Regards,
A proud BJCP judge.

PS. Yes, GABF has far too many categories. I hear next year they're going to add "American Wheat Beer Brewed On Tuesday By Someone Named Bill" to the list.

Lew Bryson said...

Conversely, though...what's wrong with calling it a "Dark Ale" and throwing it in with other "dark ales"?
My main point was your P.S.; the GABF has a ridiculous number of 'styles.' And I wonder about the motivation for the proliferation, and when there might be a counter-movement towards consolidation and simplification.