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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

This is BIG

Hi there. 
I know, I know: nothing for years. The blog is dead, long live Twitter.
But you know? Some things deserve more space. 
And BIG.

No, literally, look at the label. I was digging in my Beer Fridge today, looking for two bottles of proper beer to make carbonades Flamandes (more on that later) on this disappointing snow day, when I found two bottles of Brimstone Big, a Maryland-brewed barleywine from the 1990s that we cherished back in the day. The brewed date on the label: October 1998.

Actually, there were three bottles, and one, not pictured, was actually older, and had been brewed at Brimstone. See, Brimstone was a great little Baltimore brewery, but things got tough for microbrewers in the mid-1990s (they did, despite what revisionists may tell you), and Brimstone was failing.

They got bought by Frederick Brewing, who made this in their large brewery outside Frederick, Maryland. Frederick also bought long-time Maryland microbrewer (I'm deliberately using period terminology here) Wild Goose, while continuing with their Blue Ridge brands. I visited Wild Goose on the Eastern Shore with my new wife (she's still my wife) back in 1991, when we were expecting our first child. We took a vacation to the Outer Banks to celebrate being just us one more time. It was a great week, though except for that stop at Wild Goose, and a quick stop at Weeping Radish, so-so for beer.

Anyway, all of this would eventually fail. Frederick was operating on a shoestring, owing back taxes, courting buy-out partners (at least one of which failed themselves, rather spectacularly). They were finally bought by Flying Dog out of Colorado in 2006, who saw the value in this large, sadly underutilized (and again: not a fan of "utilized," but this is an absolutely proper use of the word) brewery. Flying Dog invested in the brewery, and eventually moved all of their brewing operations there in 2010. Last I heard, they were expanding. 

All of just to put this in context. Brimstone, and this bottle of Big in particular, is an American craft brewing fossil, a relic. As is, I suppose, my Beer Fridge (which I got for free from someone who was upgrading back in 1993; it was old then, but has never stopped running), and me, to hear some people talk. 

But I saw this bottle, and then I opened it, and smelled it, and...for some reason I just had to blog. I dunno, old habits, I guess. So let's talk about this fossil. 

As you can see, it poured tremendously bright, largely thanks to sitting upright for at least sixteen years, I suppose. The bottom was covered with a well-compacted layer of, as we always called it, mung.
It had an oxygen-scavenging cap, but the beer is beautifully oxidized, in that sherry/dried fruit way that barleywines get, not the wet cardboard smell that lesser beers develop. Sherry, dried cherries, a touch of old-school hair tonic, and even some clean malt. Amazing, really, and a testament to Marc Tewey's brewing (and packaging) skills...and maybe that cap technology. There's persistent carbonation; 20 minutes after the pour, there are still small, steady streams of bubbles rising. I kinda wish I'd saved this till I was with Will Meyers at Cambridge Brewing; this is his metier indeed. 

Time to taste. The fruit is big, the malt is subdued. I remember Big as a fruitbowl of a barleywine; this fruit has dried, and soured just a touch. Definitely oxidized, but again, in a good way. There's no cardboard here, though there is a slight puckery astringence. No bitterness at all, but Big never was that bitter. The carbonation is firm, if not fizzy; it's one of the most pleasing parts of this. 

The body is about medium; I think there's been some secondary fermentation going on, because Big used to be, well, big in body as well as flavor. The finish is velvety, but the bubbles keep it from being clingy. 

If I had to ding this one, it would actually be on being a bit too sweet. I like the touch of tart, but there's too much residual sweetness, it's not balancing. Still, I'm looking for trouble, really. This is as solid a 20 year old beer as I've ever had, and I've had the chance to have quite a few. 

Which brings me back to the know you're living life right as a beer guy when you go to the fridge to get a bottle of beer for adding to beef stew -- even an exceptionally delicious Belgian version -- and you see a bottle of Westvleteren XII, and you think, 'Yeah, that'd be good to pour into a pot of meat,' and grab it without flinching. I'm putting a bottle of pre-AB Goose Island Peres Jacques in there, too. We're eating well tonight.

Huh. Might have to come back here more often. I see the lights still work. Just need to dust a few things off. See you around. No promises, but...see you around. 


Bill said...

I think you're obligated to do another post on the Westy- and Pere Jacques-infused carbonades! Both recipe/cooking blogs and food review blogs seem to be surviving more strongly than do beer blogs. I guess Instagram is more their rival than Twitter. Cheers and best wishes.

Lew Bryson said...

Well, I'd have been a fool not to try them. The West: holding up well, only 5 years old. The PJ, a bit tired at about 8 years old.

Philip Jensen said...

It is our last night in Brussels and and had carbonade flamandes and we wondered what their beer of choice was. I doubt Westy 12

Steven said...

Glad to "hear" your voice again. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram -- all outta my social media grasp. Like the blogs and forums -- call me a geezer. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I dragged a bunch of cellared vintage stuff to my "goodbye" party at Oliver Brewery last night; among the things that got opened was a Feb. 1998 Dominion Millenium and a 1992 JW Lees Harvest Ale and 1994 Thomas Hardy's.

But we didn't get to my surviving bottle of original Brimstone-brewed Brimstone Big Strong Ale......... yet.

See ya when I see ya, mate........

Jeff Ruemmele said...

Check every so often. Great to see you back. I love stories of ancient big beers and how they survived. Keep up the great writing. AAB is the only magazine where I look forward to the last page. Jeff

Skip said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lew Bryson said...

Hey, guys: Steven, Skip, Jeff. I'm planning to blog more...but "more" is pretty flexible!

Steve L said...

Just found this while digging around about the end of Fordham and Dominion. Last time I was up in Dover at the brewery Jim Lutz was still there and we spoke good things about Wild Goose and especially Brimstone.....different says indeed.