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Stuffing With All the Trimmings


By Bruce L. Brode

Saturday, December 12, 2015 brought us the latest in the long line of annual Holiday Beer Tastings at the Home of the Stuffed Sandwich in San Gabriel, the venerable sandwich shop that opened in 1976 and happens to have one of the most stunning beer lists on the planet. As far as anyone can recall, the first such tasting took place in December 1991 (and I was there and published my tasting notes in Brews and News, the first time I had done such a thing), making this one in 2015 our 25th. And it was an event fit for such an auspicious anniversary, with another great and varied and special tasting list put together for us by the proprietor, Marlene Samaniego, who really knows her beers. Those familiar with the sheer scale of the bottled beer list at the “Stuffed,” as it is affectionately known, understand the magnitude of the task of keeping track of, and maintaining, such an awesome and wide-ranging collection of beers, including many lovingly aged to perfection, that typifies what this unique establishment has to offer. There's a good reason, actually many, why we have continued to hold this tasting there for 25 years (with the exception of 2002, when it was held at Lucky Baldwin's as the Stuffed was preparing to move to its current location), and the biggest question is why it took the Falcons 15 years to discover the place!

It's been almost two years since Marlene's business partner and husband of nearly 35 years, Sam Samaniego, passed away on January 8, 2014, one week shy of finishing his 78th year. Sam's passion for and devotion to beer, and to people, were apparent to all who knew him. He often played the role of the “affable curmudgeon” in order to stimulate some good banter with the customers, and it worked famously and acquired him a worthy reputation as one not to be trifled with when it came to beer – he knew beer extremely well, having spent his life in the beer business. The Stuffed Sandwich is a place that has brought the great beers of the world to the greater Los Angeles area for 40 years, and is a pioneer in doing so! We certainly miss Sam and honor his memory, and we salute Marlene for keeping the place going so brilliantly. She and Sam have long been big supporters of homebrewers, and we provide our strong support in return. We are all colleagues in the search for great beer!

On to the tasting event. First, one must get stuffed with some of the great food available here. For me, it was a corned beef sandwich on a French roll, and a cup of clam chowder, accompanied by current-release winter holiday beer “Six Suits A-Hanging” from Karl Strauss of San Diego. This is a strong brown ale with a lot of depth and complexity (and alcohol). And the corned beef stood up to it magnificently! It seems to be getting harder to find good corned beef these days, but you can find it here. Yum!

Once our quorum had assembled, our Grand Hydrometer and longtime moderator of these tastings Drew Beechum kicked things off and provided his extensive background information on each beer and brewery, coordinated discussion of tasting impressions, and took numerous polls of which beers the tasters preferred. One classic poll rates each beer on the Falcon scale of 1 to 5, a 5 rating representing “a beer you would go to the ends of the earth to find, and pay for.” I'd best not say what a 1 rating represents.

First on the list was a Belgian ale billed as a Gueuze, that is to say, a Lambic “spontaneously fermented” beer comprising a blend of aged and younger beers and known for its fruity and acidic complexity. Brouwerij DeTroch Winter Gueuze Ale 2014 from this brewery in Wambeek, Belgium, imported by Wetten Importers of Sterling Virginia, and weighing in at 5.5% alcohol by volume (ABV), displayed a complex bouquet of esters, phenols, and a touch of mustard and honey, fairly recognizable among the many aromatic factors one can find in Gueuze. It had a slightly hazy red-gold color, and the flavor was rather sweet and soft and thus providing less of the acidity and complexity most typical of the style. There was a candy character to the sweetness, and I found a distinct lemon-lime soda aspect to the finish and aftertaste. It is apparently brewed with raisins, and some also found it cider-like. An interesting and refreshing way to start the tasting. Rated at 2.75 Falcons.

Next up was a familiar holiday beer, Winter Welcome from the Samuel Smith Tadcaster Brewery in Yorkshire, England, imported by Merchant Du Vin of Seattle, WA. This has been a longtime holiday favorite, usually showing up in our good beer outlets earlier than any other brewery's holiday offering, and generally quite consistent year-to-year. This was the 2015 - 2016 version at 6% ABV. The aroma had a rich malt/honey complex with toasty edges, a recognizable profile to that of previous years. However, the flavor was fairly dry and toasty with honey-malt essences and some lingering bitterness, marking it as drier and more bitter in residual flavor than I remember previous years' brews to be. It was rated at 2 Falcons.

Our third beer in the tasting was a fascinating collaboration project of a sort: New Belgium Brewing Ben & Jerry's Salted Caramel Brownie Brown Ale. An ice cream-styled brownie in a beer? Quite a project for this Fort Collins, CO brewery's 2015 offering channeling one of the iconic ice cream maker's styles. There was a malty-caramel aroma with a chocolate edge, and lots of lingering complexity, atop a deep garnet brown color, nice! The flavor matched the aroma well, rich but with a reasonably dry finish and thus tasting like a beer rather than a brownie or ice cream. As it warmed, a touch of hazelnut and a very light salty edge emerged. Its disappointing rating of 2.5 Falcons doubtless reflects a sense among the raters that the ice cream and brownie aspects were perhaps oversold, but I found it a well-structured and enjoyable beer displaying the elements it purported to have. Hey, sometimes you get outvoted and have to live with it.

Next it was time for another well-known American craft brewery to strut its stuff. Boulevard Brewing Company of Kansas City, MO produced a winter warmer beer they call Nut Cracker Ale, coming in at a sobering (hmmm, maybe that's the wrong word) 7.8% ABV. This brewery was recently acquired by Duvel Moortgat of Belgium in an interesting cross-pollination between Europe and the U.S.A. Aromatically, there was a big hop blast that was earthy, with a bit of grapefruit pith, fruity, and herbaceous – nicely over the top! (As hopheads worldwide will readily understand). My hazy sample had a medium amber color. Although this is a beer brewed for the 2015 holiday season, I found an oxidized malt palate with plenty of surrounding hops, and a substantial bitterness that was not overdone. However, the hop bitterness and the oxidation dominated the aftertaste for me, and not so pleasantly; it struck me and others as something of a “Winter IPA” for its substantially hoppy character. Despite my own relative disenchantment with it, this beer did have its supporters, and garnered a rating of 2.5 Falcons.

Moving on, we changed continents and encountered a German Doppelbock from Schlossbrauerei Au-Hakkertau, called “Schnee” (snow) Winter Festbier. It was certainly in the doppelbock range at 7.9% ABV and is produced by a castle brewery in the Hallertau region (famous for its hops) established in 1590, imported by Northwest Beverage Group in Bothell, WA. As a 2014 beer, the aroma displayed malty depth as well as some oxidation of age, along with nice elements of caramel, molasses and dark dried fruits. The deep red-brown color was authentic. The substantial malty flavor was neither too sweet nor cloying, with a thinnish body and a lingering malty finish balanced by a drying hop bitterness. Melanoidins were present in abundance, as John Aitchison would tell us we should be looking for in this style. Drew characterized its flavor collection as reminiscent of “brown bread,” no doubt owing to his time spent in New England during his college days. It is always nice to have a good representative of the sizable lager branch of the beer family tree represented at a holiday tasting, doppelbock in particular, and this one garnered a very respectable rating of 3.75 Falcons.

After suitable and protracted discussion, we proceeded onward to another Belgian offering from the well-regarded Het Anker brewery located in Mechelen, which specializes in characterful dark ales. Having a bit of fun with the ecclesiatical seasons, we sampled Gouden Carolus Easter Ale (April in December?), bringing some substance at 9% ABV and some age from the 2012 season. There was a deep complex aroma of malt, honey, esters, licorice, and an edge of spice including fennel and even a touch of raspberry detected. Wow! The murky dark brown color didn't really prepare me for the rich malty-sweet palate flavor with a similar depth and complexity to that of the aroma. Many essences were detected, including such diversities as mint, horehound, and raisin. Impressively for such a strong and complex beer, the aftertaste was surprisingly light (it “lifted well,” as I put it), marking it as a beer even more drinkable than its alcohol content would otherwise suggest. Quite popular, and rated at 3.75 Falcons to reflect that.

As has become Marlene's custom, we took a brief break at this midpoint of the tasting while a special presentation was prepared. She appropriately dubs this a “very, very, very special Holiday surprise,” and she isn't kidding. This year, our surprise turned out to be a vertical tasting of three different years of the esteemed Vintage Ale from Fuller's of London. This is a bottle-conditioned strong ale, produced each year since 1997, and obviously intended for longer-term aging. We were treated to samples from 2005, 2007, and 2014 to help us assess how well this beer ages. The comparison was all-the-more interesting because this beer is reformulated year-to-year in generally subtle ways, accordingly to the brewmaster's whim.

2005: A fruity-malty aroma, with a very slight note of malt vinegar though no overt sourness or acidity – just an aromatic note I found, and not inappropriate to the complex bouquet, and Drew notes gingerbread (he appears to be in full gingerbread-molasses holiday mode). The deep red color was festive. A rich malty palate flavor displayed tangy caramel and fruity-spicy ginger, with a reasonably dry finish. A magnificent 10-year-old beer aged to perfection, meriting a stunning (and deserved) rating of 4 Falcons.

2007: Aromatic essences of maple, raisins, and malt. This had a slightly lighter red-amber color than the 2005. The flavor had plenty of malt, also oxidation of age, hop bitterness, brown sugar notes, an edge of licorice, and a lingering bitter-herbaceous afertaste. Complex and edgy compared to the 2005, and no less impressive in how it was staring the ravages of time in the face! Less popular than the 2005, although it did have its fans, gaining a rating of 3.25 Falcons, and probably better than that.

2014: A significantly more recent vintage for comparison. The aroma displayed hops, esters, and toasty-caramel malt character, with a medium amber color suggesting either that the recipes have yielded more pale beers with time or that the aging process deepens the color, or both. This beer had a hop-driven palate in distinct contrast to its elder brothers, yet with good malt support, giving it a bit of an IPA-like profile. Overall I found it less complex and much more hop-driven than the older versions, but it was quite popular as its 3.75 Falcons rating establishes. We should hope to see how it tastes a few years down the road.

My oversimplified characterization of the 3 Fuller's Vintage Ale samples was that the 2005 was malty, the 2007 was spicy, and the 2014 was hoppy. All were terrific, and very special indeed!

Now we began the home stretch of the tasting, when the “big guns” come out. And blaze they did! From Portland, Oregon's Hair of the Dog Brewery (my vote for best brewery or beer name since Delirium Tremens) we were served “Doggie Claws Barleywine-Style Ale” from the 2009 season, at a substantial 11% ABV. This strong-ale specialty brewery was founded by Southern California native Alan Sprints, who is always good friends with the Maltose Falcons, and this beer is one of the few he brews that does not appear to be named after a person, like “Adam” or “Fred” or “Ruth.” The rich aroma of malt, oxidation of age, hops and alcohol was very powerful. There was a murky red-brown color. The flavor was rich, smooth, and intense with a palate presence like Tawny Port (a cogent observation made by my brother, Duncan Brode, enjoying his first visit to the Stuffed Sandwich for this event), and a rum-like finish noted by Drew, who also found gingerbread and molasses (clearly two of his favorite things this time of year!). The powerful flavor certainly is not for everyone, but the intensity and complexity were understandably impressive and popular, and this one was pegged at an utterly outstanding 4.25 Falcons. Start booking your flights, and saving your money, to find this stuff worldwide. Or get it at the Stuffed Sandwich, and save yourself a lot of hassle.

Next up in our order of ever-increasing alcohol levels was the venerable Scaldis Noel from the 2011 season, brewed by the Belgian brewery Brasserie Dubuisson, located in Pipaix, Hainault province, and dating from 1769, although the very strong Noel beer was not introduced until 1991. This weighed in at a resounding 12% ABV. The aroma of caramel malt and esters shortly hinted at an even deeper malt profile. The murky red-brown color led to a rich flavor of caramel malt, with the slightest edge of mint-spice and anise, with a drying hop bitterness in the finish. Best described as malt-centered, with some complexity, as well as some fusel alcohols which might actually convince one to consume a bit less of this amazing alcoholic brew than one might otherwise be inclined to do. An impressive beer, often one of my personal favorites among the Belgian holiday beers, and rated at solid 3.5 Falcons.

Nearing the end of our course of beers, we next encountered “Santa's Little Helper” from Port Brewing in San Marcos, California. This is an Imperial Stout, which in this case had been aged in second-hand bourbon whiskey barrels. The wood-aged beer trend has been strong and impressive over the last several years, and seems to work best with the stronger and bolder styles, so Imperial Stout seems like a natural for this, and certainly so in this 12% ABV example. Aromatically, there was ink, malt, oak, vanilla, and some alcohol, atop an appropriately totally black color – it seemed to suck the light out of the room as if it were a “black hole among beers.” Can you say Stout? A rich full body, including a caramel-vanilla flavor center, had edgy malt and burnt roast giving it some provocation. There was a fairly long and complex aftertaste dominated by bitterness and burnt flavors, as well as some wood presence. A very well-executed brew, garnering the stellar rating of 4 Falcons.

There's always a last beer to the tasting, and in this case the final beer was brewed under the auspices of the eccentric Copenhagen-based Danish brand Mikkeller, often described as a “gypsy” brewery whose beers are brewed by contract at various European breweries, notably the DeProef Brouwerij in Lochristi, near Ghent, Belgium which dates from 1996. Gypsy or not, Mikkeler has had its growth and now counts bars, bottle shops, and tasting rooms in Copenhagen and Aarhus, Denmark; Bangkok, Thailand; Reykjavik, Iceland; Seoul, South Korea; Tokyo, Japan; Barcelona, Spain; and San Francisco and San Diego, California. Recently, Mikkeller (originally the project of Mikkel Borg Bjergso and Kristian Keller, whose respective first and last names were merged to create the brewing company's name, with Keller later departing the company) has entered into an alliance with San Diego's well-regarded small ale brewery Alesmith, owned by lawyer and former award-winning homebrewer Peter Zien. Mikkeller had the typical audacity to create a beer dubbed “Big, Bad, Worse, Worst Barleywine-Style Ale” and we sampled the 2010 version, at a whopping 17.6% ABV. The complex aroma toyed with soy sauce, malt, oxidation, esters, and alcohol. The murky brown color did not distract from the rich, mouth-filling malt flavor with sour-bitter notes at the edges, leading to a sweet finish with an herbaceous quality in the aftertaste accompanied by some tannins. Disappointing to some, fascinating to the rest of us who seldom encounter beers of this strength, it merited a rating of 3 Falcons.

The best beers of the tasting? Unquestionably, the Hair of the Dog Doggie Claws Barleywine-Style Ale 2009 led the way and had the most legitimate claim to being the favorite beer of the tasting flight. Other personal favorites, which also garnered many other votes, included the Gouden Carolus Easter Ale and the 2005 Fuller's Vintage Ale. I will make Honorable Mention of the New Belgium Brewing Ben & Jerry's Salted Caramel Brownie Brown Ale, the Schlossbrauerei Au-Hakkertau Schnee Winter Festbier Doppelbock, the 2007 Fuller's Vintage Ale, the 2011 Scaldis Noel, and the 2013 Port Brewing Santa's Little Helper Imperial Stout aged in Bourbon barrels. Having that many beers noteworthy of mention is an indication of the sheer high quality of this tasting.

Our undying thanks to Marlene Samaniego and her staff at the Home of the Stuffed Sandwich for putting together such a wonderful tasting for us, once again, for the twenty-fourth time in twenty-five years!

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