Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Beer review - Norway to NorCal, via Switzerland

I don't normally think of either Norway or Switzerland as being among the world's great brewing cultures, but today we have excellent sour beers from each, as well as a very, very native beer from Northern California, which most definitely is. 

HaandBryggeriet Sur Megge

Romantic that I am, I still imagine Norwegians as mead-swilling Vikings. The only Scandinavian beer most folks know of is Danish Carlsberg, which is your basic generic pilsner.

So, I was surprised to learn that, besides their own crap pilsners, Norwegians in the past decade have started a couple of excellent craft brewers: Nøgne Ø and HaandBryggeriet ("Hand Brewery"), the latter of which is 4 guys in a 200 year-old farmhouse, many of them fermented with wild yeast and barrel aged.

I got my hands on their Sur Megge (Sour Bitch) at The Jug Shop, which is a marvelous barrel-aged  sour ale, coming in at 8% ABV. Great notes of summer fruit, orange-gold color, and delightfully tart. I'll definitely have to keep an eye out for their other beers!

Brasserie de Franches-Montagnes Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien 

The next beer comes from the region of Switzerland bordering France, again two countries I don't think of when I think beer. France of course being (thanks to the Romans) a wine country, and Switzerland absinthe. So I was very surprised when the proprietor at Little Vine told me he had a sour beer from Switzerland, and naturally I had to try it.

The Brasserie de Franches-Montagnes (BFM, "Brewery of the French Mountains") has actually been around for about 15 years, making very small batches of a wide variety of traditional beer styles, most of them with a twist. I was lucky enough to get a bottle of their Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien (named, apparently, in honor of the much-beloved brewery cat), which is a bière de garde, a Belgian-style ale with copper to brown color, maltiness, and moderate strength (6-8% ABV).

The Bon-Chien, however, is quite a bit strong, clocking in around 11% ABV. Not only that, it's barrel aged, the exact barrel depending on the vintage - Merlot, whisky, and grappa have been used. This gives is a delicious sourness, as well as character from whatever was aged in the barrel previously.

The Bon-Chien was a truly outstanding sour beer, very strong yet well balanced between strength, sweet, and sour, with outstanding sour cherry, red wine, and vinegar flavors. A real treat if you can find it, just be sure to drink it sitting down!

Almanac Extra Pale 

Last but certainly not least, Almanac brewing is a couple of San Francisco homebrewers who made the jump to commercial brewing two years ago. Their initial focus was on brewing seasonal beers that showcased local Northern California produce (as well as hops and even some malts), including blackberries, plums, oranges, fennel, and honey, usually paired with lighter-bodied Belgian style ales.

Beginning this summer, however, they've also begun producing two year-round brews (which they call "table" beers, although at around $3 a bottle, they're not exactly everyday beers), their Extra Pale (6% ABV) and Honey Saison (4.8% ABV). The former is brewed with local Mandarin oranges and generously dry-hopped, to produce a really excellent West Coast pale ale, slightly tart and with a pronounced citrus flavor from both the hops and the oranges. It's quite excellent, and I can't wait to review the saison!

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