In every pursuit, there are different levels of geekitude, and I use that fake word in the most affectionate sense. Take beer drinking. You've got the self-proclaimed beer monster who will drink the holy hell out of a keg--as long as it's full of Bud Lite. Others ride a trajectory that goes something like Old Milwaukee to Michelob to Newcastle to Rogue to Dogfish Head.
Then there's Jamie Guptill. He works at Durham beer mecca Sam's Quick Shop, and he keeps a log in which he writes his impressions whenever he tries a new beer. He always brings his own beer to keg parties.
And there's Phil Gibbs, who has a collection of still-full magnums of Anchor Christmas Ale dating back to 1994. He's been known to endure a seven-hour roundtrip to load up at a favorite beer store in Virginia.
Of course, through hard work and dedication, you can change levels. John Whitaker, owner of The Good Beer Store in Chapel Hill, began his beer-drinking career with a lot of Miller Lite in his fridge. Now he runs a business where he's surrounded by decidedly non-light beers from all parts of the United States, not to mention Russia, Belgium, Japan and pretty much anyplace else on the map that has room for a dart.
Others, such as Mark Najafie, have found a comfort zone somewhere between the levels. Najafie likes beer, but as the owner of Raleigh's Peace Street Market, he especially loves the positive effect on the bottom line that comes from selling it.
Last August, life got better for all four of these guys. That's when Gov. Mike Easley signed the bill that increased the legal limit of alcohol content for beers sold in North Carolina from 6 percent to 15 percent, ushering in the big beer era in North Carolina. This emancipation has opened the door for brewing companies whose products couldn't previously be sold in the state. And it saves Gibbs about six and a half hours each time he starts jonesing for some Double Chocolate Stout.
To celebrate this one-year anniversary, the aforementioned gentlemen (and a very lucky yours truly) convened at one of the round tables in the back of Whitaker's store, an area that resembles the bar of your dreams, in miniature. We sampled a cross-section of high-alcohol beers, including an abbey-style ale served at room temperature, a pomegranate-kissed brew concocted by a kosher brewery and an ale made with red rice.
The original plan was to move from taster to taster in an orderly fashion, with each offering pithy commentary in turn. It soon became clear that a beer tasting isn't as conducive to structure as, say, a wine tasting, just as tailgating at a football game in Chicago is no doubt different from tailgating at a tennis match at Wimbledon. Instead, the recorder was snapped on as the pouring began. Our goal remained to capture whatever impressions, anecdotes or banter made its way through the glassware clatter and contented, hop-scented sighs.
There was talk of favorite brewers (you almost expected to hear "I'll trade you two Steve Wadzinskis for a Garrett Oliver!") and favored lawnmower beers. And the bits of beer-store wisdom dispensed--"You don't sell beer by a spreadsheet" and "I love when they say 'Can I have a box?'" among other pearls--were enough to make your head spin as much as the brews.
All in all, it went something like this.
Twin Sisters Double IPA Ale
Left Hand Brewing Company, Longmont, Colo.
9.6 percent, $11.49 per 25.4-oz. bottle
Guptill: The smell is more tangerine-y than a lot of double IPAs, but the bitterness isn't as pronounced.
Gibbs: Yeah, there's a little sweetness action. More malt.
Whitaker: It doesn't have the full floral like a Maha Raja, nothing like that. Drinks good though. Goes down easy.
Gibbs: That's always the danger with these double IPAs. They're just too smooth.
Whitaker: Some of them are hardcore. [Laughs.]
Guptill: Wait 'til we get to the triple IPA.
Allagash Brewing, Portland, Maine
10 percent, $12.99 per 25.4-oz. bottle
Guptill: This is Scotch-style, aged in oak barrels.
Whitaker: Definitely interesting, and you can definitely taste the Scotch in it from being in the barrels. Has a little vanilla to it on the smell too, just a little bit.
Guptill: I agree definitely with the vanilla; I picked that up in the smell. There's a spicy, almost mulled cider aroma that I'm picking up. That's nice. There's definitely a yeast profile in Allagash that's really distinctive.
Najafie: It's good. It's kind of dry.
Cornell: I'm going first next time because I was going to say all those things. [Laughs.]
Guptill: You know, that 10 percent is really well hidden.
Gibbs: Until you've finished off that bottle ... [laughter]. It has a bit of an apricot nose to it, with a good syrupy malt profile to it at the end. Like he said, it hides the alcohol extremely well. People who are afraid of big beers, they won't be afraid of this.
He'brew Genesis 10:10
Shmaltz Brewing Company, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
10 percent, $4.99 per 22-oz. bottle
Cornell: What's the significance of the 10:10?
Guptill: Well, it's a Bible verse--
Gibbs: Thou shalt not drink bad beer. [Laughter.]
Guptill: --and also it was brewed for the 10th anniversary and it's 10 percent. [Takes a taste.] This is wild. You can pick up a little bit of the tanginess from the pomegranate in the aroma, and it's definitely in the flavor. But pomegranates are very sweet fruit, and this isn't a cloyingly sweet beer by any stretch. I think it's very interesting.
Gibbs: There's a little wheaty-ness in the aroma, and you're expecting it to be a lot sweeter than it is.
Guptill: I was expecting it to be syrupy, but it's not at all.
Whitaker: It's got some hops on it too. We had it at a tasting here one night, and everybody just loved it. They left the other He'brew alone, the Lenny Bruce rye-based double IPA, and were all after this.
Cornell: Well, I've never eaten a pomegranate, so I don't know how much of it I'm tasting. But for beers with fruit, I do want to work for it a little. I don't want it to hit me too hard right off the bat.
Eleven Triple India Pale Ale 1995-2006
Weyerbacher Brewing Company, Easton, Pa.
11.7 percent, $7.99 per 22-oz. bottle
Najafie: To tell you the truth, I don't like it. [Laughter.] That's all I can say.
Guptill: It's an English hop. It's not an American hop, so you're not going to have all that pinetree, grapefruit taste that you expect. It's a lot earthier. It's a big, hoppy, earthy beer, almost cheese-like.
Gibbs: That's a very good analogy. That initial finish in your mouth is quite cheese-like. But it's not overpowering in the finish at all.
Guptill: Most importantly, there's nothing else like it.
Cornell: I much prefer what Jamie was talking about, the pinetree, grapefruit hops, and that's not here. I would definitely sip this. I could make that bottle last a long time.
Whitaker: The kind of thing where you sit around with those brandy glasses. Whatever that hop is, it gives this its taste.
Brother David's Double Abbey Style Ale
Anderson Valley Brewing Company, Boonville, Calif.
9 percent, $6.99 per 22-oz. bottle
Whitaker: I didn't like the Brother David's triple at all. We'll see how I like this one.
Najafie: I like all of the Anderson Valley beers, but I've never tried this one. It's very good.
Whitaker: Has a little bit of a sweet smell to it, a little molasses maybe. Not bad warm at all.
Gibbs: That's one of the things about good beer: You can drink it warm.
Guptill: It can be a shock to our American palates to drink it at this temperature, but you can taste more. That's why Budweiser is terrible warm. The more you can taste of it, the worse it gets.
Whitaker: I finally tried that original Budweiser, the Czechvar. They're good cold. You get them down to about 35 degrees, 'til it'll hurt your teeth, they go right on down.
Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale
Kiuchi Brewery, Ibaraki, Japan
7 percent, $9.99 per 21-oz. bottle
Guptill: The concept here is using good rice as opposed to just using rice as a cheap ingredient. You're using a high-quality rice that adds flavor to it that no other beer has.
Gibbs: I don't know, Budweiser uses rice all the time. [Laughs.]
Cornell: There's a difference between using rice and abusing rice.
Gibbs: There's a smoky taste, and it's got a pretty red, cranberry-ish color.
Whitaker: Definitely interesting. Almost has a wine taste to it, a wine finish.
Guptill: I love this one, from the first time I had it.
Najafie: This is a very smooth-drinking beer. People who don't even like beer should try this one.
Gibbs: Yeah, this would be a very good transition beer for wine drinkers.
Trappistes Rochefort 8 Ale
Rochefort Brewery, Notre-Dame de Saint-Rémy (near Rochefort), Belgium
9.2 percent, $5.49 per 11.2-oz. bottle
Guptill: Make a note: It's made by monks, by Trappist monks.
Whitaker: Actual monks, not those wanna-be monks.
Gibbs: [Taking a drink.] Now that warms. Very warming, I can feel it in the throat.
Cornell: Yeah, I can certainly feel the alcohol. For a 9.2 percent, it feels stronger than some of the higher alcohol beers we've had.
Guptill: Excellent beer.
Najafie: Yes, excellent beer. I brought it because it's my favorite beer.
Imperial India Pale Ale
Carolina Brewing Company, Holly Springs
8.2 percent, $9.00 per six-pack (available as a seasonal offering only at the brewery)
Guptill: This is the best beer that the Carolina Brewing Company has ever made. It's excellent, and hats off to them for making it.
Cornell: [Taking a big whiff.] I love it already, and I haven't even tasted it.
Gibbs: Yes, the aroma tells you everything you need to know about this beer.
Guptill: Peach, grapefruit, a little bit of pine resin--all the big flavors you'd want in a double IPA.
Whitaker: That does smell good for being brewed around here in North Carolina. This is as good as any imperial IPA I've had.
Terrapin Imperial Pilsner
Terrapin Brewing Company, Athens, Ga.
7.5 percent, $9.49 per four-pack
Cornell: Question for the beer folk: What does "imperial" signify?
Guptill: It generally means "bigger" now. It's almost not a real style. Like imperial stout is a real thing; it was sent to royalty in Russia. And that's legitimate. Supposedly Catherine the Great loved her an imperial stout. It's higher in alcohol, so it'd travel better.... I've had a few imperial pilsners, now, and I have the same problem with this one that I've had with the others: They don't taste like pilsners. This is very malty, thick. Pilsner should be a crisp beer.
Cornell: If I hadn't seen the label, I never would have guessed pilsner for this.
Guptill: It's almost malt liquorish.
Whitaker: Olde English. [Laughter.]
Gibbs: Yeah, when I read the label, I'm expecting certain things out of it. And it doesn't provide that.