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Craft Brew of the Week - Week 4, Clemson

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I will be profiling a quality craft brew each week prior to the game, one that fits with the theme for the week, because beer and game day are highly complementary. This week also includes part two of an extended discussion on how the components of beer create flavors. Feel free to skip through it if you just want the basics on the beer and style. Please don't ‘rec' this post, as I would like them to roll off the front page each week.

My criteria for this list is:

A) use a combination of foreign and domestic beers that are generally available this time of year
2) only high quality beer
D) beers from a variety of U.S. regions for domestics
∆∆∆) present a variety of styles, with attention to the season, and do both classic styles and offbeat beers
Q-Bert) in general, bigger beers for bigger games

Let's do this thing.

Sept 15 - Clemson 8:00 p.m. -

The Brewery: Southern Tier

Selected Beer: Backburner Barleywine

Remember how I said I would profile big beers for big games? American Style Barleywine is about as big as they get, so it pairs up nicely with arguably the biggest in-season game for the ‘Noles. After the Tigers knocked off Auburn, this Clemson game has been on the back burner, simmering away, circled on everyone's calendar. The beer, like this game, is one to look forward to.

As a side note, I was seriously torn between this brew and Clown Shoes Brewery's Clementine Ale, to honor Clemson's coach/mascot/colors/fanbase/all-around Clemson-ness, but then I realized I don't really want to do anything to honor them, tongue-in-cheek as it may be. My decision was further enforced by the brewery's limited distribution. I did put one in my shopping cart, though, and it will be consumed as a pre-game warm up drink. If you can find one, go for it.

Southern Tier is out of Lakewood, New York, and has a distribution covering the eastern half of the U.S., as well as Washington and California. As to their brews, they are malt-forward in a big way. I find that beer drinkers either love them or, um, don't love them because of this malt-heavy approach. Personally, they are one of my favorite breweries, though I will admit that I shy away from their 12oz offerings, which have been generally subpar with exception of a few recent additions (like 2X-IPA). That said, their 22s/bombers/big bottles are all exceptional and reasonably priced for the quality. But let's put this discussion on the back burner for a minute and talk about wort...

On Brewing: Water and Malt (another small treatise):

Wort is the combination of water and malt created in the initial stages of brewing, and these can each contribute flavor to beer.

Water is never just H2O; it often contains salts like calcium, magnesium, phosphate, sodium, etc. These can affect flavor if concentrations are high enough, and beer with a slight mineral taste can come from such salts. Brewers may modify salt content to correct imbalances in their water or to duplicate a classic style (recall that the classics may come from different regions of the world, and thus different water sources).

Malts add a range of flavors and sweetness to beer. Malts are grains (barley, wheat, oats, corn, rice, quinoa, sorghum, etc., - but mostly barley) that are moistened and allowed to germinate so that starch converts to sugar. Enzymes in the grains cause this conversion as the seed prepares to sprout. The grains are allowed to reach a certain point in germination and then dried, which yields naturally sweet grain, or malt. By changing the type and timing of drying the grain, then following this with roasting/smoking the grain, a single type of barley can be made to exhibit very different flavors. Specialty malts, in particular, are ‘cooked' longer and contribute noticeable flavors to beer (from honey to toast to coffee, caramel to chocolate to smoke, and many more depending on how the particular malt is made). Base malts, which are dried at low temperatures and contribute less unique flavor to the beer, are the majority of malt used in any beer. Base malts still have active enzymes due to the low temperature drying. The malts are mashed (steeped in hot water), and the enzymes in base malt do more work, converting grain starches in the mash into sugar. By changing the temperature, salts in the water, water volume, and which malts are used, a brewer can change the amount of fermentable and unfermentable sugars produced by the enzymes in the mash. Later in the beer making process, yeast can only turn the fermentable sugars into alcohol, so the proportion of sugar types is an important part of the beer's final taste; sweeter tasting beer derives from wort with higher unfermentable sugar content. Once mashed, the grains are rinsed with more hot water (sparged) and removed. The water is combined and boiled, usually for one to two hours. Boiling sterilizes the wort, separates compounds, and causes further changes to flavors; thus, the heat and duration of the boil can also affect the malt taste in the final product. During the boil, hops are introduced. We'll cover how and why next week.

When you drink beer, think about what the brewer might have desired from the malt. Do you taste bread, caramel, toast, coffee? If so, those tastes came from malt. Is it sweet or dry? This comes from the mashing process. And finally, and especially, what did the brewer intend the malts to bring to the beer, and how is it balanced against the yeast and hops?

On to our game day brew:

A well-made American Barleywine puts a beat down on your taste buds. This style is brewed with a large volume of malts and hops, which dominate the flavor profile. The malts lend plenty of residual sweetness and create a high alcohol content. These brews are great cellar beers, they can be saved for years and the flavors will change over time, hence the ‘-wine' name, and some of the strong aromas and flavors will mellow over time. Since American brewers tend to brew and release them annually, it might be interesting to stow a bottle or three and stand it up to the current release in a few years to see exactly how it changes. American style is distinguished from English Barleywine due primarily to a high hop dose, though usually not so high as IPA, and the use of citrusy American hop varieties. One problem with the style is that with 9-13% alcohol, a solventy/hot effect can overpower the nose and taste, but a well-balanced Barleywine will not have this problem. Southern Tier's offering accomplishes just that.

You are going to taste a mouthful of bittersweet joy when you sip on the backburner. The malts and yeast lend flavors of caramel, bread, maybe a hint of chocolate, some dark fruitiness of currant/plum/raisin, and the beer has a nice sweetness that complements the bitter aftertaste from the hops. The hops also add strong citrus and slight pine or mint notes, but it balances very well. The malt sugars and hop oils combine to create a creamy, thick sensation. It pours a golden-brown with a nice dense head. This is a big, bold beer that will make you think differently about beer if you've never had the style. It will be a stark contrast to last week's Saison.

Warning: this has a hefty 9.6% alcohol content, but it is not highly noticeable because of the bold flavors. That said, you may want to share this with friends at the tailgate/bar/party and/or open it post-game. Plus, at $8 per bottle, and being really rich in taste, you won't want to pound it. And remember... Football. Clemson, 8 pm. You don't want to miss any part of this game.

Alternate Brews: Southern Tier has some great ones - the Unearthly Imperial IPA, Iniquity Black Ale, Blackwater series of stouts (Crème Brulee in particular - a milk stout with vanilla), and Pumking (pumpkin ale with spices and vanilla - the most ‘pumpkin pie' like pumpkin ale I've had) are all excellent offerings, and as I mentioned earlier, are mostly malt-forward for their style. These are all pretty strong brews, so if you want something lighter, maybe the 2X IPA or Hop Sun (American Wheat), if available, would be a good choice.
Side note: You should be able to get pumpkin ales now, and I recommend theirs - it is an outstanding but a bit of an extreme take on the style. Pumpkin ales have exploded in popularity in recent years, and if you want some around late fall/Thanksgiving, buy them now and save. I won't be featuring them because I generally like to drink them later in the fall when they become hard to find.
If you want a different Barleywine, try the Old Stock by North Coast (technically an Old Ale, but similar in style), Arcadia's Cereal Killer, Uinta's Cock-Eyed Cooper (aged in bourbon barrels) or Old Ruffian by Great Divide. All are delicious.

What I'll (probably) Be Drinking Saturday: Backburner, Clementine, and homebrews. Who knows what else, the pantry is reasonably well stocked because it is football season.

What about you? What are your thoughts on this beer? What is your favorite Barleywine? What will you drink on Saturday?

Previously reviewed brews:

Sept 01 - Murray State 6:00 p.m. (click to review this post)- Stone, Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale

Sept 08 - Savannah State 6:00 p.m. - Lagunitas, A Little Sumpin' Sumpin' Ale

Sept 15 - Wake Forest 12:00 p.m. - Green Flash, Saison Diego

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