For Experimental Beer Flavors, We're Callin' In Twisted Pine Brewery
The company offers a handful of the traditional beer styles expected of an American craft brewery including an IPA, an amber ale, a honey brown ale and a blonde ale. But the company seems far more interested in experimentation, as evidenced by past releases such as Poison Fish, flavored with ginger, wasabi, horseradish and mustard, and the brewery's current project, a beer brewed with ghost chilies, known as the spiciest peppers on the planet. That will, of course, one-up perhaps the most infamous Twisted Pine beer, Billy's Chilies.
Curious about Billy's Chilies and other offerings, I was glad to accept free samples of Billy's Chilies, Le Petit Saison, Big Shot Espresso Stout and Hoppy Knight India-Style Black Ale when they were offered by the company's marketing director. Free beer is good beer. But considering that they're not especially easy to find, would it be worth going out of one's way, and then actually paying money for them?
First up was Hoppy Knight, labeled by Twisted Pine as an "India-Style Black Ale." This falls into a category of beer so new that the industry hasn't even standardized the name of the style; you may also hear these beers referred to as Cascadian dark ales or simply black IPAs. It would take a mighty beer to dislodge the superb Stone Sublimely Self Righteous Ale as my favorite of the emerging style, but Hoppy Knight makes a valiant effort. It pours a cola brownish-black with ruby highlights with a thin head. The nose was mostly fruity, citrus-rind hops with grapefruit and piney notes dominating. The taste is a good balance of sweet and sour that keeps bitterness in check, and a subtle but undeniable roasted dark porter-like flavor in the background. The roasted malt and pungent hops merge more smoothly than you'd expect. It's no Stone Sublimely or even Widmer W'10. But it's still a very interesting beer and worth checking out simply because this is such a distinct new style, and it's fun to keep tabs on what various brewers are doing with it.
Next I tried the Big Shot Espresso Stout, which "boasts about a shot of espresso in every pint," according to the press material. It certainly tasted like it, almost as if the brewmaster had simply substituted Caffe Americano for water in the brewing process. It looked great, pitch black with a creamy tan head. The nose was all coffee, and the taste was like a mediocre stout with a splash of joe in each sip. As it warmed up, some faint vanilla and chocolate notes made themselves known. Overall, I wouldn't have called it a great stout, so I'm somewhat surprised it has won silver medals at the World Beer Cup (2000) and Great American Beer Festival (2008). Anyway, it went wonderfully with vanilla ice cream, even if the body was way too thin for the style.
My favorite in the batch was Le Petit Saison. Pouring a hazy, very light golden color with a thick, soft white head, it certainly looked beautiful. Nose was grassy, earthy and herbal with some subdued spices including ginger. The taste was outstanding for an American-made saison, bright and dry and crisp, with subtle apricot and Noble hop notes. Very well balanced and drinkable.
Finally, there was Billy's Chilies. I'll admit, I put off drinking it for a couple of weeks. I love spicy foods and I love beer. In fact, when I'm cooking I'll even add beer to my foods. Yet spicy beer has always seemed like a stupid idea to me, a gimmick at best. So, while my expectations were rather low for Billy's Chilies, I was somewhat impressed. It looks innocuous enough, like a blonde ale with a thin white head, but the smell is all peppers, a mix of spicy jalapeño and savory bell peppers (it's brewed with serrano, habanero, jalapeño, Anaheim and Fresno chilis). At first sip, it tastes like a decent, but not exceptional, blonde ale. Then the spiciness of the peppers starts to sneak up on you, noticeable mostly at the back of the tongue and in the throat. But it's not an overwhelming heat, just enough to let you know it's there. There's so little hop presence that I wonder if they used peppers instead of hops. Maybe it'd be good with spicy food or maybe it'd be redundant. Needless to say, this is not a session beer. The only other chile-flavored beer I have to compare it to is Rogue Chipotle Ale, which is a far superior beer. Rogue's spiciness is a bit more subtle, and balanced by actual beer flavors -- caramel maltiness, smokiness and some refreshing Cascade hops that act like the cilantro in a good salsa. Billy's is more like pouring yourself a blonde ale and then liberally splashing it with pepper sauce -- one of those things that seems like a good idea after a few drinks, even if you can't imagine why you'd have done such a thing the next morning.