Sierra Nevada/Ashville Brewers Alliance — Tater Ridge Scottish Ale — 7.0%

Sierra-Nevada-Tater-Ridge-960x820This summer’s Sierra Nevada Beer Camp box carries a telling tagline. North Carolina is about as far Across America as one could get from Chico, California, but this casting of a wider net has brought in a consistently interesting catch.

Mills River’s Ashville Brewers Alliance brings North Carolina’s Scottish heritage to the table along with an apparent Southern love for sweet potato. The collaborative Scottish Ale, Tater Ridge, pours Dr. Pepper brown with a tight, pale yellow head quickly falling to lace.

Tater Ridge throws a nose of earthy malts and hints of a Scotch Ale alcohol burn to come. Upon first sip, however, the Tater reveals a velvet-smooth malt foundation, buoyed by use of the starchy tubers in the mash. The alcohol burn never asserts itself, having been blanketed by Ashville’s own Riverbend Six-Row, as well as, Golden Promise, Caramel, and Chocolate malts.

Sierra Nevada is well known for its expertise with the West Coast hop trinity, but here, the brewery has also stretched out, employing two types more commonly affiliated with lighter, more traditionally German types of beer; Motueka, a New Zealand variant of the Czech perennial Saaz, and Horizon, an American cross between Brewers Gold and old school German hops. Both of these bitter hops help to tame the serious malt foundation the collaboration has poured on this property.

It’s only when the two breweries employ their secret weapon, does Tater Ridge finally break the gravitational pull of all that starch. Mosaic is an American hop described as “Citra on steroids,” with all the citrus and pine of its Simcoe parentage. With some high citrus notes introduced to cut through all the heavy complexity, Tater Ridge finally blossoms into a well-balanced brew exceeding even the substantial sum of its parts.

Grade: A+

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Odell Brewing Co. — Runoff Red IPA — 6.5%

RunoffRedIPAA seasonal offering from Fort Collins, Colorado’s Odell Brewing Co., Runoff Red IPA pours a splendid sunset red with very little head or lacing. A surprisingly sweet nose of tangerine/blood orange hints toward a malt-forward backbone, one that ultimately provides this beer with its luxurious mouth feel.

Even on paper, this beer is less hoppy than many West Coast IPAs. At 50 IBUs, it sits right in the bitter center for the style (40-60). Although the label boasts a dry hopped stage, the malt profile completely dominates, hops providing only a residual bitterness on the front of the tongue.

Although Odell may have missed the mark stylistically—Runoff Red is an excellent amber—its drinkability and sumptuous body leads one toward forgiveness.

Grade: B-

Red Rock Brewery — Bobcat Nutbrown Ale — 6.1%

bobcatAfter driving the 80 from California through the nicotine-blasted wasteland that is Nevada, I was as happy as a pig in mud to discover that Salt Lake City boasts several fine microbreweries. Who knew?

While preparing for our extended road trip, I had asked several friends whether or not Utah was a dry state, and if so, how much beer could I get away with carrying for personal use; they looked at me like I was stupid, which, on this matter I am willing to throw myself on the mercy of the court.

Red Rock Brewery boasts several locations in the greater SLC area and a healthy selection of brews to choose from. Topping the list, their Bobcat Nutbrown Ale makes an excellent starter. Available in bottles, it pours a chestnut brown with a monster head that collapses down to a respectable quarter-inch of mocha-colored foam.

The first sip reveals a crisp hop profile, balancing out the otherwise dominant taste of toasted malts. The Cascade and Columbus bitterness places the Bobcat well within the West Coast purview. Subsequent quaffs unlock the complexity of the grain bill: a creamy mouth feel with dark chocolate and caramel notes.

Grade: B+

Firehouse Grill & Brewery — One Tun Imperial Stout (OTIS) — 10%

This beast pours black. Black as night. Black as coal. Black, well, as Otis Redding soul kissing a panther. With a mocha brown milkshake head, and nose of cold coffee and licorice, this is no mere beer—it’s a late night meal in a bare lightbulb flat before heading back out to party with Willy Wonka and his crew. Lots of roasted malt right up front rides on pillows of rich chocolate undertones, along with candied fruit, and prunes.

The bitter malts almost overpower the hop profile, but the aromatics actually end up bringing a refreshing astringency to the party, aerating what could have turned into a bottle of chocolate cough syrup.

At a heady 10%, one would expect a little alcohol burn—in keeping with the Imperial style—but One Tun maintains a careful balance. Its slow sipability is a testament to the craftsmanship of the Firehouse brewers; only a luxuriant chocolate/leather jacket taste lingers.

Grade: A-

Mission Brewery — Shipwrecked Double IPA — 9.25%

This beer glows like pilfered Aztec gold with a three-finger head of bone white that leaves plenty of lacing on the glass. As expected, this beer is tantalizingly hop-forward with hints of orange, lemon, requisite grapefruit, and—surprisingly—subtle cinnamon.

The liberal use of Cascade, Centennial, and CTZ (Columbus/Tomahawk/Zeus) hops places Shipwrecked right in the wheelhouse of a West Coast IPA, but the addition of Magnum hops by the brewers at San Diego’s Mission Brewery hints at a distant misspent European lineage.

A healthy grain bill insures that this hop bomb is balanced out; the mouth feel, while astringent, is creamy and full-bodied. Most remarkable is the fact that at 9.25 percent alcohol, this brew delivers all the heat with no burn whatsoever. This is not a beer to drink while piloting oil tankers or other water craft.

Grade: A+

Karl Strauss — Boardwalk Black Rye — 8%

We’ve had a lot of great beers find their way out of the (far) southland to our humble shack in the north. San Diego has long been a Mecca for craft beer aficionados, and the Karl Strauss Brewing Company has had a big hand in establishing that beachhead. I have to admit that I wasn’t overly impressed with the Tower 10 IPA, or Red Trolley Ale, but I couldn’t get enough of their Full Suit Belgian brown seasonal.

Perhaps Karl Strauss needs to be thinking outside of the box to really shine. Boardwalk Black Rye, the latest in the brewery’s limited “Coastal Reserve” line, pours stout black with excellent head retention and lacing. Upon first sip, it is hard to pin down exactly what style of beer this is. There are a ton of Ahtanum hops balancing out a pretty heavy amount of caramelized rye that ultimately pushes it toward a “Rye PA,” but then there is the rest of the heavy grain bill to contend with. With a healthy bit of black malts adding further luxuriant mouth feel to an already creamy brew boasting 8% alcohol, perhaps this is some kind of Imperial Porter. Whatever it is, it’s tasty.

Hints of dried fruit (prunes, raisins), chocolate, and black coffee all play against a warming Bourbon alcohol note. The hops, however, take the last word with a nice lingering bitter tongue. This beer would make an excellent after-dinner drink.

Grade: A

Lagunitas (sucks) — Holiday Ale/Brown Shugga’ Substitute — 7.85%

flagellant |ˈflajələnt; fləˈjelənt| noun

A person who subjects themselves or others to flogging, either as a religious discipline or for sexual gratification.

The hop fanatics at Lagunitas Brewing Company feel really, really bad about not offering their usual seasonal knock-out punch Brown Shugga’ this year, so bad that they’ve printed “We suck” on the carton and labels of their consolatory offering, a really fine double IPA billed (just in case you didn’t get the message) as Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Ale.

This tasty late-inning substitution pours deceptively like a pilsner, all wheat straw gold and perfunctory tight white head with very little lacing. A light carbonation suffices to lift its volatile dry-hopped aroma.

On first sip, a surprising sweetness reveals itself in the hop profile, possibly Citra closing out its incredible year by gracing yet one more great beer. An artful balance obscures the higher alcohol numbers, yet the beer does finish with some heat, which is nice for a winter seasonal.

As it warms, delicious hints of tangerine and grass develop alongside the requisite Lagunitas pine and grapefruit notes. There is a nice spice hit from the rye in the comprehensive grain bill, which also includes barley, wheat, and oats.

If an ale of this quality drives its brewers to proclaim that they “freaking munch moldy donkey butt,” then what chance to the rest of us have? If it makes them feel better, I didn’t really miss the Shugga’ this year. The Lagunitas brewers, as a rule, always respond well to having to think on their feet. Let’s hope that 2012 throws them a couple more curveballs.

Grade: A