Saturday, June 20, 2009

Medium Toast and the Kenny G of Beers

At Boon's earlier this month they were pouring Firestone DBA. I'm not a big fan of the McMenamin's beers, and after taster sips of the Jalapeno Wheat (see Jared's notes on the Jalapeno Wheat), Copper Moon, and Luna Red on nitro, none of which I liked, I went for the guest tap. I didn't know anything about Firestone - other than as the name of a winery. For some reason I thought a DBA would be a double IPA of some kind. I craved a jolt, even though normally IPAs and double IPAs are too hoppy for my taste.

The beer surprised me. It was smooth, too smooth. Like "smooth jazz" smooth. It wasn't the King of Beers, it was the Kenny G of beers!

Of course my expectations set things up for failure. I don't actually know if I dislike the beer. It was really drinkable and pleasant. Maybe more Mel Torme, the Velvet Fog, than Kenny G. At the very least, it was Kenny G on tenor sax rather than soprano. It just wasn't what I wanted.

Later I looked it up:
A British Pale Ale never tasted so fresh. We challenge our good friends across the pond to match this one. Can’t be done. We’ve honored the traditions of the great British Pale brewers of Burton-on-Trent using our patented Firestone Union oak barrels. You’re left with a mild blend of vanilla and toasted oak flavor touched with an elegant hint of English noble hops. DBA is the flagship of our company and wildly popular.
What was I thinking? The brewery is affiliated with a winery and features burgundy barriques!
After brewing for five years at a small, private facility on a corner of the Firestone Vineyard estate in Santa Barbara County, Firestone Walker recently transitioned to a new brewery in Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County.

Firestone Walker’s ales are also selectively fermented in the patented Firestone Union oak barrel brewing system. The Firestone Union incorporates 60-gallon, medium-toast American oak barrels.
That's winechat, my beery friends!

And so we continue the beer-is-like-wine thread...

This is the first I've heard of a "union" brewing system. The Master, Michael Jackson, discusses a Burton Union System, with reference to Marston's, a British ale. The significant detail here is that the Marston's casks sound like hogsheads twice the size of barriques. Moreover, it's almost certain they have been used many times, and are old oak. Using vessels for fermentation that have been through multiple fermentations, and are therefore "neutral oak," is a centuries-old tradition in Europe for wine and beer. These vessels impart no "new oak" flavors. The Firestone method is designed to impart - or at least to market the idea of - hints of vanilla and other flavors deriving from new oak. The Firestone beers are marketed in some of the same gimmicky ways wines are.

The Firestone website, too, is larded with video and precious animation. It tries to hard, and tarts things up with fake antiquing - like farmhouse furniture, with milk paint, and factory distressing from being walloped with chains. It could be charming, but it's not.

I need to go back and retaste the beer. I'll be looking for different details and a different harmony.

I'm not at all sure what I'll conclude about the beer. I'm pretty sure I'll like it more, and I hope it's more Mel Torme than Kenny G. But I'm also pretty sure that when beer and beer marketing starts getting spoofalated, beer geekery becomes beer snobbery.

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