Beer Mailbag: SweetWater and New Belgium Ring In Spring

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- It's just plain rude to have a fridge full of beer and not share some of it.

I've spoken about the touchy subject of free beer samples before, but for every brewer that stopped sending them as a result, two more took their place. If they're worth mentioning, I try to work them into stories and pertinent lists, but beer (sadly) isn't my full-time beat and the bottles and cans start to pile up after a while.

As do the press releases, invitations and other correspondence that finds its way to my porch and inbox. While there are some that are just inevitably going to be lost in the shuffle or passed along, I've been of the mind lately that if I drink a sample or am intrigued by a beer, I should be writing about it. Not just a tweet here or there (though I do that too at @Notteham), but an actual, full-length sample of what folks are sending and what I'm tasting. From now on, I'll be doing infrequent dives into the mailbag just to keep current and unburden myself and my basement refrigerator of all these beers.

If you're a brewer who's sending samples and doesn't want any part of this, feel free to have your people cut me off. If this somehow inspires you to send more samples, please realize that I am only one man and that even with assistance it's kind of tough to get through all of the current offerings. With that in mind, let's get rolling:

Spring break

Just after we released our big spring beer list, our porch was inundated with box after box of seasonal and limited-release beers.

Even until roughly a month ago, we'd still been getting word of the occasional winter beer. The folks down at Coronado Brewing in Coronado, Calif., tapped us on the shoulder back in February and told us about their Jurata Baltic Porter collaboration with Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, Fla. The malty 8% ABV was available here in Oregon in 750-milliliter wine-style bottles and had the potency you'd expect of an English beer style that got its name for having enough alcohol content to survive a voyage through the Baltic Sea -- hence "Jurata," the Polish word for sea. It was a winter warmer in every sense. While the beer geeks tell us it's no substitute for Cigar City's Hunaphu imperial stout, it made us even happier to skip the mess that was Hunaphu's Day in Tampa.

But the window for this type of beer closes quickly if you aren't sticking it in a cellar for the next year or so. Summer is approaching and the beers are getting lighter and eminently more drinkable, as evidenced by the care package we got from the folks at Atlanta-based SweetWater Brewing. After a stop there back in December, we've been getting infrequent releases from them, including a spring mixed box a couple of weeks ago featuring the brewery's new Road Trip pilsner. A 5.2% alcohol-by-volume brew loaded with Vienna and pilsner malt, this beer has all the characteristics of a light lager but is brewed at higher temperatures like an ale. There's still a bit of Sterling and Golding hops on the finish that gives Road Trip the bite a light lager lacks, but the overall flavor makes it as much of an easy-drinking beer as any light lager produced by a bigger brewer -- just without the can.

That's not a minor point, as craft brewers have been getting more particular about canning their beers and their summer lineups in particular. That could be a big part of the reason SweetWater flanked its bottles of Road Trip with cans of its flagship 420 Extra Pale Ale. There's nothing new about that hoppy, citrusy blend of Cascade and Centennial hops that SweetWater's been brewing since 1997. It's just that breweries tend to get excited about canning, especially when they've never done it before. SweetWater's 420 Pale Ale is a great place to start, especially considering how well Dale's Pale Ale worked out for Colorado-based craft beer canning pioneers Oskar Blues, and it'll only get better as cans of 420 and SweetWater's IPA spread through Georgia and beyond for the rest of 2014.

Back in the lab

Craft brewers' creativity makes every trip to the bar or bottle shop an exercise in exploration, but it also makes it difficult to get through a brewery's lineup of limited-release beers -- especially when they're such disparate styles.

New Belgium of Fort Collins, Colo., is putting the finishing touches on a new brewery in Asheville, N.C., that will eventually produce 500,000 barrels on its own (or about two-thirds of New Belgium's current production) and push it to well over 1 million barrels of output. That's great for the big picture -- and for beers like its new, light, year-round Snapshot wheat beer that they sent us back in winter -- but should help with its more experimental small batches as well.

New Belgium has already started playing nice with the neighbors by teaming up with Asheville maltster River Bend Malt House to contribute rye grain for its new RyePA from its Hop Kitchen series. Available primarilly in 22-ounce bomber bottles, this rye isn't quite as spicy as other rye-laced interpretations of the IPA style. That rye-bread spice is there, but New Belgium tilts the beers balance toward sweeter Simcoe, Galaxy, Cascade and Mosaic hops. At 7.5% ABV, it has IPA strength that shouldn't be trifled with, but it has a fruity aroma and refreshing flavor that seems more suited to spring than heavier, more wintry rye brews.

Consider RyePA training wheels for New Belgium's far more challenging Lips Of Faith series. The brewery sends us a 22-ounce bottle from this series each year and their experiments with ingredients and the definition of beer itself can be a challenge. There are fairly straightforward offerings such as last year's Wild2 Dubbel brewed with Trappist and wild yeast, but then there are concoctions such as the Berliner Weisse brewed with yuzu juice or ale brewed with the plum-apricot hybrid Pluot fruit that tasted more like wine than beer.

Each year brings a new approach, but this year takes it fairly easy on drinkers still taking baby steps into craft beer. This year's collection of 22-ounce offerings includes a Gruit, an ancient style of beer delineated from other beers by its lack of hops. Not fewer hops, mind you, but no bittering hops at all. While a few Target hops are added for aroma, the beer's bitterness comes from a mix of herbs including horehound, bog myrtle, yarrow, wormwood and elderflowers. It smells a bit like a Belgian wheat beer, but tastes sweet and only moderately bitter. It's not such a tough jump from a witbier if you can convince a drinker to let go of some of the citrus they seek in a Blue Moon or other more widely accessible wheat.

It only gets more sour from there. The last two beers in this year's Lips of Faith offerings -- La Foile and Transatlantic Kreik -- are as sour as they come. La Foile bills itself as a 7% ABV "sour brown ale" but looks and tastes more like a Flemish Red similar to noted Belgian brands such as Duchesse de Bourgogne and Rodenbach Grand Cru. That last parallel is a bit more direct, as New Belgium brewer Peter Bouckaert came over from Rodenbach and conditioneded La Foile in French Oak barrels that imbue the beer with many of the same traits as its Belgian ancestor. There are hints of sour cherry and apple and a puckering flavor that's becoming steadily more popular in craft beer circles with each passing year.

The Transatlantic Kreik, meanwhile, comes out of a partnership between New Belgium and Belgian brewery Brewerij Boon from Belgium's Lambeek region. Basically, it's a lambic made with Polish cherries that's a blend of a pure lambic style and a golden lager. Don't cringe at the second half of that equation, as the lager's basically there to cut a cherry-heavy Kreik that can be as thick and sweet as pure syrup. The lager is the only thing making this recognizable to mid-range U.S. drinkers as "beer," but is also the one thing giving them a fighting chance at having a true gateway to more complex Belgian styles. This 8% ABV Transatlantic Kreik may not be the purest form of the style, but it's an incredibly enjoyable one that's a whole lot closer to Cantillon and Oude lambics than any lighter, wheatier Belgian styles are.

Closing with cider

We take cider very seriously as a portion of our beer coverage, largely because the nation's biggest brewers approach that corner of their business with the same intensity. It's a drink that's on the rise, has tremendous growth potential and knows no gender lines.

So when the top cider brewer in the country tells you that it's not only adding varieties, but getting rid of twist-off caps it would never dream of putting on its beers, it's worth noting. The folks at Boston Beer, makers of Angry Orchard cider and the Samuel Adams line of craft beers, sent out its new Green Apple version of Angry Orchard with a few points of interest: 1. It ends Angry Orchard's days of putting on twist-off caps and assuming its key demographics can't handle a bottle opener and 2. It departs from the brand's use of European apples in favor of apples from Washington state. The result is a superbly tart cider with a tropical fruit aroma, but a flavor that never skews that sweet. It's a nice turn for dry cider that not only broadens its flavor palate, but continues to differentiate it from the sweet bottled U.S. ciders of yore.

Instead of applauding Angry Orchard's new offerings and settling willingly into second place, the folks at Vermont Cider are doing their Irish owners at C&C proud by expanding its own portfolio and reminding everyone it's still very much alive. That's made immediately apparent by the Woodchuck Hopped Apple cider that Vermont Cider made a year-round offering in March. Originally part of its limited-edition Cellar Series, Hopped Apple is extensively dry hopped with Cascade hops after fermentation and balances out its dry cider with just a bit of hop bite.

We finally got a chance to taste some at a hopped cider festival hosted by Portland-based Reverend Nat's Hard Cider, and Woodchuck Hopped Cider hits an elusive balance. It's still cidery enough to keep cider drinkers interested, has just enough hops to woo an IPA drinker and has 5% ABV that makes its possible to drink more than one in a sitting. The craft beer kids would call it "session able," and we like the idea of a hopped, session cider.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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