Origin: Truckee, California, USA
Craft brewers, particularly in the United States, are increasingly recognising the potential for “event beers” and limited editions in capturing the growing market of beer connoisseurs prepared to pay over the odds for something a bit rare and special. There’s an obvious temptation towards cynical exploitation in this, resisted so long as the quality of the contents lives up to the hype and the restricted supply.
Based on a recent tasting, one brewery reliably ensuring that all the fuss – and the cash – is worthwhile is FiftyFifty at Truckee, not far from the state line in Nevada County, northeast California. FiftyFifty is also a brewpub and restaurant producing a range of beers from the sessionable to the challenging but is best known beyond its own locale for the Eclipse range of barrel aged imperial stouts.
Brewer Todd Ashman was one of the earliest US champions of barrel ageing at his previous brewery, Flossmoor Station in Illinois, and was instrumental in persuading the Brewers Association to recognise such beers as a competition category in their own right in the early 2000s.
His first experiments in ageing FiftyFifty’s award winning Totality Imperial Stout to create Eclipse were in 2007 and since then approaching 30 different expressions have emerged.
Totality is already a complex brew, with more than 18 separate ingredients. The grain bill alone contains various pale, coloured, Munich, chocolate, brown and black malts from Crisp, Gambrinus, Rahr and Simpsons, red wheat malt and roasted barley, plus dry malt extract, brown rice syrup solids and exotic sugars. Besides this, the hops seem relatively straightforward – German Magnum and Perle and US Mount Hood.
The stout is brewed and conditioned in March or April and put into barrels in May, with bottling and kegging taking place in November for a December release. To add to the mystique, beers from different barrels are packaged in identical 650ml bomber bottles, but sealed with different coloured wax to indicate their provenance, with a key on the brewery website.
Healthy Spirits in San Francisco’s Dubose Triangle is a regular outlet and I found several 2011 vintages on sale there in October 2012 – I was particularly recommended the white wax version, which had spent six months in Elijah Craig 20-year-old bourbon barrels (that particular whiskey is not regularly released as a 20-year-old so this particular barrel was itself a rarity).
This was a very dark mahogany coloured beer that left oily yellow iodine-like traces on the glass, with a deep tan foam. A smooth and inky aroma had raisin and berry fruit, dark malt and woody whisky fumes.
There was plenty of fruity, oily sweet bourbon-tinged malt on the full, smooth, lightly honeyed palate, which warmed and dried out in the mouth with woody tannins softened by raisins and chocolate.
The sweet black coffee finish was very long with delicate wood notes and late cigar ash. Overall, this was an amazingly complex but well integrated, long lasting and delightful beer that amply evidenced the care spent on it.
At $28.99 (£19, €22.30) the price might seem steep, but as always it’s worth remembering what you’d expect to pay for a wine of such quality.