Monday, February 4, 2013

Hibernating with Grape Juice, or Enter the Eden of Beer

In January, we at Al"brew"querque (are forced to) continue our tradition of sipping beers in different locations. Jenny undertook her semiannual abandonment trip to Vermont for her graduate program, while I (refused to come along) stayed home. "Home sweet home" was, to be exact, our third place of residence in four semesters, which at least mixes up the beer selection.

And what a selection it is! We've had no problem waxing prosaic about the Durango brewing culture, with four microbreweries within fifteen minutes of our door. With all these choices, deciding on a six-pack to take home should be difficult. Right? (Right!)

Wrong. (Oh. Frown. I hate being wrong. Meh!) After the razzmatazz performance of MolĂ© Stout on our taste buds, I seized the plastic handles on Ska Brewing's latest seasonal, Hibernal Vinifera Stout. This stout is best summed up by Ska's own website:

"Who the fu*k put grapes in my beer?"

I wish I hadn't read the can first, because now I'll never know if I would have discerned grape flavors without the aluminum cheat sheet (a lesson for all would-be cheaters). But I swear to all things that grow on vines (pumpkins... cucumbers...), this beer really does have a sense of grapes about it (you mean like how Natalie Portman has a sense of swans about her in Black Swan?). I don't taste the fruit in the liquid itself, which has the delightful fullness of being cask-aged without tasting like you just licked the inside of a barrel -- a feat rarer than finding spare barrels to lick. (This is why I can't leave you alone.) But in the air that fills the bubbles of this brew, I found the scent of grape juice or a hint of grape soda. Hibernal Vinifera tastes like grape juice smells.

It's good the whole way through, too (like Burl Ives), unlike so many gimmicky beers that intrigue on first sip and gag by the end. Ska has got this additive concept down. Hibernal Vinifera wows at the start (like a stripper), maintains its virtues throughout (like a virgin), dances the tango and the waltz with any food you pair it with (I tried it with a green chile burrito and with cookies), and polishes off just this side of sweet. (Folks, he was home alone, so please feel free to picture him literally cutting the rug with a beer in hand and a burrito snapped between his teeth like a long-stem rose.)

This brew made the lonely cold Colorado evenings bearable, until my darling could steal away from the oppressive regime heavy scheduling in Vermont and sign in to video chat. Then, I was pleased to tip my can to her and enjoy Ska's latest with the best company around.

While Zach was in our living room waltzing around with a six pack, I was trudging through several feet of snow in subzero temperatures down the steep hill separating Vermont College's campus from the groovy Victorian town of Montpelier. (Swinging 1860s, here we come!)

That's right, groovy Victorian. Montpelier, also the state capitol of Vermont, is what would have happened to the real Victorians if left in isolation -- like the marsupials of Australia. Some features go untouched, while others undergo bizarre-yet-inevitable mutations. Meticulous layers of fancy clothing with lots of buttons, fasteners, and hooks are replaced by North Face outerwear (with lots of clasps, buttons, and fasteners). Buggies turn to Subarus. And the old religious snobbery which would have disdained alcoholic beverages transforms into elitist snobbery for locally microbrewed. 

That said, I should also point out that Durango and Montpelier share this marsupial Victorianism.  

Down the hill I journeyed, taking my roommate, Jenn, with me. (Yes, they dared to room two Jenns together. Oh the hijinx that ensue...) We were on our way to the Three Penny Taproom, a vast menagerie of microbrews from around the state and around the country.

I was particularly excited to visit the Taproom because all the previous residencies proved too jam-packed with events and lectures to allow me enough time to go and enjoy a drink there. (Okay, there had been time to drink, but never enough time to sober up before my brains were needed again.) Also, I had promised to perform my famous flavor-profile test on Jenn so that she could drink a beer that wouldn't make her gag. It had been a while since I could profile anyone who said they didn't like beer, and I was a little nervous that maybe I'd lost my knack for it.

Into the Taproom we went, and there we froze. The Taproom was loaded with real plants. Compared to the barren, icy streets, the Taproom felt like a blooming garden or a thriving greenhouse. Crossing the threshold was an almost Biblical experience -- I had unwittingly sauntered into the Eden of Beer.

And besides the thick fronds and plentiful vines chewing into the cramped quarters, Jenn and I had to maneuver around all the jolly people, mostly men whose quasi-Saxon facial hair bristled out into the remaining scant snips of elbow room.  

Shuffle-stepping up to the bar, Jenn and I studied the chalkboard with a super-long and super-detailed list of beers, including who brewed them, their ABV figures, and the states they hailed from. I first asked Jenn if any of the titles caught her fancy. When she put up her hands and shook her head, saying she did not know a brown ale from a lager, I quickly performed my flavor profile wherein I ask a very short list of comparative questions. What do you like better, chocolate or coffee? Bread or pastries? Nuts or berries? And so on. 

In a matter of seconds, I determined that Jenn would love a warm, aromatic Belgian beer. So I ordered the Vermont-made McChouffe "blushing" Belgian brown ale. To her delight, it came in a wine-like glass and looked and smelled much like a wine. The ruby tint was seductive and when she gave me a sip, I delighted in the cozy, brandy-like flavor. Jenn enjoyed her beer and remarked (as many do) that she had no idea beer could taste like that.

I settled on the Hill Farmstead Earl oatmeal coffee stout, also local out of Vermont. It was strong and roasty. The presence of oats was boisterous and delicious, tinged with a bitter coffee aftertaste. The stout finished off kind of mellow, like a rockin' Metallica song that just fades out for the next track -- which is not a fault. A stout like that is just being polite to your palate, clearing the way and settling down so you can enjoy the next drink.

And enjoy we did, squeezed in between the beards, fronds, and vines. I kicked back knowing my flavor profile skills had not faded, and in a few days, I would be going home to rescue my love from his solo hibernation and lonely malt-waltzing.

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