Monday, March 25, 2013

Beer is Coming: A Game of Thrones Beer

Way back in 1996, while living in Chicago on a shoe-string budget, I would frequent the cast-off/overstock shelves at the Borders bookstore for novels that I could afford.  One auspicious day I found a large tome with a shiny foil cover and the unlikely name of A Game Of Thrones for $5.99 on said shelves, and bought it on a whim.  At the time I had no inkling of what I held in my hand, but once I read it I knew that George R.R. Martin had created something of great and lasting impact.  Not until I took home the novel did I realize that I had purchased a signed copy; today a signed first edition of the book going for $500 on ebay.  Not a bad profit if I had any intention of selling it!  But wait, this is a beer blog...what am I doing blathering on about books?  Sit back and let me sing you a song--A Song of Ice and Fire!

Since the series began, Martin has written five enormous books of incredible scope and depth.  Set in a fantasy world, the series mainly follows an epic struggle for  power that is sparked in the first book.  The world is gritty and realistic, with incredible details of history, heraldry, politics, and very complicated characters.  I have not read any fantasy novels since Lord of the Rings with this amount of realism and scope, and highly suggest you give them a try!  No cute hobbits here though, just despicable villains, flawed heroes, and a dash of the supernatural scattered through-out.

For those who last read a book in high school English class, in 2011 HBO released the first season of its big screen adaptation of the books.  Watch it now!  Honestly this is the only reason I still have HBO.  Season 1 and 2 are now available on DVD and Blu-Ray for those who are coming late to the party!  The series captures the complexity of the books, layered with a great cast and excellent production values.  Each episode is better than 90% of modern big budget movies in my opinion.  By far my favorite character of the books is Tyrion Lanister, played with depth and power by actor Peter Dinklage in the show.  I'd watch it just to see that man act.  Do not let your children watch this show with you--lots of nudity, swearing, gratuitous violence and a beheading in most episodes.    Season 3 is just starting up this month, so get watching!

Again, where is the beer angle to this post?  Here you go my bewildered reader:  This past Friday the officially licensed Iron Throne Ale was released around the USA.  I was initially put off by seeing such a gimmick beer being released in the name of my favorite series, remembering the glut of cheap macro-lager with special labels that were released back in the early 90's.  Looking into this more I was pleased to discover that this unique recipe was being brewed by Ommegang, a very good Belgian owned brewery in Upstate New York.  My favorite beer for years was Ommegang's Three Philosophers, so I had increasing hopes for this beer.

Beer is coming...

The icing on the cake came when we learned of a special release and tasting at our favorite local beer store The Four Firkins (featured in a bunch of my previous blog posts.)  So on Friday after work, Sj and I donned our Renaissance festival garb, daggers, and pouches and drove out to The Firkins.  With a moment of nervousness we walked into the store and immediately felt at home.  All of the staff (minus Michael who was woefully under-costumed!) were dressed up as their favorite Game Of Thrones characters.  Bryan was a white walker with creepy ice blue eyes; Alvey was a Silent Sister, complete with rusty hacksaw; and Ian made a pretty realistic Robb Stark.  Sj kept calling Ian Jon Snow, and I had to remind her that she was calling him a bastard...I know serious geek alert here.  Ian, who never left character, served us up a taste of the fabled beer and we wandered around the store whilst drinking it.  Several other visitors had dressed up as well so we were not alone!  One young lady wandered in dressed as an elf, (with very realistic ears,) and we found out that she was on the way to a Hobbit watching party and just randomly came into the only store in the whole city where she wouldn't be out of place.  Weird.  One patron asked me for help finding beer, thinking that I worked there since I was in costume.  So I went ahead and helped him pick out some IPAs!

Better than a Red Wedding?

We were able to taste several of the Ommegang beers over the next hour and as usual managed to fill a box of beers to take home with us.  Since we were dressed up, the costumed distributor gave us free Ommegang shirts, bottle openers and coasters--score!  Overall we had a great time hanging with the staff and talking to other fans.  A fun way to spend a Friday night, followed by a trip just down the road to the Steel Toe taproom for a Wee Heavy.  Yes we did do a Superman style quick-change at the Firkins before we went out on the town!

And what of the beer itself?  At the store I did enjoy the beer, but decided to taste it under less chaotic circumstances at my home bar with Sj.  The style is a Belgian blonde ale with lemon peel and grains of paradise.  I'll write it up as an abbreviated BJCP tasting.

Aroma: Up front lemon zest with spicy clove and a hint of banana.  Sweet grainy malt and sugary sweetness.  Bright but subtle noble hop aroma.  Tinge of sulfur at first, but fades fast. 

Appearance:  Golden color with excellent clarity.  Huge pillowy white head that takes up half of the glass despite careful pour.  Head persists for a dragon's age.  Incredibly effervescent with a champagne-like sparkle. 

Flavor:  A malty front end with a sugary sweetness and lemonade flavor at the tail.  Light clove and cardamom flavors with a spicy rye-like zing.  Ends with a notable hop bitterness and a mild noble hop flavor as well. 

Mouthfeel:  Body is between medium and light.  Carbonation is high and ends very dry with a sparkle on the tongue.  Lingering bitterness borders on astringent but doesn't quite get there.  Slight alcohol warming, but not a burn.  The dry finish makes this easily drinkable.

Overall Impression:  I really enjoyed this beer's drinkability, and a very good example of this style.  I had a lot of beers like this in Belgium and found many of them to be hoppier than I expected.  This has a great balance between sweet and bitter.  The lemon is certainly there and might take the beer slightly out of the style guidelines, but not far.  The spiciness may be from the yeast, or may be the grains of paradise (I've never really had a beer made with those before.) 

This is an unusual beer with an unusual story, hence the large write-up.  As a beer geek and a geek geek this whole thing hits the sweet spot for me.  A great series of books, a great TV series, and a matching beer fit for a king!  Could this be a sign of things to come for craft beer?  Will we have a Hobbit's Ale or a Joker's alcoholic energy drink in the future?  I know that Iron Maiden is coming out with their own beer soon...hopefully a craft beer and not a malt liquor.  I like this trend as long as the people in charge use good craft beer for these and don't flood the market with fancy-label macro lagers.  I have been through the early 90's where tons of these beers flooded the market and gave craft beer a bad name, contributing greatly to the micro-bust.  Ommegang and HBO have a hit here and I hope they decide to do a series of these beers...I'll be first in line to try them, probably wearing my puffy shirt and armed to the teeth.  Until then, drink up and gird yourself for the arrival of the White Walkers.
Winter is Coming...

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