Sunday, December 1, 2013

James Page Reboot...Sometimes Dead Is Better

As most people know, in the late 1980's craft beer began its slow rise to prominence.  In Minnesota, Summit really led this trend, but another small brewing company started by attorney James Page also opened at that time, and made a name for itself.  James Page Brewing Company was very small and local, coming into its own in the early 1990's, like many other craft breweries at the time.  It was probably the first American brewery to sell a wild rice beer, and was one of the first craft breweries to can its beer.  I remember the Boundary Waters lager being pretty good, but didn't really try many of the beers. 

In 1995 the brewery fell victim to the dreaded craft beer bust that pruned down the then burgeoning craft beer scene.  That is a whole separate story, but the base problems were too many crappy breweries, too much contract brewing with fly-by-night labels, and too many get-rich-quick schemes by investors and business men who knew nothing about beer.  James Page ended up selling the company, which put a lot of money into marketing, but made some bad decisions over the next few years resulting in poor yield.  Apparently the draft beer was produced at the brewery, but the bottles were contract brewed at various other places (including Schells, who hadn't yet really embraced the craft style for itself).

In 2005 the brand was sold to Stevens Point Brewing in the Wisconsin town of the same name.  That company has a storied past beginning in 1957, brewing mostly American lagers, and is the 5th oldest continually run brewery in the country.  For those from Wisconsin and Minnesota they have a somewhat less than stellar reputation, (think Old Milwaulkee, Olympia, etc.)  A few years back they attempted to re-brand themselves with new packaging and some "crafty" beers that rode the line between mass-market and craft beers.  They did have a runaway hit with their Whole Hog Imperial Pilsner at that time, and recently have expanded the name into a series of higher gravity beers (mirroring fellow Wisconsin brewer Lienenkugel's Big Eddy series). 

As of right now the James Page brand has been re-imagined by Stevens Point and I was given three of the beers by a friend to try.  When handed the cans I had no idea what they were.  These have snuck into the local beer marketplace with minimal fanfare, and I was unaware of their existence.  The cans all sport colorful design and each have a bold statement of individuality at the top.  There is a small logo of JP's up near the top of the can, which seems like a waste of buying a known brand only to shorten it into obscurity.  Only by looking at the small print on the side of the can could I discover that this was James Page and brewed in Stevens Point.  Looking at the website, it mirrors the logo along with the tag-line "Adventurous brews with a twist." 

A white stout?  Ludicrous!

Casper:  Sporting a pretty cool looking white buffalo on the can with the words "Stand apart" rolling across the top of the can, I had high hopes for this one.  A self proclaimed white stout, this is the first such beer I've ever tried.  The website describes it "Distinctively golden in color with big pilsen malt flavor, and a touch of hops."  It clocks in at 6% ABV. 

Aroma: Lots of corn!  Corn and more corn.  Loads of corn.  Also a hint of noble hop as it warms.  There is some light cocoa and medicinal aroma as well. 
Appearance: Straw or light gold in color.  Huge foamy white head that takes 5 minutes to fall enough to drink.  Excellent clarity.
Flavor: Sweet malt up front that fades to a corn syrup based cheap candy sweetness.  Sj described the flavor as Necco Wafers--and I think she hit it right on the head.  There is an imitation (read chemical) chocolate finish that is interesting but fairly off-putting.  A bitter finish.  Mouthfeel is borderline creamy--slick feeling.
Overall: I was intrigued by this beer and really wanted to try something unique: a white chocolate stout!  But the flavors were not good in this at all.  The base beer honestly tasted like a malt liquor...and I have some personal experience with Mickeys!  The corn flavors may be from pilsner malt, but could also be DMS which can give a strong creamed corn flavor and a slick mouthfeel.  My suspicion is that both are involved here.   If they had used a wheat beer base this may have been better.  Maybe.  The imitation flavors are terrible.  Blech!  I give this a 1.5 of 5 stars.

Some things are best left undiscovered?

Yabba Dhaba: This is a porter spiced with a chai tea mixture of spices including ginger cinnamon, cardamom, clove and anise.  I have had a couple of homebrewed examples of this style while judging competitions and have been tempted to do my own version, but it hasn't hit my rotation yet.  With the tag-line "Discover" on the label, along with an adventurous fictionalized James Page exploring the wilds of India, this is also an attractive package.

Aroma: Lots of things going on in the aroma on this beer.  Lemons, cardamom, white pepper are strong.  There is a slight roasted grain burnt aroma.  Allspice and cloves as it warms up a bit.  Some sweetness from malt is present as well.
Appearance: Deep brown, but not black.  Held up to light you can see through the edges and clarity is excellent.  When poured has an enormous light brown head that fills the glass.  I poured this into 2 separate 12 oz glasses and foaming was such that I still had a third of the beer in the can afterward.  It was several minutes before I could get a legitimate taste of this beer.
Flavor: Not as sweet as expected from the aroma.  Very mild roast malt.  Spices are very strong in this one, and too much of that lemon flavor present.  A muddled mix of cardamom, liquorice and cloves.  The mouthfeel on this is a bit watery and thin.  There is a strange flavor in the finish that tastes a bit like imitation vanilla extract that stays with you.  To use a wine term, this is flabby.
Overall: This is pretty disgusting.  I have no idea where the lemon flavor was coming from, but it clashed horribly with the light roasted malt flavors.  Some of the spice flavors seemed very fake and medicinal, and the spicing in general was too over-the-top to leave a balanced beer.  The base beer for this didn't seem to have enough body, sweetness or mouthfeel to hold even out that extreme spicing.  2.5/5.

Ould Sod:  "A road less traveled."  Described as an Irish Red IPA, this beer uses high hopping rates of East Kent Golding, Fuggles and Hallertau hops. 

Aroma: This one has a lot of hop aroma--seems like a mix of cascade and the earthy English hops.  There is a bit of vegetal, green character that cuts down the citrus.  Light fruity esters are present, along with a sweet caramel malt.
Appearance: Deep orange to almost red color.  Huge tan head that persists, but not as extreme as the other JP beers.  Very clear beer.
Flavors: Strong hopping up front, hint of citrus and a fair amount of musty earthy hop.  Mellow caramel maltiness into the finish.  Ends with a bit of vegetal astringency.  Mouthfeel is aquous and not as pleasing as I would like. 
Overall:  The best of the three JP beers I tried, but still not quite right.  The watery mouthfeel hurts this one, I think a bit more here and this would be higher in score for me.  I like the concept of an English hopped red ale, and this was close to fulfilling that goal.  The vegetal character hurt it though, a risk with high hopping rates.  Drinkable, but I wouldn't order another.  3/5.
I try very hard not to be a hater.  I am usually of the camp that says "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it."  But I also like to be honest, so this sometimes puts me a bit of a conundrum.  Should I just not write up this beer/brewery/pub at all?  With this particular group of beers, I had some personal history with the brand and felt it would make a good story, so I decided to go ahead and give my honest opinion.  After trying three of the four new James Page (JP's) beers I spotted a couple of trends.  First off, the beers were all over-carbonated.  I'm not sure if this was a process issue (though Point has been canning beers for ages without problems) or intentional.  Second, all were perfectly clear--and when using extracts, dry hops and spices this is rare; so they are likely filtered.  Third, all were a bit disappointing, not living up to their potential.  I freely give this (hard-won) wisdom to all new homebrewers and pro brewers: start with a good solid base beer, then add odd ingredients and tweaks to your recipe.  You can't polish a turd.

I like the concept: take a known old brand and update it for modern times, appealing to the nostalgia crowd as well as the new-fangled craft beer crowd.  However there are some miss-steps here.  Why pay for the James Page brand and then not have that brand front and center on the can?  Then they fall into the major problem that most of the larger macro-breweries have--trying to appeal to the craft beer drinker without really having any understanding of what they really want out of a beer.  In mind of the executives behind this brand: "Crazy ingredients!  Check.  Unusual styles!  Check.  Funky art and labels!  Check.  Those craft beer drinkers won't know what hit them, and we'll be richer than our wildest dreams!"  However, craft beer drinkers now-days have changed from those wild-west 1990's folks who were just dipping their toes into the pool.  Now many of us are better educated about beer styles, beer and food pairings, even homebrewing.  We know how to spot a brand that is "Crafty" rather than "Craft."  This line is thinning with breweries like Goose Island being bought by AB-InBev and still putting out legitimate craft beers; but plenty of others still can't get it right.  In the end (for me at least) it is about taste and not about merchandising, focus groups, and appealing to the lowest common denominator. 

For me this re-boot is a pure fail.  Not an Epic Fail, but close. Could they fix it?  Yes, there are some easy changes to the beers that could improve them.  Will they?  I doubt it.  They will likely be confused as to why those craft beer suckers are not emptying the shelves of these beers.  If they put as much time and effort into the base beers as they did on the packaging, they really could have had something here. 

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