Monday, March 3, 2014

Eclipse Imperial Stout Tasting


This past Friday Rob Wengler and Ron Johnson (of Limited Release fame) hosted an epic beer tasting event for the ages.  This small group of beer geeks gathered in Rob's home for an evening of great food, camaraderie, and crazy good Imperial stouts!  Rob and Ron have been doing their show for a couple years now, going to many special beer releases and events, documenting it all lovingly so the rest of us can share in the fun.  I have been lucky enough to be involved in many of these as their "Beer Expert" and Rob has shared many of these White Whale beers with me for tasting notes in the episodes.  They are up to 10 episodes now and if you haven't watched them, start catching up HERE.  They are fun, informative, and usually have some pretty hilarious animations.  Not to mention that they have been getting a lot more good interviews with brewers as they have grown in popularity.  And many episodes have me looking uncomfortable on film and/or being duped into drinking Mickey's Malt Liquor!  It just doesn't get any better than that!  During their travels, these guys have accumulated a bunch of crazy beers and this dinner was a way to finally drink some of these beers in a setting that would be conducive to vertical tasting and comparing the various vintages. 

First off, I'd like to give props to Rob as one of the best home cooks I know, second only to one of my partners at work.  I would have gladly come to this event even without the lure of amazing beer, just for a chance at some of his cooking!  He fixed us an amazing prime rib that had been sous vide in a sauce made of Lagunitas Imperial Stout, then dropped the slow cooked and tender meat into a hot oil bath for a few minutes to get a crazy crispy and flavorful crust on it.  This method he terms: "The Uber Fondue-ber."  Sides included roasted fresh Brussels spouts with crisped pancetta, truffled mashed potatoes, and crazy good mache salad.  Seriously, you don't find better food outside of The Happy Gnome...

We were unlucky enough to have a spectacular ice and snow storm the day prior to the tasting, resulting in hard packed snow and ice on all the roads.  Driving from Waconia to Minnetonka, the trip usually takes about 25 minutes, but on this particular day it was closer to an hour of slip-sliding across dangerous intersections and risking life and limb.  Several of our dinner-mates were not able to make it due to road conditions and those that did come were all late.  Poor Chris posted a picture later from home wearing his 5050 shirt and sipping one of his own bottles--at least he was there with us in spirit!  So we took this time to sit around shooting the breeze, watching Rob do his cooking magic and sipping on rare beers like Pliny the Elder and Snake Venom.  Ron was staying in town from California and it was good to have some time to catch up with him as well.

After a wonderful dinner fit for kings, we all settled in for our evaluation of Eclipse.  FiftyFifty is a smaller brewery out of Truckee, CA.  They do a limited release party every year for their Eclipse Imperial Stout, with tasting of older vintages and several different barrel aged versions of the current year's batch.  Each Eclipse is brewed in small 300 gallon batches.  Rob and Ron managed to make it to this event and brought back several bottles for us to try!  They are currently working on post-production for the corresponding Limited Release episode and I'm looking forward to watching it.  Hopefully some of the footage from our tasting will be usable for it.  Of course trying to tape 8 people drinking strong ales is not easy...

With Andrew's expert knife skills we (unsafely) cut the tenacious wax from the tops of six different versions of Eclipse, all from the 2013 release.  With a wax color key, we slowly worked our way through pouring all these beers into snifter glasses marked with chalkboard paint.

Here is a quick run down (from a somewhat foggy memory, so forgive me):

Evan Williams (Black Wax): Our overall least favorite of the night.  This one seemed a bit harsh and tannic, with some higher alcohols.  Even as hard-luck loser, I would drink this any other day with gusto.
Elijah Craig 12 year (Purple Wax): One of the top contenders for most of us.  I think the final tally may have had this as the winner overall, but it was a close fight with the Pappy.  Overall very smooth and drinkable with a balanced sweetness and strong vanilla character.
High West Rye (Tangerine Wax): This was my 3rd favorite, but most of the other folks found it less exciting.  It was drier than most of the others and the bourbon was fairly restrained in this one and I got more of the base beer in tasting. 
Four Roses (Bright Red Wax): This was a bit unbalanced, with more booze and a bit too sweet.
Rum (Fuchsia Wax): This was interesting, and stood out in the top 3 for many of our tasters.  It has a thicker mouthfeel and sweeter finish than most.  I'm just not a rum guy, so it only made it to 4th place for me.  I noticed a trend to start doing rum beers at this year's Winterfest, so I think we'll be seeing more of these over the next few years.
Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year (Pink Wax): This was wonderful.  The bourbon really took front and added tons of complexity to the beer.  Lots of vanilla, tannins and booze to it.  Not as well balanced as Elijah Craig...but Pappy!

After all of these amazing beers, we managed to badger Rob into cracking his Java and Vanilla versions of Eclipse as well.  Both were amazing, but the Vanilla took my medal for best beer of the night!  We may have also tasted of a Chocolate Rain and Grey Monday from The Bruery.  But it gets blurry around there...

Luckily for Sj, myself, and Ron, Rob let us crash at his place rather than brave the deadly roads.  And come morning Rob fixed us some much needed home-made malted waffles and crisp bacon.  Overall I had a fantastic time and am glad that I was included in such an epic beer dinner event.  Times like these elevate the beer drinking experience to a truly higher level!

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