Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Whale A Week: Alaskan Smoked Porter Vertical Tasting

Last week we covered the rare Goose Island Bourbon County Stout 2009.  This week, tired of endless barrel aged beers, I decided to try something a little different.  Our friends Randy and Andrea own a boat on Lake Minnetonka and invited us to come out on the lake for some food and beer sharing.  We've been trying to make this work for almost two years, and finally the stars aligned!  The two of them added extra enticement with a vertical tasting of Alaskan Smoked Porter that they had been saving up for such an occasion.  The beer itself is not incredibly rare, and most would agree that it isn't a whale beer on its own.  However, getting to taste vintages ranging from 2002 to 2014 in one sitting?  That is a different story!  Maybe we'll call this a Pod of Dolphins instead...

Alaskan Smoked Porter

A little background before we get to it.  Alaskan Brewing was one of the early craft breweries to lead the current wave, starting up in Juneau way back in 1986.  For those Minnesotans reading this, that's the same year Mark Stutrud opened Summit here.  Alaskan was one of the first American breweries to brew a smoked beer--a style usually reserved for old German breweries at the time.  Even those German beers were almost always lagers, so a smoked porter was a new and intriguing beast for the cautious American palate.  The beer was first released in 1988, with a portion of the grain being smoked across the street at the Salmon smokery over alderwood.  German rauchbiers pretty much all use a milder beechwood smoked malt, so this was another break from tradition for Alaskan Brewery.  Overall, for 1988 this was a crazy beer to make.  Especially in Alaska! They have won many GABF and World Beer Cup awards for this beer over the years.

The beer has 6.5% ABV, 45 IBU, and is brewed for a vintage release every November.  Let's talk about cellaring beer a second.  Beers that stand up to time in the cellar tend to be high alcohol, dark, or sour.  These are usually the type of beers that I review for this blog series.  Alaskan Smoked Porter is dark, but the ABV is below average for aging.  The trick to aging this beer seems to come from the smoked malt.  The smoke has some protective effect on oxidation, letting you age this beer for years beyond what you would expect.  I've had 2 year old versions and still liked them, but the 12 year span of this vertical tasting was really exciting to me!

On with the show!  Our cast of characters for this tasting are as follows:  Me--BJCP judge, homebrewer, beer geek extreme.  Randy and Andrea--our friends for years, originally meeting at Town Hall Brewery.  Both are novice judges but have been traveling far and wide tasting craft beers all over the US.  Chris and Hassan--our friends originally from The Happy Gnome beer dinners who have traveled with us to Belgium twice.  And of course my wonderful wife Sarajo!

There we were, floating on the lake, Captain Randy at the helm like some mad squinting Ahab.  Finding a quiet spot to weigh anchor and relax, we settled in for a long tasting of amazing beers, with a veritable smorgasboard of snacks and food to share.  The breeze came and went, bringing periods of cool to an otherwise hot afternoon.  Perhaps hefe's or IPA's would have been more suitable for the day, but we had smoked beer to drink!  I contributed the 2014 vintage but Randy and Andrea furnished the rest.  Between the sun, the rock of the boat, and differing weather conditions, this may not have been the most controlled tasting ever.  However, we all had small glass tasters and tried each vintage together--pooling our thoughts as we went.

This was our "catch" on the lake, and by the evening this fantastic sunset sent us on our way...

We started with the most recent vintage, figuring we would see how the beer tastes when fresh.  Even then, this batch came out November of 2014, so it has already aged about 7-8 months.   Our impressions:  Super smoky.  A bit rough.  Not much mouthfeel.  Cedar smoke.  Hassan--"Anise flavor."  Chris--"Sharp edges." Just not well balanced, but still decent.

A bit smoother than the 2014.  More roast flavors, but a little less smoke.  Carbonation seemed higher than the 2014.  Still a bit harsh or uneven.

Sweeter aroma.  Not as much smoke in the aroma as the previous bottles.  Taste is sweeter as well, but the smoke flavor actually seemed increased from the 2012.  Balance is much better in this vintage.  The best so far...

Darker and more opaque appearance.  More smoke aroma--almost as much as the 2014.  Sweeter, but more complex than previous years.  Pre-processed molasses flavor.  Chris--"Heading into Stout waters..."  Hassan--"Has lost the sharpness."  Eric--"Yum!"

Licorice.  Soapy.  Smooth.  Smoke has faded a lit.  Aroma is sweet but the flavor is not.  Numbing on the tongue.  This one is not as good.  Sj--"Slides right down."  Randy--"Bitter chocolate, I like this one."  As we dump some of this over this side, Hassan asks "Are there fish down there asking 'Is this the 2006 vintage, or the 2008?'"

Getting pretty old now--10 years!  Aroma is a balance of sweet and smoky, the best nose so far.  Body seems slightly thicker.  Overall the flavor on this batch is perfectly balanced and melded quite well. Smooth and easy to drink.

Strangely, the smoke aroma is stronger in this vintage than the last 2.  Smoke flavor increased, and is the first one that really reminds me of bacon.  Complex flavors leap about in the middle of this vintage.

Randy--Favorite is 2002, but liked some of the others for differing reasons.  Least favorite was 2014.
Andrea--Favorites in order were 2004, 2006, 2008.  Least favorite was 2014.
Hassan--In order, starting with favorite: 2004, 2008, 2010, 2014, 2002, 2012, 2006
Chris--Favorites 2004, 2010.  Least favorite 2006.
Sj--Favorites 2008, 2004.  Least favorites 2006, 2014.
Eric--Favorite was 2004, followed by 2002.  Least favorite was 2006, and 2014 a close second.

This was a fantastic experiment, and fun to get everybody's input on.  And while the venue was a little less-than-controlled, it was glorious to be out on a boat with friends drinking amazing beers!  We came to some interesting conclusions after finishing our tasting.  The first of which is that this beer really does age well.  I sensed no cardboard/oxidation flavors or aromas in any of these beers, which I'm usually very sensitive to.  There was a strange variation of smoke aroma and flavor in these beers.  Instead of dropping off and continuing to fade, the smoke would pop back up in the next vintage!  There may be some variation in recipe or quality of smoked malt year to year, but I've heard that even one vintage tasted in subsequent years has this variability in smoke character.  I just recently read the short paragraph about Alaskan Smoked Porter in Patrick Dawson's Vintage Beer book--in which he mentioned that at 10 years old the beer gets thin and isn't worth aging much longer.  Based on how good the 2004 and 2002 vintages were on our tasting, I would disagree!  I'm looking forward to using his book as a resource when I do an upcoming tasting of aged Bigfoot.

Our overall least favorites were the 2006 (sorry Andrea you are WRONG!) because of some off flavors, and also the somewhat harsh 2014.  Overall favorites ranged a bit but 2002, 2004, and 2008 had the best showing.  So based on this, drink this beer aged about 6-10 years for best results!  Of course all this demands that you have stored your beer in cool conditions and out of light.  Has anyone else had any experience with aging this beer?  I'd be glad to hear your thoughts!

1 comment:

Andreas said...

We got a few bottles of 2008 and 2012 here in Norway last year. Picked up one of each that I was close to drinking recently, but I guess I'll keep them in the basement for a while longer. Cool post!