Portland's Widmer Bros. Brewer at Tap 42; Talks Cigar City Collaboration, Florida Beer Scene
Not all tap takeovers are created equal. There, I said it. Some tap takeover events are little more than wait staff being confused as to the latest keg being tapped, oblivious to the types of beers being poured. Not at Tap 42. When they do a tap takeover, you'll know about it weeks in advance, get reminded the day of through social media, and when you finally arrive for the event, see signs beckoning you in. The menus will be transformed for the event, making sure everyone knows what's going on with the special beers, and the flight boards... oh, the flight boards have printed descriptions of the event's offerings.
Beyond my fawning over an establishment that understands how much those of us in the beer culture appreciate organization, Tap 42 this past Monday night saw the release of quite a rare offering in the beer world today: the Widmer Brothers/Cigar City Brewing collaboration beer Gentlemen's Club. Not only that, but Widmer's head brewer Ben Dobler was also in attendance. See? Tap 42 does tap takeovers right.
The latest collaboration between Florida native Cigar City Brewing and one of the veritable titans of the craft beer industry, Widmer Brothers, is a beer called Gentlemen's Club. No, not the kind of gentlemen's clubs that can be found within walking distance of the Tampa-based brewery, where patrons can transact for lap dances, but the late 19th century kind, the members-only clubs of the British upper class. The kind of place where a top hat and coat were required, and the talk of the day centered around politics and business (sometimes gambling); a place that acted as the luxurious 'pub' for the aristocracy of the time.
Using an Old Ale recipe as the base beer, Gentlemen's Club "Old Fashioned Style Ale" was brewed with cherries and oranges, Alchemy, Sorachi Ace and Pacifica hops, and hand-selected specialty malts to mirror the qualities typically found in an Old Fashioned cocktail. The beer was aged on three different woods: bourbon barrels, rye whiskey barrels and new oak spirals, resulting in three unique versions of the beer, each offering a slightly different take on the same age-old recipe.
So what can we gather from this description? First off, an old ale is a style that generally refers to a dark, malty beer originating in England, something akin to what might be called a strong ale, or even a winter warmer. Some notable examples of the style include Founders Curmudgeon, Hibernation Ale from Great Divide, or Adam from Hair of the Dog Brewing Company. It will be rich, malty, and have some dark fruit character. Older and stronger versions might reach into port-like territory.
Second, the hops varieties used are a selection of New Zealand Pacifica, Japanese Sorachi Ace, and a hop blend known as 'Alchemy' - a group of secret varieties hand-selected by Widmer Brothers brewers each year. Widmer's head brewer, Ben Dobler, said that it's generally "a high alpha blend, all Pacific Northwest hops. I can say there is Chinook and Apollo as late addition hops." These hops all help to bring out the citrus character of the beer, which, when you're seeking to emulate a citrus-based cocktail, is crucial.
Aging this beer in barrels will give it a distinct vanilla and mellowed flavor (for the bourbon style) or a distinct rye character (for the whiskey style), something oaked Chardonnay fans will be familiar with. The barrel process makes sure that the beer doesn't end up cloying, but instead has a smoothness that gives it a lighter body instead of being sticky-sweet.
So how does it hold up to the initial analysis?
I ordered a flight of all three different batches: the new oak spirals (at 9.5% abv), bourbon barrel aged, and rye whiskey aged (both at 10.5% abv).
The aroma on these beers are subdued. The new oak version has a mild aroma of citrus and that distinct orange peel note. The taste continues that bitter orange peel process and brings with it a warm booziness and sweetness that finishes with a mild bitterness. Surprisingly, or rather unsurprisingly at this point, considering Cigar City's history, this beer tastes almost exactly like a variation on the Old Fashioned. It tastes like a cocktail. But it's a beer. I know, but stay with me.
In the rye whiskey version, the upfront citrus disappears, and a strong earthy rye character comes forward to embrace the senses, while the bourbon version throws away the earth and the citrus for a mellow vanilla sweetness. All of these flavors, though, are sitting on top of a strong boozy base. The alcohol heat is definitely noticeable. And although each version has its strengths and weaknesses, the true beauty, if we can put on our Jay Gatsby hats for a moment, lies when blending each in a 1:1:1 ratio. The blend is a hugely satisfying beer-as-cocktail experiment.
"We did one test batch, and then went straight into production," Ben admitted. "Wayne [Wambles, Cigar City head brewer] knocked it out of the park."
"It was our smallest batch in recent history," Widmer brand manager, Brady Walen, told us. "But it's the largest for Cigar City, at 240bbls." That dichotomy was felt throughout the beer making process.
When the collaboration first started, the two brewing teams started throwing out ideas. "We wanted to look beyond beer for inspiration," Brady said. "In Portland there are a lot of cocktail drinkers, a lot of beer cocktail drinkers, and, of course, a lot of wine. But Ben is a big Old Fashioned fan, so when we brought Rob Widmer in to the discussion, he asked us if we could do it. The brewers said 'Of course'."
To produce the cocktail flavors, and drive together the collaboration, the teams used ingredients from each other's home state: oranges from Florida and cherries from Oregon.
"Part of the reason to do this collaboration, since we're on polar opposite corners of the United States, is to have an opportunity for more people to see both brands. As you know, CCB doesn't get out of your state anymore, so this will get Cigar City out to some different markets. It also helps show Widmer in a different light. After almost 30 years in the business, it's sometimes easy to forget the 'old people' of craft beer."
During our discussion of beer and food, Ben dropped a bombshell nugget that goes to prove how far the Florida beer scene has come. "Cigar City is the darling of the craft beer world." I had to press him to explain. "We always clamor for something we can't get," he said. "Everything they do, they do it correctly and with a story behind it. They aren't afraid of ingredients... they're totally crazy. For example, many people have this aversion for the term 'extracts' in their beer, or in anything really, but for Cigar City, if the all-natural extract they use makes the beer taste better, what's wrong with that?"
"They also thrive on the one-and-done, so that really leaves an imprint on beer drinkers."
Cigar City's releases are known to be highly sought after in the beer trading circles, in part because of this limited availability. But the real takeaway is that it appears that even beer industry veterans are looking at our young Florida brewery as the Dogfish Head of the south.
"But even if they never expand out of Florida again, that's not a bad thing," Ben continues. "As brewers, we have to think 'what's our cog?' in the beer machine. I think we'll get back to regionalism and maybe get down to the point of neighborhood-centric breweries, where they service just a handful of local bars and everything is made locally."
Brady sums up the beer scene down here pretty well. "It's remarkable to see a young brewery get so much national attention. The market is so different up in Portland, [and] to see it down here... it's very reminiscent of Portland 20 years ago... except all of your breweries get shiny new equipment!"
Gentlemen's Club will be available on tap for South Florida drinkers at Tap 42 and The Local, while a few cases will be distributed into a few stores in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Sorry Palm Beachers, it'll take a little trip down south to sample any of these.
Beyond the SoFla market, the beer will only be found in Portland, Seattle, New York, San Diego and San Francisco. I recommend grabbing a glass before it's all gone.
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