THE EDITOR’S DESK:: A YBN Posse Sessions Asheville’s Highland, NYs Southern Tier, and Philadelphia Brewing

by Harvey Gold on February 8, 2013

Asheville NC, in craft beer terms, is a BIG DEAL. Awards for beers, brewers, even the city itself as a brew town have been pouring in, along with articles, blogs, etc. Dave posted a couple here at YBN from there, one A Quickie From Asheville in which he tested his capacity for breweries and brews, another from the fabulous Biltmore Estate where he celebrated his wedding anniversary.

But still, there’s more! We were, happily, contacted a short time ago by Asheville’s Highland Brewing Company, inviting us to taste some of their offerings as they look to move north with their distribution, starting, it seems in the triangle where Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky meet, thus deciding to take a chance on our palates and loose tongues.

Just as we did when reviewing multiple offerings from Brooklyn’s Sixpoint Brewing, such an occasion, the arrival of Highland’s Mountain Medley, merited convening a small session jury. In doing so, I focused on a note from Highland’s Gerry Sigmon:
“I would like to note that what Highland is about is balance. For example, our IPA surprises most hop heads who might be expecting a hop bomb. Our IPA corresponds most closely to English IPAs, rather than the big Western IPAs. It is a good example of the balance we aim for.“

What? Am I your clown??!! ? l to r: Gary and "Bongo" Bob

What? Am I your clown??!! ? l to r: Gary and “Bongo” Bob

I took this as a cautionary note, given that I joined the ranks of beer drinking years ago with Bass and Guinness, finding a passion for high octane craft beer over the last few years. I did learn to temper my tongue while in the UK, where literally everything native was under 5%, making the flavor notes far more subtle than I was accustomed to. But still, I wanted a little help in providing fairness.

– I invited DeeJay and audio tech dude Gary, a lover of the big, bad, exotic craft beers, and a  smart guy -a beer lover and explorer.
– I also invited Bob, musician, pop culture guru, writer, and a guy who would come to band rehearsal with a 6 of PBR and be perfectly happy. He’s certainly enjoyed the bigger brews he’s tasted, but I wanted him for his ability to appreciate something that may not come in fluorescent flavor colors.

As with the Sixpoints session, we had pizza, a vegetarian spinach pie, a chicken, feta, tomato pizza, and a traditional red sauce deluxe. Who knows what makes for the best mouth to do a tasting, but here we had a variety of flavors, acidity, PH pushers… and they were really tasty to boot.

imagesGaelic Ale

This is Highland’s best seller. At 5.6% ABV, it poured, as claimed, a dark amber, looking like a Scottish Ale, but we found this to be a lighter brew.
Gary found it “fresh and refreshing.”
Bob felt the body and flavor grew with each sip, something I would attribute to a bit of blooming as it took more air in the taster.
I came to detect a little bitter (30IBU), with a nice malt presence and a little sweetness.
The Consensus: We all agreed it is a nice drinking beer. For my tastes, at this ABV, not what I’d sidle up and order for myself, but a perfectly good session brew that I would, by no means, push away.

St. Terese’s Pale Ale

imagesThis Pale Ale is dry hopped, which is to say after the first batch of hops are brewed in for the bitter, hops are added, mainly for the nose, or what I like to think of as “harmonics”, the sort of vapor that lingers “in your head” for a while after the sip.
That said, at first blush the brew didn’t present much of a nose. My first flavor note reads “a little sour with a little sweetness,” my recollection of this moment that I found interesting.
Gary called this a “Drive By Beer,” very clean to his tongue.
Bob saw this as REALLY a session beer (5.1%ABV), the very kind that I refered to above in describing his proclivities. Very light, not a ton of character to his mind which, semantics aside, was something he liked.
I would describe this as I have a few brews recently. This is a really GOOD version of the beers I grew up not liking. Had this been what I had first tasted in Miller and Strohs as a kid, I probably would have been a beer drinker from very early on. The flavor that is present, very subtlely, is lovely. Somehow, I detected a decent bitterness to it, though probably more hops were used in the dry hopping than the actual brewing, yielding a modest 24IBU.
The Consensus: We were all interested enough that we sampled and enjoyed a second bottle of it! Not a bad workingman’s beer at all. But Bob’s biggest question was, while he’d certainly take it over what he normally drinks on a regular basis… how much does a sixpack go for?

imagesOatmeal Porter

Highland’s 2nd most popular brew comes in at a 5.9% ABV and 35IBUs. Thus far, oddly, we all agreed the nose was somewhat similar for all three brews we’d tried so far.
Gary noticed a “burnt” taste up front that hung on the tongue. I’m thinking that means toasted oats, maybe a black coffee dryness. “I can’t recall a porter with such smoke and toast up front, but I see it mellows as we go.”
Bob’s first blush reaction was a “thumbs up,” speaking to a “nice flavorful taste.”
I found I could, in the first sip, really taste the hops, also detecting a notable sweetness as I tasted in the Gaelic Ale, but in this context, with this viscosity, it almost suggested the sweetness of milk. In any event, I found myself liking this quality a lot.
Consensus: Everyone likes, and without question Bob and Gary’s fave so far.

Thunderstruck Coffee Porter

imagesHighland, in describing this 5.8%ABV, 26 IBU porter, writes that it presents “…hints of chocolate from the Chocolate Malt and Midnight wheat.” They go on to speak of the “…artisan roasted, Fair Trade/Organic coffee of Black Mountain, NC’s Dynamite Roasting Co.”
This brew poured very black. The nose presented an enormous coffee presence. The flavor was of big black coffee from the very start. This is somewhat unusual in that such a beverage usually needs to warm up the tiniest bit to present such pointed flavor notes, but straight out of the fridge it was eye blinking vivid. We were … yeah, I’m writing this… Thunderstruck!
Very dry to the mouth, we started to detect a sweetness, perhaps even a little fruity, on the back of the tongue.
Gary felt it had such a strong showing, he’d put it in the stout category.
Bob was impressed that at this relatively low alcohol level, it was so boldly tasty with the flavor really sustaining way beyond the sip.
My revelation was being able to nicely distinguish between the sharp black coffee and the rounder chocolate components, something I’ve alays had difficulty with.
Consensus: This was a really compelling and enjoyable beverage. Moreso, we came out of this part of our session with the sense that we were dealing with a VERY GOOD , and very smart brewer. We all tried styles we wouldn’t normally go for, yet we all liked every one of them. Serious skills are definitely in play at Highland Brewing Company! Unanimous Thumbs Up!

Bonus Round:

Thinking this a social event, Gary brought along a couple 22’s of a couple big beers as his contribution. Who were we to say no?

How About this label, Sportsfans?

How About this label, Sportsfans?

Shackamaximum Imperial Stout from Philadelphia Brewing

Gary: Vanilla in the nose? No matter, this is a “Sturdy Stout. Something I’m gonna tie into.”
I detected coffee and alcohol in the nose. It sits at 10%ABV.
In my first sip I also detected a big sweetness.
Gary noted it was actually better than the one he tried a year ago. Not sure whether that reflects Philadelphia or him, but on this night, it was a good thing.
Consensus: A well balanced stout, all the elements nicely integrated, with no separatism exhibited by the alcohol. I will say that the most distinctive note I personally had was the sweetness, and finally… CHOCOLATY! No specific comments from Bob, but assuming you might enjoy a notable sweetness (not a flaw, but clearly a choice by the brewer) in your stout, a thumbs up from all of us.

Southern Tier Imperial Crème Brule Stout  9.6%ABV

stcb1The nose of this was, as advertised in the name, HUGE  with vanilla. Pudding, I asked? The boys raised eyebrows, maybe a nod. It was so big, it was actually a little disorienting, as we were clearly, at least at this opening volley, dealing with a different animal here. On the pour, this wasn’t as thick and viscuous as I expected, coming on the heals of this huge vanilla milkshake nose. Still on this subject of the pour, the lacing was very nice.
The flavor of vanilla in the first sip bloomed far past the back of the tongue and held on for a very long time.
Bob: “I REALLY like that. I will buy that!”
Gary observed that the stout was clearly brewed with Vanilla, not an after flavor in the process.
I found  the overwhleming vanilla, draped over a notable caramel component, suggestingit should be “too much,” yet… not so. It reminded me of a couple of the Pumpkin Ales I’ve tried where the nose would almost guarantee the beer was going to taste like pumpkin pie, yet when sipped, I found good beer with the spices contributing to it’s definition, not taking over as the whole story. If you had told me that would be the case here, the nose literally knocking my head back, I would have scoffed, but there you go… a really nice stout.
I could see people not caring for it, as all the elements, nose, flavor, the “harmonics” filled with vanilla, make it what I described above  – a different animal. But as such, their balance avoids anything from overwhelming and it turns out to be a pretty interesting journey, and had as we did, as the final “dessert” course, it was actually cast perfectly for the role.
The ONLY beer my wife really likes is Founders KBS on tap. Loves it, actually… and she’s so very right in doing so. She’s also quite the fan of Crème Brulee, so she asked as she went out, that we save her a little taste. Upon her return, she took a sip and… we detected a little cooing, an “mmmmm,” and a smile. There we go.

So, not a dud in the bunch. The southern offerings from  Asheville’s Highland, gentlemanly, well crafted, tasty and refined. The guys out east, in Philly and New York, big, loud, filled with flavor, and a handful.
Maybe I’m seeing it this way because I just saw “Lincoln,” but in any event, a terrific session!

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