Tag Archives: Oskar Blues

The Death of “Middle Craft” Beer

American craft brewing legend Dogfish Head Brewery, the mad geniuses from Delaware, sold to Boston Beer, the parent company that brews Sam Adams Boston Lager among many other beers.  Neither brewery should be considered a micro-brewery, but neither is a macro-brewery.  They both exist in some kind of middle ground.  Being in that middle ground may mean death or consolidation going forward.

Apparently, the top 50 craft brewers are having trouble with many posting severe year-over-year declines.  These are the craft brewers that I would define as “middle craft.”  The challenge for these breweries is giving you the beer drinker a reason to try them over, say, a handful of hyper local breweries that may only sell products from their own taproom or a few commercial accounts.

In the past—okay, the 1990s—middle craft was the place to be as beer drinkers sought out different beers and the quality control at a lot of craft breweries was just bad.  I cannot tell you how many small breweries were making beer that would make most semi-skilled home brewers spit out their stout.  You sought out a New Belgium Fat Tire or Boulevard Wheat because those were well made beers from breweries you trusted.  You knew you were not going to waste $8 on a six pack.  Heck, you might even pick up something a little unusual from the same brewery when you were in the mood for a change.

That dynamic is long gone.  Award winning breweries are scattered across this nation.  Between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City I can patronize a half dozen breweries putting out good and sometimes great beer.  Those same breweries have won medals at prestigious beer festivals and have reputations well beyond the borders of the state.  Expanding my field of view to the entire state opens up a whole host of small, innovative, and well regarded breweries making all sorts of different beers.  If you do not believe me just spend a minute perusing the tap list at the Iowa Taproom in Des Moines.

All things being equal, why would I buy a New Belgium Citradelic over a Lion Bridge Brewing Tag?  Or, why would I buy a Dale’s Pale Ale over a Big Grover Brewery Arms Race?  I like all four of the aforementioned beers.  I choose to buy the local products almost every time.

This is the reality for the beer business in 2019.

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Upslope Brewing Company India Pale Ale

I recently wrote about Upslope Brewing’s Pale Ale and today I am going to regurgitate some thoughts on the same brewery’s India Pale Ale:

Upslope India Pale Ale

What? A pale ale and an India pale ale? What the heck is going on here in the world of generously hopped ales?

The general difference between the two beers is that an IPA will be hopped to a higher degree and contain more alcohol relative to volume, e.g. the IBU and ABV ratings will be higher. This is not true in all cases as the style guides for beer have been blown apart in the past few years.

Upslope’s IPA actually tastes like a breed of beer I am going to refer to as Colorado pale ale. Why restrict ourselves to monikers created during a time when there were not 3,000 breweries in the United States? The beer has a little more body than a traditional pale ale, but it’s also hopped more and comes in with a greater boozy punch than a lighter pale ale. Colorado pale ales have a bigger hop bouquet than a traditional IPA, which is the result of using newer varieties of hops like Citra, Amarillo, and so on. It’s a distinct beer, in my opinion, that is typified by Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale.

Upslope’s IPA falls short of the benchmark set by Dale’s Pale Ale in one primary area: the hop aromas and flavors are kind of muddled, which when you think about it is the sole reason for an IPA to exist. It’s about the hops, man! There is some resin and some citrus, but nothing really shines through as the signature note of the beer. Honestly, it’s the same problem I have been struggling with recently when it comes to my homebrew recipes for a House Pale Ale. The hop profile is either over the top—usually from a single hop recipe—or muddled—the rest of my recipes using a blend of hops.

That is not say that Upslope’s IPA is a bad beer in any way shape or form. Quite the contrary, but the bar for this particular “family” of beers is pretty high in the U.S. right now when you consider how much effort is being expended to brew varying pale ales. Overall, it’s a middle of the road result:

Two Mug Purchase

Upslope Brewing Company Craft Lager

Upslope Brewing Company from Boulder, Colorado was a new name to me as I perusing the refrigerated cases at the liquor store in Steamboat Springs. My knowledge of Front Range breweries runs toward the Denver metro and ends about there and as a non-resident I am not too unhappy with that performance.

Started in 2008, Upslope Brewing has a year-round lineup consisting of five beers and a rotating lineup of special releases. One of the year-round beers is Craft Lager:

Upslope Craft Lager

It’s a light lager with middling alcohol (4.8% ABV) and almost no bittering (15 IBU). When it’s cold it goes down easy and that is about all that you remember.

Utilizing a mild hops like Saaz for such a small amount of bittering leaves little aroma or non-bitter flavors to be exhibited. A light lager seems like a perfect blank canvas to experiment with some subtle flavors that might get lost in a beer with a more malt heavy body. I have seen this style used to showcase rose hips, ginger, peppercorns…the list goes on for a while. Some of these experiments were successful and others were less so. Some were even non-qualified disasters.

This beer was inoffensive to the point of being boring. It’s really no different than a hundred other lagers out there. If what you want was the bare minimum in beer flavor just pick the cheapest option out of the cooler and call it a day. This lack of any character is actually something that experts think is afflicting the German beer market. Sales of beer and consumption have fallen a lot recently. Experts peg the reason being the wide proliferation of a few similar styles of beer. Basically, beer is boring in Germany and consumers want something with a little excitement.

I was hoping that after a good experience with Oskar Blues Mama’s Little Yella Pils that I would feel warm and fuzzy about lagers. It was just not to be:

Purchased One Mug Rating

As a note, Upslope Brewing Company has committed to donating 1% of the revenue from Craft Lager to Colorado Trout Unlimited through the 1% for Rivers Campaign. If you are into that sort of thing.

Oskar Blues Old Chub

Dark beer can be a conundrum. To a lot of people dark beer means a heavy load of hops, alcohol, and malt body. In reality, a lot of dark beers actually tend to be light on the alcohol and hops—I am looking at the world of stouts that drink as easy as insipid American light lager. Truly, spend a day drinking Guinness or a craft doppelganger and you will understand quickly that dark does not necessarily mean big.

Oskar Blues Old Chub is not trying to hew to that convention:

Old Chub

It’s a big beer, but in all the wrong ways for this particular beer drinker. Old Chub was a serious let down after the awesomeness of Dale’s Pale Ale and the lager perception bending powers of Mama’s Little Yella Pils.

What happened? First, the beer is strong (8% ABV) and that alcohol does not seem to be balanced out or integrated with the rest of the beer. It tastes like the beer was fortified. This is not Night Train or Thunderbird, so don’t worry about ending up wrapped around a bottle of bum wine. Still, you can taste the booze with every drink.

Second, the cocoa and coffee flavors override any other flavors to the point that the beer tastes kind of like a poorly drawn mocha with an extra shot of espresso from the dregs of the Starbucks grind bin. Coffee is a hard mistress to tame when it comes to beer and few do it well—yes, Coffee Bender pulls the trick off amazingly.

Last, the beer’s aroma and flavor stick around the back of your mouth like a night in a dive bar. You wake up the next morning, cough out few wads of whatever that stuff is in the back of your throat, and taste the unfiltered cigarette that some hipster was smoking beside you. Yep, that’s what it was like with Old Chub. You can chase it with a pint of Dale’s Pale Ale and still find remnants in your throat.

It’s like a Sputnik…nope, it’s more like bong water:

Zero Mug Purchase

 

Oskar Blues Mama’s Little Yella Pils

I have been harsh to lagers lately. Most of the lagers I try leave my palette with an off taste that is not quite burnt. It’s not musty or soapy either. It’s just an odd flavor that makes me want to pour the beer out and grab the nearest pale ale.

Since I was such a fan and consumer of Dale’s Pale Ale while in Colorado I brought home some Mama’s Little Yella Pils:

Little Yella Pils

What is this liquid masquerading as a lager? It has none of the bad traits I associate with the breed. It, dare I say, drinks smooth like my favorite ales. What alchemy have the brewers at Oskar Blues conducted to create such a monster?

First off, this beer is true to style meaning that it does not employ the use of so-called “adjuncts” like corn and rice. Say what you want about corn and rice in beer, but the traditional recipes used in Europe do not call for the ingredients. These beers also do not use a lot of the ingredients modern American brewers are using to craft stunning beers—yes, I am looking at you Surly Coffee Bender.

Second, the hop bill consists solely of Saaz hops. This is a very traditional hop for pilsners and seems more in place in this style as opposed to more common American craft beer hops like Cascade, Centennial, or Willamette. A pilsner lager is normally an easy drinking beer—hence the use of this style as the backbone of American light lagers that are meant to be consumed in units measured by 24 cans—so a potent hop really interferes.

The end result is a “smaller” beer that begs to be quaffed. I came home from a three hour long hike with my daughter and enjoyed a beer on the patio as the sun was setting. It fit the moment perfectly.

This all kind of surprised me because Oskar Blues is known for being on the more aggressive side of craft brewing. It’s not Stone Ruination aggressive by any means, but several of their beers are pushing higher alcohol and/or bitterness levels. This is not a brewery known for making session beers. Heck, the main line beer—Dale’s Pale Ale—clocks in at 65 IBU.

It’s a malty, not too hoppy easy drinking beer from a brewery better known for trying to knock your socks off:

Purchase 3 Mug Rating

Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale

For every person a vacation is a time to do something deeply personal. For me it means that I can drink beers that are unavailable to me at home and bring back serious quantities of beer to share with my equally thirsty friends in eastern Iowa. Since I was not flying out to Colorado for this vacation it meant that the back end of the Subaru would be free to haul back many cans of the state’s finest craft brews.

If one beer defined my most recent trip it would be Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale:

Dales Pale Ale

Oskar Blues is a brewery known for making hoppy beers. Dale’s Pale Ale would probably be considered in the middle of the range and is the one variety from the brewery that you see on tap all over Steamboat Springs. Trust me; I drank my fair share of pints at various dinner spots.

Clocking in at 6.5% ABV and 65 IBU Dale’s Pale Ale is a very balanced beer. Notice the synergy between ABV and IBU? Yeah, I am beginning to think that is a thing. Even at those numbers a Dale’s was an easy beer to down and crack another while looking at the glory of summer mountains.

In my humble opinion, Dale’s Pale Ale represents the hallmarks of a Colorado craft beer. You can try beers from a dozen other craft breweries in the state and keep coming back to style notes that were hit with near perfection in a can of Dale’s. Even better is that the difference between the beer you get in a can and what comes out of a tap is not that different, which is saying something in a craft beer world where packaged products for off-site consumption often suffer compared to kegged beer.

It comes in cans which means that you can enjoy a Dale’s in many places a bottle, bomber, or growler just can’t go. Like to the hot tub after a day of hiking when your feet are barking because you only brought a pair of Chacos. Whoops.

Some beers just seem to taste like the place that you find yourself drinking them:

Purchase 4 Mug Rating