April 24, 2016

Donner Pass Vermont Pale Ale Review

This strange concoction of a beer (detailed here) brewed in the Vermont/New England pale ale/IPA style was an interesting experience in brewing a style I haven't branched into too much (pale ale and IPA) and a turn at brewing in that New England/Vermont hoppy style that's described as juicy (which I dislike generally) and by its cloudy experience as turbid, milkshake, hazy and so forth. I don't want to rehash the recipe but it's worth mentioning that this beer drifts away from the typical Vermont/NE style in a couple ways. First, it uses very different hops. I went for a blend of Cascade/Ceilia/Belma rather than the usual super-fruity hops. Second, I used a lager strain in a steam beer-type fermentation rather than an ale strain. So maybe calling it a pale ale isn't entirely accurate. Nevertheless, the beer was brewed roughly in the style and for convenience I'm calling it a pale ale.

Let's get into the review:

Appearance: Hazy but not quite milkshake. Early bottles poured more yeast-turbid but after a couple weeks in the bottle it was more hop oil hazy than mistakable as a yeast starter. Generally the color is between tan and copper with the beer turning increasingly copper as it naturally clears in the bottle. Beer retains a thick, fluffy white head with lots of lacing.

Aroma: Citrus-forward with grapefruit, lime and sweet orange. Similar to a citrus punch. Background notes of lychee, melon, strawberry, banana and that generic hop grassiness. Hops are obviously big on the nose. Subtle notes of sweet grain and maltiness.

Flavor: Hops dominate with big presence. Grapefruit, lime, orange, floral, grassy, some of that spicy steam beer character present. Subtle oat flavor. Up front the beer with bitter but a gentle bitterness that fades into a grainy sweetness that is replaced with lingering bitterness in the finish. Overall the beer is like a liquid version of a fruit kolache. The bread is identifiable but sweet. The fruit is the dominate characteristic. Same holds true for this beer.

Mouthfeel: Thick but not quite heavy. Somewhat oily but doesn't hang on the tongue in an unpleasant way. Carbonation scrubs it away leaving behind the impression of a very soft beer. It's definitely not a dry beer by any stretch. Part of the fullness is probably an illusion of the bold flavor but this is definitely a much denser beer than the typically dry west coast pale ale.

Overall: I'm still not a huge fan of ceilia hops which plays against my enjoyment of the beer. It is the best beer I've brewed with those hops so I guess that's saying something. I like the overall framework of the beer but I think the style better suits the fruit-forward hops normally used in those beers. I'm not sure I like this IPA/pale style as a whole more than drier renditions but it is a nice change of pace for sure.

This review was from my notes about two weeks after bottling. When I came back around to some of the bottles that had sat in the fridge for an additional two weeks I found those bottles were clearer and some of that spicy steam beer character was more apparent. The bitterness was also more prominent in the beer. As a result the beer has lost some of its softness and sweetness and now seems a little confused. So I'd probably avoid brewing this particular style with lager yeast.

If I was judging this beer I'd probably score the earlier bottles in the mid-30s, maybe as high as a 36 or 37. The latter bottles probably in the low 30s. So room to improve for sure by swapping yeast strains and opting for more appropriate hops.

These Vermont/NE IPA/pale ales definitely have their own school of brewing that differs from the west coast IPA/pale technique in many ways. It's definitely an expensive way to go about brewing a hoppy beer. This beer was probably gallon for gallon one of the most expensive beers I've brewed, maybe only exceeded by fruit beers. The high level of hop usage drives the cost and I can only imagine how much more expensive these beers are when brewed with more popular hops like mosaic and citra. There's also so much more wort/beer lost along the way with hop absorption and the ever-growing piles of trub at each step. The mash was gummy, the boil kettle had its own sludge and the fermentation vessel still had a huge pile in spite of running the wort through a strainer as I normally do. The bottles also have a good glug of trub. Definitely low brewhouse efficiency on this one.

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