Sunday, November 30, 2008

Terrapin India Style Brown Ale

A couple of weeks ago Michael - who lives in Atlanta - called me from Taco Mac, legendary (so I'm told, though I'm a little suspicious of the name) for their world-class beer list. He told me he'd just had a really hoppy Brown Ale, that it was amazing, and that I had to try it.

I told him that the beer he was describing was impossible, a contradiction, so he must have been wrong about what it was. I had no doubt that he'd had something to drink, and that he really liked that something. But a hoppy brown ale? It defied credulity.

Shifting into professor mode, I explained to him that the Brown Ale is a British style of beer known for its rich malting, but that it isn't particularly hoppy. In fact, all British styles go light on hops, as far as I know. Brits may have their Bitters, their Strong Bitters, and even their Extra Special Bitters, but none of those are, by contemporary American standards, particularly bitter. An American Pale Ale or an India Pale Ale, for example, while related to Bitters are, frankly, a great deal more bitter.

The Brown Ale, however, is mild even by British-style standards. Some of my favorite beers are Brown Ales, including the native-to-Louisville Bluegrass Brewing Company Nut Brown Ale. But they aren't known for their hoppiness. Derived from the English style Mild Ale, they are more more malty, thicker, and delightfully sweet.

But Michael, only 21 years old but by no means cowed by my knowledge of any subject - much less my relatively limited knowledge of beer - swore over and over again that what he'd had was a very hoppy Brown Ale. He looked it up on the menu and told me that it was called an India Style Brown Ale, and that it was brewed by Terrapin Beer Company in Athens, Georgia.

I'd never heard of Terrapin, so he told me he'd try to pick up some bottles from them for me when he'd see me at my parents' house for Thanksgiving.

True to his word, the first thing he handed me when I arrived in Lexington, where my whole family converges every year for Thanksgiving (this year my poor mother had to find places for maybe 23 of us to sleep!) was a 12 pack sampler from Terrapin, featuring their Rye Pale Ale, their Golden Ale, their India Style Brown Ale, and their SunRay Wheat Beer. Those are the four beers they bottle year-round.

All I brought him, sad sack that I am, was a bottle of my favorite winter seasonal, the Brooklyn Brewery Black Chocolate Stout (which he didn't like quite as much as Brewery Ommegang's Chocolate Indulgence) and a bottle of Sierra Nevada's winter warmer, aptly named Celebration Ale.

He also gave me a few other Georgia micro-brews, which I may write about later if they merit it and if I carve out the time to write about beer again. I'm most looking forward to tasting the Sweetwater Festive Ale that I'm currently cellaring.

But last night - finally home from juggling Thanksgiving with two families - I cracked open the 12 pack sampler from Terrapin. The first bottle I tried was the Rye Pale Ale, which I drank with dinner. While the idea - adding some rye extract to an American Pale Ale - seems bold, the end result was less adventurous than it sounds. What I tasted was a very drinkable if a little nondescript Pale Ale. More golden in color, a little thin, with a wispy head, it was hoppy without being overpowering. Not a bad effort, but it doesn't merit a post of its own, either.

After dinner - while watching another miserable Kentucky-Tennessee football game - I cracked open the India Style Brown Ale. If only the game were so lively!

It truly is a contradiction, a Brown Ale with 65 IBUs (International Bittering Units, a measure of the hops in a beer). It makes use of 6 different malts and 5 different kinds of hops to create an impressive hybrid between an IPA and a Brown Ale, keeping the biting hoppiness of the former while also preserving the sweetness and rich malting of the later. Deep brown in color, it was relatively thick, had a robust, white head, and finished smoothly for such a hopped-up beer.

I liked it, and eagerly anticipate the other two bottles of it sitting in my fridge. I'm glad Michael called to extol to me the virtues of this "impossible" beer!

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