I know precious little about beer. Aside from some pedestrian lingo about lagers and IPAs and plebeian fermentation knowledge, I’m pretty clueless—and as someone who is an “expert” about wine, this is a sad and shameful fact.
The truth is, when I was a kid, everyone around me drank Budweiser or Kokanee out of a can. When I got into college, Sam Adams was the height of beer-drinking sophistication; wanting to be a “cool kid,” I did my best to choke it down. But I just didn’t understand what all the fuss was about: It was bitter and ashy and gave me cottonmouth—not exactly what I wanted in a nice, cold beverage.
As time went on, and the craft-beer scene started to explode, I continued my efforts to drink “serious” beer and really did my damnedest to “get it” … but the more time passed, the worse the beer got. I really couldn’t figure out why beer stopped being refreshing and drinkable—as if brewers were in some kind of arms race to see who could create the most-bitter, hoppiest, most-marijuana-tasting brew in the land. Or as the kids today say, “that beer is dank.” Nowadays, “dank” means good. If you’re like me, and use terms like “nowadays” and refer to the next generation as “kids,” you might have thought that “dank” referred to a stinky, moldy cave. Nope. Apparently we’re hoping our beer is dank.
So here I am, a sommelier in Southern California, where I find myself surrounded by friends who are immersed in—and very prominent figures in—the SoCal beer culture. I no longer want to be a beer dummy. To this end, Brett Newton—the desert’s pre-eminent cicerone and the beer-writer extraordinaire for this newspaper—agreed to a little education exchange: I would select some wines for him to taste, and he’d describe how he felt about them; in return, he would choose a few beers for me to sip, and I’d offer my two cents.
Here’s how it went: We convened on a Sunday at a friend’s house—with wine and beer and plenty of greasy, alcohol-absorbing foods in tow.
The first beer I tasted is one of Brett’s personal favorites when he wants something easy-drinking and quaffable (although I’m pretty sure he’s never used the word “quaffable”; he’s too manly for that): the Allagash White Belgian-style wheat beer. As soon as I stuck my nose in the glass, I loved the aromas of coriander seeds, dried orange peel and cloves. There was this underlying scent of ripe bananas, a little pine resin, and licorice—and I loved the higher amount of carbonation. It’s a beer that’s savory and spicy, and it made my taste buds tingle, which is always fun. But after a few sips, I could sense my mouth was beginning to dry out. Oh god, it’s happening. Here comes the cottonmouth, and I’m only on beer one. I started wondering if anyone would notice if I went and got a Modelo out of the fridge.
We tasted the Effective Dreams by Modern Times next. This beer is double-dry-hopped, which terrified me. I could only assume that “double-dry-hopped” means “skunky weed in a glass.” Before I smelled it, I had visions of this beer reminding me of a bad high school party, and assumed it would taste like the day after. At first, all I could smell was sweaty armpits. Seriously, the beer was really stinky. But much to my surprise … I liked it. I liked it in the same way I like South African wine that smells like mangy animals and Band-Aids. I liked that it had layers of fresh and bright citrus fruit that reminded me of a New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Once I got past the initial sweet-sweat stench, there were loads of flavors of pineapple and mango—and much to my pleasure, it was thirst-quenching and even a little juicy. It didn’t strip my palate with its double dry hops at all. My name is Katie, and I like double-dry-hopped beer! Who knew?
Next up was the Rodenbach “Alexander” sour from Flanders. To my knowledge, I’ve never had a Flemish beer—but at the recent Craft Beer Weekend at the Ace Hotel, I did experience a few sours, and I really loved them. As an acid hound with wine, I find the tart, vibrant flavors of sour beers to be right up my alley. This particular beer is a red ale fermented with macerated cherries and aged in oak foudres (read: really big barrels)—and it’s quite possibly the most perfect beer for a wine-lover. Right away, I noticed the carbonation was light, and the bubbles were fine, like those in a Champagne, due to the process of bottle conditioning: The bubbles are created from trapped carbon dioxide, just like they are in a bottle of your favorite high-end sparkling wine. I noticed pronounced aromas of bitter coffee and dark chocolate, and a touch of burnt milk. I’ve noticed that the initial aromas I get from these beers are a little … vomitous. I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way (if it’s possible to not be pejorative while using the word “vomitous”). I’ve just realized that there is an introductory component on the nose of some of these beers that I need to get past before I can begin to appreciate the secondary flavors and aromas. At one point, Brett was describing the making of this beer as “gooey” and “stringy,” so I guess that solidifies my point.
We moved on to a beer that I was incredibly excited about: The Bruery Terreux Bourgogne Noir 2017 is hardly a beer at all! This is what they call an American wild ale, fermented with pinot noir grape must (juice) and aged in French oak puncheons. Intentionally, there is zero carbonation, which not only makes it look like a full-fledged pinot noir; to my delight, it makes it smell like one, too. On the palate, it offered up more beer flavors, but the overall wine components took over, with cola and Bing cherries dominating. I tasted the telltale bitter-coffee component that I associate with ales, but it was neither dominating nor overpowering. This definitely wasn’t wine, but I would be hard-pressed to call it a beer, either. It was the most unusual and thought-provoking beverage I’ve had in a long time.
Lastly, we tasted what I can only assume is the pinnacle of beer hedonism: a 2017 imperial stout called Black Tuesday from The Bruery. This bottle of brew comes in at a whopping 19.5 percent alcohol by volume. For a girl who relishes wine that comes in less than 13 percent ABV, this might as well be a glass of gasoline. Aged in bourbon barrels for 10 months, this beer resembles an oloroso sherry with its thick, burnt-caramel smell. There is a honey and hot-tar sensation on the palate, followed by a ton of Hershey’s milk chocolate. Honestly, I couldn’t tell if I liked it … there is definitely a dessert wine quality to it. I couldn’t drink a whole glass of Black Tuesday, but much to my surprise, a few sips are unexpectedly pleasant. I don’t care for the heat from the high alcohol that resonates out of the glass, but the flavors are harmonious, layered and balanced.
All in all, I have to give kudos to Brett, who curated a selection of beers that were perfect for a sommelier. I realized after this tasting that I had been painting some beers with a broad brush: I assumed that all IPAs and craft beers were plagued with a cannabis, pine-resin, skunky taste—just like people assume all chardonnay is oaky, buttery and laden with cloying caramel. The education I received from Brett was priceless, and I don’t feel like such a beer dummy anymore. Thank you, Brett, for tolerating my absurd descriptions and patiently answering all my questions.
I highly suggest you make your way to Coachella Valley Brewing and have a few pints with Brett. You might get drunk—but you’ll definitely learn something.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.