No Corporate Beer Reviews: Salts

Beer: Salts
Brewery: Black Narrows Brewing Co. (Chincoteague, VA)
Style: American Wild Ale
4.4% ABV / N/A IBU

Salts is a tribute to Black Narrows Brewing Company’s origins at the site of a historic oyster shucking house in Virginia’s Eastern Shore. It also features two particularly bizarre ingredients: oysters and a house strain of yeast cultivated from locally-sourced Chincoteague salt. OK, having a “house strain” seems to be the norm these days with breweries experimenting with bacteria culture. But bay oysters? Oysters on the half shell with an easy-drinking wheat beer on the side—sure thing. But together in the same bottle?

There’s a precedent for this, of course: the oyster stout, which is typically brewed with oyster shells, treating the wort like a giant pot of stock. Salts incorporates that technique, plus a small quantity of the oyster flesh and a larger quantity of oyster liquor. The latter is part of the genius of this Black Narrows brew. Oyster liquor – the juice surrounding the oyster inside of its shell – is arguably the best part of a freshly shucked oyster. In Salts, it functions as an Umami bomb, imparting a briny flavor that is completely different than the sea salt profile of a gose.

The base of the beer is a pretty straightforward mix of pilsner malt and raw wheat, but the Black Narrows house strain of yeast is also an incredible difference-maker here. The lemon flavor from the lactobacillus is pleasingly tart and evokes the German tradition of pairing witbiers and hefeweissens with citrus. You can also get a hint of the complexity of this beer from its nose, which is both floral and grassy. Few brewers are bothering to do anything with under 5% ABV beers, let alone something this funky and offbeat; Salts states a pretty persuasive case for why sessionable wild ales might be the next big thing.

For more info, check out Black Narrows Brewing Co here.

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Video Premiere: Tooth and Claw — “Your Crucifixion”

Last August we premiere the debut track from Tooth and Claw — a wildly pedigreed metallic hardcore outfit featuring Scott Crouse (Earth Crisis), Daniel Austin (Die Young), James Chang (Undying, Catharsis, Sect), and Cameron Joplin (Magnitude) — and doled out roughly as much praise for it as the band doled out punishment on it:

The quartet naturally synthesizes the unique extreme music elements the band members separately conjured into existence with their past work and condenses it into an intense, vital, highly combustible new compound — think Gomorrah’s Season Ends meets circa Wolverine Blues Entombed meets the most grind n’ groove eras of Obituary meets Paradise Lost meets…well, suffice it to say Tooth and Claw packs a lot of different strains into its infectious and deadly sonic virulence.

That’s setting a pretty goddamn high bar, but Tooth and Claw easily vault over it on the extraordinarily diverse, primally heavy debut full-length Dream of Ascension — out May 21 via Good Fight — which is about as close to a tour de force as we’ve seen in metallic hardcore in some time. The album has shades of everything you love/loved about the members’ other seminal bands fused onto (positive!) surprises and (enlivening!) curveballs.

The track “Your Crucifixion,” streaming exclusively below, is a great indicator of this coming sturm und drang.

First, though, a little context courtesy vocalist Austin:

“Believe it or not, ‘Your Crucifixion’ might be the most optimistic, uplifting song on our LP. It’s a song about transcendence–transcending life’s inherently absurd and stagnant misery (LOL) towards an existence that hints at a chance of actually being meaningful — or at least one that’s perceived to be so. Who knows what’s real, illusion, or otherwise anymore given the post-truth climate of the world? Perhaps we know too much for our own good. All we can do is try our best to forge some meaning in the madness of everything that’s coming at us. In order for us to do that as well as we humanly can, we’re going to have to sift through the wisdom of the past, the knowledge and vitality of the now, and utilize the best of both to steady ourselves for the suffering that is just around the bend. No matter how you face your inevitable suffering, you’re going to be judged for it–by those around you, or if you’re lucky, the greater collective consciousness of humanity and its generations to come. People act like being judgmental is an ugly attribute of human character, but we all judge all the time, to ourselves and each other. You will judge and be judged. You are judging and being judged right now, so embrace it. Try to choose and love wisely. We wish you the best of luck on your path.

“Regarding the video, director Justin Reich said he read the lyrics and wanted to find a place that was visually fitting for the concepts in the song. He found a defunct grain silo overgrown with vines and reeds in rural North Carolina, so we all went out there to shoot the video in the 30 degree January cold. He noted that the top of the silo, with all its overgrowth, reminded him of a crown of thorns, and that was what made him decide on that shooting location.

“While ‘Your Crucifixion’ is not a song about Christianity in any way, we admit there are few metaphors in Western culture as powerful or prevalent as that of the crucifixion and, aside from being advocates of the vegan straight edge lifestyle, we are also advocates for the power of metaphor. After all, as Albert Camus posited in his classic, The Fall, ‘There are only Christians,’ whether we secular westerners identify as such or not.

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No Corporate Beer Reviews: Croatoan

Beer: Croatoan
Brewery: Speciation Artisan Ales (Grand Rapids, MI)
Style: Sour – Other
6% ABV / 10 IBU

Zao has been a fixture in Decibel‘s pages since the magazine’s inception—remarkable staying power for a metalcore band, or any act for that matter. As the Zao’s new full-length The Crimson Corridor suggests, the band has remained relevant by staying true to its own original vision while simultaneously testing the waters with nimble adjustments to arrangements, time signatures, and thematic variations. Which is to say that Zao has always presented as a somewhat straightforward metalcore act, but to the initiated, their sound showcases a wonderfully complex and layered approach.

The band’s new collaboration brew with Michigan upstarts Speciation Artisan Ales is a fitting tribute to the legacy of Zao, because it presents as a fairly straightforward wild ale and reveals itself to be infinitely more complex as it warms to room temperature. Croatoan—named after the third track on The Crimson Corridor—pours with no head and very minimal carbonation. There’s no ginger, but the bracing sourness and mouthfeel is reminiscent of kombucha, another fermented product that is traditionally conditioned in bottles and cans.

The striking thing about Croatoan is the intense oak smell. That’s because it’s a blend of two wild ales aged in gin barrels. The typical hallmarks of gin barrel aging—flavor of the gin botanicals and spiciness, or zest—have been imparted on Croatoan. But the nose, itself, is incredible, and totally separate from the taste of the beer itself; it smells like dirt and moss and smoke from a bonfire but drinks like a sour. It’s lovely, and the can art from Zao lyricist/vocalist Daniel Weyandt is killer. No false metal, no false beers.

For more info, check out Speciation Artisan Ales here.

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No Corporate Beer Reviews: Double Blizzard

Beer: Double Blizzard
Brewery: Tröegs Independent Brewing (Hershey, PA)
Style: IPA – Imperial/Double
8.3% ABV / N/A IBU

Will Cook of Metalheads Podcast believes that the winter seasonal IPA Blizzard of Hops is intended to be a tribute to Ozzy Osbourne, but the fine folks at Tröegs Independent Brewing are leaving it open to interpretation. That’s probably a good move, since Baltimore brewpub The Brewer’s Art already had to change the name of its Belgian strong golden ale from “Ozzy” to “Beazley” after a cease-and-desist order in 2014. In keeping with the opening track of Blizzard of Ozz, I don’t know, but Blizzard of Hops is another heavy-hitter on this Hershey, Pa brewery’s impressively deep bench.

As for Double Blizzard, Tröegs has been tinkering with taking the basic formula of Blizzard of Hops and turbo-charging the hops with its experimental Scratch series for years, but this is the first time it has been available outside of the taproom. At 8.3% ABV, Double Blizzard will not get you double slizzard, and it actually drinks a lot like a lower-gravity brew. It’s not much to look at when you pour it into a chalice — skip the recommended serving style and just drink straight from the pounder can. And I’m not on board with the brewery’s description of the beer as semi-hazy. It’s not even remotely hazy, no sediment, no occlusion, and probably too well-thought out to lead to any kind of accident like that.

The carry-over hops from Blizzard of Ozz are Chinook, Centennial and El Dorado. The Chinook is what gives both Blizzard of Ozz and Double Blizzard a pine-y flavor, proof that there is no war being waged on Christmas, at least in the microbrewery realm. The hop flavor, overall, is pretty mellow, with peach/pineapple notes from the addition of Australian Galaxy hops during the dry-hop phase. There is some bitterness from the hops, but the colder temperatures of both the kettle and dry-hop phases ensures that Double Blizzard is high on hop flavor without astringency. When it comes to IPAs, you should drink fresh and drink local whenever possible, but if you’re in the middle of nowhere and you see this DIPA on the shelves, consider yourself very lucky.

For more info, check out Tröegs here.

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No Corporate Beer Reviews: 35K

Beer: 35K
Brewery: Against the Grain Brewery (Louisville, KY)
Style: Stout – Milk/Sweet
7% ABV / 26 IBU

Simply put, Against the Grain’s 35K is your new favorite milk stout. And for the uninitiated or those that equate lactose in beer to Laverne DiFazio’s milk and Pepsi concoction, here’s your gateway to adventure. Better to pair lactose with darker and more malt-centered beers like stouts, where the milk sugars provide a pleasing counterbalance to the malts. Having sampled both IPAs and sours brewed with lactose in the last year, I can’t fully recommend hopping on those trains. But the milk stout is a taste that should be cultivated, because any stout that’s aimed at the “sweet” and “bitter” taste receptors is already a cut above.

Against the Grain’s 35K initially presents as a fairly straightforward milk stout, with hints of cocoa and coffee and a very appealing sweetness from the lactose. There’s also roast-y and toast-y notes from the malt, which contributes to the pretty bold Sumatra-like coffee flavor and aroma. Boldness is key to the appeal of 35K, which pours with minimal carbonation, virtually no head and a rich all-black black-as-your-soul color. It is also full-bodied, which is completely unique for milk stouts, which tend to favor thinner bodies to aid drinkability and showcase the lactose.

I’m also way into the addition of East Kent Golding hops in 35K. It’s sort of a de facto standard for English and U.K. styles, but not obvious for stouts. Benchmarks like Guinness use hop extracts, and a lot of brewers have moved to citrus-y hops like Simcoe and Cascade. The East Kent Golding hops have a more delicate and fruity character, which melds well with a milk stout. And Against the Grain gets its just right with the hopping-for-bitterness in 35K. It’s as drinkable as a mid-range ABV beer could possibly be but with a bitterness that clings to the top of your palette and constantly refocuses your attention back to the beer’s wonderful complexity.

For more info, check out Against the Grain here.

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No Corporate Beer Reviews: Coffee Is for Closers

Beer: Coffee is for Closers
Brewery: Fullsteam (Durham, NC)
Style: Porter – American
6% ABV / 21 IBU

One sign that 2020 was going off the rails: In March of that year, I stopped drinking American and English porters and made the switch to the considerably more boozy Imperial and Baltic porter styles. This was not a conscious decision, but it’s much easier to get shitfaced with a 9% ABV pint. Still, I’d argue that if you really want to experience the delicate chemistry of the porter, you need to reach for the elemental English porter or its slightly younger American cousin. Both styles have been brewed consistently since the early 1700s and are justifiable classics.

Fullsteam’s Glengarry Glen Ross tribute Coffee is for Closers calls itself “an iced coffee porter. This is due to the addition of locally-roasted coffee prepared as cold brew at the Fullsteam brewery, then finished with lactose. A well-executed coffee porter—as this one is—becomes a thing of genius, because of the concentrated flavor of the roasted coffee beans. If a stout is just a porter with roasted malt, then a coffee porter delivers a remarkably similar experience while still being its own unique thing.

The inclusion of lactose may seem like an afterthought with the boldness of the coffee, but it creates a creamy, velvety mouthfeel here. You can definitely discern the sweetness of the milk sugar, and that intertwines well with the malt profile that leans heavily on barley. Coffee is for Closers is the Cadillac Eldorado of American porters, so give yourself a break from higher-octane beers as we approach spring seasonals. Just remember the rules Alec Baldwin laid out in Glengarry Glen Ross: ABC. “A,” always. “B,” be. “C,” chugging. ALWAYS BE CHUGGING. Always be chugging.

For more info, check out Fullsteam here.

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No Corporate Beer Reviews: Samichlaus Classic

Beer: Samichlaus Classic
Brewery: Brauerei Schloss Eggenberg (Vorchdorf, Austria)
Style: Bock – Doppelbock
14% ABV / 20 IBU

Samichalus Classic is brewed under license in Austria, but the recipe originated in the Western part of Switzerland, as did its name. “Samichlaus” is the Swiss-German colloquial term for Santa Claus, depicted with a magnificent Gandalf beard on the beer’s label. This beguiling bock is brewed once a year on December 6, then aged for 10 months before bottling, with each annual release becoming available in October. Impossible to believe that this beer is only brewed on a single day each year, but it truly gets its character from the aging process.

So what’s it like? Strong caramel notes, syrupy, fruity and, at times, a little sickly sweet like a dessert wine. Or, perhaps more accurately, a bourbon fruitcake, with hints of candied glazed fruit plus earthiness from the nuts plus a hint of spiciness from the booze. At 14%, it’s extreme by any standard and definitely as out of step with doppelbocks as the black sheep on the Minor Threat LP cover. In terms of ABV, this doppelbock packs twice the punch of the universally-acclaimed Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock.

My gut tells me that this beer has probably reached its peak at the time of bottling and that the only reason to age further by cellaring a bottle would be to try to draw out the spiciness. Due to the long aging process and the higher-than-average ABV, your palette tingles a bit with each swig of Samichalus Classic. Prepare for something that drinks much more like a barleywine, another malt-heavy, low-carbonation style with a syrupy consistency and mouthfeel. But Samichlaus Claus is almost too strong and unless you’re willing to wrestle with regret from your own life choices, split the bottle among friends and sip like a cordial. This beer has left more practiced drunkards in its wake.

For more info, check out Brauerei Schloss Eggenberg here.

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No Corporate Beer Reviews: Oro Negro

Beer: Oro Negro
Brewery: Jackie O’s Brewery (Athens, OH)
Style: Stout- Imperial/Double
10% ABV / 65 IBU

Here’s an interesting alternative for bittering: Walnuts. Specifically, black walnuts, which are considerably more bitter than the regular variety of walnut. This is not to say that Jackie O’s Oro Negro and its sister beer Oil of Aphrodite are deriving all of their bitterness from the locally-sourced black walnuts added to the brewing process, but it definitely plays a part. The bitterness you experience here really tastes like black walnuts were added to the wort with their skins – the most bitter part – left on.

In terms of gravity and color and mouthfeel, Oro Negro is functionally the same as Oil of Aprhodite. The latter is the base, an imperial stout brewed with walnuts. Oro Negro is a slightly tweaked version of this magic elixir, conditioned on cacao nibs, vanilla beans, cinnamon sticks, and habanero peppers. Interestingly enough, both of these beers come in barrel-aged versions, which is a common hack winemakers use to augment tannins from the grape skins. But tannins are naturally found in walnuts too, which is why a beer like Oro Negro can have both a bracing bitterness and the palette “drying” affect of tannin-heavy wines.

You know how in every episode of Anthony Bourdain’s travel show there’s a shot of him sampling something and saying, “Oh man, that’s good”? That’s how I feel about Oro Negro. The imperial stout base hits the sweet spot in the 10-11% ABV range of drinkability without the medicinal aftertaste that high-octane Russian imperial stouts sometimes sport. And you can discern every discreet element of the spice additions in Oro Negro. The Mexican hot chocolate-style combination of habaneros and cinnamon is particularly fantastic. When it comes to balancing the scales of justice between “sweet” and “heat,” Jackie O’s nailed it.

For more info, check out Jackie O’s Brewery here.

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No Corporate Beer: Yellow Snow

Beer: Yellow Snow
Brewery: Rogue Ales (Newport, OR)
Style: Pilsner – Other
5.5% ABV / 19 IBU

Yellow Snow originated as a very different beer with an equally unfortunate name: Rogue’s Yellow Snow IPA, which was first brewed two decades (!) ago in celebration of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. The only ingredient these two versions of Yellow Snow have it common is what Rogue describes as “free range coastal water.” It’s an essential ingredient in all of Rogue’s beers and somewhat of an inside joke that Rogue explained on Twitter back in 2015: “We don’t cage our coastal waters.”

So Yellow Snow IPA gave up the ghost, paving the way for a milder, lighter-bodied pilsner. The basic hallmarks of the Czech pilsner style, particularly the Czech pilsner malt and yeast, are present in Yellow Snow. It’s exceptionally easy to drink and its crispness offers a reminder that winter should not only belong to high ABV stouts and spicy winter warmers. The pilsner is truly a year ’round style, even if Yellow Snow is intended as a winter seasonal.

That’s likely due to the inclusion of Alaskan spruce tips. Specifically, tips from Sitka spruce – the official Alaskan state tree – grown near Rogue’s home base in Oregon. So how well does Yellow Snow capture the true meaning of Christmas, considering it is literally brewed with a Christmas tree? The aroma and flavor is not as dramatic as you would expect, but the addition of the spruce tips contributes a very mellow kind of pine-y flavor with a little sweetness, a nice counterpoint to the pine-y but bitter bouquet of common hop varietals. Plus, every time you knock one of these back, an angel gets its wings. Keep drinkin’.

For more info, check out Rouge here.

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No Corporate Beer Reviews: Blood Amulet

Beer: Blood Amulet
Brewery: B. Nektar Meadery (Ferndale, MI)
Style: Cider – Other Fruit
6.2% ABV / N/A IBU

“Blood Amulet” sounds like the most metal thing ever, but a quick check of Metal Archives yields exactly zero Blood Amulets past or present. Someone needs to get on these before metal festivals come back so we can see Blood Amulet tear up the stage before Incantation. Until then, there’s Blood Amulet, a fall/winter-themed cider from a curious meadery in Michigan that happens to specialize in cider.

Nektar’s cider has a wider distribution footprint, so I’ve yet to sample any of their mead, but their ciders all walk a delicate tightrope act between sweet and dry. That’s right where we want to be with small-batch cider, especially for those of us that grew -up on overly-sweet Woodchuck or are turned off on the Euro tradition of bone-dry cider. Both of the B. Nektar ciders I’d tried before—the honey and cherry spiked Zombie Killer and the tea-infused and spiced the Dude’s Rug—were winners. Plus, the 500ml bottle size is perfect for splitting and the necro label art is eye-catching.

Blood Amulet is comparatively straightforward in its presentation. It’s a hard cider with a fresh-pressed Michigan apple base, as well as raspberry and cranberry. There’s a floral hint from the raspberry, but Blood Amulet really presents more as a cranberry apple cider, with a punchy tartness that clings to the tip of your tongue and top of your palette. It would be easy to mistake this for a spiked version of Canada Dry’s cranberry ginger ale. I did, and it definitely got a little buzzed. But this is a delightful way to do it.

For more info, check out B. Nektar Meadery here.

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