The weather didn’t exactly cooperate with Daphne’s Southern Napa wine shop for its Second Annual “99 Bottles of Beer on the Lawn,” but more than 550 diehard beer fanatics (including yours truly) were undeterred.
Storms on May 9 turned the turf to chocolate pudding underfoot. The afternoon of May 10 wasn’t exactly an occasion for lounging on the lawn or wearing flip-flops, although many folks still donned Mobile’s footwear of choice and persevered.
It helped that Southern Napa had erected a huge tent to safeguard its patrons and, yes, those 99 beers waiting to be tried. Nary a raindrop adulterated my glass as I squished from station to station, tasting brews imported from as near as Fairhope and as far as China. Did I make some new BFF’s (beer friends forever)? Indeed, I think I did.
My winner from among the 99 Bottles was Hop Juice Double IPA from Left Coast Brewing Company (San Clemente, Cal.) — a rich, nearly perfect and distinctly more-ish fusion of hops and malt. It’s been winning medals for a decade, so you don’t have to take my word. This is an in-your-face hop bonanza, not something to sit meekly in your glass wondering if you’ll notice it.
Hop Juice gets its main kick from Centennial, Amarillo and Simcoe hops, which are added after the beer has boiled, in a process known as “dry hopping.” It then ferments for two weeks with these hops, bolstering its huge citrus, pine and apricot aromas while absorbing bitter oils. (Cascade and Mt. Hood hops are used earlier in the brewing process, adding citrus and spice flavors with not a lot of bitterness.)
Hop Juice is a sharp-edged beer, rating 82 “international bitterness units” or IBUs, but a malt thread weaves throughout and it doesn’t seem unbalanced. At 9.7 percent ABV, though, you might want to watch your own balance, standing up.
My three runners-up were Zeke’s Pale Ale from the O’Fallon Brewing Company, Great Divide Brewing Company’s Rumble IPA, and Hopped Up ‘N Horny IPA from the Horny Goat Brewing Company (goats do have horns, doncha know?). All three ales were a Hop Head’s delight, but in very different ways.
The O’Fallon Brewery (near St. Louis, Mo.) launched Zeke’s “sessionable” Pale Ale in February, questing after a smooth and easy-drinking brew with, nonetheless, full hoppy scents and flavors. At only 5.1 percent ABV and 29 IBUs, the statistics alone tell you it’s more laid back than Hop Juice.
Zeke’s uses Australian Galaxy hops, giving it tingly aromas of grapefruit, passion fruit and pineapple, with a mild citrus taste. The gentler hop flavor probably results from three malt varieties going into Zeke’s, with Galaxy added at the tail end of boiling to impart flavor and bitterness without stewing into high-octane tea. O’Fallon calls Zeke’s a “dry, crisp, light-bodied ale with a fresh hop aroma and just a hint of honey.” Yep.
Rumble IPA is an oak-aged American Pale Ale brewed with what Great Divide’s Denver-based brewers call “heavy-handed” quantities of Pacific Northwest hops. What makes it stand out is the oak aging, which brings vanilla and caramel notes as counterpoints to the hops.
It has the resiny, piney, citrusy vibe you’d expect from a highly hopped brew, but without blasting your taste buds. The higher (7.1 percent) alcohol content lends a rich mouth-feel. This beer is crisp enough for summer drinking, despite its powerhouse of flavors.
Hopped Up ‘N Horny hits you as a revved-up shot of orange juice — so if you’ve ever wondered what I mean when I say “citrusy” beer, here’s your answer. If you can’t imagine O.J. being a good thing in beer, start imagining. At 6.3 percent alcohol and 41 IBUs, it’s technically in-between Hop Juice and Zeke’s, but the orange taste is unique. It comes from Cascade hops being added after boiling — dry hopping, again — so the citrus stays while bitterness stays away. I’ve read some seriously negative online reviews of this beer but I’m standing by my vote.
Very honorable mention goes to Blonde Dame from The Brew Stooges in Huntsville. The Brew Stooges officially opened their brewery in January 2013 and for three guys who haven’t been in business very long (not as Stooges anyway), they’re turning out some amazing brews. Blonde Dame was mouth-filling, slightly tart and refreshing. I plan to have another when I visit their taproom in June.
Beyond picking winners, for the first time ever I tried gluten-free beer — which I didn’t initially notice was gluten free, because it was really very good. The brewers call themselves Omission Beer and they make a Lager and a Pale Ale, both hand-crafted from traditional ingredients (malted barley, hops, water and yeast), but employing a proprietary (i.e., they won’t tell you what it is) process to extract most of the gluten from the brew. I learned the international standard for a gluten-free product — as defined by the World Health Organization — is one containing fewer than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten, and Omission lab-tests its beers to meet this standard.
Omission’s Lager is light, crisp, clear and flavorful — with a low (4.6 percent ABV) alcohol content. Its Pale Ale is made in the “American Pale Ale” style, with abundant Cascade hop flavors (although with a malty undertone and no O.J.), amber color and slightly higher alcohol (5.8 percent ABV). I liked both beers and would never have guessed they were “missing” anything. If you’re gluten intolerant, or even if you’re not, I encourage you to give Omission a shot.
So, should I compare 99 Bottles of Beer on the Lawn with the St. Louis Microfest (last week’s column)? Well, while St. Louis had more beers, Daphne was a much shorter trip. And given Mobile is still developing its craft-beer scene, the assembly of 99 beers on one lawn is a noteworthy feat.
There was a written list of beers — so you could formulate a plan of attack — but no jugs of glass-rinse water, so trying a lager right after a porter might not have been the best approach. Most notably, the majority of pourers at 99 Bottles were not the brewers themselves. Many of them were distributors, though, whom we love for bringing craft beer to L.A., and who are thoroughly knowledgeable about the beers they sell.
A major up-side for 99 Bottles was its sales tent, where you could buy bottles of your new BFF’s to take home — which not every beerfest allows. Even at Germany’s festivals — which, apart from Oktoberfest (an exercise in over-crowded lack-of-beer frustration), are among the best beerfests on the planet — you generally can’t buy bottles. My taster-helper and I left happily with Hop Juice in hand. Southern Napa sells all 99 featured beers in its shop — and at $3 each to enjoy on their deck.
If you didn’t make it out this year, mark your May 2015 calendars for craft beer, live music, food and even the chance to take home a Best Friend Forever from the Baldwin County Humane Society (BARC!). I’ll go out on a limb and predict dry weather: third time’s a charm!