Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Bell-a-thon: Bell's Rye Stout, Special Double Cream Stout, Expedition Stout, and Best Brown Ale

This might be my last update for awhile, given that A) I'm going out of town for winter break tomorrow and B) I doubt my folks are going to give me much time to write about alcohol until I get back. But it should be a good one.

So here's the deal. After much singles-buying and several people dropping off beer for Thanksgiving, I've now inexplicably got my hands on collection of four (4) different beers from Bell's Brewery. I didn't plan for this and I don't really know how this happened, (given that I don't typically buy Bell's), but here I am anyways. Funny enough, three of them are stouts as well (probably because Bell's has some crazy obsession with stouts - last I checked they sold about a dozen of the things during various parts of the year). All told, I've got me an Expedition Stout, a Special Double Cream Stout, a Rye Stout, and a Best Brown Ale. I'm hoping amazing things will happen, and dreading that they won't.

You see, I like to think of Bell's as something like the Toyota of the microbrewing world. I do this for several reasons. First: they're fairly ubiquitous. Toyota is the largest car company in the world, and while Bell's isn't quite up to that level, the upper midwest is still nevertheless utterly saturated with them. If any store around here sells any microbeer at all, they're going to sell Bell's. Second: they're reliable. I've never had a Bell's that's actually been bad, which is to their credit. Third: most of what they make is pretty boring. As examples of this I'll cite their Porter, Lager, and Pale Ale, all of which I've had sometime in the past year. All three of these beers are quite competent, practically flawless, and deeply unexciting examples of their styles. I wasn't exactly let down, I just felt like I was drinking... a porter, a lager, and a pale ale. With nothing much remotely interesting about them. If I ever have any of those beers again, I might review them - but it'd be hard. I think I'd come up with something along the lines of: "Yeah. Pretty good."

Those, then, are the three typical things. But there's one other thing about Toyota, and (indeed) about Bell's, that most people don't notice. And that's Point The Fourth: every once in awhile, when the mood is just right, they can and do go completely insane.

I could cite several moments from Toyota's occasional dives into madness. The original Scion xB, for example, or the 2000gt, or the upcoming Lexus LFA (which will cost three hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars). But there's a much better example to be found. Way, way back in the glorious cocaine-and-Wham!-fuelled days of 1985, Toyota created something very special. Up until that year the company had mostly been making its name off of stuff like the Tercel and the Cressida - cars that never broke down, at the cost of being deeply dreary. And then it dropped this thing - the MR2. It was an instant masterpiece: a light, stripped-down, fingertippy, revvy, quite fast sporty coupe. Even better than that, it was (and still is) stunningly good-looking. In terms of its looks, the MR2 was like a Japanese Ferrari. No, not was like, but was a Japanese Ferrari, beating Honda's NSX to the trick by half a decade. Better still, just like the hardest of the hardcore roaring Italian monsters of its day it even had a rear mid-engine layout - i.e., the engine was mounted literally right behind the driver to achieve a perfect weight balance. The engine itself was quite small - only a 1.6 liter four-banger - but it revved like a mofo, could be supercharged for good measure, and - as one of the legendary Toyota A-engines - it lasted pretty much until Richard Pryor came along and shot it with a .357. And most importantly, the MR2 was cheap. All of this meant that any moderately successful 20-something could suddenly own himself a very reliable hardcore exotic sports car for about the same price as a four-door family cruiser. The MR2 was a stupendous achievement, and it was also voice-hearing, straightjacket-wearing, bug-eating nuts. I absolutely love it; it's my favorite Toyota ever, by miles.

(For the purposes of being thorough: GM also built a mid-engined car at about the same time, the Fiero. Unfortunately it had a habit of catching on fire)

Like Toyota's mad cars, Bell's has brewed some mad beers. I'll cite just one, which is (so far as I can tell) universally beloved: the Hopslam Ale. Unfortunately I can't speak from firsthand experience here; I tried to get my hands on one of these monsters to review, but by the time I realized it existed (uh, sometime this past summer) it had disappeared from the shelves altogether. The Hopslam, in essence, is a massive 10% ABV India Pale Ale. The very idea of such a thing is slightly insane, the fantasy of a dangerous and antisocial cascade addict, and it's certainly not the kind of brew you'd throw together in a weekend. Nevertheless, the folks at Bell's got together one day, seemingly lost their minds for awhile, and then went and made it. And that's wonderful.

So, here's the deal with my four beers. I'm expecting at least half of these to be boring, frankly. The math demands it. But what I'm really hoping for is that at least one will demonstrate the madness that I know Bell's is capable of, and earn my undying love.

So, let's get this going. First: the Bell's Special Double Cream Stout.

Well, what exactly is so "special" about it, I wonder? It comes in a fairly unimpressive, winter-themed bottle with some buck-naked tree branches (call me a philistine, but I miss the cow a little). In terms of style, this is apparently a milk stout - roughly comparable, then, to the Left Hand Milk Stout I reviewed (and loved) last month. I'm expecting good things, and the initial impressions don't let me down. This stuff pours a beautiful dark russet color, with a one-finger off-white head. The aroma, unsurprisingly, reminds me a lot of the Left Hand - it's basically good, lactose-rich chocolate milk. It's not quite as strong a nose as the LHMS, especially when agitated, but in return there's a little more going on. I detect hints of caramel and butterscotch buried a ways behind the chocolate milk. There's a little tinge of hops as well.

So I take my first sip, expecting the milky smoothness of the Left Hand, and... I don't get it. Astonishingly, this is actually thin. Very thin. It certainly doesn't have anything like the rich mouth-coating texture I was expecting, anyways. In terms of body this is essentially comparable to a porter, - and that's not necessarily bad if you're selling yourself as a porter, and not as a "Special Double Cream Stout." I've discovered, then, what the "special" means: they took the cream out.

It's not all that great as far as taste goes, either; I get lots and lots of roasted malts, with little else. It's just a muddy cacao bitterness that occasionally (but not often) lets rays of sweetness shine though. The aftertaste starts out with a dry, bitter twang, but if you let it linger for a bit you'll get (funny enough) a kind of earthy fruitiness as well. Think of musty, chalky raisins and you'll be close. It's not particularly pleasant, sadly. On a side note, this also tastes hotter than the Left Hand - a fact confirmed by the 6.1% alcohol content (as compared to 5.2).

I'm disappointed by this one in a big way; it's much drier than the Left Hand, which (again) would be fine if it were anything other than a "Special Double Cream Stout." I suppose the dryness and unrelenting cacao bitterness could suit some, but I find it to be nowhere near as much of a pleasure to sip. This, too, would be fine if the Bell's were cheaper than the LHMS (which, at $11 a sixer, is a bit dear) - but astonishingly, it actually costs more. And a lot more than Bell's regular beer. Bottom line, the Milk Stout is a supremely great sit-back-and-murder-two-hours beer. This, on the other hand, is more of a drink-while-chowing-on-gouda-and-a-barbeque-sandwich kind of beer. I don't mind such beers, of course, but I've got a ton of the latter to choose from and not a lot of the former. It's decent, where I was looking for great.

So, onto the Bell's Best Brown, then. It's a brown ale that comes with an owl on the bottle's label. Hmm, well, I'm honestly not expecting much from this one.

It's clearly not as thick as the stout as it pours (although it's not exactly a pilsner either). And it's not really "brown" per se - it's more like a darkish rusty color, with a foamy beige two finger head. The aroma's on the weak side for a brown; maltiness is the chief note, plus some grassiness, a touch of apple, and a slightly lemony hop tinge. It's rather pleasant, actually, like a nap in your backyard hammock.

And now I sip the stuff, and I'm honestly shocked. This beer, spookily, comes off as creamy - like, really creamy. It's like the lactose that was supposed to go into the Double Cream stout went into this instead. Whatever's responsible, I like it. In the front I get a little bit of fruity sourness, but that's quickly dispatched with a big wave of creamy, caramelly, malty goodness mixed in with a nuttiness that's spot-on for the style. Once it reaches the back the hops cut through and (politely, reservedly, like nervous children asking questions at Sunday school) have their say. The aftertaste is mainly the aforementioned nuttiness, with a touch of the hoppy citrus suspended over it.

It's very good, in that understated English brown sort of way. If you can think of brown ales on a spectrum ranging roughly from South Shore's Nut Brown (the most subdued) to Dogfish Head's Indian Brown (the most fierce), this is about 80% of the way towards the South Shore. There's enough hops around to remind you that you're, you know, drinking beer, but beyond that it holds back and just lets the texture and the earthy caramel speak for itself. Aside from the creaminess, then, this is a fairly standard (albeit particularly well-done) brown ale. And that's by no means a bad thing: an Indian Brown may be great for when you'd like to be wowed, but this, this stuff is comfort food. It's a big old Labrador coming to meet you at the door after a long day at work. It'd make a fantastic session beer, and frankly I like it a heck of a lot more than the Cream Stout (which is a neat trick, because it's two or four bucks cheaper for six).

All right then, the Bell's Expedition Stout. This is a Russian imperial, folks, so it should go right for the jugular. And, importantly, I'm drinking this one very fresh - it's had no aging at all, and I've been told this is a brew that probably needs it. So I'm expecting things to be pretty lively.

As expected, it pours a nice thick black, the usual dirty motor oil look. It also has a relatively large head - I get almost two fingers, and I didn't even pour the whole bottle. The aroma, again, is somewhat more subdued than I expected (the Brooklyn beats the pants off this for sheer knockdown power). When I sniff deep, oddly enough the first thing I notice is a kind of rustiness from the hops. It's not great. Things open up a bit with some agitation, giving off some toffee scents and (perhaps) a little bit of coffee. I can't even detect much heat - surprising for something that's a whopping 10.5% alcohol. Even when agitated, though, this thing has a very subtle nose. Weird. Well, bottom's up.

Wow, there we go. That knockdown power I was expecting in the nose? In the taste, it's there. This here is high-caliber shit; it's very strong and very rough. Some aging would probably mellow this right down, I think, but at the moment it's a teenaged street tough with a knife and a disregard for the health of others. Up front is a roasted bitterness with a sharp alcohol edge. Moving on back, I get cacao - lots and lots of very bitter cacao, with a touch of coffee in there as well. It's really mouth-coating, hair-raising stuff, too - this is a beer with a bad fuckin' attitude. Charcoaly hops hit like a FAE bomb at the end (destroying everything in your mouth that was left), and they carry right on through to the aftertaste (which, as is typical in imperials, lasts close to forever). Somewhere, Barber's Adagio for Strings is playing.

I don't know quite how to grade this. It's an imperial stout - which means I'll love it however bad it is - but this one is very, very tough to drink. It's to Storm King what Mezcal is to Tequila; imagine someone handing some newly-brewed Old Rasputin a chainsaw and you'll be close. I'm rather charmed by its rough ways, to be honest, but don't expect to drink it quickly. Set aside some time for this one, folks.

Last up is the Bell's Rye Stout. This is the one I've been saving a lot of hope for; I've never had a rye stout before, but given how much I love a good old fashioned (with Wild Turkey Rye or occasionally Old Overholt, if I'm feeling cheap) I've got high hopes that this'll be the great discovery of the night. The pale white gentleman on the bottle's label appears to have been killed by his, after all.

A fairly typical stout pour, really - it's a fairly thick, dark auburn, with hints of a cream head. The smell, mainly, is a big wet sloppy kiss of roasted barley. I get mostly milk chocolate all the way through, with a subtle edge to it in the back - I can't tell if it's from the alcohol (6.7%) or something else. Hmm.

The taste is - well. Hrm.

The rye is definitely adding something, that's for sure, but it's not quite what I was expecting. It's rather difficult to describe. As a rough blueprint, think of a standard medium-bodied Irish stout. Got that in your head? The creamy texture, the dry finish? Okay, if you can, mentally remove the dry, gentle hoppiness and replace it with a kind of mouth-coating bready feel. Yes, bready, as if you're chewing a slice of pumpernickel or maybe eating a nice aged cheese. I was expecting spice and burn with this stout, Sazerac-style, but it's not like that at all - instead the general sense is just this nice, yeasty, wheaty, slightly bitter flavor. It's odd.

All right, I should probably be more precise about the taste. Up front I get the creamy texture and a little bit of a tingle, but nothing out of the ordinary. There's still not much to talk about as it moves back, save a bit of bitterness (this stuff is smooth to a fault). By the end you get a bit of the roasted, milk chocolate flavor promised in the smell. It's only after you've swallowed that the yeasty, earthy, grainy bread taste shows up, and it lingers for awhile in tandem with the roasted sweetness. The alcohol isn't that strong (6.7%), but if you're paying attention you can tell it's there.

I don't know what to think of this one. It's not a bad beer at all, it's just not what I was expecting. I was looking for a rye whiskey assault, and got a sandwich. Verdict: decent, not great.

So that's it then. Four beers, and no real masterpiece among them. The SDC Stout was the biggest disappointment, as it just comes across like a mediocre porter. The Rye wasn't that amazing either. The Expedition Stout, while by far the most exciting beer here, was unweildy and not that much fun to drink. So the "winner," astonishingly, is the sleeper of the bunch - the Best Brown Ale. It is, as near as you could want, a perfect workhorse of a brown ale; sure, they could have gussied it up a little more if they'd wanted, but that would have lost the point of a simple brown ale. This beer is here to pamper you, to hand you your slippers and lie at your feet, and it does that flawlessly.

And thus, I wade into the Bell's portfolio and pick out the most boring beer of the four as my favorite. Against my better judgment, against my own convictions. I feel slightly guilty about this, as if I'd just driven a bunch of Toyotas and the one I preferred was the Avalon. Nevertheless, the result stands. And really, as much as I love the MR2, maybe the Avalon's not such a bad option after all.

Bell's Special Double Cream Stout
Grade: B-
Summary: It's a cream stout without the cream. Yeah. Pretty good.

Bell's Best Brown Ale
Grade: B+
Summary: It's a fine example of a mild brown ale. Yeah. Very good.

Bell's Expedition Stout
Grade: B
Summary: Charcoal ninjas declare war on your mouth.

Bell's Rye Stout
Grade: B
Summary: It's a really bready stout. Yeah. Pretty good.

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