Monday, December 7, 2009

Review: Flossmoor Station Pullman Brown Ale

I was in a class with Bruce Lincoln once, when the topic of the World Series came up. A few people in the class admitted to pulling for the Yankees over the Phillies. He wasn't so much outraged by this as confused; "Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for capitalism," he said.

I understand the sentiment, especially when I think about Goose Island. They make some fantastic - no, phenomenal beers, although most of my friends seem to completely ignore the good ones in favor of the fucking 312 Urban Wheat Ale. The thing is, Goose Island is huge and Goose Island is everywhere. In Chicago at least, every booze shop and every supermarket that sells beer carries some Goose Island or other. In a word, they're the Yankees of the Chicago brewery scene.

And that's fine, right? I mean, they do make some good beers and all. Indeed, but as a lover of this stuff I really want to get as much great beer as possible to the shelves of my local store as possible, and the giant in the playground isn't always going to be the best guy to do this. The trouble is, what about the other breweries around chicao? Where the heck are they? Do they even exist? And if they do, do the stores carry them?

If you look around you'll find a few here and there, but you can be forgiven for not noticing them. Half Acre, up in Lakeview, sell a bitter (pretty good as I recall) and a lager (which I haven't tried) and a bunch of other stuff I haven't been able to locate. Metropolitan, who reside up near Evanston, sell a couple of lagers that I also haven't gotten around to yet. If you want to go farther out, you've got Two Brothers out near Naperville (who make, among other things, a nice comfy reclining chair of an imperial stout that I'll have to review at some point) and America's Brewing Company a few more miles down in Aurora (who make that stupid but fun bourbon barrel stout I tried last month). And aside from a couple of brewpubs, err, I think that's about it...

...Except, of course, for the company I'll be talking about here. Flossmoor Station is a restaurant slash brewpub in Flossmoor (as you might expect), located right next to the Metra stop. I'd heard of them, but I've still never been down there. One day, however, I happened to spot this guy in the fridge of my local Binny's - the Flossmoor Station Pullman Brown Ale, a deuce-deuce with a beautiful bottle (which I'd like to describe in a moment). It looked interesting and it was local. Well, why not?

So, one thing to note right away is that this is a premium brown ale sold in a 22 oz bottle at around the $5-6 price range. And that immediately poses a problem. You see, that fact means it's competing directly with Naughty Goose, another brown brewed this time by - you guessed it - Goose Island. (Note that this is different from the GI Nut Brown Ale, which is more common, cheaper, and not nearly as good.) And Naughty Goose is probably my favorite brown ale ever. Compared to the Sam Smith's or the Dogfish Head it's not all that exciting, but there's such a purity and a faithfulness to the style and a skill to the approach that it just doesn't need all the extra nuance you get in those beers. Now, as you might expect, I'm not all that happy about the fact that GI makes - so far as I've had - the best brown ale. Loving something from Goose Island is, indeed, like loving capitalism. Thus, I do hope that the Flossmoor Pullman is better - beyond even my usual hopes that each beer I have be a little bit better than the one before. But the Naughty Goose is really good, so the Flossmoor folks have quite a battle in front of them.

So: the bottle. Briefly described, it's fantastic. Just take a look at the thing - those aren't labels you see, all that stuff has actually been painted onto the glass like an old-timey Coke bottle. The retro train-lookin' brewery logo, the exquisite design for the beer name, the various little "stamps" all around describing the beer - it just looks absolutely wonderful. I love the shit out of this bottle. If I gave out awards for best design, this would win this year's prize by a huge margin.

Nevertheless, this isn't a blog about bottle design. It's a blog about booze. And that means we have to actually open the thing up and try it. And I'm honestly not sure what to expect from this beer. It's a brown ale, which are usually pretty boring, right? But then on the side it reads: "This rich, robust, chestnut-colored ale uses eight malts plus oats and a dollop of blackstrap molasses for a smooth, creamy taste and texture." Molasses? oats? In a brown ale? What the hell am I getting into here?

So, the pour. Wow, this looks a heck of a lot darker than a normal brown - it's kind of a very dark auburn, rather than the usual coppery shade. Mind you, there's still a wee bit of light getting through, but not a whole lot. Newcastle on a drizzly day, then. There's not much of a head, either, which is really odd for the style - I only get about a half-finger of off-white foam, if that. If I were judging merely by its appearance, then, I'd suspect this of being a porter or even a stout long before I called it as a brown. The aroma, too, is very nice indeed, but it still doesn't make me think of a brown ale. There's tons of sweet roasted malts in there and some macademia nuts; the molasses comes through very strongly as well. I also detect a touch of hoppiness, although I suspect this beer's going to be very mild.

Now to taste...

...Okay, this is a stout. Or at least, very very close. That's not intended as a criticism - it's just a fact. It absolutely tastes like a stout. Apologies to my revolutionary comrades at Flossmoor, then, but that's what you've brewed here. The mouthfeel, for one thing, is incredibly smooth, creamy, and rich, with a medium body. I think it's the oats that're doing the most work in telling me this is a stout, really - this is very much like an oatmealer, although with quite a bit more character. The taste begins with a bit of coffee bitterness up front, and then expands into a thick mix of woody and sweet flavors. Towards the end I get a bit of an edge from the hops I smelled on the nose - not much, just a love nibble to let you know they're there. The aftertaste, to finish up, is very subdued, but mainly consists in the woodiness from before and a little twang left over from the hops.

In fact, if there's any case at all to be made for this being a brown ale, I'd say it's in the character of the hops. They are far and away the most traditional brown ale elements here - everything else is sweet and creamy and stouty, but these hops could've come right out of Avery's Brown or Turbodog. And happily, they do exactly what what the hops in a brown ale should: they counterbalance the maltiness and the sweetness with some bitter earthy citrus. In this case I think they're overmatched, but the good old fashioned brown ale hops are definitely here. (And now that I notice it, this extra bite actually makes Pullman easier to drink than most oatmeal stouts. Funny, that.)

So I'm torn by this stuff, really. As a beer, without any further determinations, this is excellent; just as good as Naughty Goose, and much more creative. But if I went to the shop looking for a really good brown ale, I wouldn't buy it. It's so far from that style that, were it not for my specifically looking for brown ale traits, I wouldn't have noticed them at all. So, give Pullman a B as a brown but an A+ for trailblazing (I'll split the difference and call it an A-). For Flossmoor has really created its own style here: it's a brown ale with stouty creaminess, an oatmeal stout pulled back to the earth by a good dose of rustic hops. Whatever you want to call it (an oatmeal brown, say), it's great beer. And when downing a bottle means striking a blow against the Yankees of the beer world, you've got all the reason you need to go out and find one.

Grade: A-
Summary: An English Brown and an Oatmeal Stout met at a bar and had a one-night stand. This is the mad, wonderful result.

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