Thursday, February 25, 2010

Vacation Roundup: Starr Hill The Love and Dark Starr

Charlottesville is probably my favorite town (well, city) in Virginia. Admittedly, this probably isn't saying much. Everywhere around DC is more or less a suburban office park nightmare, absorbing all the petty malice and mutual unconcern radiating off of I-495 - the notorious Capital Beltway, the most hateful road on the east coast and an entity which feeds from the souls of all existing within many miles of it. The Virginia Beach area is a Navy town and a tourist trap, making me feel doubly out of place. Roanoke is located in the mountains (a plus), but is otherwise a bit boring somehow. Richmond is, well, hopeless. I'm tempted to pick Luray (foothill heaven, and mere miles away from Skyline Drive and the astonishing US-211, i.e. two of the best roads in Virginia), or maybe Leesburg or Williamsburg (for the simple joy of the colonial architecture). But on points, it's gotta be Charlottesville. It does the historic town thing almost as well, it's close to the mountains, it's actually got some culture, and they even like to drink a little. But this raises a question: can they brew a good beer?

To find out, I bought a pair of brews from Starr Hill while I was out east a few months back. The Starr Hill brewery is actually located a few miles west of Charlottesville (in Crozet), and they're surprisingly ubiquitous in the mideast states (I found some sixers of these as far down as North Carolina). I've got a The Love, which is a hefeweizen with a silly name, and a Dark Starr, which is a dry stout. So, let's start with the wheatbeer first.

Here's the first bit of news: the label is pink. At their site for the beer Starr Hill boasts that this stuff is made from an award-winning German yeast handed over by a friend. Someone "shared the love" with them, get it? Yes, yes, we see the pun, fine. But I would have titled the beer "Starr Hill Thank You," made the cover a big thumbs up to Germany, and saved myself the trouble. And I certainly wouldn't have made the label pink. Gah.

Pour it into a glass, though, and things start to get better: it's got a lovely cloudy-gold look, pretty much standard for the style, with a nice yeasty two-finger white head. And it's a sticky head too: with an ABV of only 4.6% (on the low side by wheatbeer standards), there's really not much to pull it back down. The aroma is very lemon-limey, with a hit of yeast further back; agitate it a bit and it shifts more in a banana direction. It's quite a simple aroma for a weiss, but there's nothing that's turning me off so far.

The taste carries through on the promise of the lemony aroma - it's a kind of yeasty lemonade, although obviously without the sweetness. Right up front is a pleasant tarty tang, which maintains itself right up to the end. Around there a wheaty taste butts in, along with some cloves and cilantro. No real hoppiness here, although I wasn't expecting it. The aftertaste, for the most part, is just more citrusy goodness. And... frankly, I'm struggling to think of anything more to say. Body's pretty light. No sense of the alcohol at all. It's a very refreshing taste, as these sorts of things tend to be, but there's also nothing at all to set this apart from the crowd.

Well, I didn't taste much love to be honest, but it's not bad. There's only one way to describe The Love: it is a Hefeweizen. And that means: if you like hefeweizens, you will think this one's pretty okay. It will do just fine by you, and you will immediately forget it exists after you finish drinking it. Such is its fate.

Now, onto the Dark Starr Stout. Unlike the self-consciously goofy The Love, this beer's a little more serious. The bottle's all murdered out, looking scary and muscular like a 1974 Challenger. Check the stats, though, and you discover that this black-bottled terror is actually a bit of a softie: it's 4.81% ABV, only a touch above Guinness and Murphy's (heck, the Black Hawk - still my go-to dry stout - is well into the low 5% range). So I'm expecting this to be more of a pub beer, more of a filling but unobtrusive bit of black matter that'll provide just the slightest lubricant for an evening with the boys.

Oh. Man, that's not what this is at all.

It's black, to be sure; it's got a medium viscosity and a half-finger head, to be sure; but this isn't a good old fashioned Irish stout. The aroma is, well, not what I expected at all. The strangest thing to the aroma is a strong, almost meaty quality, as if there's some grilled pork in there or something. It's not something I've encountered before, and I don't really dig it. Beyond that there's some coffee, lots of roasted malts, and an odd sourness that I can't pin down.

And the taste? Err, well, it's dry, give it that much. But beyond that everything's gone wrong. For starters, it's incredibly watery. The sourness from the aroma is also here (not something I really want in a stout). And then there's the worst part: from the very first sip one is inundated with a consistently cloying, smokey, ashy taste. Way back there, behind the wall of smoke, I can tell there are some good traditional stouty flavors, but there's really no digging them out. The aftertaste is indeed dry, but that's not enough to chase away the unpleasant smoky-sourness

If ever one needed a textbook example of how not to use roasted malts, this would be it. I suppose it's unique, sure, but it's not good, especially if you plan on drinking a whole bottle. (Starr Hill touts this as their "most awarded beer." I can only assume the judges all just did the sip-and-spit thing, because there's no way they would have medal'd this stuff if they'd had to suck down 12 ounces of it.) It's a watery, burned-out answer to a question no one asked. If you really want a smoky beer, try an Aecht Schlenkerla Märzen; if you really want a dry stout from Virginia, try to broaden your horizons.

So: Charlottesville. Nice town, and they make not-so-great stouts and also a Hefeweizen. I'll see if I can learn more on my next trip, I guess.

Starr Hill The Love
Grade: B-
Summary: It meets hefeweizen expectations.

Starr Hill Dark Starr
Grade: C-
Summary: Not so much a dry stout as a watery, ashy mess. Unique enough for the curious, but unpleasant to finish.

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