Monday, March 22, 2010

Vacation Roundup: Thomas Creek Stillwater Vanilla Cream Ale and Pump House Porter

Another week, another pair of beers I grabbed in Asheville. This time it's a couple of brews from the Thomas Creek Brewery in Greenville, SC; I haven't heard of them, but then again I'd never heard of the folks at Ceylon either. So, let's see what these southern boys've got for us.

First up from Greenville folks is the Stillwater Vanilla Cream Ale, apparently a summer seasonal. I bought it, among a number of other appealing choices, because I had no idea what any of the words in that name were doing together and it sounded interesting. The bottle, however, is not that interesting: it features two guys fishing and a funky logo, and could basically be mistaken for an organic root beer of some kind.

Anyhow it's a cream ale, a style with which I am not well-acquainted. With the exception of a Genesee I had a few years ago (which I don't remember liking) I don't think I've ever had a one. This could be a new experience, then. And the website confirms this in one sentence: this beer is "a light-bodied and golden American style cream ale with a highly refreshing palate and an undertone of pure vanilla essence." So they actually put vanilla into this stuff? Oh, man. I have enough misgivings about chocolate and coffee - vanilla has the potential to dominate a beer like an angry mistress with a snake whip. Here goes.

It pours a pale, lemony yellow with a fizzy one-finger white head. It looks a little like a macrobrewed lager, to be honest. Only when you stick your head in do you notice what's special, and - surprise! - it's the vanilla. It doesn't totally take over the smell, but nor does it integrate with the rest of it - which is mainly pale malts and some light hops, your standard pilsner stuff. The vanilla aroma just sort of floats on top of this, like oil on water, and it comes and goes. Let the glass sit for a moment and the sweet vanilla notes come wafting out; give it some agitation and the malts snatch the aroma right back. It's odd.

The taste is also odd. It's nice, so long as you don't drink too much or too fast. Take just a sip at a time and the unusual combination works beautifully: the vanilla arrives at the beginning and holds place like an ostinato, while the bitter but light beery flavors wax and wane over it. Drink it with patience and the sour and bitter qualities of the malts, rather than taking over the vanilla, give it a lovely flattering contrast. Try to drink too quickly, however, and things go wrong: the malts and (rather wimpy) hops take over right from the beginning, with the vanilla only coming out in the aftertaste (and not pleasantly so). Sucking it down is clearly not the right way to quaff this stuff - a fact that makes it a poor choice for everyday use, and about as far from the pilsner norm as you can get. It's a smooth beer too (it had better be, at 4.5% abv), light and carbonated - which makes it all the more strange that it sucks to drink fast.

It's an interesting thought, this beer, but does it work? Sipped for a half-hour it's extremely interesting, but other than that it's just too subtle, too delicately balanced, too easy to ruin. And this is a summer seasonal, exactly the sort of beer where you don't want subtlety. Weird flavor additives go in abbey ales and stouts, not in glorified pilsners there to provide refreshment in the heat. And despite this fact, despite all the reason in me screaming that this isn't a good beer, I'm liking it more and more with every sip. The vanilla tends to linger, and over the course of the bottle it very slowly begins to win its battle against the malts. The result is that this gets better as it goes along; it gains character and complexity, rather than just getting warm and nasty. I still don't think the idea quite works, but no matter the season I'd take a single failure like this over a dozen decent but identical wheatbeers and pale lagers.

Since this beer is basically sui generis, and is likely to remain so, I don't think I can grade it. It exists for the sake of the curious, and I think that's how it should be.

The second and last entry from the Greenvillians appears to be more pedestrian. It's a porter, and one with a less boring but somehow even more more unremarkable bottle than the last one. I prefer to link images large enough that you can actually see something, but here it doesn't really matter - this label really looks like it should be the cover of a now-forgotten alt rock album released circa 1995. But we're not here to be catty about designs, we're here to drink beer. Let's crack this open.

Well, it pours very dark indeed - not quite pitch black, but the light only barely passes through it. The head's almost nonexistent, something I don't expect from a brew this weak (a mere 5.75% abv), and what little there is quickly settles into a foam. It more than redeems itself in the aroma, though: this smells absolutely fantastic. It's not really a typical porter smell - think of an imperial stout dialed back a few notches and with the fuzz pedal turned off. There's a pure, rich cacao and cherries smell here, interlaced with nuts, caramel, and a little bit of cinnamon. I get a roasted malt aroma, too, although it's not the most prominent thing in the nose by far. I am absolutely in love. I may have to move to South Carolina in the near future if the beer itself is as good as its smell.

...It isn't. It's not bad, though. The front end, surprisingly, is the sweetest part of the taste profile, a kind of toffee taste with a bit of smoke to it. This gets taken over rather quickly by cacao and charcoal, although the roasted malts are never too intrusive. Everything else is more of the same: the bittersweet, smoky character hangs on through the aftertaste, which lasts forever (as it should). The finish is a bit dry, but not excessively so. In a lot of ways this reminds me of the Edmund Fitzgerald porter - there's that same sense of roasted malts barely kept under restraint. The Pump House isn't really in the same league as that monster, but it's still a fine beer. Its greatest flaw is that it's rather watery; if you can get past that and emphasize the smell of the stuff, it'll make a fine little session porter.

Overall? Well, if I graded entirely on aroma this would be well into the high A range. The taste and the texture aren't quite there yet, though. Give it a shot if you see it on a shelf somewhere - although if it's between this stuff and the Cream Ale, I'd grab the latter for novelty value alone.

Nice work all around, Thomas Creek. I look forward to trying more of your stuff whenever I'm in the neighborhood.

Thomas Creek Stillwater Vanilla Cream Ale
Grade: n/a
Summary: On the Island of Misfit Beers, this thing is in the aristocracy. Try it.

Thomas Creek Pump House Porter
Grade: B
Summary: Tastes like an ashy but pretty good porter. Smells like a spicy chocolate and cherry party in heaven.

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