Beer Profiles: The Saranac Winter Collection

IMAG0002

Profiled by Ken Carman

Every year the F.X. Matt Brewery; who brews the Saranac line, packages a 12 pack of 6 winter beers. (They also sell a similar summer season 12 pack.) Matt has brewed well over 100 different styles and specialty beers under the Saranac name; probably far more than any brewer of their size who was in business long, long before the craft brewer revolution. All that from a brewery older than Yuengling; if you count the few brief years before they were purchased by the Matt family and renamed West End Brewing Company, then F.X. Matt, or just Matt Brewing. Though one could argue the brewery produced what would be called “craft beer” now occasionally throughout their history long before that trend hit the American market… their current craft beer adventure really began for the brewery back in the 80s when F.X. was challenged by a German brewer; while driving the autobahn, to make beers as good as brewers in Germany did. F.X. took the challenge seriously: hence Saranac.

Here are this year’s six winter beers, four of them are brand new.

Black Lager
Winter Lager
Big Moose Ale
Belgian Ale
Rye IPA
Maple Porter

My wife and I; both BJCP judges, briefly assessed all six. Please: this is not meant as a score sheet or close to it; just general observations. In the following order: from beers we found less appealing to the best: one that should win a lot of awards.

Maple Porter

This is a lot better than their Caramel Porter, which was a bit like a liquid Worthington drop last time we had it. Update: at competition a few months ago a fellow judge whined, “I love Saranac, but I agree. All the judges I’ve spoken with describe it a bit like you do. But it’s my brother-in-law’s favorite beer.”

Never be offended by any reviewer’s comments. And we do mean “any.” Your taste is what matters. Period. And we hope his brother-in-law likes this too because we’re all in favor of satisfying the tastes of all kinds of quaffers.

There was a distinct coffee; malt-driven nose and, of course, maple syrup. Almost fruity. I’d sure like to know how they did this: I’ve tried over and over to make what I call Maplead: a pure maple syrup beverage that would compete with Mead. No honey. The problem is the hideous expense of the good stuff needed to make it: Vermont or New York pure, of course vs. the fact that it simply winds up tasting like mediocre’ mead. I have some aging: we’ll see. But for now it seems all the maple ferments out no matter how much I try to caramelize it.

This Saranac, however, has a distinct maple taste. More than a “hint” as their site claims. How did they do it? Just a wee too cloying, whereas the Caramel Porter we tried a while back was pretty much defined by “cloying.”

Creamy head lasts forever.

The maple add is a nice twist, but we thought some might eventually find it just a bit annoying. Maybe it needs just a little more spicy hops to balance? Probably not the more fruit/citrus-like kind, example: Cascade. We thought that would probably just make it even more cloyingly sweet, unless done very early in the boil so it mostly just adds to the bitter. But then why bother with Cascade? Mt. Hood perhaps? Always seems to add a nice twist; especially later in the boil.

The balance isn’t way off, by any means. We do suggest you try this; but perhaps as a dessert beer shared with friends, rather than a regular quaff.

Or maybe they could make it into more of a Robust so the deep, dark, roasted grain sense balances out the sweet? We liked Maple Porter… just a schnipple too much Maple and not enough balance with the malt and the bitter. Yes, “schnipple.” And, yes, it’s a made up word.

Belgian Ale

The obvious use of a Belgian yeast here pretty much defines the product. A nice, but rather unspecific, Belgian ale that needs a bit more complexity malt-wise. It should certainly peek the interest of the uninitiated, but thirsty, yet, experienced, Belgian beer-ites might be mildly disappointed.

Other than the yeast, slight caramel-like malt to the taste. Seemed just a tad inappropriate if your looking for more “Belgian,” less of an American take on Belgian.

Hazy. Not unexpected. Long lasting both bubbly and tad pillow-like head.

Put your nose up to the bottle and you’ll get that Belgian funk right away: a bit old sock-like perhaps. There are many descriptions of this smell, none of them really work. It’s unique and either you like it, or you don’t. White labs Belgian Abbey yeast, perhaps?

Just a little astringent. Could be the yeast.

Says on the label: “brewed in the Trappist style.” How so? No double yeast or yeast mixing sense, aging, Belgian white candy-driven higher alcohols, noted. Nothing else that screams Trappist. We were curious how it was “brewed in the Trappist style.”

We recommend, just don’t expect to be blown away if you’re a Belgian beer lover. More a Belgian beer to drink when you can’t get Chimay, Urtel, Orval… well, let’s just say most of Belgian beer. Curiously Hoegaarden, now brewed by AB, still seems to have a bit more to it Belgian-wise than this, though it’s hard to compare since it’s not the same style. And what style is this? We couldn’t decide.

But… it is good. A good option for those who’d rather go just a tiny bit lighter, and just a little less authentic, on the “Belgian;” or those who want a mild introduction to Belgian brewing: specifically Belgian yeast. The malt is enough in the background that adding it to the commentary would be pretty tough. The star here is the funk, and that’s a bit one dimensional. But, to be fair, certainly far, far better than drinking Bud, Coors, Miller, or even Yuengling, if you are a Belgian beer lover and there are no other Belgian beers on tap.

Black Lager

Honest… we lost the notes on this one. I remember the head being decent and long lasting. Both lagers here were tasty, and that’s a comment from two judges who have judged lagers… but neither of us are very fond of them.

Personally I believe I’m a better judge when I don’t prefer a category or style. I feel I can focus more on what it’s supposed to be, rather than being even slightly tempted to swoon, or be annoyed, by what I personally prefer.

A lot of Munich and a bit of Vienna? Seems the melanoidins were plentiful. Dark. Black. Obsidian. Malt nose plentiful and deep. Though the Matt site suggested to us that this is a power of the Schwartz… bier, we thought it more a cross between mostly a good Schwarzbier, and Munich Dunkel.

Two cheers from two ale lovers are probably in order. But remember, the notes are missing. But we think you’ll like it if that’s your style.

Winter Lager

A distinct lager nose provided a warning we didn’t like, or heed. As I mentioned, we are not lager lovers. Lots of head: long lasting. Deep gold to bronze. Deep melanoidin sense but… perhaps more Vienna, a bit less Munich? Still plenty here. These two pretty almost tied, but if I remember right this topped the other because the balance was so perfect and the experience a bit more unique. You can pick out the sensations. Very Bock-like. Lots of long lasting head. Some caramel notes. Hops present and a little up front in nose and taste… Hallertau?

Big Moose Ale

OK, I admit it. I partially grew up near Big Moose, NY, which is probably this beer’s namesake. My wife and I got married and had our honeymoon near Big Moose. So we’re bigots: prejudiced; pro-Big Moosers. I can’t claim that this had nothing to do with achieving second place, or that the fact that we both prefer ales. But very, very little… if at all.

What took this beer to second place was actually two factors. Saranac already has a pale as one of their flagship beers… one of the first, if I remember right. We expected that this would simply be a relabeled Saranac Pale, which is a good beer. That would have been annoying, in our opinion.

That’s not what we found. There’s an obvious citrus; Cascade-like, hop up front to the nose and the tasted, but it twisted and turned into a bit more spice. Complex? Yes, because the taste morphs in your mouth before it barely leaves the bottle in your hand. And, yes, plenty of hops… but this mix could have easily gone into astringency. It came right to the edge and the stopped and smiled a knowing smile. Wow. That’s brewster talent.

Their site says Centennial. I would have guessed something a bit more spicy, but the additions were done quite well.

Not a lot of malt but not unbalanced. The malt was firm and not too caramel, or too pale, or too anything. The hops are the showcase here; close but not quite an IPA. More a unique pale and a pleasant symphony.

And the top of the six…

Rye IPA

Mozart maybe? Perhaps more Chopin? I feel like letting this cradle my tongue while listening to the gentle flow of the soft side of Scheherazade.

This really need to win awards. Rye can create some off flavors: this doesn’t. I have had and enjoyed Rye IPAS made by talented homebrewers and brewpub brewmasters, but I have never sensed such perfect harmony between hops and rye with none of the downside that rye can offer. Of the rye beers I’ve had I have found rye can brings out less than pleasant phenols. Not a lot, but enough if phenols bother you it may be noticeable. Nothing like that here.

Foamy head: plenty. A copper/gold cross, SRM-wise. Didn’t have the chart with us when we tasted these brews or I’d offer a number.

This has the same magic Big Moose had but the rye takes the spicy (somewhat pepper)/citrus (somewhat grapefruit) hop mix to a new level. We guessed Saaz and Cascade, or Centennial. But their site says Hallertau, Saaz. Well, we were partially right. Something in the hop equation added just a bit of the fruitiness like what was found in Big Moose Ale. Probably a matter of when; and how, the hops were added.

Submit this brew somewhere for competition, please? If it doesn’t win anything then judges need to have taste bud transplants.