Full Sail has a pretty low-profile series, available only in 22 once bottles, called Brewmaster's Reserve. It is the yang to their "Livin' the Dream" series yang. Whereas that line is a mainstream offering to a large audience, Brewmaster's Reserve is for beer geeks. Available now are two beers I tried over the weekend--Nugget Red and Top Sail Porter.
In a moment, I'll get to the reviews, but first a mention about reviewer objectivity, a subject brought into sharp relief by these contrasting beers. I try to be objective. Over the years of formal and informal tasting, I've developed an appreciation for every style of beer (leaving aside the commercial inventions of light beer, dry beer, etc). I understand the intention, history, and craft behind the styles. But that doesn't mean I love them equally. I favor beers that are hoppy or black (or both), beers made with ale yeast, and anything made in Belgium. German beers are harder for me to love. Among ales, two beers could scarcely be found that would test my prejudices. Based on the results of my tasting, I'm suspicious of bias. You'll have to be the judge.
Top Sail Imperial Porter
Top Sail has been around as a seasonal for at least a decade. And, although the description "imperial porter" is obscure and unilluminating, it has always been used to describe the beer. Porters are generally lighter beers, even "robust porters," which generally top out at 6% abv. When you start getting into high-alcohol, densely black ales, you tend to think you've entered stout country. (The name "stout," as it happens, comes from the development of stronger porters, know originally as "stout porters.") So wouldn't an "imperial porter" suggest a stout? You'd think, but perhaps the brewery was just trying to be enigmatic. (Of course, there are baltic porters, which are strong . . . but the style horse is dead, so I'll quit beating it.) I'd call it a pretty standard Oregon Stout--something Obsidian drinkers would instantly recognize.
But never mind the name, what about the flavor? For any beer to survive a decade or more, you figure it has to be pretty tasty. With Top Sail, you figure right. It is an absolutely gorgeous beer, pouring out with velvety viscosity, a dense chocolate shake head piling up (and lasting pretty well, despite the high alcohol content). It has a mild, Tootsie Roll aroma; I could detect no hops. The flavor is a wonderful blending of intense, dark-chocolate bitterness, with notes of roasted coffee, and fruit-sweet notes that fall halfway between plum and blackberry. The sweet notes are unusually fruity, but you have to turn your attention to them; otherwise, the creamy, slightly chalky bitterness carries you away.
Alcohol by volume: 7.5%
Bitterness Units: 60
Available: March and April, in 22 oz bottles only
Nugget Special Red
The style of red ale seems to be emerging, and a number of my favorite breweries make one--Roots and Laurelwood are two that spring to mind. Last year, Widmer made one for their Spring seasonal. It seems to be characterized by mid-to-high strength, hop bitterness, and a thin body (and, of course, color). "Red ale" isn't a traditional style (I discussed that in the Widmer review, linked above), but it could emerge as a new one--and one with more distinctiveness than the strong versions of beers that get affixed with "imperial" or "double." Like Top Sail, for example. Whether red ale emerges as a recognized style or not, I have to say I'm biased against it.
In Nugget's case, there's less hopping than I've found in others, but the other characteristics are here: the thin middle, the candyish, sweet malt offset by (what I assume is) crystal malt tannins. It has a hollow center and a bitter edge--a classic red! I suspect it will fail to impress more for its lack of bitterness than the reasons I dislike it, but throw that in as a demerit, too. It's not a terrible beer, and I drank my 22 ounces in mild pleasure. Still, if I were in a pub with only two taps of Oregon craft beer pouring, the great likelihood is that I'd chose the other one. Nugget doesn't hit my sweet spot.
Alcohol by volume: 6.5%
Bitterness Units: 45
Available: March to June, in 22 oz bottles only