I spent a lovely evening last night with Stuart Ramsay, John Harris, and McCormick and Schmick's Harborside chef Joshua Boyd. In advance of the event, the three huddled together and came up with a troika of troikas--Irish whiskey, beer, and food in three flights. For beer fans, flights one and three looked to be the big winners. Keelhauler Scottish Ale led off the night; rather extraordinarily, it was the first Scottish the brewery has ever produced. ("It's the only beer I've worried about in years," said the Reverend John O'Harris, as Ramsay re-dubbed him for St. Paddy's.) The last flight featured my central reason for attending--an 11-year-old Imperial stout. I'll write more on the event later, but let me devote a full post to the beer you've probably forgotten about, the middle flight's Full Sail Amber.
This is a beer dating back to 1989, the early days of the craft brewing renaissance. At its release, people marveled: the heft and sweetness of the body, the amazing sprightliness of the hopping. For people trained to think Henry's Private Reserve was "good beer," FS Amber was off the charts. Yet over the years, as people's experience with good beery expanded, they began to think of the beer as a starter beer, almost a throwaway. Jamie Emmerson once told me that people accused the brewery of changing the recipe. In their memory, Amber was this intense, rich beer--surely Full Sail had slowly watered it down. Of course they hadn't. Whatever adjustments the brewery has made were to accommodate the annual variability in hops and barley so that the beer was always the same.
I have a FS Amber irregularly, but I check in at least once a year. I don't think I've ever had the beer on cask, though, and it was a revelation. It was served with Tyrconnell Single Malt, a whiskey akin to a gentle Speyside, but sweeter in the Irish fashion, and Oyster Isobella and a beet slaw. Amber is a thoroughly America beer, but its lineage is much in keeping with the gentler session ales of the UK. On cask, the malt was smooth and creamy, a perfect base for the slightly sweet, fresh, fruity American hops. Some malts manage to communicate the quality of the fresh, lively springs that feed their distilleries. Cask Amber does, too. I originally frowned when I saw Amber on the menu, but it was an inspired choice--Harris recognized what a perfect complement it was to the whiskey and salad.
As beer fans, we tend to want to push the envelope on flavor sensations. We like to be surprised. But there's great virtue in the elegance of simplicity. To get a beer to harmonize so graciously, to be able to lure the drinker back to the glass quickly for another sample, to be such a perfect companion for food--this is a rare thing. The next time you're down at the Pilsner Room, check to see if they have Amber on cask. Vanquish all expectations and come to the beer again, as if you didn't know anything about it. Order a bit of food. It may knock your socks off, too.