Patrick and I reviewed two of these on the Beervana Podcast--Cigar City Hot as Helles and Port City Optimal Wit. Since I received the package, Cigar City has sold out to private equity, anticipating Eric's comment ("Enjoy it before they get acquired by ABInbev.") It is not a DC-area beer ("I just had it sitting around and it fit in the box") and it was the least impressive of the batch. A helles lives and dies by malt character. If there isn't a subtle symphony of flavor, it's just a boring little lager, and I guess I'd put this beer in that category. The malts were sweet, and generically so. We've got another Port City down below, so I'll mention Optimal Wit with it.
On the wings of Armageddon (DC Brau)One comment I'll make here interstitially is that the above two beers are good examples of why the designation "West Coast" no longer has any meaning. They are typical of the beers I found around the country last fall. Basically, the American interest in hops has become universal, and we're all making them the same way now. And please do not mention Vermont.
This was the beer that precipitated the care package. Eric comments, "I think this is the DC area’s version of Heady Topper or Pliny the Younger." DC Brau used the Falconer's Flight hop blend exclusively in the beer. My notes: "Wonderfully fruity aroma--orange, mango, and something slightly dank/savory. Pretty thick mouthfeel. Lots of flavor, not a ton of bitterness. Strong hoppy beers have a strange acidity that seems to singe my mouth." It seems like a wholly worthy member of the crowd of sticky modern hop bombs, though I didn't personally love it. That's not surprising since I love only a tiny number of these kinds of beers. They strike me as too intense, too crowded, as if an addled writer kept using the same page of notebook paper to write a novel. But you'd probably love it.
Fruit Basket (Champion)
Eric comments that it is, "well regarded, but I thought it was only OK." My notes were similar. "A well-done fruit IPA, with the actual fruit flavors (orange and grapefruit juice, "citrus" zest) fading more towards bitter rindiness. The zest provides a dry, bitter finish, but otherwise the fruit my be hidden. A bitter spine. Nice but not sublime."
Thanks for the beer, Eric! And thank all of you future participants in this ongoing series.
Vienna Lager (Devil's Backbone)
Eric's comment: "DB makes wonderful beer in general and this is their standard bearer." I agree about the brewery; it's one I admire a lot, and they're cited in the Beer Bible. But I've been underwhelmed by this beer, and was again. My tasting notes: "Beautiful amber-copper. Toffee malt aroma. A bit too sweet, and the malt character is generic. I would like a distinctive flavor in these malts, and a drier, crisper finish." Like helles, this style depends on distinctiveness in those subtle elements. The brewery uses several malts, and that may actually be the problem: with fewer, the flavors might shine through more brightly.
The last two come from Port City, and they were the two best beers (by my lights) in the pack.
Optimal Wit (Port City)
Eric's comments: "This is my neighborhood brewery. They have a great line up; this is on tap everywhere around here..." I don't have notes--listen to the pod!--but it was really superb, dominated by crisp freshness, and only accented by spices (as opposed to being oppressed by them). It contains grains of paradise, and I hate grains of paradise. Usually. The spice is so strong it's almost always overused. Clearly, though, when used in the right amount, it can be great.
Colossal Five (Port City)
Eric hadn't tried this yet, but said it was getting great reviews. I see why. It is their fifth anniversary beer, an English-style old ale. My tasting notes. "Wonderful aroma of stewed fruit with a bit of toffee. Smells like 19th century London kitchen. Bread pudding. Great malt character; sweet, but leathery. Very rich. Lovely beer." This was one of those rare and wondrous beers that shakes you out of analytic objectivity and puts you into a mood of poetry and metaphor. You are searching for flavor descriptions and find your mind wandering off into smiling reverie. I would love to have a steady supply of this beer--and I'd love to see what it would taste like if inoculated with a bit of Brettanomyces Claussenii. Really exceptional beer.
(Hey, you can't blame me for trying.)