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Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Rave for BridgePort's Raven Mad

Very good beers share a single quality with very bad beers and with none in-between: you know instantly whether they're winners. It took only the length of time for the taste buds to deliver their message along neural pathways to my brain to make my judgment. One sip of Raven mad and I knew it was a very good beer.

It is now practically mandatory for breweries to release special high-gravity beers. It keeps the (all-powerful) bloggers happy and creates buzz for a brewery which (I presume they hope) reflects back onto the main product line. No brewery has been more agressive at pursuing serious beers than BridgePort, but so far, they have yet to score an Abyss-like home run. It's not for lack of creativity or imagination. Beginning with Supris a couple years back and continuing through this current run of their Big Beers, they've really been experimenting. Stumptown Tart was a total misfire. Hop Czar was respectable, but didn't hit Tricerahops heights. But with Raven Mad, what's the line? Right--three's a charm.

Tasting Notes
It's easy to make a big beer that inspires awe, but a whole lot harder to make one that is instantly pleasurable. I tend to approach high-gravity monsters with caution--too often they bully my taste buds rather than impress them. It was with this caution that I approached BridgePort's latest, an imperial porter aged in both Jack Daniels and pinot barrels. For one thing, bourbon barrels have become a bit of a bane to brewing; they can swamp an otherwise fine beer with either harsh liquor notes or a cloying butterscotch sweetness. Or worse, both. Pinot barrels contribute less overt flavor, but wine is very tricky; in most examples I've tried, it has made the beer taste sweetly underfermented. Since it was these flaming torches BridgePort decided to juggle, I approached with even more caution.

No worries. The first wash of flavor is so purely pleasureable you don't immediately pick up the layers of flavors. It's a creamy chocolate-vanilla rush to start with. You almost don't think to stop and swish it around. The second sip is where you pick up all the notes that contribute to the whole. The base beer is creamy and chocolatey, balanced with dark roasted malts more than hops. The bourbon is a bronzy patina, a note, not a symphony, riding on top of the porter. Behind the chocolate is a fruit note that must be grape but actually inclines more toward cherry. Raven Mad, like a good winter beer, warms in the mouth and keeps warming down into the stomach. I have no doubt that it will age beautifully and unpredictably. Which flavors will come forward and when? Have to put a few bottles in the cellar and see.

Incidentally, the label is clever but slightly misleading. It's a cheesy 50s horror motif, done poorly in 3-D. They hook a pair of 3-D glasses on a bottle so you can see just how poorly the effect comes off. I assume that's intentional, too--fifties 3-D was mostly a gimmick. I cracked it not expecting such a sophisticated beer. It's one of the best barrel aged beers I've had, and an absolute must for porter and stout fiends. I would say it's no less a must-buy than Abyss. Definitely pick up a bottle or six while they're still available.

Malt: "Humongous amount of chocolate malt and roasted barley"
Hops: NA
IBU: 45
ABV: 7.3%
Other: Aged in pinot and Jack Daniels casks.
Availability: BridgePort only made 1,300 cases (15,600 bottles), and they released them a week before Halloween, so supplies are probably dwindling.
Rating: A


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  2. Jeff, I agree! This is a great beer. I'm really happy with Bridgeport's direction in general with their Big Brews series. I've seen Raven Mad at both Belmont Station and Beaumont Market in the last couple of days, so there's still some around Portland.

    I wonder though, if a distinction should be made between whiskey and bourbon barrels. Although they are similar, and the flavor it imparts on beer is usually fairly subtle, bourbon is a subset of whiskey, and Jack Daniels is not a bourbon. I know it's a technical argument--at least for my palate--but I'm curious why they chose to market it this way.

  3. Jeff - Thanks so much for the review/inspiration. I've got two bottles down in my basement. I think one is headed upstairs tonight.

  4. I couldn't disagree with you more on this beer, or bourbon-aged beers in general.

    I love the "[smooth] liquor notes" and "[rich] butterscotch[/toffee/vanilla/'oaky'] sweetness" that comes from a good bourbon/whisk[e]y/scotch/rum - Full Sail's Top Sail and Goose County's Bourbon County Stout chief among them (I'd likely add Firestone Walker's XII and Parabola to that list if I had tasted more than a couple drops of each… can't wait for December). In contrast, I couldn't tell that Raven Mad had been barrel-aged at all, either bourbon or pinot (Lucky Lab's Pavlov's being my barometer there).

    To add insult to injury, as a porter it tasted anemic by Black Butte's ubiquitous standard - both in flavor and in body… if it wasn't so opaque, I would've thought it to be just another run-of-the-mill brown ale - maybe with a touch more "dark roasted malt;" "creamy and chocolatey" was nowhere to be found, and it certainly didn't come off as a "high-gravity monster."

    Of course, after having typed all that, I just remembered that I had it served from a firkin at Belmont Station when it was first released… cask conditioning has never been particularly kind (IMO) to porters and stouts (as opposed to the miracles it can work for IPA's) - making them seem thinner than they might have originally been, so I'll have to give this one another shot on CO².

    As you should be able to tell, I'm kind of impassioned about porters/stouts, especially bourbon-aged… first loves are always the strongest. :)


  5. @matt, Jack Daniels is most definitely not a bourbon… if you want to talk about harsh, try Bend Brewing's barrel-aged Porter, or BJ's Whisky Stout (not that you'd be able to find it anymore :( )… both Jack Daniels if memory serves, and both distinctly removed from what I consider to be a good bourbon flavor (though I still enjoyed both for their own characteristics). Also, who thinks JD is sweet?! I appear to be in the minority on this, but I've never thought JD was anything but harsh and bitter.

  6. i'm excited to try it...

    JD and Yukon are both sickly sweet to me (the latter even more than the former).

  7. I appear to have walked into a thicket of bourbonalia. I guess I'm not too slavish on this point--it's an American corn whiskey and the downstream flavor in a beer is bourbon as opposed to, say, scotch or Canadian.

    I will ascent to to the technical inaccuracy, but I do think we're into hair-splitting here.

  8. Oops, didn't mean to open up a can of wasp nests here... I've had both bourbon and whiskey barrel aged beers that were delicious. I don't really care one way or the other, as long as the beer lives up to its intentions. With all of the careful attention given to the specific malt, hops, and yeast going into craft beer--especially limited seasonal releases--I just thought it was an interesting discrepancy.