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Monday, December 21, 2009

A Few Words About Roots

On Friday, I had the pleasure not only of sampling a five-year vertical flight of Roots Epic Ale, but speaking at length with Craig Nicholls. It's been a long time since I've checked in with Craig, and in the meantime, I've been hearing lots of reports of troubles at the brewery (poor service at the pub, drastically declining tap handles around town, a management change). It was good to finally hear a horse's-mouth report.

Roots was originally founded by Craig and fellow brewer Jason McAdam. They are both great brewers, and my sense of things is that their partnership followed the lines of a rock band. At a certain point, they were pulling in different directions. Craig went into great detail about this period, but since I haven't spoken to Jason, I think it's best to say that the partnership dissolved and leave it at that. Jason moved on (he plans to open up a new brewery called Alchemy) and Roots is all Craig's.

The past two years have been rough financially. The conflict between Jason and Craig happened just as Roots expanded--and just before the economic downturn. The brewery came close to insolvency, it sounds like more once. Fortunately, things have stabilized now. Roots has shifted strategies, focusing more on 22s now, instead of draft sales. Heather and Pale will soon be added to the bottled line-up. Along with increased business at the pub, Roots has apparently weathered the rough times (knock on wood).

So, whew. I didn't realize it had gotten so tight. I'll be heading down more often for a pint, just to make sure the calm weather continues. (Blazer fans take note: as soon as the NFL's regular season ends, Roots will be showing games, and possibly offering that burger and a pint for $10 deal.)

Epic Vertical
Now, the main event. I credit Craig with having the foresight to save some kegs of Epic so we can do these vertical tastings. I'm not sure why other breweries don't do this, too? Wouldn't it be wonderful to do a vertical tasting of 20 years of Old Knucklehead or Old Boardhead? (Yes, that was a hint.) Aged beer is fascinating because not only does it change over time--it becomes more oxidized, the flavors meld and mellow--but it changes unpredictably and unstably. In a single batch, hops may fade away and then come back; flavors and aromas shift and change, vanish and reappear. The character of aged beer is not fixed, and only in vertical tastings do you get a sense of just how mutable things are.

Epic Ale is a truly hand-made beer. The long process begins when Craig smokes a small proportion of Munich malt (small by percentage, but 55 pounds in total) over cherry wood that has been soaked in Glenlivet, cognac, and cherries. The final beer finishes out somewhere around 14%. The beers were so different in the vertical tasting that I wondered if he had changed the recipe. No. (Though of course, barley and hops do change from year to year, so to keep the recipe consistent, he did have to adjust things--all breweries do this, though.) Yet because that smoking process is done by hand, there's definitely going to be variability.

Here are the notes I took on the various vintages, but don't take them too seriously: the next time you taste these beers, they'll taste different.
  • 2005 vintage. This was my fave. The most oxidized of the aged beers (two--half--of which exhibited very little at all), it had a rich, plummy nose. The palate is deep and resonant with dark fruit and alcohol, and the finish is wonderfully smooth, almost gentle. Not a sharp edge anywhere.
  • 2006 vintage. Only barely oxidized. The nose is roasty and a touch smoky, but the palate has more obvious candied sweetness. There's also the roastiness, which doesn't exactly pair well with the brandy-like sweetness of the malt. The alcohol is sharper and more obvious in this vintage, which warms appreciably going down.
  • 2007 vintage. Epic is brewed at 80 IBUs, which isn't actually overmuch for a beer of this heft and sweetness. Somehow, though, the hops come through on the '07, to wonderful effect. Also oxidized a bit, but the hops are evident on the nose. They're really obvious on the tongue, and are strangely fresh and green. I don't know why they pair nicely with the sweeter notes of the malt, but perhaps it's because the oxidation creates enough of a bridge. The aftertaste is all sticky resin. No surprise that this was the crowd fave.
  • 2008 vintage. The sweetest of all the vintages, but less a fruit than malt sweetness. It had the characteristic barleywine aroma, though doesn't taste like a barleywine. I was getting an insistent cherry flavor along with some pepper. Sally found it too sweet, but I was enjoying it. Give it a few years.
  • 2009 vintage. This year's batch was surprisingly mellow. For me, the '09 was the sweetest. It had a melon aroma and flavor that I wasn't so hot on. (Honeydew maybe?) It's hard to know how I would react to this beer straight up, and I'd like to go back and have another pour. These beers are meant to be aged, and compared to the older vintages, this green edition just couldn't stand up.
I'll leave you with a couple of comments from Craig. I asked how long I should let my bottles age, and he suggested 5 years. Not that it won't be good before then, but he'll be aging his for five years. Patience!

Also, as he sat down with a pour of the '09, he admitted he hadn't tasted it before it went on tap that day. "I'm superstitious," he confessed. This is one of the reasons I love Craig. I don't know any brewer who would host a major release for one of the brewery's most important products without trying it first. Craig operates by feel. It's why some people disparage the beers, but it's why others, like me, love them. There are 100 other breweries in the state, and a lot of them do chemical analyses in preparation for their beers' releases. Leave me one guy who still brews like it's 1647.


  1. Don't most people think of oxidization as a taste defect? I think of it as kind of a metallic taste in the beer. If the rest of the flavor is pleasant, some oxidation can be forgiven, but it's always unwelcome.

  2. Most? I know some do. Probably most in the beer-judging community do. But I love a touch of oxidation. I consider it like other potential off flavors--phenols, diacetyl, etc--situationally bad. Of course, there's nothing inherently bad about any flavors. Infected beer is bad unless it's a lambic. Diacetyl is bad in lagers. You don't want phenols in your pilsner. Oxidation, in low amounts, offers what I think of as a rich, aged sense. It draws out the plum and softens the alcohol. Light-colored and light-bodied beers are overwhelmed by oxidation, but a strong ale, stouts, barleywines--they do well.

    I know people who so hate oxidation they think no beer should age (Alex Ganum suggested this). Fair enough, but some brewers think no beers should ever come into contact with brettanomyces. This doesn't mean they're right--just that they have this preference. I prefer a little oxidation in the right circumstances.

  3. By the way, I agree with you that the 05 was the nicest, despite any oxidation. 08 was my next favorite.

  4. Average Bill (the other Bill)6:52 AM, December 22, 2009

    There's oxidation and then there's oxidation. To me it really depends on the stage and how much. I find the beginnings of oxidation can enhance some malt flavors (they can seem a little sweeter or honeylike), then they progress to the more sherry-like notes (which are great in certain styles like Old Ales and Barleywines), but then they finally get to the stale and cardboard like flavors, and no beer benefits from them.

    To me a lot depends on the style. Sherry in a pilsner? Doesn't work for me. Honey like malt and a touch of sherry in an Old Ale? Fantastic.

    But by and large, I'd have to agree with Alex. Most beers don't benefit from aging. Yes, some do, or at least are interesting as they change, but for me the vast majority of beers don't do well as the age.

    Beers like Epic are the rare exception: big, high alcohol, high bitterness, and with enough going on that they'll be interesting as they age. (The other exception is sour beers, since the acidity acts as a great preservative and the slow growth rate of many of microorganisms involved reqires aging for full flavor development.)

    Glad to hear Roots is on better footing. I've always admired Craig's skill as a brewer, but I'm also looking forward to Alchemy.