I like to think of myself as a fairly well-versed traveler in the universe of beer flavors. Typically, you think of three variables that can make a beer have flavor: malt, hops and yeast. The degree to which a beer’s malt is kilned and then the temperatures that said malt is mashed can impart a wide array of flavors from grainy to caramel to chocolatey roasted coffee flavors. Hops can make a beer just a little bitter or full of volatile oil terpenoid compounds that can make the beer citrusy, lemony, piny, floral, or any other flavors. Beers like Dogfishead’s minute series impart the wonderful combinations of bitterness and flavor that can be released. And then the yeasts, the workhorse of the beer-making process can impart flavors of its own. In a lager, it is decidedly absent, a paradoxical lack of proof that makes its existence clear. What one typically seeks in a lager yeast (cold, bottom-fermenting) is a clean malty profile. In an ale, you usually get a wide variety of fruity ester flavors or phenolics, clove-like spicy flavors.
And then there are the beers that break the rules. Usually, I reserve this category for lambics, the crazy bastards of the brewing world.
However, much of our knowledge of beer as we know it is tainted, with the addition of hops being more of a recent modification to the idea of beer as we know it. Before this, people would make beers with spices and other herbs besides hops. I admit, up until this day, up until this moment, every beer I’ve had has been hopped.
Now, I find myself with a beer in my house begging to blow all of my pre-conceived notions. Alba Scots Pine Ale. Consisting solely of malt, Scots Pine and Spruce Sprigs, according to “ancient Viking recipe.” As if this wasn’t tantalizing enough, the beer claims to be best consumed at room temperature in a wine goblet, inspiring notions of a Viking feast hall after battle, drunk warriors, comiserating after the defeat of some unknown lesser foe. Before even opening the bottle, I find myself both intrigued and scared.
Time to open the fucking bottle already. The smell is an earthy alcoholic, malty caramelly, somewhat ferrel odor. Ferrel in a good way, like you don’t know what’s going to happen. The flavor is… surprisingly plain. There’s a certain resinous quality about it. Growing up in New York in the foothills of the Adirondecks, there was a tree near our house that while fun to play around, would constantly leak sap that always seeemed to make it on our clothes, hair and every now and then our eyes, if we were creative with our stupidity. There’s hints of that behind a massive malt backbone and a well-muscled alcohol content of 7.5%. The pine flavor becomes more apparent with each sip. Where there would be more hop bitterness, there is a calm essence of pine hiding in the background. What’s fine, is, it’s not completely out of place; many hops, Simcoe comes to mind, can get very piney… this seems to just cut out the middle man and deliver true coniferous resins without any pretext.
Overall… neither amazing nor prosaic. While it makes you stop and think a minute, it doesn’t make you reconsider everything you’ve ever thought about beer. It’s just okay… but different.