As a general rule, the quality of a dining or drinking establishment is directly proportional to the establishment’s distance from the airport (the rule even extends inside the airport, where quality diminishes the closer you get to the gate). This is a hard-and-fast truth.
Cigar City Brewing, in spitting distance of the Tampa international airport, is an exception to this rule. It’s also an exception to the general notion that Great Beer comes from the East or West and nowhere in between. Cigar City makes world class beers in the South, in a state where beer is sold pale, ice-cold, and 24 hours a day at your local pharmacy. Cigar City beer is more than worth a 45-minute delay sitting on the tarmac.
I sampled two Cigar City beers recently and feel the need to tell you about them. The first, a cucumber saison, is like no other beer I have ever had.
It’s hard to make a totally novel beer these days, but Cigar City has done it with this offering. On first thought a cucumber saison makes perfect sense. A saison, or farmhouse ale, is characterized by complex spice notes and a clean, fruity bite. “Why aren’t there more cucumber beers?” I thought as I perused the bottle. A fun narrative written there about the role of sliced cucumbers in spa treatments tied it all together.
Why not have more cucumber beers? I began to find out when I cracked open the bottle and took a few deep whiffs. The beer is gorgeous; we’re talking a sunny, orange color with a structured head. The first scent wafting up from the beer is refreshing and reminiscent of the cucumber-infused water you’d get at a spa or in the lobby of a business hotel. The more I smelled, however, the more I thought of taking a big whiff over the top of a pickle jar. Belgian yeast also produced a familiar scent of banana.
The first sip is exceptional. OK, I see what’s going on here. It’s an easy-drinking, 5-percent ABV saison with cucumber. Sorachi Ace and Citra hops infuse citrus notes, which combine with the cucumber to add to your refreshment. It all makes sense, and yet on the second, third, and fourth sips, the cucumber starts to become overwhelming. There’s the pickle flavor creeping up again, rearing its ugly green head. There’s no bigger pickle fan than me, but I found the beer tough to take down.
This beer has received exceptionally high ratings on Rate Beer and Beer Advocate. Esquire even named it one of the best beers of 2012. Those ratings seem to be driven by the Cigar City reputation more than this particular beer. I wanted so badly for this to be my favorite beer ever, and it fell well short.
As expected, the next Cigar City beer did not let me down. The Humidor Series IPA is part of a series of beers aged on Spanish cedar, the same wood used to make cigar boxes. Starting with the standout Jai Alai IPA as a base, the cedar aging adds a complexity to the beer and mellows out its bitter citrus notes.
Humidor series IPA pours much darker than the previous beer, with a shorter but no less substantial head. I’m no cigar expert, but the beer smells just like a humidor. The wood combined with the tobacco notes of the beer’s hops create an exceptional aroma.
The first sip is complex. Citrus, pepper, and spice are balanced by caramel malt and cedar. Oak-aged beers tend to mellow in flavor; the cedar aging is less overpowering than oak but provides a welcome smoothness. This is still an IPA, but it’s more nuanced. Winner of several Great American Beer Festival medals, the case can be made that this is one of the best beers in the world in terms of both craftsmanship and drinkability. It’s surprisingly smooth for 7.5 percent alcohol and 70 IBUs.
These are, quite obviously, two very different beers. I’d be curious to try another iteration of the cucumber saison. I’d be happy to drink the IPA forever. Cigar City beer is not available in Massachusetts; each bottle retailed for around $11 in the Tampa area.