In 2006, almost 10 years after Stone Brewing Co. released the first batch of Stone Smoked Porter, Laura Ulrich, one of the company’s brewers, had an idea to make it better. Ulrich added whole Madagascar vanilla beans to a small batch of the finished brew, and a new beer was born. After that, Ulrich decided to incorporate the sweet vanilla into the brewing process.
“It was an instant hit, as the resulting flavor combinations — rich vanilla melding with the malty, chocolatey, coffeelike characteristics of the beer — were practically made for each other,” Stone says in a press release.
The vanilla version from the Escondido, Calif., brewery has been released in bottles since 2012.
I recently gave it a test drive.
The beer pours dark brown with a full finger of dirty, frothy head. I stick my nose near the glass and get the smell of faint sauna, without the sweaty occupants, but also of coffee beans and vanilla.
When done right, the smoked porter style is an exercise in restraint. At 5.9 percent alcohol by volume, Stone’s beer is not strongly alcoholic, nor is it too smoky. It’s a hint of smoke that dries out the brew and keeps it from being too sweet. That’s even more important with the addition of sweet vanilla beans.
There’s a really nice smoke-vanilla interplay; my wish is that it had a little more bite. That’s something you don’t say often about a Stone beer. This has 53 IBUs (international bitterness units), which is a lot for a porter, but I wished the finish were crisper. Still, for a beer with so much going on, I found it highly enjoyable.
Stone Smoked Porter with vanilla bean is distributed in 22-ounce bottles all over New England.
Avery Brewing’s Hog Heaven
Barleywines are “the strongest of beers,” according to Garrett Oliver’s trusty “Oxford Companion to Beer.” While not quite brewed to strengths approaching actual wine, barleywines can reach 10 percent alcohol by volume or more. The style has roots in British tradition but has become a winter regular for US craft brewers.
In general, these highly alcoholic ales tend toward the sweeter side. For that reason, and after years of peppering my palate with bitter IPAs, the style is not a personal favorite. Double-IPAs, whose ABVs can sometimes approach 9 percent or more but aren’t so cloying, better represent the kinds of beers I like to drink.
So along comes Avery Brewing’s Hog Heaven, a barleywine by name weighing in at 9.2 percent ABV but packing 104 IBUs (international bitterness units). It’s that last number that catches your eye, a number that many very bitter IPAs don’t even approach. So what’s going on here?
The bottle description reads, “Or is it hop heaven? This dangerously drinkable garnet beauty was designed to satisfy the most zealous of hop devotees. Intense bitterness and the dankest of dry-hopped aromas are intertwined with a rich caramel candylike malt backbone.”
Hog Heaven pours a reddish amber with a big dirty brown head. It smells like a fragrant, citrusy IPA, but I also get brown sugar and biscuits.
Take a sip and the first thing you notice is the mouthfeel, thick and chewy like a barleywine should be. The flavor, however, is more about pine and bitter hop resin than caramel and brown sugar. The hops really balance the sweetness of the style; do they go so far as to alter it?
So what is this beer exactly, a sweetish-barleywine or a hoppy double-IPA? Style definitions are changing all the time, which might not matter much for the beer drinker but are interesting to think about nonetheless.
Tasting and pairing at Mohegan
Long Trail brewmaster Dave Harmann and John Holl, author of “The American Craft Beer Cookbook,” will host a seminar at the Mohegan Sun Winefest on Jan. 24 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. A five-course tasting and pairing event will feature a Grafton Village Cheese course. Tickets are $50 at ww2.mohegansun.com/sitelet/winefest.Gary Dzen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeGaryDzen.