A trip to Everett’s Night Shift Brewing, and to Idle Hands Craft Ales one door down, defies convention. Nestled in a neighborhood of loading docks and auto repair shops are two tiny tasting rooms pouring fresh, local beer. The breweries are different, one offering takes on classic Belgian styles and the other specializing in styles best described as “other.” I’ve been remiss in not giving Idle Hands a full review to this point, but it’s coming. (Steve Greenlee reviewed Idle Hands Triplication this time last year.)
The three friends who started Night Shift — Michael Oxton, Mike O’Mara, and Rob Burns — can be found often at the brewery. If one of them is pouring beer into growlers for customers to take home, another is usually somewhere in the background lugging buckets full of hops and barley. Night Shift beers are not characterized by a particular style: German Weissbiers, IPAs, Belgian ales, and stouts brewed with habanero peppers have all cracked the brewery’s tap and bottle lineup. I’ve particularly liked the Somer Weisse and Viva Habanera offerings.
Night Shift’s latest release is its most enigmatic. Snow, dubbed a white stout, is a seasonal release that just hit store shelves. I picked up a bottle at Social Wines in South Boston on May 8; the beer was bottled on May 7. It’s expected to be around for a couple of months.
Night Shift packs a lot onto its labels, giving you information on the local ingredients that went into the beer (in this case Ethiopia coffee beans from J.P. Licks in Somerville and Pilsner malts from Valley Malt in Hadley), on food pairings, and on brewery tours. Snow’s label does its best to explain this atypical beer:
“When the warm weather hits, we bring out the Snow. Confusing? Indeed, and so is this beer. With zero chocolate malts in the mash, Snow looks like a pilsner. With heaps of wheat and oatmeal, it sips like a creamy stout. With fresh coffee beans added, it smells like a cup of espresso. And with a fairly low ABV (3.5 percent), it drinks like a session beer.”
While not exactly clearing things up as to what the whole beer will taste like, the label gives you a good rundown of its parts. Poured into a tulip glass, Snow pours a hazy yellow. A flimsy head quickly disappears. The beer smells like a cup of espresso. Power through the coffee aroma and you catch whiffs of wheat, dandelions, and bubble gum.
Taste is largely olfactory, but so is the coffee flavor in this beer, if that makes any sense. You smell the java more than taste it. What you taste most is wheat and oatmeal. I get lemon and white pepper notes. The mouthfeel is more watery than stout-y. The beer finishes clean, and here comes that coffee again. There’s a lot to wrap your tongue around.
Snow is certainly complex. Is it refreshing? Sort of. Is it robust like a stout? Not exactly. It’s an interesting beer. But because it defies categorization, I also don’t know when I would drink it. On a hot day I wouldn’t reach for one. On a cold day I’d want something more robust. Add it all up and Snow comes off as more of an experiment than a balanced beer.
Discovering Hof ten Dormaal
Part of the fun of writing about beer is coming across bottles I’ve never had. A “brief” trip to the exceptionally well-stocked Craft Beer Cellar in Belmont last week turned into an hour-plus of staring at unfamiliar labels. Kind of like going to the library. The staff at CBC is beyond helpful, but even a good explanation of a particular beer isn’t always enough for me to take a bottle home; sometimes I need to linger in a beer’s vicinity for a while to truly get a sense of it.
When faced with an unfamiliar beer, some factors to consider are style, country of origin, price, ABV, and unusual ingredients or brewing processes. If it’s a Belgian-style beer, is it brewed in that country? Is it brewed on a small farm with local ingredients? Will this beer at this price be worth my while? There are no specific requirements, but these are the questions that inform good beer decisions.
Brouwerij Hof ten Dormaal checked a bunch of boxes, and because of that I was on my way home with a bottle of the Belgian brewery’s Barrel-Aged Project Dark Ale. In this case, the price could have been a prohibitive factor. I rarely pay more than $12 or $13 for a single bottle of beer, so $23 was steep.
I was swayed by Hof ten Dormaal’s story. The brewery in Tildonk, Belgium, began operations in 2009, existing as a farmstead dating back several centuries. The brewery is nearly 100 percent self-sustaining, growing all of its own grain and hops and using oil from rapeseed produced on the farm as the primary source of energy for brewing processes. The Hof ten Dormaal beers available at Craft Beer Cellar were each aged for two months in a different spirit barrel. I took a leap of faith and selected the dark ale aged in Cognac barrels. Other offerings include the same beer aged in Gin (Jenever), Madeira, Armagnac, Sherry, Port, Ardbeg Whiskey, and Sauternes barrels.
Hof ten Dormaal dark ale aged in Cognac barrels pours an opaque chestnut into a snifter glass. It smells like liquor-soaked cherries and vanilla ice cream.
The beer is rich, just as you’d expect a sweet ale aged in barrels of a sweet liquor to be. Dark plum, fruitcake spice, and burnt sugar notes dominate. The aroma of this beer does not carry over to the taste as well as it could. All of that thick, wonderful vanilla smell thins out on the tongue. This brew might do better with more aging, and I’m kicking myself for not choosing the one aged in Ardbeg Whiskey barrels (a peaty beer? sign me up). On alternating sips this drinks like a regular Belgian dark ale, which is not a bad thing but also not an extraordinary thing. The price tag demanded better.