I remain fascinated by Redhook's ever-evolving beer and branding strategies. In the last couple weeks, I've gotten two beers from the venerable Seattle brewery: a recreation of the original ESB for the Blueline series, and the old standby, Winterhook. We'll address these beers in due course, but we must also contend with an item tucked into the Winterhook package, sans explanation:
Yep, santa tie. Okay, moving right along...
Blueline Series ESB
This beer takes a little explaining. Way back in 1981, when Paul Shipman and Gordon Bowker were trying to cobble together a brewery, they secured an "ale" yeast strain from (if memory serves) the University of Washington.* It was, however, not a pure strain. I never had the pleasure, but early craft drinkers described it as "banana beer," suggesting that isoamyl acetate was at least one of the by-products of fermentation. That the first brewery was located in a former transmission shop and had less-than-state-of-the-art equipment probably didn't help. They had a hard time finding a market for the beer, especially since Bert Grant was putting superb ales into the Seattle market at the same time. They tried to muscle through with the beer, even styling it as "Belgian" after Michael Jackson said it reminded him more of low country beer than an English bitter. Ultimately, they fazed out the banana beer and started making normal ales.
Says the brewery of the re-creation: "Redhook’s second release in the Blueline series is a highly modified version of ESB that replicates the flavor profile of Redhook Ale in the early 80’s, lovingly referred to by Seattle locals as 'banana beer.' To bring out this unique flavor we fermented using a yeast strain that highlights these spicy banana notes."
All of which got me very excited. This is a great homage to the company's history, and now, thirty years later, a measure of the change in American craft brewing. Thirty years ago, consumers didn't even know Belgium brewed beer; now they know what it's supposed to taste like. We have come full circle. (The cap, for the sharp-eyed, is also a nice throwback touch.) Sadly, unlike the crew at the New School, I found the new old ESB damn near undrinkable.
The problem is clashing elements. The Belgian lineage and dark malt character suggests a dubbel and the nose was promising--reminiscent of Chimay Première (red label), it has an earthy breadiness with interesting yeasty phenols. The palate, though, is gratingly harsh. One problem are the 65 BUs; they clash mightily with the yeast-forward quality of the beer. (In Karl Ockert's new classification system, it's a beer at odds with itself--both hop- and yeast-dominated.) The yeast is banana-free, but expresses a lot of phenols. They come off as metallic/medicinal to me, and the aftertaste is a combination of sharp hopping and chemical bitterness.
By contrast, I am pleased to say that the Winterhook is not only one of the best beers I've had from Redhook in recent years, but is easily in the running to be the year's best seasonal. For me, winter ales are best when they exhibit some malt warmth, and Winterhook has loads of it. Redhook used pale, Munich, crystal, and chocolate malts with a touch of oats and rye. It produces a richly aromatic nose, at turns bready and nutty, and a similar palate--almost like a loaf of dark, whole-grain bread. The hops add a light spiciness that pull the beer into balance (Northwest balance, anyway). It's six percent, which is on the light end for winter warmers, but it's wise; this is a perfectly moreish beer and it will be hard for most folks to stop at one (or two). Best that it's not 8%.
As for the tie ...
*This history is recounted in Peter Krebs' book Redhook: A Microbrew Success Story, Four Walls Eight Windows, 1998.