So, how’s it been? I’m here with November’s Northwest beer review, and after a harrowing month, glad to be writing this beer review. Recall that my aim is to educate you about craftbeer. In short, I want you to learn something about craftbeer and the breweries that brew them, while I promote an appreciation for the beers, themselves. That all being said, let’s get to it.
The Brewery: Iron Horse Brewery, Ellensburg
This month I’m reviewing Iron Horse Brewery’s Quilter’s Irish Death, which they tout as a “dark, smooth ale”. Iron Horse is “the best local craft brewery located in Ellensburg, WA”. You can learn a little from their website about their history, but more importantly, you’ll get a sense of the personality of this company. My impression is they don’t do much the conventional way. Purportedly founded in 2004 (unconventionally, not found on their website) you’ll have to decide whether their name is a reference to an old term for a locomotive, or an obscure reference to a not-too-distant sculpture along Washington’s Columbia Gorge. They make several beers, but in the Puget Sound area, where I live, they are probably best known for Irish Death. If you can get your hands on any of their other brews, I’d recommend it. (I’ve tried Mocha Death and their IPA, both of which are worth chasing down.)
The Brewer: Greg Parker
I was able to get in touch with Greg Parker, one of the co-owners/co-founders of Iron Horse, through their Twitter account, run by Ross, his friend and another co-owner/co-founder. As you might suspect from their website’s self-imposed unorthodoxy, Greg’s answers follow the same vein.
Q: What first got you interested in brewing beer?
A coworker of mine was always talking about how drunk they got over the weekend brewing beer and how much beer they had fermenting, in bottles, in kegs and otherwise. It drove me crazy. I kept asking him to invite me over for a brew session, and I finally prevailed. It wasn't easy though. At one point, he told me "last Sunday was National Teach a Friend to Homebrew Day. I should have called you". One’s prospects aren't great when you can't even get an invite for that occasion.
Q: What is your favorite brewing memory?
It happens every year. When the wet hops get to the brewery and stink up the cooler and then turn our lauter tun, doubling as a hop back, into a steam bath so pungent you can feel the resin on your face after sticking your head in. When is someone going to grow hops hydroponically so we can have fresh ones year round?
Q: What is your favorite style to brew and why? To drink?
I like to brew things that seem interesting, but aren't a style. If I want a pale ale, I will go buy and drink one. If I want a 7% brown wheat beer made with a high fruit but low phenolic yeast, I’m gonna make it. Then I am going to not pay enough attention and end up with a 9% brown wheat beer made with a high fruit but low phenolic yeast. At least that is what happened in my garage last weekend. Every once in awhile I will brew a style, but it is so much more fun just dreaming up the end result and developing a recipe around the concept than it is to tweak a standard percentage to make a "to-style" derivative. To drink? It all depends on the season. I have actually been drinking a fair amount of Irish Death lately. I am really excited for this wheat beer I just made.
Q: What is the single-most important variable to you in your brewery/process?
Yeast. We have a strain that is a bit more expressive, and it leaves a signature. I actually refer to it as my third child, and when challenged, have been able to identify it blindly in a beer.
Q: Do you have any tips (process, OG, FG, special ingredients) for homebrewers wanting to clone Quilter's?
Use a mothertruckload of malt, easy on the hops. Don’t get hung up on attenuation and get some yeast that has some fruity character. Better yet, go buy one and brew something better.
Q: Brewer question of the month: If you could take off today and visit any brewery in the world, which one would it be and why?
Probably a Burton brewery still using the Burton Union system [Editor’s Note: A Burton Union system is a recirculating fermentation system developed by the Burton Breweries in the 1830s]. The system is so unique, and I love the Burton ale yeast strain. Plus to get a pale ale from the source, fresh and nuanced, it just sounds so satisfying.
Q: What was the brewery's vision for Quilter’s Irish Death when you began developing the recipe?
We inherited the recipe when we bought the brewery. Jim Quilter developed it, and there were a few iterations floating around. I am inclined to believe it was the result of "I wonder what would happen if I just added every malt that I have left right now?" it is definitely a "kitchen sink" approach.
Q: Is there anything you'd like to change about Irish Death, or has the original vision been achieved?
I’d like to have it magically multiply itself in kegs and bottles so we could fill them half full and double our capacity.
Q: Where can readers find your beers in WA, OR, ID?
Everywhere in Washington except Vancouver, Everett, and painfully limited quantities in Olympia and Bellingham. Lewiston, ID. Nada in Oregon, but those two states are our first stops once we have enough beer to supply Washington.
The BJCP Style: Strong Scotch Ale
As you might recall, the Beer Judge Certification Program provides style guidelines for the purpose of having a set of evaluation standards. They’re a collection of descriptions provided with some discipline, and for each style, they cover, in order aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, and overall impression. Within each of these, the guidelines address each contributor in descending order of detectability.
I originally started looking at Irish Death as an Irish Red, but as you’ll see on their website, it really defies the guidelines. Which style it best represents has—and will probably continue to be—argued by more experienced judges than me. I present it to you here as a Strong Scotch Ale, and I’m sure that will stir the pot of nationalistic fervor between Ireland and Scotland to no end, but only because I’m sure those two countries’ collective eyeballs are glued to my writings and this blog, and not because I’m suggesting that a beer with the word “Irish” in its name should be judged as something originating in Scotland (#sarcasm). Now just don’t call me if you start hearing about slurs being lobbed across the Irish Sea because of this review.
For aroma, you should expect a malt forward nose from this style, with low to no hop presence. Typically strong caramel notes are present, and smoky, peaty, or earthy aromas may be acceptably present. Esters or alcohol may also present themselves for detection, and that’s ok, too.
In terms of color and head (appearance), expect Strong Scotch Ales to be copper to dark brown, clear, and have a large tan head, that may not persist. Really strong versions may have the appearance of “legs” or of the beer sticking to the side of the glass.
This style is really about rich maltiness, so the presence of caramel flavors, especially in strong versions, may be noticeable. This is achieved through kettle caramelization, i.e., introducing the first runnings from the grains to an already hot boil kettle for the purpose of caramelizing some of the sugars present. Hop flavor and bitterness should be low to medium-low “so that the malt can dominate”. The palate is usually full and sweet, but it may not finish in the same way, possibly leaving a sense of dry.
This style is typically medium-full to full-bodied, with some versions having a thick, chewy viscosity. A smooth, alcoholic warmth may be present and is necessary to balance the maltiness. Carbonation is usually moderate.
This style is overall rich and malty with flavors tending toward the sweeter side of things. The malt flavors can be complex and provide the drinker with strongly alcoholic beer.
Irish Death isn’t as readily available in the Olympia area as I’d like it to be, so I opportunistically grabbed one a few weeks ago, hoping I could convince the brewery to give me an interview. I’ve had this beer a few times in local pubs and taverns, always on draft, and I was a little apprehensive about pouring it from a bottle. My fears were unfounded… well, in most any normal person’s eyes, at least. As a person whose professional experience has been gained mostly in a company whose corporate culture is one of paranoia, I like to think my fears were well-founded in years of expert experience.
The beer poured a dark, clear brown, but as expected from a stronger (7.8%) Scotch Ale, I had to work to get a head to form. It poured light tan, with tightly knit carbonation bubbles, but it quickly dissipated leaving a trace on the surface that couldn’t quite sustain a lace down the glass.
Taking my first inhalation of the bouquet, the caramel maltiness was definite and distinct. There was some hint of very subtle smokiness and a mild earthiness (peat?), just as the style describes. While there was a note that was distinctly yeasty, I really couldn’t detect any esters or alcohol, which was surprising for a beer with this high an ABV. Unlike other batches I’ve had, this one presented more like a Strong Scotch Ale than any previous samples I’ve tasted. I couldn’t pick up even a hint of hop aroma.
As one would suspect from Greg’s description of a “mothertruckload” of grains, this beer is all about the malt. The flavor is over-the-top malty (in a good way), and the types of sweetness and various caramel flavors play nicely off each other. There is just the faintest hint of hop bitterness towards the finish that keeps the malt sweetness from being cloying. I’m a big fan of caramel in almost any form, and this beer left me quite satisfied. It’s not quite like drinking dulce de leche, but only because 1) it’s not made with cream (or at least doesn’t appear to be), and 2) the hints of smoke and hop bitterness help to offset the sweetness.
It is definitely a fuller-bodied beer, and quite smooth, just as the label says. If I could find one thing I’d change about the beer, it’d be the carbonation level, as it seemed to be under-carbonated. However, that’s mostly a personal preference, and not a reflection on the beer itself. The guideline allows for a lower level of carbonation for this style, and Iron Horse delivers on that point.
Overall, this is an extremely tasty beer. If you’re not a hophead, or if you’re looking to make a break into craftbeers, this is one beer you need to put on your wishlist. While it’s available year-round from what I can tell, it makes a great winter warmer and is worth the time and effort you might have to put into finding it. Just be warned that the smoothness belies its potency, and you’ll want to enjoy it in moderation… or not.