When Victoria’s Phillips Brewing announced it was releasing three seasonal beers with its trademark outrageous cheekiness this week (see above pic), I realized it would be necessary to taste all three, and in one evening no less. Yes, this would be a SUPER MASSIVE undertaking for me, but I steeled myself to the task for you, my dedicated and patient readers.
As tongue-in-cheek as I mean that introduction to be, it was an interesting experiment to compare these three different beers and to see how my palate would react to their unique characteristics. I had an initial taste of each at the brewery’s launch event yesterday afternoon, but when I sat down with the bottled versions last night, I was surprised to find them each a little different than what I remembered.
Each of these beers has a unique angle. First, there is the “King of the Carboy,” Eric Jourdan’s Northwest Amber Ale, one of the winners of CAMRA Victoria’s amateur brewing competition. Jourdan was offered the ultimate wanna-be brewer’s reward: to brew his own recipe on a grand scale with professional assistance at the Phillips brewhouse. Next (in order of alcohol strength) is Green Reaper IPA, the latest entry in this fall’s strong crop of fresh-hop beers. Third is Puzzler Belgian Black IPA, a collaboration brew with Great Lakes Brewing from Toronto, which they brewed together in the week preceding the Great Canadian Beer Festival in early September.
(Phillips has actually released three other beers this fall, all returning seasonals from past years: Crooked Tooth Pumpkin Ale (in 650-ml bombers), Dr. Funk Dunkel (in six-packs), and Boxcar ESB, which is the current guest beer in their mixed box that also features three of the brewery’s core brands, Blue Buck, Phoenix Gold Lager and Slipstream Cream Ale.)
Despite being based on a home brew recipe, this is a solid beer that I could drink again and again. Right after the pour, there is a strong Northwest hop aroma that features sweet tropical fruit prominently. It’s a nice looking beer with a rich, copper/bronze colour and a yellowish head of foam. The first sip offers quite a bitter bite followed by a big malt finish with a tasty burnt/roasted grain aftertaste. It’s quite creamy with excellent head retention. Delicious.
Eric Jourdan’s Northwest Amber Ale
6.2% ABV / 650-ml bomber
Total Score: 20/25
Phillips used fresh Willamette hops picked at a farm Up Island and then brewed in this batch on the same day. It might be interesting to taste this IPA next to Driftwood Brewery’s Sartori Harvest IPA (reviewed here), which is widely considered the pinnacle of fresh-hop beers in BC—if you can still find a bottle of Sartori anywhere. Unfortunately I don’t think Green Reaper’s scythe would make the cut. This is a nice beer that shows off some great fresh-hop flavour, but it isn’t much of an IPA, to be honest, just as Phillips’ regular IPA, Hop Circle, doesn’t come close to Driftwood’s Fat Tug. (If we’re talking about Phillips’ Amnesiac Double IPA, well, that’s a different story entirely.)
Right away, I notice a distinct aroma of green apple wafting up even as I pour this beer. After pouring, it resembles Hop Circle: pale yellow with a light, white head. The aroma settles down to a sweeter, fresh strawberry and citrus smell that is also front and centre when I take a sip. There isn’t much bitterness up front from either the hops or malt, mainly just that sweet, citrusy hop character that fades into a little residual bitterness with a tinge of fresh grassiness at the end. Assuming that Phillips didn’t use any other hops in this beer, these fresh hops have a really interesting, dynamic range of flavours.
Later, as I make my way down the bottle, I begin to notice two flavours that seem to build up over time, though not unpleasantly: a residual sweetness on the tip of my tongue and lips that is reminiscent of the strong strawberry/citrus aroma, and a subtle Tang-like taste (yes, I mean the breakfast drink favoured by Gemini astronauts) that I’m starting to associate with zingy Northwest hops more and more. I guess I could call it tangerine but it is sweeter in a candy/drink powder sort of way. I don’t mind it; in fact, I’d say it’s a big part of Sartori’s fresh hop profile.
Overall, this beer is interesting but it just isn’t much of an IPA on the malt side of things. It seems very thin, with very little malt flavour or body to balance the interesting hops.
Green Reaper Fresh Hop IPA
6.5% ABV / 650-ml bomber
Total Score: 18/25
This collaboration brew brings together Phillips with one of Ontario’s best craft breweries, Toronto’s Great Lakes Brewing. I was really impressed with Great Lakes’ beers at the Great Canadian Beer Festival, especially their excellent Saison. It turns out Great Lakes also left a couple of kegs of its 25th Anniversary Porter here, which Phillips made available at their growler station last week as a surprise guest release. I got a growler filled when I heard about it, and, wow, what an incredible beer that was: rich, creamy and potent! (I have to say one of the things I admire about Phillips is that they put special beers on their growler taps from time to time—I’ve seen Amnesiac and Hoperation Tripel Cross there before—and when they do, they charge the same price as their regular brews, just $10.)
OK, back to the Puzzler. This beer pours as black as pitch with a thick, amber head. It has a rather fruity aroma, quite unexpected for such a dark beer. It positively reeks of berries, with a subtle undertone of roasted coffee. Very nice.
The first mouthful is thick and chewy, very porter-like with a pleasant alcohol warmth that flares up a few times along the tongue. It has a big roasted malt flavour with a subtle tinge of berries. There are northwest hops in here—I’m getting that Tang flavour again—but the hop flavours are obscured a little by the big roasted malts and booziness. After a few sips, it resembles more and more a beer that has been aged in Port barrels; it’s reminiscent of Port itself, actually. Quite tasty. I can’t really taste any spiciness from the Belgian yeast, though, but there is certainly an interesting intermingling of flavours and sensations going on in each mouthful. All in all, I really like this beer.
Puzzler Belgian Black IPA
9.1% ABV / 650-ml bomber
Total Score: 21.5/25
Availability: These three releases are available in private liquor stores on Vancouver Island and in the Greater Vancouver area for a limited time.