Thursday, December 10, 2009

Review: Spruce Goose 2009 (Steamworks Brewing Co.)

A few years ago, I ordered a Spruce Goose Ale at Steamworks Brewing in Durango, attracted mostly by the name. Howard Hughes’ flying crate had always seemed a bit romantic to me.

Unfortunately, the beer was some sort of fizzy yellow concoction. The taste shrieked of spruce. It was completely unapproachable and out of balance, and it took me years to brave another glass.

My, how things change.

Steamworks brewer Ken Martin has thoroughly revamped Spruce Goose, making it into a whole new beer. The brewery seems to recognize this, packaging it in an attractive wine-type bottle, topped by a cork and a cage. At $9.99 a bottle, it’s clearly an upmarket gambit.

I brought a bottle home hoping not to hate it.

Spruce Goose pours a deep copper color, with a white head that melts away quickly. It’s quite similar in appearance to a Belgian amber or abbey ale.

The taste is extraordinarily impressive. At first, it’s a tad sweet, as with many Belgian beers. Then comes the spruce. Unlike in previous iterations of Spruce Goose, the flavor from spruce tips in the 2009 version is nicely restrained. Spruce has a flavor all its own, but raspberries may be the closest analogue. It’s fruity in the best way, as with other beers made from truly natural fruit flavorings. It avoids the trap of excessive sweetness that other fruit-spiced beers sometimes fall into. The finish is pleasantly dry.

Martin harvested 80 pounds of spruce tips from near Little Molas Lake north of Durango, for which the brewery had to obtain a permit from the San Juan National Forest. Much like the locally produced Insider Ale that uses fresh apples or Ska’s Hoperation Ivy fresh-hop IPA, Spruce Goose continues and reinforces the trend of using local ingredients in brewing.

2009 Spruce Goose is a whole different beer than previous versions, and I’m a little surprised Steamworks kept the name – there’s no shame in retiring a beer that didn’t work. For some reason, Durango’s breweries seem to never have the heart to kill a beer.

Whatever its name, Spruce Goose is a smashing success, one of the best beers I’ve had this year. The flavor is wonderfully subtle and complex. And it’s encouraging, given Steamworks’ ongoing pullback from Bayfield. Get this winter seasonal while it’s available.

Martin, who also revamped Ale Diablo, seems to be on a bit of a roll. Let’s hope he keeps it going. A+

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