Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Review: Durango Brewing Co. 20th Anniversary Ale

Rarely have I been as conflicted about a beer as I am about Durango Brewing Co.’s 20th Anniversary Ale, recently released to celebrate the brewery’s founding in 1990.

On one hand, it’s a risk-taking beer, and I always cheer experimentation by our local breweries. Durango Brewing has not brewed a Belgian-style ale in recent years, to my knowledge, so this is a bit of a jump.

Belgian-style brewing is rapidly catching on in the American craft brewing scene, and we’ve seen Durango’s breweries put out several Belgian-inspired ales in the last 12 months. It’s a trend I like and hope to see continue.

On the other, DBC’s 20th Anniversary Ale is schizophrenic. Let me explain: It uses a farmhouse yeast that should dry and sour the beer, but it is not a saison. Likewise, it uses wheat malt, coriander, orange peel and honey – ingredients common to Belgian-style wits – but it is not a wit.

DBC’s 20th Anniversary Ale hews to no known style. Instead, it is a kitchen-sink “Belgian-style ale” that combines wit, saison and golden ale characteristics. The result leaves me with questions.

It’s a great idea to brew with funky farmhouse yeasts. I’m not sure if it’s such a great idea to then add honey and wheat, which flattens and obscures the qualities of those yeasts.

What makes saisons and some other Belgian beers like Orval so amazing is the yeast. Farmhouse yeasts can make a beer slightly tart to puckeringly sour, with a dry, crisp finish to boot. They will funk your beer up.

Perhaps they ought to be allowed to do their thing without adjuncts.

DBC’s newest beer is not tart or sour or even dry. It’s a tad sweet, with an aroma of wheat and hay. Czech Saaz hops contribute to the mix, but hops are not the star of this show.

DBC’s 20th Anniversary Ale seems like a beer trying to do too much, as if given the opportunity to brew a Belgian beer, the brewers couldn’t resist trying to brew three styles in one.

A huge caveat: Beers brewed with these types of yeast will change over time. How 20th Anniversary Ale tastes today is not how it will taste in six months. These sorts of yeasts like to assert themselves, and time may result in a dryness and tartness that is not present today.

It’s possible that there’s a great beer in those bottles waiting to get out. I could see the yeast beating the wheat and honey into submission until they are no more than pleasant complexities to a tart ale that’s more similar to a saison.

Happily, DBC bottled 20th Anniversary Ale in brown glass bottles of 1 pint, 9.4 fluid ounce volume (750 ml), topped by a cork and a silver-colored cage. The packaging should keep the beer unspoiled as it ages.

My recommendation: try it fresh, try it again in three months, then six months, then a year. I plan on drinking it over time to see how it changes.

It may get better as time goes on. But for now this one gets a B.

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