Monday, February 28, 2011

Sam Adam's Infinium Ale - My Take on a Polarizing Brew

Over the past couple of years, Boston Brew Company (Sam Adams) founder Jim Koch has been working with brewmasters at Germany's Weihenstephaner, the world's oldest brewery, to produce a new beer that was hoped would turn the craft beer world on its head.  This he most certainly did, but not necessarily for the reasons Koch had anticipated.  To put it briefly, beer geeks have been beside themselves trying to figure this strange little brew out.

Infinium Ale, the product of this cooperation - or, as the adverts proclaim, "a two year collaboration 1,000 years in the making," is a type of beer rarely attempted before, or at least certainly not at this scale from such a large, reputable stateside brewery.  The new style has been called "Bière Brut" or "Bière de Champagne" - Champagne beer, and it's only really been done by a few obscure Belgian brewhouses thus far.  The idea is a melding of champagne wine, which is 'effevescent' and dry, with the yeasty and malty Belgian pale ale style.   On paper, the idea sounds fantastic.  I like beer, I like champagne, therefore a champagne brew - designed under the supervision of two world-renowned brewery houses - should be a hit.  But then again, I like french toast, and I like pickled hot peppers, yet I sincerely doubt a marriage of the two forces would be greater than their individual parts.  Room for amazing, room for disaster.  

But I was not to fear, as I knew that the early reviews from more geographically-fortunate beer lovers would give some indication of whether the hype was worth it, or whether the collaboration would be 1000 years too many.  What ended up happening was the most polarized series of online reviews, blogs and articles I've ever seen about one particular beer.   Seriously, people are all over the map with this one.  Love it, hate it, be indecisive about it - all have been done in spades.  The BA reviews have been a hilarious see-saw of B+, F, C-, B, A, D that looks more like a musical scale than a series of observations about the same damned thing.  Two seasoned BA reviewers whose opinions I've generally held in high esteem drew exactly opposite conclusions on Infinium, with one likening it to Orval, one of the most beloved Trappist ales, while the other compared it to a glass of strawberry shortcake mixed with yeast and disaster.  Bloggers are railing about how Infinium has been a commerical failure, with bottles apparently languishing in the shelves - a sad result, perhaps, of Jim Koch's ego and ambitions.  Others say the beer tastes just fine, thank you very much. 

Seriously, how could one beer generate such diverse opinion?  It's the beer equivalent of Juno.

Anywars, the LCBO decided to release Infinium this February (which is a good portend if the LCBO is willing to bring such one-off risky brews as this!), and naturally I snapped up a bottle without glancing at the price tag.  Turns out Infinium runs at about 14 bucks a pop, which is about what I'd pay for a bottle of Henkell Trocken dry champagne-style wine, but still pretty steep for a bottle of beer, even one as handsome as this one is.  Clearly, the Sam Adams folks are really gunning for that champagne image, with the foil and cork top and sleek design.  After a few weeks of keeping this in the cellar, I couldn't wait any longer.

Beer: Infinium Ale
Brewery: Boston Beer Company (Boston, MA)
Type: "Bière Brut" or "Bière de Champagne"
ABV: 10.3%

Poured vigorously into a mini Stella glass, the glass Michelle and I reserve for those 'big glass of wine' nights.  The pour left an incredible amount of foam - three or four inches - that took a great deal of time to settle to sippable levels.  Naturally, there was tons of lacing and solid retention on the head here.  The brew is a hazy pale orange, not entirely unlike sparkling grapefruit juice.  No sediment that I can detect, however.

The nose is, well, complex.  It took us several whiffs to figure things out.   I get sparkling white wine, yeast, bread crumbs, hints of apricot, peach, sugar and light spices.  Smells a great deal like a fruity Belgian tripel, except with a little funky musk that fits in more with a lambic style brew. 

The brew is certainly effervescent, but thicker and less aggressively-carbonated than a champagne - as can be expected for something that claims to be a champagne beer.  The taste is musky and yeasty, but with a dry fruit character of tart apple, white wine, apricot and cherry.  While not as malty as I'd thought, there is a nice bready character to it as well.  Finishes tart, no hops to speak of, but sweeter than I was expecting. There's something a bit strange about this brew that I can't quite put my finger on, though.  I think like it...I I?   I'm certainly not getting anything hefeweizen out of this brew (the brews Weihenstephaner are world-famous for), so I'm not sure where their contribution lay.

After many sips, and humphs, and hrrms, I guess I have to side with the folks who like the beer, as I usually tend do.  Infinium landed somewhere in the middle of champagne and beer, but didn't really do anything to make me want to abandon either one.  Too sweet for a champagne, too mixed-bag for a beer, but then again, it didn't taste bad either.  Hmmm.... 

Um...sorry folks, I'm not sure where that leaves you.  If you're looking for me to give a definitive answer on this I'm not going to be much help.  Try it yourself and see what you think.  If anything this might encourage the LCBO to keep bringing this random brews our way.  Considering how many reviewers both love and hate it, I think this brew might have struck a chord with beer-lovers who might be getting a bit complacent of late, comfortable in their world of Imperial IPAs and American Barleywines with nothing offering a real challenge.  Yet Sam Koch has offered a real challenge with Infinium.  Now whether it's a good beer is down to personal preferencees, but there can be no doubt that Koch has made a beer that has made me, and other reviewers, think.  And that is certainly saying something.  (Grade: a very hesitant B)

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