Reviews: Widmer W '10 and SN/DH Life and Limb

After finding myself in the doldrums of the holidays, it's good to finds some new beers awaiting me on the other side. I had a chance to try two much-anticipated releases in the past week--Widmer's GABF gold-medal winning black IPA W '10 and Life and Limb, a collaborative beer from Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head. Let's start with the home-town team.

Widmer W '10
The "W" series has turned out to be one of the bigger successes in Widmer's history--at least from a beer perspective. From it they have gotten two standards, Drifter and Brrr, and with this year's offering, a gold medal. And, if the whole black IPA has any legs at all, another beer for the regular rotation.

Let us stipulate here at the top: I don't like black IPAs. I find the combo psychically disconcerting, as if discovering that Rush Limbaugh suddenly became a PETA-loving vegan. The mixture of black malts and clean, crisp hopping confuse me, never mind the syntactical dischord of a "black pale." And so, while I'm about to rave about this beer, my opinion of the style hasn't changed. I will not drink a lot of this beer in the future, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate and admire it.

The difficulty in making a black pale is trying to find harmony amid clashing elements--hops and black malts. Trickery can overcome the paradox--you can darken an IPA so that it looks visually black but contains none (or few) of the flavor notes of dark malts. But to make the two work together is the real trick, and one Widmer pulled off. The bridge comes by using hops that approximate pine tar. They're bright and clean, but they hold hands nicely with the cocoa-bitter dark malts. (I'd love to tell you which malts were used, but Widmer's website is currently doing a hinky timeout thing.) This allows both elements of the beer to express their true natures while managing to occupy the same glass. (More reviews at Ezra's new joint.) If you're at all interested in this style, buy a sixer. But if you're like me, also feel free to let the phenomenon build without your participation. I feel compelled to offer this beer at least an A- on the ratings scale, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it become the standard, at least locally.

It bears mentioning that the Widmers have dealt a blow the cause to popularize the "Cascadian Dark Ale" style. Instead of calling this beer by that name on the label, they have gone with "Black IPA." Whether this beer actually qualifies as a Cascadian Dark Ale is another matter (sometimes the distintion is lost on me), but if Widmer ends up with a big hit, Black IPA may blot out the sun as far as nomenclature goes, leaving Cascadian Dark Ale as a cool coulda-been.

Life and Limb
This is one of those beers that looks fantastic on paper. Sam Calagione tapped some maple syrup from the home farm in Massachusetts and Sierra Nevada contributed their own barley to make a 10% old ale fermented with yeast from both breweries and bottle-conditioned with birch syrup. Definitely a high-concept beer from two of the most-beloved craft breweries in the country.

I started homebrewing back in 1993, when my palate was young and crude. Within a few batches, I was regularly making beer that met my own low standards. In the intervening decades, my palate has refined a lot more quickly than my homebrewing skills. A particular segment of my ouvre involves big beers that are like streotyped football players--strong, coarse, dumb, but affable and polite. Old ales, imperial stouts, strong ales--they tend to turn out pleasant, drinkable, but amateurish. When I cracked Life and Limb, I encountered a beer very much like my own homebrew. I therefore enjoyed it, but as with my homebrew, I'm not fooled--it's not a fully successful experiment.

Life and Limb is a very sweet, sticky beer. I would call it an old ale, though it's a bit on the strong side for that style. Sweet stickiness is okay for an old ale, as are the additions of syrup. The problem is that the flavors overwhelm each other and result in a muddled, indistinct palate. Caramel and maple notes are here, but it's just too sweet and despite the 10% strength, nothing balances them. They crash together with the treacly malt in the mouth leaving you with just a general sense of sweetness. It's hard to get through even a half bottle and you feel like you need a pint of water afterward.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that in a year's time this beer has improved markedly--but if so, I wonder why it was released so green. Not a catastrophe, but at $10 a bottle, definitely nothing you have to feel about missing. I'd give it a C+ on the ratings scale.