Every week inside The Man Who Invented Beer, Adam Cowden runs down the latest in craft beer, usually with a history lesson for flavor.
It’s a week for celebration. Hawks finally won the Stanley Cup, it’s finally starting to feel like summer, and I’m finally turning 23 (or I guess I already will have by the time you read this). I thought this all called for a little something extra, and I decided that it was finally time to grab one of the shiny, expensive, high-gravity “big-bottles” that are displayed right above the stickers advertising their near-perfect ratebeer score at the liquor store. I eventually had to settle on one advertised as tasting like “sunshine in a bottle” (to complement my outstandingly sunny mood): Sorachi Ace.
What’s the story?
I’ve already given you the scoop on Brooklyn Brewery, but the story behind this particular Brooklyn brew is interesting enough. Sorachi Ace is actually a name for a variety of hops that was first developed in Japan by Sapporo. This new brand of hops was a cross between British “Brewer’s Gold” and Czech “Saaz” varieties, and it was discovered to have a unique and distinct lemon scent. Sorachi Ace never came into fashion with the big-name brewers, but Garrett Oliver and the boys at Brooklyn Brewery thought it was interesting enough to warrant its own brew. Brooklyn first released Sorachi Ace as part of its “Brewmasters Reserve” series of one-time, limited-edition on-tap beers, but later decided that it was good enough to add to their “Big Bottle” line of beers.
Brooklyn’s Sorachi Ace is classified as a saison/farmhouse ale. This is a Belgian style and traces its origins back to refreshing summer ales that were brewed in farmhouses in Wallonia during the cooler months for consumption by farm workers during the hot summer. Typically, these workers would consume up to five liters each day. In order to make this possible, these original saison beers were crafted with an ABV around 3-3.5%, but this lower alcohol content also called for heavy use of hops and/or spices to prevent the beer from spoiling. Saisons were often blended with older beers or with lambic beers to enhance their refreshing acid taste or to dilute their alcohol content. Nowadays, saisons are typically around 7% ABV, and are nearly always unfiltered and bottle-conditioned (meaning they contain live yeast in the bottle and continue to ferment). Most saisons are influenced by Saison Dupont, the signature beer of the Dupont brewery in Belgium that acts as a sort of “golden standard” for the style. Saison Dupont was recently named the “best beer in the world” by Men’s Journal, and there has been a resurgence in popularity of this this style in recent years, especially amongst U.S. craft brewers.
Why should I drink it?
Brooklyn Brewery is mostly known for their omnipresent “Brooklyn Lager” as well as a few of their seasonal beers, but outside of these familiar faces, Brooklyn is doing some pretty cool things. Brewmaster Garret Oliver, writer of the Oxford Companion to Beer, is widely recognized as an authority on international beer styles and beer/food pairings, and Brooklyn’s Brewmaster’s Reserve program has launched some exceptionally creative and innovative brews. Unfortunately, these are only available on-tap, and you’ll have trouble getting a hold of these if you don’t live near New York, but luckily Brooklyn has released several of their more unique and creative brews in their Big Bottle line. The beers in this line almost without exception undergo special treatments like bottle-conditioning, re-fermentation, and dry-hopping that are uncommon even in many craft-beers. In the case of Sorachi Ace, the beer is dry-hopped (hops are re-added after fermentation) to enhance the zesty-lemony flavor of the hops, and is also unfiltered and bottle-conditioned in accordance with the saison/farmhouse ale style. You’ll also get all of the alleged marginal health benefits of unfiltered beer, though you’ll also get the indigestion.
What does it taste like?
Ever had Sam Adams Summer Ale? Well, that beer is like the karate kid to Sorachi Ace’s Mr. Miyagi. Sorachi Ace is essentially the perfect summer beer. It has all of those light, refreshing, fizzy, lemon-y characteristics that are present in other summer standards, but all of these features seem more authentic Sorachi Ace. The beer is extremely carbonated and fizzy—the cork nearly took my head off as I opened the bottle, watch out—and leaves a huge white head when poured. I have a suspicion that this is probably due to a higher-than-usual yeast content (as is typical of saison beers) that causes gas buildup as the beer continues to ferment in the bottle. I’m not sure if it was my imagination or not, but the beer also feels almost supernaturally light in terms of its literal weight; I almost felt like I was holding an empty glass. The mouthfeel was also extraordinarily smooth and creamy for such a highly-carbonated beer, and I have no idea how it manages to achieve this. The taste itself is full of lemon and light maltiness, but the lemon taste is much, much more natural and balanced than in other beers that feature the taste prominently. The lemon zest endowed by the Sorachi Ace hops sits very well in the mix and seems more like a natural component of the beer, rather than an addition in beers like UFO Hefeweizen (still a great beer) or a concentrated extract-like mask for sub-par beers lower down the line (not naming any names, but you can probably figure it out). The lemon zest also clearly dominates the beer’s nose, which, by the way, is one of its most pleasing features.
So Sorachi Ace is the perfect summer beer, but with one caveat: an ABV of 7.5%. This puts it squarely between a normal non-light beer and “mammoth” brews like imperial stouts and barleywines. This means that you can certainly have more than one, but probably not more than a few without starting to want to take a nap. The alcohol content is also pretty noticeable in the taste, and this is really the only part of the experience that was at all displeasing.
Should I try it?
Yes, yes, yes. Even if you’re not accustomed/fond of higher-gravity or Belgian beers, I would highly recommend this beer if you don’t mind spending a little extra. Or, you can think of it as an extremely affordable bottle of wine—but much more complex, tasty, and suited to a hot summer afternoon than any wine you can get for $10-12. This is not the kind of beer that you enjoy by the keg-ful with friends, but rather, the pat-on-the-back kind of beer that you enjoy with solo out on the porch after a long, productive week. Or as consolation for not being in Chicago when the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup. If you’ve never thought of enjoying a beer in this manner, Brooklyn Brewery’s Sorachi Ace is an absolutely perfect place to start.