Imbibe is a semi-regular column that highlights wine, beer, hooch, booze, firewater or any other such substance that calms the nerves and dulls the senses. This is stuff that we like to drink and think you should, too.
Nøgne Ø. I'm not even going attempt to teach you how to pronounce this beer's name. I'm wary of vowels penetrated by foreign objects. I do know this, though: Nøgne Ø means "Naked Island." It's a reference to a poem written by Henrik Ibsen. I also know this: Nøgne Ø's beer is delicious, probably some of the best brew I've drunk in months.
Like their counterparts Mikkeller in Denmark and Brew Dog in Scotland, Nøgne Ø has achieved cult-status among beer enthusiasts for bucking the industrial lager paradigm. The brewery produces only top-fermented beers. That's basically a fancy word for "ale." At the microbiological level that's what distinguishes an ale from a lager. Ale yeast likes a warmer climate and gorges itself on sugars from the top of the tank downward. Lager yeasts, on the other hand, prefer cooler climes and work from the bottom up. Warmer temperatures allow for the development of more esters, which impart the complex flavors and aromas you find in an ale. For a more nuanced explanation of all of this you can click here. Unlike industrial beers. This stuff is still alive, so to speak. It's stamped on every bottle, in fact. By not filtering or pasteurizing their beer, the yeast still survive in the bottle, allowing the beer to evolve and mature.
A few of Nøgne Ø's flagships arrived on Shanghai's shores just a few weeks ago. It's high time we've had a taste.
The craft beer boom has introduced reams of new words into the beer drinker's vernacular. 15 years ago, for instance, most of us probably would have assumed that IPA was some sort of government bureaucracy. The word "saison," however, still probably eludes all but the Belgians and the beer geeks (and many of them are one and the same, when you think about it).
The beer hails from Wallonia, the traditionally French-speaking region of Belgium. It was originally brewed by farmers and doled out to the seasonal field hands. Back in the day, water quality was spotty to say the least. Five liters of saison a day was how Belgian farmers kept their labor hydrated in the summer months.
Needless to say, saison didn't pack quite the punch that it does today. Its current incarnation usually exceeds 5% ABV. Nøgne Ø's clocks in closer to 6.5%. With a pale apricot hue and a creamy white top, it looks great in a glass. The fragrance is pleasantly peppery on the attack, but slowly gives way to lush fruity and sweet, malty notes with a yeasty edge. On the first sip it opens with a crisp, spicy character that resonates to bitter finish. And there is a lot going on in between, too— grapefruit zest, lemon, orange, maybe a hint of ginger. This is patio beer in its purest form—perfect this tiny window of warm weather that Shanghai is in at the moment.
India Pale Ale
India Pale Ale, or IPA, is the unofficial pissing contest of the craft beer world. It's the go-to beer style when a brew master wants to flex his muscles and outdo his peers. It seems like every year breweries manage to goose the booze content a few degrees higher or wring ever more international bitter units (IBUs) from their hops. Then they give them gimmicky names, like "Hopsecutioner" or some fatuous reference to smoking weed. It's just getting out of hand.
Nøgne Ø, thankfully, remains above the fray. Assertive carbonation tickles the tongue and dissipates to a lacy head. It slowly fizzles out to reveal a thick, almost treacly texture. Chinook and Cascade hops impart intense notes of fresh spruce needles and pine resin as well as wonderfully sweet stone fruit aromas like ripe peach and apricot. It finishes with distinctive smoky taste that eventually recedes into an enduring bittersweetness. It's 7.5% ABV, but the alcohol content is like an iron fist in a velvet glove—a delicious, complex, hoppy glove. You probably won't feel it going down. Just be careful the next time you stand up.
If you saw Nøgne Ø's porter in a pint glass all pitch black with its creamy caramel-colored head, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a double venti espresso from Starbucks. An initial whiff reveals a robust aroma of dark roasted coffee tempered with sweet cocoa. Bring it to your nose again, and it reveals a more subdued second layer of soya or teriyaki sauce and even just the slightest bit of Zhenjiang vinegar. On the palate its sweet like black forest cake with smoky edge. Unfortunately, the needle skips off the turntable toward the end with an oddly metallic, slightly vegetal finish. Still, it's not a total deal breaker. It's a flaw that could probably be remedied with some food—some slow-roasted short ribs, perhaps or a lamb shank, maybe even a strong cheese.
Imperial Brown Ale
"Imperial" is another word that has found its way onto many a craft beer label as of late. The term dates all the way back to the 19th century, when it was a designation for high dollar stouts that British breweries were exporting to the court of Czarist Russia. Today, it's really just a short hand for "lots of alcohol and big, bold flavors." They're usually brewed with two, even three times the malt and double the hops.
As with their IPA, these guys pull it off with artful restraint and finesse. This beer is full-bodied without being syrupy, sweet without being cloying. It's a veritable Whitman's Sampler of aromas—milk chocolate, toffee, caramel, raisins, toasted nuts. It all translates seamlessly to the palate along with a strong, hoppy backbone. As with most of these beers, be careful; The alcohol content creeps up on you.
Where to get them
For now, Cheers-in has sole distributorship on these beers, and at the time of writing they're only available for delivery. Prices are 59rmb across the board for a 500ml bottle. Considering what you'll be asked to pay for beers of comparable quality and alcohol content, that's not too bad a deal. Also, keep an eye out for some of their specialty brews like the Imperial Saison or their "Two Captains" Double IPA. They're limited release, but when they're available be sure to snatch up a bottle of when available.