beer tasting at Aviator Brewing Co.
For our second “beerventure” on Saturday, my husband and I attended the first of a two-part beer class/tasting at Aviator Brewing Company in Fuquay-Varina, N.C. Mark Doble started the brewery in 2008 in the hangar next to his plane, hence the name. Last fall, he opened a tap room in downtown Fuquay because so many people were visiting the brewery during the limited hours it was open for tastings. Only one beer is bottled – a stout – and the rest are sold by keg to bars and restaurants or via growler to thirsty visitors.
The beers offered change with the season and the fluctuations of Doble’s creative mind, but 18 are part of the repertoire (not all offered at the same time). The six of us in the class sampled a flight of four beers, progressing from lightest to darkest: Gremlin’s Golden, Devil’s Tramping Ground Tripel, Old Bulldog ESB and BoneHead IPA. When we started, he placed a pint of the Gremlin’s outside in the sun – more on that later.
As in wine tastings, we were encouraged to note the aroma and color of the beers as well as the flavor and compared our perceptions. The Gremlin’s, classified as a blonde ale on the beer family tree handout I received, had a light grain flavor, an overall clean taste and light mouthfeel. It had the lowest alcohol content of the four at 5.5 percent. The beers we tasted ranged in alcohol up to 9.2 percent (the tripel).
Doble offered a geeky explanation of alcohol, carbohydrates and sugar that, frankly, went a little over my head (they guy’s an electrical engineer in his day job, after all). I’ve never been clear on why different beers vary in alcohol percentages, so I called Daniel Bradford at All About Beer magazine in Durham, N.C. Bradford offered two explanations. One is that certain alcohol percentages are traditional for certain classic styles of beer. Before refrigeration was available, alcohol (and hops) served as preservatives. So, Russian imperial stouts, which were shipped across the large country in the days of the czars, are traditionally higher in alcohol. Or, as beer experts term it, “higher gravity.” Alcohol also adds calories, so dopplebock, originally brewed for monks’ nourishment during Lent, are higher gravity. The second explanation is the experimental nature of modern craft brewers, “just seeing what you can do, how far you can stretch it,” Bradford said. As with hot sauces, there are some people who care about the flavor and others who just want to make something so fiery it blows off the top of your head. But the best craft brewers, Bradford said, are interested in the flavor, not just potency.
Glad I cleared that up. Now, at the Aviator tasting, the Devil’s Tramping Ground was smooth and sweet, with little bitterness and a rich amber color. Doble named the beer after the legendary spot in North Carolina where the devil is said to pace about – he said it’s traditional to name tripels after the devil. The Old Bulldog ESB (Extra Special Bitter) was a surprise to me. It smelled like toffee but had a roasty-toasty flavor in the aftertaste. Despite the name, not a lot of bitterness. Fascinating. Doble said that his goal for the BoneHead IPA (India Pale Ale) was to create a beer that screamed “hops,” and it did. It was my least favorite because of that heavy hops bitterness.
After about 30 minutes, he retrieved the pint left on the deck and passed it around. “This is what a light-struck beer tastes like, and it’s going to smell and taste like a beer that’s very familiar to you,” he said, smirking. The group agreed that it smelled like Corona and tasted like Heineken. Yuk. That’s what happens when you have to ship a mass-produced beer many, many miles. Better to stick close to home.