Strange brew: The out-of-town beer marathon

First up, Black Tulip Tripel by New Holland Brewing Company. This Belgian style brew, which utilizes local beet sugar during the fermentation process, is part of the Michigan brewery's High Gravity Series. Black Tulip checks in at 9% ABV, although you'd never know by the taste. When poured, the golden body is actively carbonated, giving off the appearance of a light German lager. Grassy tones dominate the nose with a slight soapiness and traces of sweet flowers and citrus. A thin layer of unstable, eggshell-hued head collapses in on itself after the first few sips. In the mouth, the flavors and dense body are typical of Belgian ale yeast -- spicy banana, finishing with a bitterness that is earthy and dry. Simply marvelous. Everyone's favorite beer of the night.

Round number two: Petrus Aged Pale, a 7.3% Belgian pale ale matured in oak casks. This is essentially a paler version of Petrus Oud Bruin. The golden body has a slightly hazy appearance with a thick, fluffy crown of head that gives off sour aromas, mostly green apples and vinegar mixed with a little bit of booziness. The brew is light and airy, like a less carbonated version of champagne with the mild oaky tartness that comes from barrel conditioning. This brew was worthy of my second place award, but as my friends say, it's only because I'm "into that kind of stuff."

I dare you to pass up a beer called Moose Drool Brown Ale. It's impossible; you can't do it. Although this offering from Montana's Big Sky Brewery was my least favorite beer of the night, it was still a fairly enjoyable brown ale. The chocolaty amber brown body was topped with a thin layer of bright white foam that was long gone by the time my 5 ounce glass was half empty. The range of scents associated with pale, caramel, chocolate, and black malts were all present: bread, caramel, cocoa, coffee. At 5.1% and with light doses of Kent Goldings, Liberty, and Willamette Hops, this is definitely not an American style brown ale. Flavors were somewhat flat and muted, like a clean English brown that has been watered down. There's nothing assertive up front and only a mild nutty smokiness in the finish. The dark chocolate maltiness present in the nose didn't carry through to the taste, which I found to be a major bummer.

Next victim, Roxy Rolles, a winter seasonal from Vermont's Magic Hat Brewing Company, an American red ale with 5.1% ABV and a 40 IBU dose of hops. The dark amber body upholds a thick layer of khaki head that laces into impressive web-like patterns. Aromas highlight the citrusy pine goodness of Simcoe hops. Initially, flavors are malty with loads of caramel toastiness. As soon as the brew reaches the back of the tongue, where the taste receptors for bitterness are located, tones change from the sweetness of citrus fruit to the bite of citrus rind. Even though I ranked this one second to last, it's still a very decent beer.

The finishing move for this test in brew assessing endurance -- the 2008 batch of Bourbon County Stout. Produced by Goose Island, this beast of a brew is a 13% stout that's been aged for 100 days in bourbon barrels. It's definitely one of those beers that makes you say, my work here is done. Heavy and opaque black, the body shows no carbonation and only the slightest traces of head. This wee glass of motor oil has a huge bourbon aroma, with all the woodsy, smoky, vanilla glory that comes from charred oak barrels. This daddy is a sipper, and every sip is like getting slapped across the face with a smoky whiskey barrel. Mouthfeel is slick, thick, and warm; it makes me wonder if Robitussin ever thought about releasing a bourbon flavored cough syrup. In some ways, the barbecue booze flavor is almost too overpowering. I'd like to try a bottle after a few years in the cellar has allowed time for all that flavor to simmer down a little. Regardless, this is a powerfully flavorful beer worthy of my bronze medal rating.

So that's the scoop, the behind-the-scenes peek at what beer nerds do when nobody is watching. The question you must ask yourself at this time -- Do I know somebody planning a trip out of town?

If you know me on a personal basis and are planning a trip anywhere outside of Florida, prepare to be handed a shopping list and an envelope of cash. There are a few things I will need you to bring back for me. As further compensation, upon your return, we will gather with the expressed purpose of getting bombastic in celebration of beer that can't be found at local retailers.

This is a story about beer nerds — myself and several friends — getting together with recently obtained out-of-town travel brew and some of my mail-order finds. We sat in my living room with this load of beer joy and giant plates of edam, cheddar, and wheat crackers, and surrendered to a marathon of serious beer business.

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