Complexity can be good or bad for a beer. Two weeks ago I reviewed a messy IPA. Aged in Chardonnay barrels and with no sense of balance, Nebraska Brewing Company's Hop God Reserve Series was a lesson in bigger not always being better. A Belgian tripel recklessly hopped and aged in Chardonnay barrels doesn't know what it wants to be. As has been happening more frequently for me as I discover what I like and what I don't, the beer was a miss.
Not all complex beers are bad, however. It is possible for a brewer from the midwest and one from the west coast to collaborate, to age a beer in barrels, to combine disparate ingredients, and for everything to be alright. "Terra Incognita", a collaboration between Kansas City's Boulevard Brewing and Chico, California's Sierra Nevada Brewing, renewed my faith in highly-involved beers.
A limited release from the two proven brewers, "Terra Incognita" was the gift beer at Savor 2012, the annual food and beer pairing (My friend John Karalis wrote a guest review of Savor 2013, which took place in New York this past weekend). The beer celebrates the homelands of the two breweries and combines ingredients from each. Starting with an ambitious grain bill of pale malt, amber malt, and wheat, the beer is hopped with Bravo and Styrian Goldings, dry-hopped with East Kent Goldings, then barrel-aged for three months. Brettanomyces yeast provides a funky bass note.
"This is a tough beer to dial in, but we have a lot of fun with the challenge," said Sierra Nevada head brewer Steve Dresler.
Pop the cork on this one and foam comes gushing out of the 750-ml bottle. That's a sign that the beer was tilted from vertical at some point (we regret the error). I press on, pouring the beer into a tulip glass to reveal a big, dirty-brown head.
What a nose on this one. I smell tart cherries, brown sugar, and banana bread. Nothing out of whack about this aroma, which is a good start. Chocolate, plums, and a touch of coffee are present in the first sip. The head sticks in the glass as you sip; I get some on the tip of my nose.
Mouthfeel is an underrated aspect of beer enjoyment. The feel on this one is robust at first, but tart yeast and a layered hop bill dry out the beer without adding bitterness. The result is a clean finish. Overall "Terra Incognita" has the tendencies of a Belgian dubbel with the modern twists that two of America's great brewers can provide. It's supremely balanced in addition to being complex. That's something every barrel-aging, IBU-wielding brewer should tuck in their back pocket when trying to push the boundaries of new releases. Seek this one out if you can. Even better, get a couple of bottles and cellar one to bring out even more subtle complexity.