I was listening to part of the ABV Chicago podcast last night, in which they reviewed five Pipeworks' barrel-aged beers. One of the things that the hosts of ABV said was that recently, they had been buying fewer beers from Pipeworks. They attribute this to Pipeworks' innovative spirit and the fact that they do not hold back any of their unusual beers from the market. Up to last year, you could go to a store and pick out just about any Pipeworks beer and be pretty happy, or even amazed. But of late, there were just so many things sitting on shelves that the ABV guys now wait to see what other people are saying about each beer before they purchase anything. Pipeworks is a brewery that is not afraid to experiment with beer. Sometimes this produces liquid gold, mostly it produces ok beers, but it also results in some lemons on occasion. This is the price of experimentation. I've also pulled back from just randomly grabbing Pipeworks off the shelf because a bomber runs from $9-$15, which can become expensive if you're just taking a chance on something. I'm not diminishing Pipeworks in any way. I still regard these guys as my favorite new Chicago brewery--some of their beers have simply blown me away (this is also the sentiment of the hosts of ABV Chicago). I just wish the ratio of great Pipeworks beer to ok Pipeworks beer was a little better.
Speaking of highly experimental Chicago breweries, I finally got my hands on a bottle of What the Pho Porter by Marz Community Brewing in collaboration with Chef Bill Kim. I was worried about how this one might go because it's based off of the popular Vietnamese beef broth noodle soup. I had also recently spoken with Tim Lange, one of the brewers at Marz, and he seemed bemused by this beer, as well as the Umami Imperial Stout that they brewed with Takeshi at Against the Grain in Kentucky for this weekend's Festival of Barrel Aged Beer (FOBAB). He's aware that these are unconventional choices, to say the least. But I also think he has confidence in his co-brewers and the products they're putting out. And in any case, I'm always game to try something from a brewery that has not let me down so far.
What the Pho Porter (6.5% ABV) was aged in barrels infused with ingredients designed to reproduce the flavors of pho. It pours black, with reddish tinting when held against a light. It has a very thick head that lasted until the beer was practically gone. The aroma is a combination of all the things that went into this beer, and then some. I personally smelled ginger, although this was not one of the ingredients in What the Pho. Somehow, I'm guessing the peppercorn and cloves, along with the anise, cinnamon, and sassafras blended together to make this aroma. The porter also smells sweet, although in a soupy, almost meaty way. As the beer warmed, it smells increasingly like pho. What the Pho has the typical medium body of a porter. It's smooth, and has little carbonation. It tastes sweet, like meat marinated in soy. There's also a tingly sensation that feels like ginger, although it's really just the peppercorns and cloves talking. The Sassafras, cinnamon, and anise account for the sweet flavors, with hints of licorice.
So I went into this beer with an open mind, having no idea what to expect from such an unusual take on the porter. I was somewhat concerned that the flavor would be too intense, or that the flavors would build into something overwhelming as the beer warmed. I also suspected that the flavors simply might not work, producing something that didn't taste right. These fears proved unfounded. Marz used a very creative cast of ingredients to reproduce what turned out to be a very unique and good beer. What the Pho is a more subtle exploration of flavors; it's not at all overwhelming to the palate. Although it certainly won't appeal to all, it will impress many beer drinkers.