I recently sampled the Bruery’s Smoking Wood, a 13% ABV Imperial Porter that’s brewed with beechwood and cherrywood smoked malt and a hearty dollop of rye, and then aged in rye whiskey barrels. It got me to thinking about how something can have all the hallmarks of excellence and then leave you totally unfulfilled.
Allow me to explain in terms that any manchild with a mancave can relate to, by comparing beers to video games and television shows.
HBO’s Deadwood is perhaps my favorite television show of all time, a masterpiece set in a gold-mining camp in the waning days of the wild west. It’s an unflinching character study exploring the primal urges that motivate us as human beings – greed, lust, religion, the desire for power, and even love. If Deadwood were a beer, it would be my beloved Schlafly Reserve Imperial Stout, a huge and peppery Bourbon barrel aged stout that cuts out all pretenses of civility and delivers massive amounts of delicious pleasure to the senses.
Deadwood opened me up to other western-themed stuff, like the video game Red Dead Redemption, which is basically Grand Theft Auto with horses. It too is a deeply satisfying distraction, and if it were a beer, it would be another of my favorite Bourbon barrel aged treats – New Holland Dragons Milk, a boozy, no-nonsense strong ale that’ll kick your palate in the mouth and put hair on your chest. I consider both Dragons Milk and Red Dead Redemption to be lovely variations on a manly theme.
Now if Deadwood and Red Dead Redemption were to have a baby, it would bear a striking resemblance to the AMC series Hell on Wheels, which follows the story of a blood-hungry Civil War vet who is tracking down the men who murdered his family. The action takes place in and around “Hell on Wheels,” the name given to the movable railroad camp that houses the men and the horses and the whores that laid the track which united the coasts.
This show has all the elements of a classic; a dynamic and rough historical setting, a flawed hero, people trying their best to carve out a hardscrabble life, lots of brooding anguish, poor personal hygiene – you name it, and Hell on Wheels delivers.
Except it really doesn’t. There’s just something not quite right about Hell on Wheels that makes me crazy. The storyline is a little too predictable maybe, or the writers pull a few too many punches and fall back on cliches instead of delivering truly memorable characters. It’s a good enough show to watch, but the whole time I have a little voice in the back of my head saying “this should be SOOOO MUCH BETTER!”
And that’s exactly how I feel about The Bruery’s Smoking Wood, which has all the elements of a beer I should love (dark roasty malts, a kick of rye, boozy barrel aging), but still manages to cock the whole thing up.
Smoking Wood pours black as coal, with a creamy tan head. It certainly has its name on the nose, which smells like smoked bacon and whiskey and a hint of chocolate (just like my breath over the holidays).
The first sip greets your palate with a slippery hint of smoke, which gives way to chocolate and caramel, followed by a peppery rye kick and touch of booze on the back end.
While all of this sounds awesome, there’s an off flavor when the smoke begins to fade and the rye begins to ascend. It’s only there for a moment, but I got the fleeting taste of Band-Aid astringency on the first few sips, until my palate adjusted to it and it faded into the background in subsequent draws from the glass.
The beer wasn’t infected as far as I could tell, it’s just a bad combination of flavors, like how putting blue cheese together with sirloin makes the whole affair taste like liver.
Honestly, it was a real disappointment, but I finished the bottle, just like I’ve watched every episode of Hell on Wheels and will continue to do so. After all, 80% of awesome is still better than nothing, but it’s also excruciating in it’s own special way to get that close to being excellent, but somehow missing the mark.
Unlike Hell on Wheels which is basically free to watch, I won’t be coming back to Smoking Wood any time soon, as it costs over $20.00 for the 750ml bottle of the stuff. If it ran $14.99 a pop I might pick it up again, but I can’t spend that kind of dough on a beer that reminds me of a better, cheaper one.
I guess what I’m saying is Smoking Wood is no Deadwood, and that’s too bad, because I’m always looking for the next classic in which to fall in love.