Southern Tier, Oak Aged Unearthly IPA

Grade: A
Southern Tier Brewing Co

Golden amber, crystal clear. Offwhite head that sticks around for a little while. Aroma is of piney hops, some herbal, slightly citrusy Cascade notes as well. There are some vanilla-like accents as well, obviously from the oak. Mouthfeel is medium, the low carbonation lends to a coating sensation, yet it finishes dry. You know this is a unique beer from the moment it touches your tongue. The malt and alcohol are present and accounted for, as are the hops, although in a much more smooth and rounded fashion than I'm used in IPAs. They are very much there in the aroma, every time I take a sip I inhale a little and get a great whiff of fresh, grassy, herbal hops. Then the malt backbone comes in to balance it a bit. This beer doesn't scrunch the face with bitterness like some IPAs strive for. In fact, it's impressively smooth. What I think contributes to that is, undoubtably, the oak.

Oh glorious oak! I was very intrigued by the idea of oaking an IPA like this, and honestly a bit nervous. Oak is something that American brewers are starting to call their own, and the same way they re-invented the IPA (read: hopping the bloody hell out of it) they tended to make bourbon-beer instead of an oak-aged brew. The lack of balance in these beers was terrible. You could acheive the same effect by dropping a shot of Kentucky bourbon into Guinness. When I picked up this beer, I was expecting that I was going to get smacked in the mouth by a two by four covered in hops.

Imagine my surprise when, braced for impact, I took that first sip. The vanilla and the wood are so subtle that they round out and accompany the hops brilliantly. I did not expect to find a balanced beer here, but what I thought would be a bear on a circus ball turned out to be the karate kid on a pier. Normally when you see an American beer on the shelf that says "Imperial Oak Aged IPA" you should cower in fear. The effect is expected to be like a rock band made up of solo acts, each element (the hops, the oak, the malt, the alcohol) playing as loud as they possibly can to drown out the others. You end up with a cacophony of sound that is indistinguishable from white noise with a beat. This beer is the London Sympony Orchestra playing Beetoven's 9th as if he wasn't deaf when he wrote it.

Honestly, I'm impressed. It's not often that I say I like oaked beers, for the above reasons. The idea of oaking India Pale Ale is not entirely a new one, but I dare anyone to come up with a better example than Southern Tier's Oak Aged Un Earthly India Pale Ale.