Friday, November 9, 2007

The Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company

Upper MidwestLeinies. If you are from the Upper Midwest you know all about The Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company. Practically every person I talk to, including myself and people old enough to be my grandparents (and probably those old enough to be my great-grandparents), had a keg of Leinie's Red at their 21st birthday party. It is a rite of passage, and has been since 1867. It is the Upper Midwest.

But, there is a dark side to The Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company. It is owned by Miller Brewing Company. And Miller Brewing Company (soon to be called called MillerCoors), in turn, is owned by SABMiller, one of the largest beverage conglomerates in the world with over one hundred beer and beverage brands in its portfolio.

SABMillerSuch corporate ownership is not, inherently, a bad thing. A number of great beers are owned by huge conglomerates. But, these brands get purchased for a reason. Usually because they have great local brand recognition and are accessible, or can be made accessible, by the everyday person. And, this is was definitely the case with Leinies. In the late 1980s after the first craft beer boom in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Leinie's was a well-respected brand locally here in Wisconsin, but also in Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio. Miller saw an opportunity to diversify its portfolio and The Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company saw a great opportunity to expand its sphere of influence in the Upper Midwest, and a partnership was formed. (That's business speak for Miller purchasing Leinies.)

It is hard to say what the impact of this was in terms of quality of the beer. Even if someone had cellared a 1986 version of Leinie's Red and compared it with today's, it would be hard to say whether one was "better" than the other.

But, what we can say is that those that have been here, and those that have grown up with Leinie's, have become disappointed in the brand. Whether it is merely the knowledge that it is now a corporate sell-out, or whether there actually some diminished quality in the beers, the perception remains: Leinie's is a second-rate alternative to "macro" beers. Cheaper (in every meaning of the word) than New Glarus or Capital, but at least it is not Budweiser.

Leinie's seems to have worked very hard in the part year or so to turn this perception around. In 2005, Leinenkugel's failed to take home any awards at the Great American Beer Fest. In 2006, it took home a silver for its Sunset Wheat, and a gold for its Creamy Dark. Using the Sunset Wheat to launch a whole series of specialty seasonal beers, this year, 2007, Leinie's won a gold for its Berry Weiss.

Then, early in 2007, Leinie's launched a high-end brand called Big Eddy. The first beer brewed under the Big Eddy brand was an Imperial India Pale Ale. It was only available on tap in a small handful of locations in Milwaukee and Madison. It wasn't even available at its own brewery; in fact, it wasn't brewed in the Chippewa Falls plant where the Big Eddy Springs are located. It was presented as a cask-conditioned "real" ale and it was available at The Great Dane Hilldale location (where you will no longer be able to get unique beers like the Big Eddy IIPA). When I had one in late June, I was unimpressed, despite rave reviews at RateBeer and BeerAdvocate. I thought it was unbalanced, even for an IIPA. The malts were weak and rendered weaker by the cask (the cask itself was improperly maintained and poured, which isn't Leinie's fault directly except for its failure to ensure that those responsible for serving its beer were properly trained on the quirks of the cask). The hops were overblown, and the whole thing was just unpleasantly bitter and cloying.

Russian Imperial StoutBut, now, Leinie's has released the second in the Big Eddy series. After rave reviews, it has expanded somewhat the keg distribution. It is ostensibly available in Madison and Milwaukee and the Detroit area on tap (if anyone knows where in Madison has this on-tap, please let us know). It is also being bottled, and is (or was) available at Star Liquor here in Madison, and I'm sure other stores have it as well. There is a list at Leinie's website showing the Madison availability, but use at your own peril. I think we paid $9.99 for a 4-pack.

The packaging is impressive, though the twist-off top seems a little cheap, the stylish lettering and subtle, classy coloring make it look appropriately nice. It was pulled out of the refrigerator and allowed to raise in temperature for about 20 minutes before it was poured. To drink this at refrigerator temperature would waste its flavors and aromas. Meanwhile, the snifter it was to be poured into was inpected to ensure it was entirely clean and free of any residual soap. It was the longest 20 minutes since 11:40 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

It poured a thick, oily, pitch black with a thin brown head that never really materialized into anything substantial. This beer is black. Pitch black. There is some brown-ish-ness around its extreme edges, but it fades into black quickly. Its aroma is big and round with huges notes of roastiness and chocolate and subtle caramel. There is a grassiness that comes through presenting a nice brightness. The flavor, on the initial hit is surprisingly dull; then, it hits. The chocolate flavor melts in your mouth, the roastiness floats on and fades into a sharp bitterness and wine-like alcoholy taste that finishes off the flavor components, though they continue to play in your mouth until the next sip. The body is thick and velvety and luxurious, coating the entire mouth and tongue and, really, anything it comes in contact with. This is a very nice Russian Imperial Stout. While drinking three of these would be out of the question, drinking one is quite pleasant and filling. I can't help thinking that this beer will improve with age. For now, the flavors are surprisingly subtle and complex given the huge aromas. In time, I suspect these will reverse. But, in the meantime, congratulations to Leinie's for crafting a fine beer worthy of its premium status.

If they could only put this much effort and quality into all of their other beers...

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