Thoughts on Tree House: Vol. I

I could write volumes about Tree House Brewing. In fact, I think I will…this will be the first of, I’m sure, many thoughts on my favorite brewery. Here goes…

There’s an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond where Ray’s parents are planning on moving and Ray describes the perfect distance for them to be. Too close and they’ll be over all the time and drop in without notice, too far and they won’t be able to come by to visit at all. In many ways, this is how I’d describe my feelings on Tree House. At about 2 hours away, it’s too far to just drop by but it’s close enough that I could go on any given weekend. But let’s apply this analogy to other aspects of TH.

When I do make the trip, I usually load up on beer to make it worth the drive, and at $3-$5 per can I’m spending a solid $125 for a case and a half. Again, too much to make a habit of it, but not so much that I feel buyers remorse.

Trail Magic German Pils

Similarly, the variety of beers that Tree House brews is right in the sweet spot. They’re obviously known for their New England IPAs double IPA’s and, to a lesser extent, their stouts. But they also regularly release Pale Ales, an Extra Special Bitter, a German Pilsner, an Amber, mixed fermentation ales, porters, and a Blonde Ale to name a few, and they do them all extremely well. For my taste buds, this gives them an advantage of breweries like Other Half that seems to just pump out IPA after IPA. Tree House has enough of a focus on juicy, hop forward ales that define their taste while maintaining enough diversity in their offerings to keep things exciting without diluting the brand. They haven’t yet released any sours, they don’t regular seasonals (Oktoberfest) or followed some of the other trends in the industry (Gose.) I’d be less excited about visiting if I knew I’d only walk away with IPAs. I want these – I really want these – but I think I was almost more excited to try Old Man (their ESB) than the Very Green that’s sitting in my fridge right now. Almost.

The comparison extends to their flavor profiles, too. Tree House has a “Tree House flavor” that, I think, is attributable to their proprietary yeast blend, and is most easily recognized in their hop-forward ales. It’s always exciting for me when trying a non-IPA beer from Tree House to taste whether it has this signature taste. Trail Magic, their German Pils, does not have this profile (probably due to being a lager, supporting my yeast theory), but Eureka (Blonde Ale) and Ma (Amber Ale) do exhibit the Tree House flavor. (I’ve never crossed paths with TH stouts have never crossed paths, but I’m excited to evaluate whether they have the TH flavor.) While I love the signature taste, the fact that it isn’t in all of their beers keeps things exciting.

And one last example of Tree House landing right in the sweet spot is the rotation of their offerings. They have a core lineup that’s on the regular rotation: Julius, Green, Haze, Bright, Sap, Eureka, Alter Ego to name a few. But they have a long list of other beers that pop up every few weeks (Old Man, Trail Magic), months (That’s What She Said, Very Green), or only on the rarest of occasions (Juice Machine, King Julius.) They also keep the regulars exciting by using different hop combos (Bright w/ Galaxy, Bright w/ Citra.) So these days you’re guaranteed to have a nice selection of 4-7 beers to chose from, but you’re also likely to hit on at least one of the more limited releases (this week brought us Very Green and Very Hazy on the same silent release) and, if you’re really lucky, one of the Tree House whales.

I could list another half dozen ways in which Tree House perfectly walks the line between everyday common and extremely special, from their branding to their PR to the brewery and taproom. They’re giving the fans what they come for while always keeping things fresh and exciting. I just love this brewery and am really lucky to have it right in my back yard…well, maybe a few houses down is OK.


Singlecut – Is This the Real Life?

There have been no beer styles that have ridden the wave of the craft beer craze to the degree that IPAs have. The 2008 BJCP Guidelines listed three varieties of IPAs: English, American, and Imperial. The 2015 update now lists four – English, American, Specialty, and Double – but the Specialty category  defines six more (Black, Brown, White, Rye, Belgian, and Red) and leaves the door open for countless more to be added (Northeast IPAs are sure to be under consideration for the next update.) Further, IPAs are also classified by their strength:

  • Session:  3.0-5.0% ABV
  • Standard – 5.0-7.5% ABV
  • Double: 7.5-10.0% ABV

So there are an endless list of possibilities within the IPA style and most breweries have a number of IPAs in their roster, often one of them being their flagship beer.

A relatively new brewery to enter this market is Singlecut Beersmiths, located in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, NY, and they are no exception to this rule. A stones throw from my home in CT, they’ve recently started appearing in limited quantities in my local bottle shops and I’ve heard good things, so I picked up a bottle of their Is This the Real Life? IPA to see for myself. (As an aside, music, guitar, and amps are their schtick, so their beers are named as such.)

First, the vitals:

  • Style: American IPA (BJCP 2015 – 1D)
  • ABV: 7.2%
  • IBU: 120 (bottle), 110 (website)
  • Color: 7-8 SRM estimated
  • Hops: Pacific Northwest, New Zealand
  • Malt: Unknown
  • Cost: $7.99/bottle (1pt 9oz)

Technically speaking, this beer doesn’t fit nicely into a single category. The ABV is on the high end for a standard IPA, but their claimed bitterness is well above the range of 40-70 provided by the guidelines. This is one area where breweries are taking the

notice the small red Les Paul-style headstock peeking out from behind the label…so sweet!

liberty to push beyond the specs for this style, and while I don’t object to not being boxed in by the guideline, the “more is better” approach to hopping isn’t always successful.

The bottle is a 1pt 9oz package and the label is a nice matte paper with spot varnish to highlight the brewery name. I love the die cut Les Paul head stock peeking out of the top of the label…a really nice touch and nod to their love of guitars.

The beer is a deep orange color, slightly hazy, and has a slightly off-white, fluffy head that reduces to a layer of tiny bubbles after about 2 minutes. The foam clinging to the wall of my tulip glass leaves nice lacing as I drink this beer. The smell is, as expected, all hops and very fruity. Tropical grapefruit is the strongest at first, but later the mandarin orange becomes more noticeable.

My first sip is a mouthful of beer, to say the least, and is slightly sticky. Not as dry as my previously reviewed Modern Times Fortunate Islands, which finished at 1.008, so I’d put this one around 1.012. The beer is very hoppy, but I doubt that I could distinguish the listed 120 IBUs from 90 or even 70 unless side-by-side, so it seems excessive. The fact that the ABV is in the Standard range but the IBUs are so high throws the IBU/OG ratio out of whack. Whereas you might expect something in the 1-1.25 range, this probably comes in around 1.7.  While I think this beer is hopped for the sake of hopping, and this dominates the profile, it’s not overpowering. I don’t think the IBUs can even be perceived in this range, but it’s not as pleasant to my taste buds.

Ironically, the alcohol esters are a little punchier than I’d expect from 7.2% and so much bitterness, so I’m not sure the best balance has been struck here. Something seems off to me.

Flavor-wise, I’m picking up slightly floral, very soft notes, especially towards the back end of each sip. A medium body with resiny hops that come through later in the glass. Although the hops are clearly prominent, the body of the beer allows them to be front and center without overpowering the flavor. I pick up very little malt flavor, but the color would suggest mostly 2-row with only a little bit of crystal on the low end of the Lovibond scale, maybe 20-40.

The grapefruit continues to take front stage and I let the 2nd half of my beer warm for a little while. When I return, the aroma has opened up, partly due to warming and partly due to being able to get my nose fully into the glass. By the end of the beer, it’s gotten a little too warm and the alcohol esters are too strong.

While I enjoyed the experience of this beer (the bottle, color, aroma, and trying a new brewery,) I didn’t love the beer. If this review seems a little confused, it’s because the beer is too. The hopping tastes too strong to me compared to the maltiness (or lack thereof) and alcohol, but at the same time they’re not overwhelming. I wouldn’t expect any more malt flavor here, but the hops and bitterness are not extremely well balanced with the alcohol. For my taste buds, I’d like to tone back the bittering charge to achieve a more reasonable range of 50-60 IBUs. I’ve been warned that some Singlecut beers are better than others and I’m looking forward to trying some of their other beers before I make a final judgment on the brewery.

JK’s Rating – 3 out of 6


Modern Times – Fortunate Islands

Living on the CT side of the CT-NY state line affords me the opportunity to sample beers that are distributed in both states. Some great beers from New England Brewing Co. (G-Bot & Sea Hag) don’t yet make their way into NY, and others like Cigar City’s Jai Alai out of Florida don’t distribute further into the Northeast than NY. One of the beers that falls into the latter category is Modern Times Beer out of San Diego, which I’ve heard a lot about but had yet to try. It wasn’t until recently that they showed up in my go-to NY bottle shop.  After passing it over when I first came across a store stocking a limited variety, I picked up a 4-pack of their Fortunate Islands as my first in a year-long series of weekly beer reviews.

First, the vitals:

  • Style: American Wheat (BJCP 2015 – 1D)
  • ABV: 5%
  • IBU: 46 (can), 30 (website)
  • Color: 4 SRM
  • Hops: Citra, Amarillo (can)
  • Malt: Two row, Wheat, Caravienna, Acid Malt
  • Cost: $12.99/4pk*

Working for a packaging design firm, my first observation is the can, which is nicely printed in a clean, retro design that extends nicely across the Modern Times lineup.  The name of the beer (Fortunate Islands) takes a back moderntimesfortunateislandsseat to the brewery name’s prominent placement, making it a little tricky to identify the beer’s name and style at first. But once you know what you’re looking at, it works.

The beer pours a golden straw color into my American Pokal glass and shows only a hint of white head made up of medium sized bubbles that quickly die as I take a couple pictures. It’s bright and nearly clear with tiny bubbles rising up from the bottom of the glass…my ballpark estimate of 2.5+ volumes of carbonation is validated by the recommended levels for this style. In addition to the clarity, the smell instantly tells me that this is pushing the boundaries of the wheat category. The aroma is one of fruity hops, much closer to an IPA than a wheat, and my first sip confirms this. The bitterness comes through instantly and is accompanied by a punch of hoppy flavors that lean much more to the fruity end of the spectrum than the piney, which only came through a little bit after warming in my hands. The can describes the flavor as tropical, and I can’t argue with that. My taste buds are not world class, but the flavor of the Citra hops dominate on my pallet and remind me of PipeworksBrewing ‘Lil Citra all-Citra session IPA that I had earlier in the week. The can and website also list Amarillo in this recipe. Both Citra and Amarillo contribute to the big puckering grapefruit taste, but none of the other individual aromas and flavors of these hops (melon, lemon, lime, passion fruit) stand out to me. Instead, they meld to form a nice, fresh, fruity aroma and taste that give way to a huge punch of grapefruit with a slight piney tail end.  The dry finish (FG stated as 1.008, the low end of the vitals according to BJCP) allow the hops (well above the high end of 30 IBUs according the same guide) to be front and center in this beer. A brewer might target an IBU/OG ratio of 0.4 for this style; Fortunate Islands comes in at nearly 1, and the result is evident.  The 2-row, wheat, and yeast (listed as the flavor-neutral Wyeast 1056 in the homebrew recipe) definitely take a back seat.

For comparison, I poured a bottle of Goose Island 312 UrbanWheat, the standard American Wheat in my book. Both lack any significant head retention and show only slight lacing as I drink them down, but the 312 is noticeably hazier (although not cloudy like a German wheat beer), significantly less bitter, and has a much softer mouth feel and prominent wheat flavor than the Modern Times. If one goes by the style guide, the 312 (added in the 2015 edition as a commercial example of the style) is a much better example. I’m in the camp of brewing delicious beer, style guide be damned, and Modern Times wins this competition hands down.

While Fortunate Islands lacks all of the attributes I would expect from an American Wheat (soft mouth feel, grainy or wheat flavor, a balanced bittering profile, and low hop flavor), it’s a very good beer, is well brewed as exemplified by the clean flavor and bittering, and leaves no doubt in my mind that the folks at Modern Times know what they’re doing. Everything except the grain bill tells me that this is a session IPA, so I’d describe this as a “West Coast American Wheat,” very much in keeping to the beers I’ve come to expect from San Diego.  I’ll definitely be stocking my beer fridge with Modern Times – it’s got the badge value of a new entry into the market, and I’m excited to share this find with friends.

JK’s Rating – 4 out of 6



*note: I plan on including the cost of the beer as a reference point because, for me anyway, this is a pretty important factor when buying beer.