There’s been a rising trend in the world of Craft Beer, especially in North America. No, I’m not talking about New England style IPAs. I’m talking about brewery membership clubs. The Bruery has the Reserve and Hoarders Societies, Cigar City has the El Catador Club, Casey has the Extended Family, and so on and so on. Different memberships give different perks, but one constant driving this tend is membership-exclusive releases.
Back at home in Vancouver, we have a membership club of our own. 2016 saw Strange Fellows introduce The Fellowship. It came in 2 levels, based on how loaded up on perks you wanted to be, but generally speaking, both levels got you discounted growler fills, 2 glasses, and 4 exclusive beer releases.
Since the only thing I can really “review” would be the beers themselves (let’s be honest, my only review of cheaper fills would be “that’s good and I like it”), let’s go ahead and talk about some bottles.
Full disclosure: I’ll be remarking on both how the beers tasted when they were first released, as well as how they held up when trying all 4 earlier this year. As the beers were released in a staggered format throughout the year, some had more bottle-aging time than others.
Greybeard Old Ale
The first release (May 2016) was Greybeard, a barrel aged stock old ale conditioned with two different Brattanomyces yeast strains (8% ABV). I’ll admit I was excited for this one. Not only was it the first release of the series, there’s a definite lack of old ales in BC. Some of my favourite beers are (classified as, at least) Old Ales: Hair of the Dog’s Adam, Kuhnhenn’s Fourth Dementia, Harviestoun’s Ola Dubh Special Reserve… all excellent beers. So needless to say, when the first beer announced was an old ale, I wasn’t disappointed.
Upon trying is fresh, my excitement was justified. The barrel character was understated, not in a bad way, though the body was a touch lighter than I expected. Decent amounts of caramel, toffee, dried red fruit, fig, vanilla, and alcohol warmth. The brett was showing ever so slightly, with a small amount of funk underlying the malt forward brew.
8-ish months later, I shared a bottle with some friends (alongside the other 3 releases). The brett had moved in and made it self quite comfortable. The fruitiness of the beer stepped up quite a bit, as did the carbonation, and a woody character had formed. Subdued were the caramel and toffee notes, and some of the body had also been lost. All in all, I think I preferred this one fresh, or a few months old, but it was still tasting fine even this far into its life.
Little Red One
The second release (August 2016) in the fellowship was Little Red One, a barrel-aged West Coast Sour with black currants from the Fraser Valley, which was partially bottle conditioned (5.6% ABV). Sour? Check. Currants? Check. Barrel Aged? Check. You got me. I’m sold. Even if the beer’s name does bring back some really dreadful memories of a certain beer…………………
Fresh, it was a bit muted. The tartness, barrel character, acetic notes, and black currants all felt a little under-incorporated. That said, it was still a very tasty beer, and I was confident it would develop over time. It was young, bright, and refreshing, but had promise for more.
Cut to the future. Still not overtly sour, but the jamminess of the black currants had come through a bit more, with a bit of vanilla and tannic character developing. It didn’t evolve drastically, but it definitely improved. Not to spoil the upcoming sections, but it quickly became the favourite of the four amongst the group.
The third release (October 2016) was Nocturnum Galactica, a red-wine barrel aged version of their Nocturnum black IPA, conditioned with Brettanomyces Claussenii, and dry hopped with Australian Galaxy hops (6.5% ABV). This was an intriguing one. It sounded like it would have quite a bit going on. Black IPAs already have a bit of an internal power-struggle going on, and when you introduce red wine barrels, brett, and fruity dry hops, you’l got an all out royal rumble on your hands.
That said, drinking it fresh, it kind of worked! There was still a bit of roasty, toasty malt character from the base beer, but the fruity dry hops kept it’s original balance intact. The brett and funk were a nice touch too, adding a bit more depth. I was happy with it, but more curious about what time would do…
A lot, it would seem. Only a few months later, and this beer has developed all new characters. The fruity hops have faded, replaced by a more herbaceous and spicy character, and the brett worked over those malt characters into funky tobacco, leather, and cherry. It also had a complex woody bitterness to it that wasn’t present before. It was a bit much, but it was very interesting to see where this went. All in all, I preferred it fresh.
The final release (November 2016) for the inaugural Fellowship was Boris Arabica, another staple-turned-special (9% ABV). Strange Fellows took their Boris Imperial Stout and aged it in French and American red wine barrels, then conditioned it on a blend of Arabica coffee beans. This one had me conflicted. Something that has been lacking in BC is a truly stellar imperial stout. Part of this is due to the fact that BC has weird tax laws once your brew hits 12% ABV, part of it due to the seeming lack of wet bourbon barrels we get in BC, and part of it being… I don’t know… they just make them better everywhere else! Boris is an interesting example… it’s a fine stout, if a little too herbal for my taste, but they normally use Jack Daniels barrels (which seems to be the only really wet bourbon barrel we get in BC). The switch to wine barrels is interesting, as the best feature of Boris, for me, is the bourbon character. Regardless, if it’s a coffee stout, I am definitely drinking it.
The first time I tried it, I noticed one thing right away: the coffee. Not necessarily for the reason you might expect. Coffee in beers can sometimes develop a flavour of green peppers. I don’t know exactly what variables cause it, but it’s not the most desirable flavour. In this case, the green pepper notes were very minor, but I’m pretty highly sensitive to them. Combined with the wine barrels, which introduced a light tartness to the beer, this one was hard to describe. Of the four, fresh, this was my personal least favourite. That said, it wasn’t a bad beer by any stretch, and many others seemed to enjoy the hell out of the coffee punch.
Having it again in January, it was a whole different story. Gone was the green pepper, but the roasty malts and coffee were still there, along with the tartness of the red wine. It actually worked together much more cohesively, and I was digging it much more. For the second tasting, it managed to move up the ranks past Nocturnum Galactica for me.
The real question is: was it worth it? Would I join the Fellowship again?
The easy answer is Yes. Absolutely.
While the beers may not have been truly world class by any means, they are very fun and interesting experiments that I otherwise wouldn’t get to try. Plus, now that they have year 1 under their belt, I expect year 2 to be even better. Strange Fellows have proven they can brew exceptional beer (Reynard, Talisman, Obnoxious Little Persona…), and I’m happy to put my money where my mouth is. Or, more accurately, what I want in my mouth.
The next edition of the Fellowship goes on sale on February 18th, and I invite you to join in on this great membership, as 2017 is looking to be a great year for members.