Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Lost Abbey (Port Brewing): Avant Garde or Bière de Garde

Founded in 2006, The Lost Abbey or Port Brewing is located San Marcos, California – a medium-sized city located about 20 miles (32 km) north of San Diego. The brewery offers about six regular beers, another six seasonal variants, and four of what they refer to as “non-denominational ales” – i.e. ones that don’t comport with any well-established beer style. Hence, not only does The Lost Abbey clearly value a good sense of humor, but their product line appears to reflect a blend of conventionalism and innovation, or perhaps “reformation” (see my 10 Commandments review for a somewhat quirky elaboration on this point).
Avant Garde is what The Lost Abbey refers to as a “farmhouse-styled ale”, although their website, like their apparent brewing philosophy generally, shuns the notion of classifying this brew. In their words, “some might want to label this as a beer brewed in the Bière de Garde tradition of Northern France. We would prefer to say it was brewed in the Avant Garde [italics my own] style of beers that will reward all those who seek the not so ordinary”. These are fine words, but does their brew really live up to this aspiration?

Well, for starters, modernists like me just love our classification schemas, and indeed to a fault in some respects. So, be it Bière de Garde or avant-garde, things become clearer – or so it seems – when the world around us comports with the known. And the folks over at Ratebeer and BeerAdvocate both describe Avant Garde as exemplar of the well-known Bière de Garde tradition. From Northern France historically, these “farmhouse ales” are generally top-fermented, and to avoid the sometimes-funky behavior of yeast in the warmer summer-month temperatures, this style was traditionally brewed in farmhouses during the cooler winter and spring months (see Wikipedia). Still, farmhouse ales are intended for consumption during the summer and autumn, and hence any respectable Bière de Garde should be a refreshing summertime treat (see And Lost Abbey’s Avant Garde is certainly one of those treats.

Grabbing the bottle and forcefully pulling off the cork immediately releases a brief hiss and then a pop, just as any beer in this price range should do. When pouring the Avant Garde into a glass, the hazy, medium-amber body and two-finger white head are signs of what’s to come: an enticingly sweet beverage with lots to offer its drinker. Swirling the glass a bit reveals a decent amount of lacing, but perhaps a tad less than what I expected. Aroma? Well, Avant Garde is not all that powerful, but spending some time nurturing it in the glass indeed pays dividends: Think fresh sweet bread, a bit of grains and grass, and a sort of well-aged feel. Fruity notes, or berries perhaps, are also discernable, as is a slight nutty tone. However, the caramel note was not as forthcoming as expected.

The mouthfeel is simply outstanding, where the full and effervescent body, along with the multiplicity of subtle flavors, coalesces into an absolutely refreshing, but eventful beer. When compared to the aroma, Avant Garde’s flavor is far more fruity and reminiscent of thoroughly ripe yellow apples and berries. A bready flavor lurks in the background and is much more timid when compared to its pointed presentation in the nose. Hop references are virtually absent, just as it should be for this particular style of beer. And while the spicy note is subtle, it becomes a bit more focuses toward the dry and largely sweet finish.

The Lost Abbey would probably like us to avoid reviewing Avant Garde up against a well-known traditional beer style – namely Bière de Garde, and instead review it as a style of its own or up against its supposed avant-garde nature. Either way, we’re dealing with classes, and aside from the focused spicy note in the finish, Avant Garde does not clearly cross the boundaries into the avant-garde per se and is instead an excellent representation of the Bière de Garde tradition. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.


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