“I know it when I see it.”
It’s a litmus test for just about everything, but we can thank a guy named Potter Stewart for introducing us to it. Stewart, an associate justice for the Supreme Court of the United States from 1958 to 1981, wrote in an opinion for the 1964 case Jacobellis v. Ohio that he could not define obscenity but “I know it when I see it.”
Sure, Justice Stewart was talking about hardcore pornography but let’s set the subject matter aside and indulge me here, especially since we are intersecting here at a beer website. I want to confront a question that, like Stewart, I cannot define but I know when I see, smell and taste it.
What makes the perfect beer?
Is it the silky smooth barrel-aged stout that slinks across the palette and warms the body from within, or the creamy, juicy IPA that coats your mouth with a flavor that is part-tropical and part-citrusy? And how do you feel about the complex Belgian Quad loaded with flavors and aromas of sweet, dark fruits?
Should we define perfection across the beer spectrum? Our dear leader here at October has made a life’s work defining that metric, but perfection looks and tastes so different when you line up different styles against one another. Sure, we can create a Mount Rushmore of perfect beers with Westvleteren 12, Pliny The Elder, Heady Topper and Founders KBS, but inevitably the screams of “Overrated” will overwash the noise of construction.
Or, are we better off defining perfection within the style? Should we put KBS in the ring with Goose Island’s BCBS and let it be the proverbial fight to the finish within its own weight class? Seems to make more sense.
The flavors become stronger yet without losing the balance you discovered from the first drink.”
Saisons and farmhouse ales are acquired tastes for many, I will grant you that. They come from the French and Belgian countrysides, where farmers would brew and age the beer during the winter as a summertime refresher. The tangy yeast and floral, peppery flavor profile separates this beer from golden ales and lager. Some brewers have come to infect their saisons with brettanomyces and while there are exceptional beers in this subclass, they are derivative. No, for our purposes we are seeking perfection within the style as it has been brewed for decades.
And, we have found it.
Chicago’s Off Color Brewing is a quirky brewery. It incorporates the mice that try eating their brewing grains into their logo. It brews Sahtis, goses, and a Swedish-style farmhouse ale called a Gotlandsdricka. It also brews the Apex Predator, which is perfection in a tulip glass.
I first encountered it on tap at my local World of Beer, when I got the last glass out of the keg. It changed what I thought of the saison as a style. If you put saisons on the bell curve and apply the idea of standard deviation to it, most fall within that middle 68 percent of the curve. I’m certain some fall far to the back. Only a few make it to the front. Brewery Ommegang’s Hennepin is exceptional. Apex Predator, though, is perfect.
It pours translucent, with a little cloudiness and a finger-width head. Off Color adds the yeast to a cold tank, ignores the temperature controls and lets the yeast work on the wort. Combine that with the grain bill and dry-hopping on the finish, and you create a flavor and aroma profile exploding with fruit. Lemon, lime and grapefruit are abundant to the nose and palate, as are hints of coriander, peppercorn, and some grassy and floral notes. It finishes dry and crisp, almost like a champagne.
Let it warm some in your hand or on the bar and go back. The flavors become stronger yet without losing the balance you discovered from the first drink.
There’s no criteria for perfect beer, but like Justice Stevens, I know it when I drink it: the Apex Predator is flawless.