Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Roanoke Railhouse Brewing Company: Research Tasting

On Sunday the 13th, this article was published in the Roanoke Times regarding the new Roanoke Railhouse Brewing Co. The Times had first reported on this brewery in this article last October.

I jumped at the chance to attend the blind tasting conducted by Martin Research mentioned in the former article. Having not read the article until Monday, I quickly sent an email to Martin and was informed this morning of a cancellation by one of the participants for their 6:30 appointment this evening. Again, I jumped and was fortunate to have responded in time to be allowed into the study.

The idea behind the tasting was to create a group environment in which individuals (about 20 in our group, although I don't know the total number of groups that will be assembled between tonight and Thursday) were given the chance to taste 8 styles of beer, and rate their impressions.

SPOILER ALERT!!!! If you plan on participating in this tasting or talking to someone else who will be do not read any farther!

We were asked first to give our age and our favorite domestic and imported beers. Then we were given checkboxes that basically covered a scale of 1-5. The lowest being I would not drink this beer, the highest being this beer is awesome. We were also encouraged to write some brief notes in the margins beside each beer describing what we liked or disliked about the beer.

Going into the tasting, I knew full well there would only be fairly standard and non-extreme styles offered. It was not disclosed, and still unclear whether the beers would be commercial examples of a style, or potentially test-batches or homebrews the brew master had previously made. There were a couple of beers in particular that appeared to at least resemble well known commercial beers; an amber lager resembling Sam Adams Lager, and a maibock resembling Rogue Old Dead Guy. Again, this was just speculation.

The remaining styles appeared to consist of the following: a dunkelweizen or German dark lager, a porter, a pale ale, an IPA, an amber and an English mild. This list leaves the notable exceptions of a wheat ale and a stout, which I had figured would have been great candidates for "the palate of the Roanoke masses," as the study had hoped to predict. The only consolation I take in the omission of these styles at this event was that the first Times article indicated one rotating seasonal beer flanked by two consistent "flagship" styles. The suggestions given for these seasonal styles? A wheat ale and a stout.

Now for the interesting part. Judging by our groups reactions in discussion after tasting, the Sam Adams(-esque?) beer was the only real consensus pick as a favorite. There was more polarization on most of the other beers with the exception of the mild/light ale, which no one seemed to particularly enjoy. If I had to guess, I'd say the IPA, my favorite, would probably not make the cut, but could be offered as a seasonal, as there was huge polarization over the hoppier beers. The maibock seemed to be well-liked among the anti-hoppy beer crowd, and at least tolerated by the hop heads, so look for that as a possibility too. I personally liked the porter as well, which although it tasted like a porter and was very flavorful, may not have actually been as the color was a bit light.

The bottom line is, I consider myself very fortunate to have been a participant in RRBC's research, but I hope that I may have helped sway the vote in favor of beers that both succeed and challenge Roanoke beer drinkers. A member of the Star City Brewers Guild made a valid point earlier about the RRBC's selection of flagship beers: while us beer geeks might love for them to brew a more extreme or hoppy beer, we tend to crave variety. RRBC's key market is going to be the threshold beer drinker that prefers something above the American macro, but is not devoted enough to actively seek out variety.

My recommendation: a smooth dark lager ala Sam Adams, a wheat ale that beats the crap out of Blue Moon, and a rotating seasonal that cleans up the rest between a winter stout, spring maibock, summer pale ale, and fall porter.

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