Kenny G is the Miller Lite of jazz. Sure, he’s sold a gazillion records, but there’s just no soul in the plainsong he plays. He’s turned one of the most enjoyable and explorative genres of music into a paint-by-numbers suck-fest, throwing out a hundred years of evolution and innovation to instead chase the lowest common denominator. While it’s true he hasn’t ran commercials questioning a non-listener’s manhood or invented some kind of vortex saxophone that wanks even louder, the bland and dumbed down approach he takes reminds me of big beer in just about every way. And don’t get me started on his overdub of “What a Wonderful World”.
If it’s true that Kenny G is the Miller Lite of jazz, then Bell’s Brewery is the Louis Armstrong of beer. The cutting-edge brewers from Kalamazoo, Michigan celebrated 25 years of business in 2010 and have pioneered the model of a successful craft beer business. While their mere existence (given the number of companies who have fallen to the wayside) speaks volumes, the best part of Bell’s is how they have never compromised their independence and never stopped pushing out different styles and quality products. It would be all too easy to stick to their flagship styles. It would be simple to sign a distribution deal with BMC. But, instead, Larry Bell has stuck to his guns and, consequently, become a legend of libation.
Larry and his brew team have also made some seriously cool small-batch beers that rarely see the light of day beyond the brewery walls. Case in point – the Bell’s crew brought their unique “Jazz” series of Bière de Garde brews to Night Town in Cleveland Heights for one night only. While the match made sense in (musical) theory, a crowded bar with a horrible layout and a busy night with service stretched too thin lead to a bit of a messy event. Those imperfections cast aside, it was a great opportunity to enjoy something rarely seen outside the tap list of the Eccentric Café and I’m thankful Bell’s decided to bring something special to Cleveland Beer Week. Here’s how the beers stacked up…
Bell’s Le Batteur (The Drummer)
Blonde Bière de Garde
The beer is certainly the lightest of the bunch. The color is reminiscent of straw with some orange and gold notes mixed in sparingly. The beer has a bit of haze but isn’t as cloudy as most French farmhouse ales. There’s a nice white head that quickly recedes and doesn’t leave a ton of lace, but Le Batteur is still a nice looking beer overall. The smell is slight tartness with some bready malt and some citrus notes. On closer examination, there is certainly some lemon zest and touch of orange peel. The malt is sweet and reminiscent of freshly baked bread crust and crackers. Touches of herbs show up as well, mostly clove and a touch of pepper. The yeast is a bit “old” with some slight musty and sour touches from the wheat but not a lactic acid sharpness. The smell overall is basic and refreshing, but not too expressive. There are little to no hops.
The hops do add a touch of earthiness and grass to the flavor, but they’re certainly not in the driver’s seat. The malt tends to dominate with some cracker and a touch of sweetness. The yeast adds some complexity and some esters that give some lemon zing and a bit of orange citrus notes. The beer is certainly tart but not sour or wild at all; it does have enough acidity to notice, though. A touch of herbal hints is present as well, with some pepper and clove. The beer is certainly light for a Bière de Garde and has more in common with a lighter Belgian style like a witbier. The taste is pleasant and has some refreshing qualities; it’s quite appealing for the Belgian beer lover. The beer finishes dry with some lingering tartness. The body is light to medium and the carbonation is rather lively and makes this more smooth than creamy. There is a touch of stickiness but then the lemon zest lingers and makes this not too sugary. The beer is very drinkable and refreshing. I’d love to have this on a summer day, but even in October it’s like a bit of sunshine in a glass. This is worth seeking out if you’re into the lighter Belgians, but the rather straightforward yeast leaves me wanting more esters and complexity.
Does Bobby Like Bell’s Le Batteur?
Bell’s Le Pianiste (The Pianist)
Amber Bière de Garde
Le Pianiste is right in the middle of the series in terms of color. The beer is a cloudy, dirty copper color with hints of amber, all capped off with an off-white head that sticks around much better than its blond brother. Some decent lace is produced. This beer won’t make anyone run out and start a beer blog, but it’s really appealing and makes me want to come closer and get a nose-full. The smell is really sweet. There’s a baked bread crust quality and a touch of honey and a slight toasted presence. The sugars from the malt somehow really jump out of the glass, and there’s little in the way of yeast or hops to balance the maltiness. The yeast does add an earthy touch and even a slight tartness with mild esters coming to the forefront. A touch of sweet dark fruit (candied raisins) closes out a rather pleasant but uncomplicated bouquet.
The taste is also very, very sweet. A traditional Bière de Garde should be lightly sweet and a touch toasty, but I wonder if this is a bit under-attenuated as it really is lip smacking with its sugary notes. Some slight biscuit flavors and mild toast make the malt a touch more complicated than a bowl of Sugar Smacks, but the yeast has done very little to break up the almost cloying taste. Some noble hops are noted, adding just a touch of earth and bitterness to the flavor. The yeast gives slight notes of dark fruit and perhaps even some earthy nuttiness. A touch of honey rounds out a pleasant taste and leaves me pleased but wondering if my blood sugar has spiked. The mouthfeel is medium-bodied with some stickiness. The low to medium carbonation makes this creamy and enjoyable, adding some substance to the mix and avoiding some coating sensations. There is, surprise, some lingering sweetness in the finish – almost a candy-like sacchariferous quality. The beer is drinkable and would probably go really well with dessert. But it really stands out in the series as having the least amount of traditional flavors. If there were some more noble hop presence, or even some dank basement notes, this would be on the right track. As it is, this is not a beer I’ll be revisiting again unless I have some bitter Belgian chocolate on hand. Skip the piano and head to the double bass.
Does Bobby Like Bell’s Le Pianiste?
Bell’s Le Contrabassiste (The Double Bass)
Bruin Bière de Garde
The color is a dark copper and amber with hints of caramel, almost reminiscent of the color of the finish on the wood a double bass would be traditionally stained to. How appropriate! The beer has a beautiful off-white head, let’s call it the cap on the bassist’s head. And it doesn’t fly off during the solo – instead, it has great retention and some wonderful clinging lace. Probably the most appealing were it not for the somewhat filtered, clear appearance this has, especially when compared to the other two in the series. The smell is primarily malty, with a touch of toast and even some roast. There’s also a subtle touch of smoke, but not enough to add but a touch of depth. It doesn’t carry over to the taste, so fear not if you’re not into smoky beers. The caramel and toffee from the malt are joined by a few distinct yeasty esters, which add a caramel-covered prune and raisin note to the mix. The nose could be more expressive, but it has nice depth and the slight chocolate roast is a welcome addition. More notable noble hops and yeast esters would move this a few rungs up the ladder.
Wow, what a great malt complexity going on here. The low end is in effect, hitting the bridge between caramel and a great chocolate roast while plucking some silky toffee strings. Just a hint of smoke adds depth without any notable real distractions. The hops are there but quickly fleet as the roast takes over. There are some yeasty esters giving some nice dark fruit – black cherries and raisins. Almost like a French brown ale if there ever could be such a thing. Sacrebleu! Perhaps a roasty Scottish ale would make a better comparison? Je sacre par Dieu, Américaine. The mouthfeel is crisp with perhaps just a bit too much carbonation. The body is significant enough to handle it though, and any less carbonation would probably make the medium body seem a bit on the heavy side. The beer finishes with some lingering sweetness, but it doesn’t come close to the toothsome tastes of the Pianiste. I liked this beer more than the other two in the series as I felt the malt bill was more in line with the better examples of Bière de Garde I’ve been fortunate enough to try. This is worth seeking out, but maybe I’m partial as I’ve always been enamored with its namesake. I just wanted to play an instrument I could carry home on the bus without having to sit up front next to the tuba kid.
Does Bobby Like Bell’s Le Contrabassiste?
Thanks to the Bell’s crew for bringing out some treats. And thanks to the overworked bartenders at Night Town for their hard work and doing what they could to keep everyone’s glasses full. Hopefully this won’t be the site of another Cleveland Beer Week event on a busy Friday Night next year. But, if I need to fight the crowds again to taste some innovative and delicious beers, I’ll be there. Kenny G fans better get out of my way!
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