Sand Creek Brewing just released a dark and dangerous new brew. It's named Noir, the French word for black that is often associated with a genre of crime literature featuring tough characters and risky, bleak situations. This black Belgian barley wine is indeed a mysterious contradiction with hard-to-explain flavors: sweet, bitter, roasted and spicy. Its creator, lead brewer Nate Peck, describes its complexity as simply "a beer with a lot going on." Noir just hit local shelves in the past couple of weeks.
What is it? Noir from Sand Creek Brewing Company of Black River Falls, Wisconsin.
Style: Noir is tough to describe within common industry styles. Nate Peck calls it a black Belgian barley wine because he uses Belgian yeast and Belgian candi sugar in the recipe. However, its qualities fall close to that of an American barley wine. The style is defined by dark bronze and brown colors, with an emphasis on the hoppy side of a complex blend of malt and hops. English barley wines are maltier and often slightly sweeter. These big and strong beers have a complex flavor profile, a sweet malt core that combines high hopping rates and alcoholic warmth, resulting in a spice-like quality. American-style barley wines commonly range from 8.4% to 12% ABV.
Background: This is the first time Sand Creek has made a barley wine. Nate Peck designed this beer right down to the bottle label. He says barley wine is his favorite style of beer and he was looking for a creative way (by using a touch of Belgian ingredients) to distinguish Sand Creek from other Wisconsin barley wines. Noir is made with three different hops: Cascade, Centennial and Saaz. It's also dry-hopped. All that gives it a distinctive 75 IBUs (International Bitterness Units). Four malts also go into the recipe, and perhaps the most prominent is a specialty grain called Midnight Barley, which lends Noir its mysterious deep dark color.
Belgian candi sugar adds strength to the beer without adding body. If you cellar a few bottles, you might notice the candi sugar more over time; aging will round out Noir's hoppy bite. The beer ends up at 9.3% ABV. It sells for about $10/four-pack.
The brewery held back about seven barrels of Noir that is fermenting in bourbon barrels for a fall release.
- Aroma: There really isn't much nose to this beer, just a hint of sweet, fruity cherry-like aroma with a hint of roastedness.
- Appearance: Very dark black with ruby highlights. A thin, bubbly tan to brown head.
- Texture: Medium-bodied, very bubbly and round. The mouthfeel softens quite a bit as the beer warms.
- Taste: Hoppy throughout, but its intensity is more spicy, with notes of toffee and roastedness in the background.
- Finish/Aftertaste: There is a strong alcoholic warmth in the finish. The bitterness turns from roasted to mildly burnt and astringent.
Glassware: Noir is best served in a snifter. It you want to accentuate the hops, serve it at refrigerator temperature, or allow it to warm to room temperature to bring out the spicy alcoholic warmth. This is a sipping beer.
Pairs well with: The strong, initially harsh, bitterness and roasted undertones make this a difficult beer to pair with food. Try it with a well-aged Stilton cheese or an entree with a lot of flavor.
Rating: Two Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: There is a potpourri of flavors in Noir, and I kept sipping to try and figure it out, like a dark and mysterious "whodunnit" crime novel. But there was so much going on with the flavors that I got lost, couldn't figure out who was doing what to who, and never understood the mystery well enough to fully appreciate the ending.
This is a beer that will appeal to hearty beer aficionados who like intensity and in-your-face flavor. Its spiciness and harsh hoppy bitterness gets accented more with a roasted-burntness that builds in the aftertaste. It's certainly not a bad beer, and worthy of a qualified recommendation from me. I'm looking forward to the second version of Noir that Sand Creek plans to release in the fall after it's aged in bourbon barrels.