The story begins without too much fanfare, just another night’s trip to the local beer store (Julio’s in Westboro, MA). As I peruse every single inch of shelf space devoted to beer (a habit of mine), I get excited by the newly arrived bottles of Fantome Strange Ghost and Chocolat. But what’s this sitting next to the Chocolat?? Panil Barriquée Oak-aged Sour Ale?? Always intrigued by anything with the word sour in it, and something brand new to my eyes, I pick up the bottle and begin reading. HA! I snort, it’s from Italy! With a large, cynical smirk on my face, I remark to myself that this ought to be interesting. . . . . . . and then the next day, it’s in Ratebeer’s top 50. Well, that certainly caught me by surprise. But I digress. It’s late Thursday night and I’ve got a bottle for myself, and plenty of notebook paper.
I remove the bottle from my freezer, having let it chill upright for 15 minutes or so. I tear away the wrapping around the top and eagerly pop the cap. A forceful, albeit swift, PSSST escapes from the bottle and then is done. No foam rising out of the bottle. I put the bottle down on the counter and move a few feet away to jot down some notes. And what’s this!? A smile begins to build on my face as I realize that the aroma has, quite unexpectedly, wafted over to greet me. Sweet cherries and strong brown malts. Powerful aroma? Check. Something tells me this could be good.
A very gentle pour in to my favorite tulip reveals a creamy, aged-marble colored head, fairly dense and not overwhelmingly large, yet nor is it shy. There are few doubts in my mind that it will lace well. The body has a dark brown/deep auburn glow when gazed upon from afar, but when held to the light, a strawberry-toned-chartreuse can be beheld. Lightly hazy, even from the first pour and with plentiful, minute bubbles working their way, quickly, to the surface. Taking my first whiff from the glass, I am greeted by a large helping of yeast. Dusty, dry, quite peppery, and fully mysterious, it makes no promises. Digging deeper, oak confronts the senses, but has only friendly suggestions. If the barrel aging is overdone, you wouldn’t know it from the aroma. Meanwhile, the head refuses to yield even a millimeter, gripping the edges in its lightly creamy embrace. Another journey in to the glass and my nose comes away with light cherry pits mixed with a hint of balsamic vinegar. I will say, thus far, I have been enticed far longer by aromas (though this is certainly very respectable), yet aromas, as we all know, do not always make or break a beer. With that in mind I dive in.
Tart cherries, plum skins, concord grape skins and dark currant juice explode on the tip of my tongue. As I reel my tongue in to swallow, an encounter with a stern acidity is had. Dry, peppery (black) and terribly tart, it challenges me and immediately begs more sips. And I’m all too easy to oblige. Before I can get another sip, however, I’m burping up tobacco earthiness and light caramel (in a very dry sense). Another sip quickly yields tart yeast and lightly astringent blackberries. But a juicy, lightly sweet sugariness saves the day, balancing things nicely. With a refreshing touch of zesty carbonation, I polish off my first glass. Yep, the lacing has completely coated the glass (am I a fortune teller or what?).
As I pour my next glass, a light vinegar and sugar mixed with cherry juice lingers very pleasingly on the palate. My next sip brings a mix of caramel and chocolate with a strong sourness as the malts fade. Ah yes, the sourness, I haven’t said much about that yet, so let’s talk sourness. I wouldn’t say it gets in your face, but you aren’t exactly going to miss it. It jumps out, quickly cleansing the palate and at the same time bursting all over the mouth, boisterous and very welcome (to me, anyway). As is slowly recedes, a slow burn builds up and it lingers. Writing about the sourness, I actually taste some light lactic notes coat the back of my molars. I was ready to write this stuff off as just excellent, but now I can’t get this lactic flavor out of my mouth, and I’m not complaining. I keep at it. Sour cherries, caramel, touches of earth and black pepper. Sourness lingers warmly, like a good hot sauce.
So here I am deep in to my third glass and I don’t know whether to be more excited by the dry, peppery, elegant yeast overflowing from the top of the glass or the genuine sourness that has set up shop on my palate. Fortunately, I don’t have to decide. The more I think about this yeast, the more I’m inclined to think that they could pass this stuff off as trappist (if their were such a thing as a trappist sour ale). It’s just so clean and elegant. Reminds me somewhat of Rodenbach, though I have yet to encounter true, unpasteurized Rodenbach yeast. But now I’m back off subject. Back to the beer, I find myself in the company of more caramel and light milk chocolate. I lick my front teeth and pull flavors of sour yeast and unripened cherry skins. Fully cloudy it is, at this point, though I have been very careful to leave the small army of yeasts at the bottom of the bottle.
As I greedily consume the last half glass, review-free, and in a moment of bliss, I begin to count the reasons why I have been impressed. A sourness that doesn’t quit. No thinning whatsoever. Perfectly balanced and attenuated; one of the most difficult feats to achieve with this style, in my experience as a consumer. At the bottom of the glass, the flavors are less clean and elegant, but the new funky, dirty, dusty, earthy yeasts speak to how unfiltered and unpasteurized this stuff really is. No doubt I will have to check in on this guy in years to come. Well, Panil, you’ve made a friend of me, and it looks like you aren’t doing half bad with the rest of the beer community! Cheers!