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Brewing Birds: Red Tail Ale

November 5, 2010
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My readers may or may not now that in addition to being a somewhat obsessed with birds, I’m also somewhat obsessed with beer as well.  That doesn’t mean I booze it up every weekend like a college frat guy, in fact there’s little more distasteful to me than to consider the abject swill I consumed as an undergrad, but it means I enjoy beer as a comestible, as a creation.  That’s the kind made with barley not rice (I’m looking at you, Budweiser), with hops grown with the same care a vintner has for his grapes, by folks who care about quality and creativity and that feeling you get when you share a great beer with a great friend on a crisp fall day.  That friends, is what a good beer is about. That and hops.  Lots and lots of hops.

So I’m starting what I hope will be a recurring series here looking at beers and birds, that’s of course as opposed to Birds and Beers, though the two might not be entirely unrelated. How will I do this, you might ask?  By specifically seeking out and sampling beers with birds on the label, you might be surprised by how many there are.  I’ll be working my way through several interesting brews and posting my thoughts semi-regularly, or whenver I don’t have anything else to post on a Friday.

First up, Mendocino Brewing Company, based in Ukiah, California (though east coast consumers buy beer brewed at a satellite facility in Saratoga Springs, NY), may be well known to bird and beer enthusiasts as their entire line of beers is named after various raptors (and one heron).  I’ll be starting with their flagship recipe, the Red Tail Ale, an Amber Ale style.

This is a birding blog first and foremost, so I’ll begin by analyzing the bird on the logo.  The species in question is clearly a Red-tail Hawk, and the bird is rendered on the bottle more of less accurately.  I’m not looking for David Sibley type details here, but their are a few issues that could stand to be addressed.  The belly band, that key field mark for a soaring Red-tail, is incomplete here, and the barring on the secondaries is a bit too striking for what is clearly an adult bird.  The eponymous tail is overdone, showing a red on the ventral side that’s really more indicative of the dorsal side, but for a bit or artistic license it’s tolerable, even pleasant.  It is a beer label after all.

But enough about the label, what about the beer?  First, here’s what Medocino has to say about it:

The Legend is our flagship brand. It is brewed in the traditional “old world” manner, using premium two-row malted barley, hops and our own special proprietary yeast strain. It is an amber ale with a rich complex refreshing flavor and a crisp dry finish. Red Tail Ale is “Bottle Conditioned.” Like good wine, Red Tail Ale is a perfect complement to fine dining.

I gotta say, I’m pretty good at tasting beers and I didn’t get any of this. The bear poured a nice amber color, but there was practically no head, only a thin cap of foam that quickly dissipated.  Because the head is generally where the aroma of a good beer comes from, and also where the hop taste is most intense, this was disappointing.  The lack of head left not a hint of lacing on the glass as I drank it, and there was little apparent carbonation.  This was especially bad as the process of bottle conditioning , where additional yeast is added to the bottle just before it is capped, is supposed to increase carbonation and create a thicker, more robust head.  I don’t know whether I had picked up a bad bottle or that this is the sort of thing someone would expect for every bottle.  In any case, not a strong start.

I should point out beore I give my impressions on the beer’s taste, that I’m generally not a fan of Amber Ales.  I prefer hoppier varieties, with stronger backs.  So perhaps I’m predisposed to dislike this particular beer.  But there are Ambers that I think do the job very well, balancing the sweet malts with enough hops to prevent them from being overpowered and setting the table for the fruit or floral notes that good Ambers are generally known for.  This, however, is emphatically not that type of beer.  There’s practically no nose at all, the first impression is weak and watery, the hop bite is non-existent and, after finishing the bottle, I’m left with an unpleasant metallic taste in my mouth.

That’s not to say it’s entirely bad, I did finish the glass after all, but the quality of this individual made me wonder if I hadn’t picked up a bottle that was past its prime, as there was just too much wrong with it and bottle conditioned beers are notoriously finicky.  I’d be willing to try a second bottle to be sure, but if the light carbonation is intentional then this is probably a beer to avoid even if the artwork on the label is purty.

For the birds, and not in a good way.  I hope the rest of my selections prove to be more tasty!

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13 Comments
  1. November 5, 2010 8:29 am

    Though the Red Tail Ale seems far from ambrosial, I’m looking foward to more Brewing Birds posts. After beers are done, you can move on to wines. The Point Pelee area is a hot spot for birds and what else could Pelee Island Winery use to adorn their labels but birds.

  2. nobbiecat permalink
    November 5, 2010 9:32 am

    Ohhh..Fun! Look forward to your Bird labeled Beer reviews…
    And I am with Bob..How about some wine!

  3. jmj permalink
    November 5, 2010 9:54 am

    I love that New Belgium’s “Skinny Dip” beer has a picture of an American Dipper on the label. I’m guessing that’s a bird you won’t find on many other beers.

    • BirdTrainerRobert permalink
      November 5, 2010 12:58 pm

      I’ve had Skinny Dip before… I’m ashamed to say I didn’t even notice the American Dipper on the label! Some excuse for a birder I am.

  4. November 5, 2010 10:02 am

    Oh, Nate, yet another thing we have in common. I’m a beer fan myself and have had Red Tail Ale many times. I’m looking forward to your other sampling and reports!

  5. November 5, 2010 12:10 pm

    I’ll have to keep an eye out for Mendocino’s beers since I’m eager to try new varieties.

  6. BirdTrainerRobert permalink
    November 5, 2010 12:56 pm

    The only “birdy” beer I’ve had is an Indian beer called Kingfisher. It was pretty good, plus it had a dead-on accurate picture of a Common Kingfisher on it!

  7. November 5, 2010 4:47 pm

    When I first started drinking legally, I would go to Total Beverage and I would specifically buy bottles with birds on them. One I remember was Kingfisher. I also still do this with wine sometimes. Smoking Loon is pretty good.

    I’m looking forward to this series!

  8. November 5, 2010 4:51 pm

    Southwestern Red-tails often have less of a belly band than those in the rest of the country, but they wouldn’t be in that part of California.

  9. November 5, 2010 5:31 pm

    Judging by your description, I’d better bring my own beer when I come visit to see “Your Nuthatches”

    🙂

  10. Nate permalink*
    November 6, 2010 8:57 pm

    @Bob- I wonder if I’d gotten a bad bottle. I’ve had this beer before and didn’t have any strong feeling either way about it in the past. Not that that’s a strong endorsement, but it may not be as underwhelming as I made it out to be.

    @Dawn- I’m not much of a wine drinker, but I may hae to make an exception.

    @jmj- I didn’t know that. They just started selling New Belgium beers in NC last year so I’ll have to look out for it.

    @Jann- Medocino Brew Co has some interesting varieties and I’ll certainly try some different ones in the future.

    @John- As a birder I think you’d like what they have to offer.

    @Robert- I’m well aware of Kingfisher! It’s what I order every time I go to an Indian restaurant.

    @abqbirding- It does suggest a Southwestern Red-tail. As diverse as Red-tails are, perhaps I shouldn’t be too critical. There’s almost certainly some individual that looks like the bird on this bottle.

    @Jochen- Might not be a bad idea. I’m more of an ale man and you Germans love your lagers. 😉

  11. November 9, 2010 2:25 pm

    Nate,

    I also did a review of this beer on my beer blog (http://rockiesbrew.com/2010/10/04/mendocino-brewing-red-tail-ale/) and i am doing an entire process of doing reviews of the entire Mendocino line of beers, most of which are named after birds. I heard from the brewer there that bird-centric naming is due to a wife that is a birder. Just goes to prove that birding and beers go together.

  12. Nate permalink*
    November 9, 2010 2:28 pm

    @Radd- Very cool! I see your impression was similar to mine. I wonder if those of us who prefer bolder beers don’t see this one as anything special. I know Amber Ales generally don’t do it for me. I am looking forward to trying their other varieties, as well as some of the other stuff I found.

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