Monday, May 11, 2009

Mayfield Iconoclast series Nocturna – Good, but not a value

IconoclastNocturnaLabelCRAlores When I first heard of Mayfield Brewing company in Belmont, I was intrigued with the beer, the brewery history, and the brewer. The brewer is a microbiologist as well as a beer and wine enthusiast, and a businessman.

The brewery is a reincarnation of an 1868 brewery that started in the San Francisco community of Mayfield, are area now known as Palo Alto. The brewery was serving the local peninsula until it closed down due to prohibition.

The beer is a blend of old world and new world brewing. Brewed in a small, local brewery, the brewer began experimenting with beer that he aged in wood barrels acquired from wineries. The beer was conditioned in the barrel, allowing it to develop characters from the wines that previously occupied the barrels, the oak from the barrels and from micro-oxygenation like a wine.

Hearing about this, I followed the brewers web postings and twitter posts as he blogged about hand delivering to local stores. My first few attempts to find the beer were not successful. The store clerks were unaware of the beer, but eventually, talking with the brewer and the buyers at the store, I found it. But I was a bit surprised at the price.

The beer comes in 750 ml bottles, and it is a small batch, completely hand crafted, hand bottled, hand labeled and hand delivered by the brewer. So I was expecting that it would not be an inexpensive beer. And I was correct. When I spoke with the buyer at the store, I asked how much it was and he said simply that it was $42.50. “Wow!” I thought. “That is a bit steep.” I pressed the buyer further. “Is that for a 4 pack?” “No”, he informed me. “That is for a bottle.” HOLY COW!

Now, $42 is a lot for many wines. A wine for $42, although not out of the questions, needs to be real special. You can get a wonderful, quality wine for that. But there are very few beers that rise to that price. There are a few notable exceptions, but they are all from well know breweries and have a track record for excellence. This beer is an unknown.

I decided that I was going to hold off for a while. Possibly I would be able to get a few other enthusiasts to gather with enough interest to get one that we could taste together. I had expressed my interest in the beer to my wife and, being the wonderful, supporting and enabling woman that she is, she surprised me with a bottle one day.

So, on Mothers Day, we opened it.

The Bottle is beautiful. It is a traditional 750 ml Champagne bottle. It is sealed with a cork and a crown cap, like many French and Belgian beers. The neck was dipped wax. Not a brittle was, but a soft, black paraffin. Clearly, the beer was packaged to be laid down for a while. From the neck of the bottle also hung a card on string which gave information about the beer and it’s aging to this point. It noted that the beer was a 2007 vintage, and had aged for over 10 months in an oak barrel previously used for a petit syrah port from Napa Valley.

The presentation was very nice. I was hoping that the contents would live up to the run up.

We poured the beer into wide mouthed wine glasses, to give the aroma as much of an opportunity as possible to present.

The color was a deep, dark stout black with a ruby color only visible in the sun. The carbonation was obvious, but not over carbonated. And the nice, creamy head consisted of fine bubbles. I would say the appearance in the glass was a perfect imperial stout pour.

There was almost no perceptible aromatic hop characters. As the beer warmed, it began letting some of the wood notes come out. I detected some of the oak, others did not notice that, but vanilla became noticeable and molasses and caramel characters from the malt started to come to the front.

The beer was well balanced between the sweetness and the bitterness, in fact, I thought it was very good. I felt that it could have had a bit more hop character. The time in the barrel may have diminished the aromatics of the hops. I don’t expect an imperial stout to have a lot of hop floral character, but this had none. It may have been the brewer’s intent to have the barrel character be a substitute for the aromatic hops, and to a degree, that worked.

But, that is when I realized the flaw in the beer. Yes, it was excellent, but so are many, many other beers available on the market. I enjoyed this beer, but there is no way that I would say that it was worth $42 dollars for 750 ml and my current gold standard imperial stout, from Dogfish Head, is 1/6th the cost.

Now, I know that Mayfield is not getting rich on this beer, even at that price. I can only imagine that at what I believe his production costs and quantities are, he is probably loosing money on it at this stage, or at the very best breaking even. So, I can not completely fault him for the pricing. But at the same time, I just can’t see this moving at the price point. I hope that Mayfield brewing can bring up the quantities or lower their fixed costs and overhead to bring the price down. Until then, I don’t expect that I will be have them again.

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