(Every month we choose a topic in brewing and look at three beers that elucidate different elements of this issue. The first post of the month introduces the topic, and the subsequent three focus on a single beer each. This month’s theme is, The Syrup Koan: Syrups Keep a Beer From Being Syrupy. This post introduces the beer Life & Limb.)
Two of the definitive American craft breweries have gotten together to make a weird beer that needs some explaining, but that I love. Life & Limb, a collaboration between Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head, is an imperial brown ale in which part of the fermentable sugars came from birch and maple syrups. Though there is some maple character, that requires less explanation, as everyone has tried maple syrup, and also the maple is muscled out of the flavor profile by the much more flamboyant birch syrup.
This beer is incredibly similar to another in the store, The Bark is Worse than the Bite, so similar in fact that I imagine Life & Limb was an influence on Bark. Both are imperial brown ales (a style having an interesting little moment right now), they are the same black woody color but sharp red in the light, and they are both dominated by the root-beery notes of birch. There is a mineral, bitter, tannic, woody quality to both. However, they are different in vital and interesting ways that highlight the virtues of using syrups.
Bark is 7.5% alcohol by volume, while Life & Limb is 10.2%, but Life is lighter and sharper in body by far, even with the much higher gravity. Life is also simultaneously less bitter and less sweet than Bark. The yeast has eaten more of the sugars, so the body is sharper and lighter and the taste is more elegant and less cloying. At the same time, because the essence of birch flavor is coming from the syrups in Life, and in Bark it comes from soaking roots and bark in the beer, there is far less of an acrid and tannic element in Life, while it is there in abundance in Bark.
Birch is a flavor unto itself, but in the ball park of sassafras and sarsaparilla: it has much of the same toasty, spicy, caramel bitterness with floral and licorice elements. Both Life and Bark are dominated by this flavor profile, but with the sharper more precise body and more delicate balance of sweet and bitter elements, increased dryness, and less overpowering quality of birch flavor, Life strikes me as the more direct and adult option. We get the essence of the taste of the tree without the tannins of the wood itself, and the bigness of the beer without the oiliness of a huge grain bill. We’re back to a syrup koan: the essence of the birch is kept, but the tricky business of the body is excluded.
The final mark in favor of Life & Limb is its bottle conditioning. For those who don’t know, when yeast eats sugar, it produces alcohol and carbon dioxide, among other compounds. In any beer that says it has been “bottle conditioned,” a small amount of sugar has been added to a beer that still has yeast in it before bottling. As the yeast eats the sugars in the bottle, carbon dioxide is produced and exists in the beer as carbonic acid in suspension. When the beer is opened, the carbon dioxide shoots out into the air, ripping bubbles into the beer. We call this carbonation. The quality of bottle-conditioned carbonation is often held up as superior to and smoother than the quality of forced carbonation, which is how most beers, even craft beers, are carbonated. There is a harshness and acridness to the carbonic bite in forced carbonated beers which stands in opposition to the creamy meringue quality of a bottle conditioned beer, which Garrett Oliver has referred to as a “pinpoint mousse.” Pay close attention to the carbonation of Life & Limb; it is a thing of beauty, and increasingly less common.
Life is a more obvious autumnal beer, as well as a more obvious choice for Thanksgiving than was Brunch Punch, but still I would claim this is an oppositional rather than a consonantal food pairing for the traditional dishes of the season. The bitterness and sharp crisp body and dryness would cut the roundness of the carbs and fat at the table, while the roast and spice elements would complement beautifully.
Similar Beers in Store: The Bark is Worse than the Bite. Now I know this whole thing has compared these two in favor of Life, but if you happen to like round, thick beers, which I do, super intense flavors, which I do, pronounced tannic elements, which I do, and an amaro-like balance of extreme sweetness with extreme bitterness, which I do, then Bark is a great beer right down your alley. Also check out Southern Belle, another imperial Brown Ale with pronounced sweetness balanced by tannic elements from the pecan skins.
If you try Life & Limb, let me know what you think in the comments!