The basic “Yeti” is a lovely beer. It’s big and creamy, with some bitter hop bite that just clarifies how well put together the malts are. It pours thick and black, with coffee predominant, but other highlights present, including some earthy stuff brought in by the hops. The roastiness lingers pleasantly. The alcohol is pretty thoroughly masked. As with a lot of Great Divide’s brews, part of what you taste is competence and, well, taste—the sense that this is the beer they set out to brew, and that the plan was solid in the first place. They are in many ways a terrifying consistent operation, turning out a lot of really good beer, and some that is great because it’s put together just so. Their “Rumble” oak-aged IPA is a nearly miraculous balancing of malt, hops and oak. And “Yeti” is really rather special in a similar way, with its engaging balance of roasty malt and bitter hops. Building on that kind of balance poses a new set of challenges, if the additions aren’t going to end up as detractions.
As it happened, when I moved from “Yeti” to the “Belgian Yeti,” it felt rather like there had been a subtraction. I had tasted the Belgian version a week or so before, and really enjoyed it, although it was obvious that there wasn’t much of what I generally expect from the “Belgian” prefix in the mix: no bananas or bubblegum, and subtle notes of spice and fruit. If anything, there just didn’t seem to be all that much difference from my recollections of the base brew. What a difference context makes. Side-by-side, the “Belgian Yeti” seemed surprisingly light-bodied, with the dominant highlights at first being toffee or even milk. A fist full of soda crackers to cleanse the palate again, and some time spent sipping, brought me back some of the way to the beer I (thought I) had tasted before, with the fruit and spice notes being perhaps more pronounced, by comparison with the black-coffee flavor of the first taster. It strikes me that this is one of those pretty good beers that nonetheless suffers from too close comparison.
Turning to the oak-aged version, I felt on safer ground. I had finished off a bottle the week before, and was impressed. Sure enough, the nose was as I remembered it—faintly oaked—and the oak was strong, but nicely balanced, on the tongue, with the basic brew. Now, the folks I was sitting with disagreed, comparing the experience to gnawing on a limb, but I’m a believer. This is my pick for the best of the batch. Malts, hops, barrel, vanilla highlights, and a more muted earthiness—all balanced “at the next level.”
I was curious if the trick could be repeated with the addition of espresso. Adding coffee to beer that tastes like coffee isn’t always the right move. Adding fresh bitter and roast into a beer that has been aged and mellowed is a game you can loose. And espresso stouts are perhaps too often vehicles for coffee flavors, rather than tasteful elaborations of good stout. But I shouldn’t have worried. While I think there are elements of the basic oak-aged brew that are unfortunately muted in the espresso version, such as the vanilla highlights, the result was definitely very nice, and clearly a successful extension and elaboration of the series.
I guess I need to track down the “Chocolate Oak Aged Yeti” sometime, and see if it is as successful….