Craft Beer Review: Cigar City Comes to Chicago

Craft Beer Review: Cigar City Comes to Chicago
A selection of flagship beers from Tampa Bay's Cigar City Brewing

I've just bought more local beer to review, but I've also brought home cans of the new player in town, Cigar City Brewing. This Tampa Bay, FL brewer has been in its home field for over 10 years, but building a national reputation for its high-gravity brews, some trading on the theme of Tampa Bay as a center for cigar production and trying to invoke that history in brown ales, and with special brews with Latin American inspired ingredients. They have high demand "whalez," especially Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout, aged on cacao nibs, Madagascar vanilla beans, ancho chiles, pasilla chiles, and cinnamon.

So far, I have been able to drink some other specialties which I received in trade: an 8% Bolita Double Nut Brown Ale, and Guava Grove Farmhouse Ale with, well, guava. So, when a brewer known mostly for its big beers comes into a market with its basic flagship line, how do they meet expectations? I have four beers to try out.

Jai Alai India Pale Ale. "The merry game of jai alai provides inspiration for this citrus-forward India Pale ale with notes of clementine, orange peel and caramel malt creating an IPA that's both bold and approachable." 7.5% abv, 65 IBU.

A hoppy smell under the tab, emphasizing tropical fruits over pine or bitterness. Some apricot slips in there as well. In the narrow glass I used, it kicked up a big head, dwindling slowly to clumps of IPA foam over a finely filtered amber body. Taste is big and fruity from its hop load. After a few more tastes, hop bitterness does settle in. Despite its higher alcohol, the total package remains malty, with little burn to it. In a beer universe awash with hop bombs, this manages to stand out with some character of its own.

Invasion Tropical Pale Ale. "With tropical notes of mango and tangerine imparted by Simcoe and Mosaic hops, this crisp and sessionable Pale ale is a perfect companion for long days of marauding, pillaging and pirating." 5.0% abv, 50 IBU.

I don't often to to compare two whole bottles/cans of the same beer style from the same brewery. This one pours out much lighter than the Jai Alai, looking more like a pale lager. The head is like a basic lawnmower beer, too. Just a bit fizzy and dwindling away much faster. The smell has a bit more of your basic American Pale Ale hop, more citrus than tropical, and a bit more bitterness in the nose. The taste shows more bitterness, with noticeable pine resin from a familiar hop load. Malt is not as big as the Jai Alai, but its leaves a bit of stickiness on the lips. Hoppiness is a little high to be called "sessionable," but that's just me.

Florida Cracker Belgian-style white beer with coriander and orange peel. "Though it's named for the 18th Century Cracker Cowboys of the Florida prairie, the citrusy notes and effervescent body of this Belgian style White Ale makes it perfect for any lovers of fresh air and outdoor adventures." 5.5% abv, 13 IBU.

So I learned something about where the pejorative "cracker" comes from: Cigar City's website further explained that "Cracker Cowboys" were so called because they used whips for herding. I'd kind of hoped it was named because they used cracker meal in the grist, but no. So the pour does offer a "zesty," just slightly lemony nose with a note of salt and coriander. The beer has a slightly puffy white head over a yellow body with white haze. The carbonation seems low, until the beer gets to the back of the throat. The beer itself has a very slightly tart taste and, again, the slightly salty note of coriander, with a bit of citrus zest. The aftertaste on the lips is almost like a balm instead of the usual sugary malt. The beer is quite drinkable. I might not say it compares directly to exemplars of the style like a Hoegaarden, but it certainly can stay in the neighborhood.

Maduro Brown Ale "Named after a dark cigar wrapper, Maduro Brown Ale, boasts notes of semi-sweet chocolate, toffee and hints of fresh coffee. Complex and full-bodied, our malt-forward ale is brewed with flaked oats to add depth of character." 5.5% abv, 20 IBU

That's two flagship beers that are low on hop-headedness, but are still ales. A bit unusual in this day and age. But here we go. The beer has a deep molasses smell for something at regular beer strength. A deep garnet body under a fizzy tan head. It does have a cigar leaf smell too (which I can like only when its NOT burning), which I sometimes like to the leather binding on an old encyclopedia. Hey, you have your Proustian madeline, I have mine.

The beer has a deep brown malty taste. Closer to a porter than the English style brown ale. Though some of that tobcacco leaf taste could be attributed to peaty Newcastle malt and English yeast. Definitely an American style of brown ale, with the oatmeal putting it into the realm of a Surly Bender. This is quite hearty, especially compared to the Florida Cracker at the same strength. Definitely the favorite of their mainstream beers, since they base a lot of their high-octane beers on their brown ale over stouts or barley wines.

I'd say Cigar City has brought a varied portfolio in their market expansion. They've been hosting events at bars around Chicago, as detailed on my "Beer Calendar" articles. And no doubt they'll be dropping some of their bigger beers on us in the near future.

Filed under: Beer Review

Tags: Cigar City

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