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Stone 11.11.11 Vertical Epic Ale

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Beer: 11.11.11 Vertical Epic
Brewery: Stone Brewing Co.
Style: Chile beer
ABV: 9.4 percent

Literally and figuratively, chile beer is hot right now. From San Diego to Delaware, brewers are snatching up hot peppers and throwing them into the boil to see what new flavor combinations the veggies can elicit. Sometimes it works; sometimes it's just weird. Enter 11.11.11 Vertical Epic Ale.

The first beer in Stone's Vertical Epic series debuted February 2, 2002, and since then each subsequent brew has been released one year, one month and one day after the previous iteration. The beers are designed to be aged until the final release on December 12, 2012 -- at which point, if you're not dead from a Mayan apocalypse, you can open them all to enjoy in one "epic" tasting.

The Vertical Epics are all Belgian-style ales brewed with what Stone calls "twists and turns in the plotline" and what you and I would call "odd ingredients" -- last year's edition had chamomile, triticale and three varieties of wine grapes.

True to form, 11.11.11 is a Belgian-style amber ale brewed with whole cinnamon sticks and Anaheim chillis from the Hatch Valley in New Mexico. Warrior, Target, Perle and Pacific Jade hops make up the bitter side of the plotline; a Flanders Belgian golden ale yeast handled the fermentation. Still with me?

Poured into a tulip, this brew's a dark yet perfectly clear brick red, topped by a finger of dense, transient foam the color of beach sand. Dip your nose in close and prepare for bewilderment -- the chilies lead the way with heavy vegetal pepper esters, but, interestingly, no corresponding spice. The disconnect is actually pretty intriguing, but the bouquet of Belgian yeast -- banana, pear, strawberry -- can hardly stand up to the sharp chile aroma. Caramel, clove, toasted bread and a hint of cinnamon dance in the background.

Thankfully, the chilies are dialed back in the flavor, though they're definitely still there. Cinnamon and a major amount of clove have both stepped up to take the pepper's place, lending spiciness to a malty base of pear, red apple and lightly toasted rolls. An exploration of the syrupy, smooth medium body unearths a plethora of flavors that stay fairly separate until the finish, when things get a little disorderly. The beer is, at once: dry, fruity, minimally carbonated, spicy, medicinal and bitter.

The Anaheim chile -- or any chile, really -- is a daring choice of flavor additive in a style as delicate as a Belgian amber. In 11.11.11, it smacks of trying to be cute, of wacky ingredients for the sake of wacky ingredients. But that's not to say it's bad. Pick up a bottle or two if you're into the offbeat -- the dissonance of flavor will keep you puzzled until your puzzler is sore.

Food pairing suggestions: 
The peppers in 11.11.11 do an interesting thing when pitted against similar flavors in a dish: They cancel out. Try the brew with green-sauce-drizzled chicken enchiladas -- the peppers in the brew will drop off, leaving only the sweet, fruity Belgian notes.

Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone, a guide to beer akin to a sommelier.

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