Sometimes I'm a shitty beer writer. It might sound like I'm being too hard on myself, especially if you're a fan (I must have a couple, right?). But how else can you explain that this is my first column on 5 Rabbit?
OK, there are lots of ways to explain it, to be fair—not the least of which is that I'm also the Reader's music editor. Plus I was a little "meh" about 5 Rabbit's initial lineup, with the exception of the passion-fruit wheat beer 5 Lizard (it smells almost exactly like bruised tomato leaves, and I turn out to dig that).
But a lot has changed since 2011, when this south-side brewery launched. I love 5 Rabbit's Yodo con Leche, a strong porter with dulce de leche and coffee. I've had a lot of fun with the summertime Paletas series, especially the one with pink guava in it. And I have to agree with the menu at the Hopleaf, which describes the spiced barleywine Ponche as "otherworldly."
So when I spied 5 Rabbit's new Arroz con Leche on the shelf at Andersonville Wine & Spirits, I pounced. Admittedly I mistook it for an horchata-inspired beer at first, before the label straightened me out—it's actually named after a popular Latin American rice pudding. (I have strong feelings about scratch-made horchata. To quote Barney Gumble, "Just hook it to my veins!") This is only really a drawback because I'd hoped to write a head-to-head review comparing it to Blue Moon's Cinnamon Horchata Ale—I was already looking forward to the inevitable results of that lopsided contest. (The word "cinnamon" definitely got focus-grouped into that name, by the way. "Cinnamon Horchata" is about as necessary as "Milk Cheese" or "Corrupt Governor.")
Today the core team at 5 Rabbit is cofounder Andres Araya, minority partner Randy Mosher, and head brewer John J. Hall, who was hired away from Goose Island in September 2012. (Because 5 Rabbit began by contract brewing, it didn't open its own facility till shortly after Hall came aboard.) Mosher played a major role in devising the brewery's first recipes, but now the development process is more collaborative—though Araya thinks up most of the ideas, everybody pitches in. The recipe for Arroz con Leche came from Adam Stull, one of the four brewers working under Hall; Araya guesses it went through three pilot batches to reach its final form.
For the most part Arroz con Leche is made from an extremely pale Irish stout malt, rated 1.6 or 1.7 degrees Lovibond (on a scale that ranges from 1 to 50, with 50 being the darkest). Small additions of wheat and oats provide texture, and the grain bill is about one-third jasmine rice. Vanilla beans and canela, aka Mexican soft-bark cinnamon, complete the illusion of pudding. Araya says the brewery used much larger pieces of canela bark than you'd find in a grocery—up to a foot and a half long, curled into rolls almost two inches thick. Some of it went into the hopback, but the rest (along with the vanilla) got added toward the end of fermentation, after five or six days, and spent about 24 hours steeping in the beer. Given that Arroz con Leche tips a shade further toward amber than a typical pilsner, I reckon it gets some of its color from that bark.
Araya says 5 Rabbit wanted to make something "decadent, creamy, and very dessertlike," but not dark—for lack of a better phrase, an "albino stout." Arroz con Leche calls itself an "imperial rice ale," but it's just 7.5 percent alcohol, relatively modest for anything designated "imperial."
The beer's aroma is dominated by the inimitable alchemical fusion of vanilla and cinnamon, which seems almost floral (I can't pick out the hops on the nose, but I'm sure they contribute). Writing my impressions down as they arrive, I end up with horchata, almond flour, caramel flan, honey, snickerdoodles, and cut oak. But in total Arroz con Leche's scent is so suggestive of its namesake pudding that I keep persuading myself I can smell simmered whole milk.
On my first sip, I noticed the almost ridiculously creamy mouthfeel before almost anything else—I half expected to be able to stand a spoon up in my glass. (Don't bother. It doesn't work.) The olfactory illusion of milk, however, dissolves immediately. The vanilla, caramel, and cinnamon all persist on the palate, for an unmistakably dessertlike flavor—in fact, the vanilla clings like you've got taffy stuck in your teeth. I think I can detect hops too, but my sensory apparatus is so muddled by the other stuff that I'm not sure what they add. Maybe sawdust? Buckskin? Something is definitely offsetting the sweetness, or this wouldn't be drinkable at all. (And it is—very much so.) The flavors of the adjuncts dominate Arroz con Leche, which could offend purists, but if you like the combination of vanilla and cinnamon—and really, who doesn't—this might actually be good news.
Arroz con Leche launched at the brewery on January 31 and arrived at 5 Rabbit's distributor, Louis Glunz, about a week later. The beer began hitting stores around February 9, and it's still widely available, thanks in part to its $12.99 price tag (subject to retailer prerogative, of course), which has no doubt stayed the hand of a few curious shoppers. It's part of the Las Chingonas series of large-format 25.4-ounce bottles, which began a couple years ago with a Belgian-style golden ale called Huitzi (brewed with hibiscus flowers, ginger, palm sugar, and honey) and also includes Yodo con Leche and Ponche.
The next Las Chingonas beer (loosely translated, the name means "fucking great") is the third annual release of Gran Missionario, whose yearly variations celebrate the cultural collisions that occurred in early Spanish missions on the Pacific coast. The base beer is brewed with wheat and grapes (the reference to the sacrament of communion is entirely intentional), and past versions have included additions of almonds and pears. This year's uses mission figs, and should be out in a couple weeks.
For the obligatory metal portion of the post, I ask you to join me in anticipation of tonight's double bill with Behemoth and Cannibal Corpse. The video above is "drum cam" footage of Behemoth drummer Inferno playing "Messe Noire," a track from the band's latest album, The Satanist. Sure, it's not the best way to hear the song, but none of the other clips out there demonstrates so clearly the technical proficiency that goes into this music. Behemoth's show last April made my year-end list of 2014's top five metal concerts, and this week I wrote a little something about Cannibal Corpse. To quote myself: "On their 13th full-length, A Skeletal Domain, they’re as dialed-in as they’ve ever been—picture a colossal threshing machine that can outrun a bullet train, cloaked in a clotted spume of blood and bone chips, with the ragged, bludgeoning roar of front man George 'Corpsegrinder' Fisher bursting out of it like detonations of black ash from a smokestack."
Happy Friday, mothers and fuckers! And if you see me at the House of Blues, say hello.