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The Reader has been on top of Moody Tongue from day one, though when I say "the Reader" I don't mean Beer and Metal—I mean our food writer Michael Gebert. He's thoroughly interviewed Jared Rouben, who left his position as head brewer at the Goose Island brewpubs in early 2013 to found this Pilsen operation. Before Moody Tongue's launch he spoke with Rouben about "culinary brewing," which loosely speaking means approaching ingredients like a chef and sourcing them from local farmers' markets whenever possible. Rouben thinks of beer as food, and he pretty much always puts food in it—pawpaws, green coriander, nectarines, cinnamon, purple raspberries, Padron chile peppers, you name it.
Moody Tongue beers debuted on tap in June 2014, but till now the only thing the brewery has bottled has been Rouben's notorious Shaved Black Truffle Pilsner. In November it sold 500 bombers by lottery at $120 a pop, and the beer attracted nationwide attention, though much of that was driven by people snarking at what they assumed was a pretentious bougie stunt. Early this month, though, Moody Tongue hit store shelves for the first time, shipping much more affordable four-packs of Sliced Nectarine IPA, Caramelized Chocolate Churro Baltic Porter, and Steeped Emperor's Lemon Saison.
I picked up the saison at Binny's for ten bucks, mostly because I'd enjoyed it on draft at Dusek's last fall (Rouben first released it in August). It's 6.3 percent alcohol, and I suspect it gets its slightly awkward name from a tea called Emperor's Lemon Meritage, produced by the Rare Tea Cellar on Ravenswood. That herbal blend was the marquee ingredient in a tap-only beer called Sai-Shan-Tea, a joint effort by the Goose Island pubs, the Rare Tea Cellar, and Chuck Sudo from Chicagoist in 2010 (about a year into Rouben's tenure). The Rare Tea Cellar's website describes Emperor's Lemon Meritage with such enthusiasm that several words ended up accidentally capitalized: "Proprietary blend of the finest lemon leaves and lemon peels. This majestic blend pulls leaves from Australia, Morocco, Egypt, France and peels from Japan and Egypt. Includes the amazing and exotic Pharaoh's Ancient Lemon Peel, Lemon Myrtle and more!"
Bolstering my theory here are the similarities in citrus flavor between this beer and Forbidden Root's Sublime Ginger, which definitely uses lemon myrtle.
Steeped Emperor's Lemon Saison smells so intensely of lemon (albeit without the usual acidity and bite) that I'm just going to have to say "lemon" a bunch of times in a row: Meyer lemon zest, lemon myrtle, lemongrass, and lemon curd. If you keep your nose in the glass till you can pick up something else, you might get beeswax, mango syrup, a bit of resin and pine, something faintly herbal that suggests basil or cilantro, and a fresh yeastiness like pizza dough after it's had half an hour to rise. Whatever you do, don't let the words "lemon Pledge" enter your brain. In fact, forget you saw that. You were never here.
The beer has a light, silky body and an almost meringuelike texture—it feels like my tongue has been slightly anesthetized by a coating of volatile essential oils. The flavor is less lemony than the aroma, since of course lemon isn't one of those things you can pick up with your taste buds. That is, this saison is relatively beerlike on the palate—but the malt sweetness and yeast spice still can't really compete with the herbs and citrus. Alongside the lemon I get tangerine, keffir lime leaf, and evergreen; the dry, somewhat astringent finish leaves a subtle aftertaste like bitter green tea.
The ten dollars you'll pay for a four-pack of this stuff could also buy you a six-pack of Deschutes Black Butte Porter or Metropolitan Dynamo, which frankly seems like a better deal to me. (Maybe you don't like those beers as much as I do.) But Moody Tongue's pricing is hardly ridiculous, ounce for ounce—these four-packs are roughly equivalent to a five-dollar large-format bottle, and few brewers sell those for so little.
With its "culinary" branding and classy minimalist labels (undercut only slightly by a logo that's basically a tongue hanging out), Moody Tongue is clearly positioning itself as an upmarket business. This sort of thing is on my mind because I just wrote about Mikerphone Brewing, which isn't positioning itself as any such thing—it slaps colorful cartoons on the kind of enormous cans that people associate with garbage like Four Loko. Of course, the irony is that most of Mikerphone's cans will cost more per ounce than Moody Tongue's four-packs—they're only relatively cheap among large-format beers.
I'll happily pay ten bucks for a four-pack of Off Color's Apex Predator, because I think it's an extraordinary beer. And seven dollars for 24 ounces of Mikerphone's One-Hit Wonderful is something I could talk myself into, if I were heading to a party where I could share it. How about Steeped Emperor's Lemon Saison? My positive experience at Dusek's notwithstanding, I think I ruined it for myself this time—once I thought of lemon Pledge, the beer smelled like furniture polish to me and wouldn't stop. I couldn't flip the switch back.
In other words, the beer comes on a bit one-note—the herbal lemon flavor is truly bonkers—and whether you dig it probably depends a lot on whether you happen to be in the right brain space for that one note when you pop the cap. I bet I'll love the next bottle of it I drink.
And speaking of Emperor:
That's from the 1994 album In the Nightside Eclipse, one of the all-time classics of Norwegian black metal. The inexplicable pluralization in "I Am the Black Wizards" will never not be funny to me.