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Beer Here: Unplugged: Enigma from New Glarus Brewing

Credit:Robin Shepard

When fans of New Glarus Brewing voted online last fall for the beers they would like to see brewmaster Dan Carey make in 2010, at top on the list was a distinctive beer with assertive sweet and sour tones and a memorable name, Enigma. Over the years this sour brown ale has made periodic appearances in the brewery's limited-release four-packs referred to as the "Unplugged" series. Enigma aficionados have succeeded in their campaign to bring this beer back, as Carey just released the 2010 version.

What is it? Enigma from New Glarus Brewing Company.

Style: New Glarus brewmaster Dan Carey calls this beer "Enigma" because that's what it is if you try to associate it with a traditional industry-accepted beer style. It's best described as a wood- or barrel-aged sour brown ale. However, Enigma takes that a step further with aging on a bed of cherries in unlined oak casks. The contact with wood creates vanilla tones and a natural acidity, accentuated by the cherries and wild forms of yeast.

Background: Dan Carey allows this beer to age for nearly four months in oak casks on a bed of Door County cherries. The result is an unusual blend of smooth, oaky vanilla tones with the complexity of sweet and tart flavors associated with the cherries. Carey says he drew inspiration from the sour beers of Belgium, but the cherries and oak make it a unique New Glarus creation.

Enigma has won a variety of awards, including a silver medal at the 2003 Great American Beer Festival and a bronze medal in the 2004 World Beer Cup, and in 2007 it was recognized as "Best of the Midwest" at the U.S. Beer Tasting Championship.

Carey says this beer will age very well while in the bottle, so purchasing some and holding it back will make it even more special. In a side-by-side comparison between the 2010 version and a bottle I'd kept since at least 2007, the older version was indeed still spectacular. It wasn't quite as sharp in flavor or as bright in color, being more bronze than ruby. It had mellowed and become even smoother, with a cleaner faster finish and just a touch more warmth.

The current Enigma comes in at around 5.5% ABV and sells for approximately $10/4-pack.

Tasting notes:

  • Aroma: Assertive sour cherry aroma
  • Appearance: Brilliant ruby-bronze, with a soft, light tan, creamy head.
  • Texture: Medium bodied and soft, smooth texture.
  • Taste: There some maltiness upfront, but the fruity sour flavor dominates. There is a smoothness about the flavor the rounds out the acidic tartness before giving way to hints of oak, vanilla and even light notes of coconut.
  • Finish/Aftertaste: The fruitiness lingers along with a light oakiness and some warmth.

Glassware: The tulip glass is great for the brilliant ruby color, while supporting a soft creamy head and allowing the nose to expand above the beer.

Pairs well with: The fruity acidic and sweet qualities of Enigma will match well with seafood like crab cakes or even a tuna salad sandwich. It is a wonderful beer with feta cheese, the acidic and sweet flavor contrasting with the goat cheese.

Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four).

The Consensus: A- (excellent) at Beer Advocate and a 99 (overall score) at Rate Beer.

The Verdict: I have to admit I'm one of those who shy away from beers described as sour. Such beers are acquired tastes and can challenge common expectations in mainstream beer preferences. Hearing about the overwhelming vote to bring back Enigma was like 88-year old Betty White being voted to host Saturday Night Live via Facebook. I had to watch SNL, so I felt I should try this beer out of respect for popular demand.

Now that the people have spoken, I'll add my vote and join the chorus of support for Enigma. It's an inspiring example of what a sour brown ale can be. I'm actually hesitant to use the term "sour" because it is quite smooth, with a mild acidic sweetness from the cherries that is nicely complemented by the oak, vanilla and hint of coconut from the aging. Enigma is complex, different and mysterious enough to live up to its name, so try it now, but stash a four-pack for Betty White's 90th birthday!

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