Leinie's is a name nearly all Wisconsin beer drinkers should recognize, and many know its brews quite well. But even breweries with the longest histories can surprise with flavors both new and unexpected.
Big Eddy is the name of a line of limited releases developed by Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company, each intended to entice craft beer enthusiasts with bold flavors and big character. The latest in this series is a surprising take on a German schwarzbier, ramped up with plenty of dark malts to enrich its semi-sweet flavor and loaded with a ton of Wisconsin cherries to lend just a touch of tartness.
Its name is Cherry Doppelschwarz. Think of this beer as chocolate cake dripping with cherry sauce, with its release timed perfectly for the holiday season.
What is it? Big Eddy Cherry Doppelschwarz by Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.
Style: The schwarzbier, or German black lager, is a study in clean maltiness. These intense, dark beers are usually smoother and much lighter-bodied than their appearance suggests. They should offer a firm sweetness with hints of caramel and chocolate, alongside light dry roasted coffee tones that are not burnt. Schwarzbiers are well-balanced, perhaps with a slight nod to the malty side over the hops. They range in strength from 3.8-4.9% ABV. The brewers of Big Eddy Cherry Doppelschwarz call it an "imperial" schwarzbier because it's made with significant levels of malt that emphasize strong chocolate and caramel tones. The beer is also much stronger than what is typical for the style.
Background: The Big Eddy series made its debut in 2007. These limited release beers get their name from the Big Eddy Springs in Chippewa Falls that the brewery founded by Jacob Leinenkugel originally used in the late 1800s. Today, with Leinie's owned by MillerCoors, this line is brewed at the Tenth and Blake Beer Company in Milwaukee.
Over the last six months, Leinenkugel's has been reshuffling its Big Eddy brand. Several beers previously released as part of the series -- Wee Heavy Scotch Ale, Baltic Porter and Ryewine Ale -- have been discontinued for the time being. The lineup now features four beers in rotation: along with the new Cherry Doppelschwarz, there's Russian Imperial Stout, Imperial IPA and Über-Oktoberfest, which is just ending its fall run. Leinenkugel's plans to introduce another new one in May 2015, but is not yet revealing what it will be. When looking for Big Eddy brews, always check the date on the neck label for its release date, particularly for those now on hiatus. The Russian Imperial Stout, however, ages quite well and an older vintage is worth a try.
"For a while we had six Big Eddy brews out there, and we found through our distributors that it's easier for the customer when we simplify things, so we've narrowed it down," says C.J. Leinenkugel, who represents a sixth generation of Leinenkugel family members since the brewery was founded in 1867. The emerging plan is to focus on four Big Eddy beers a year, and roll them out seasonally.
"I think Big Eddy, and this new one, speak a lot about what direction our brewery is going, and that of the industry," notes C.J. "We are changing with the times." Earlier this year, John Leinenkugel, who is C.J.'s uncle, personally took over as Leinie's primary promoter for these big and relatively rare brews.
Dave Hansen, the assistant brewmaster at Tenth and Blake, describes Cherry Doppelschwarz as an “imperial” dark lager and emphasizes that it's among the boldest beers in the Leinie's portfolio. "There is a lot more malt, more body and more alcohol in it, so imperial means a lot more flavor," he says. Fans of Leinenkugel's Creamy Dark, a beer the company has made since 1990, will recognize some similar qualities; however, Cherry Doppelschwarz has a lot more of everything.
To keep an emphasis on the smoother, softer, malty tones of chocolate and caramel, Hansen uses a de-husked barley as part of the grist bill. "That gives it rich depth, like dark chocolate or a really nice coffee, without the bitterness you find in some roasted malts," he explains.
Cherry Doppelschwarz does not come across as a bitter beer, as it's only lightly balanced with Spalt hops from Germany, and ends up around 27 IBUs.
The most distinctive element of this Big Eddy brew is the cherries that go into it. Hansen uses Door County-grown Montmorency cherries, which are a sour cultivar. Over one ton goes into each 65 barrel batch of beer; that's roughly 33 pounds per barrel. The cherries are added directly into the brew kettle, with a small addition just before bottling to intensify the fruit aroma.
This approach is a little different from other brewers who add cherries during fermentation. Hansen says adding them early in the brewing process helps make sure the fruit is blended with the flavors of the malts. "The biggest challenge was adding in a ton of cherries into every brew," he laughs. "That was a lot of buckets!"
The beer has been in development for over a year. At one point, several of the brewers at Tenth and Blake made a field trip to Door County. "The brewing team went up there to personally select the type of cherries they wanted to use," explains C.J. Leinenkugel. "When you are buying a lot of cherries, you want to make sure there will be enough."
Big Eddy Cherry Doppelschwarz finishes at 8.5% ABV. It sells in four packs for around $10-13, and should be on store shelves well into December.
Alongside its Big Eddy series, Leinenkugel's has been active with in developing the rest of its portfolio. Along with expanding its popular lineup of shandies, the brewery renamed its helles-style lager from "Hoppin' Helles" to "Helles Yeah" (which involved a trademark question, of course), and earlier this fall introduced its India Pale Lager. For fans of lagers, Leine's just debuted another brew that's built upon a schwarzbier; Winter's Bite, a new black lager made with cocoa and spices, is available in the brewery's Explorer 12-packs for the cold-weather season.
- Aroma: Firm chocolate malty aroma.
- Appearance: Dark black with bronze highlights. A medium, soft, tan-to-brown head.
- Texture: Full bodied, smooth and soft.
- Taste: The malty tones come out first, followed by a smooth blend with cherry-tartness throughout.
- Finish/Aftertaste: The tartness continues as soft, at times subtle, accent to the light roasted chocolate and coffee flavors of malt.
Glassware: The schwarzbier, as a black lager, is often served in a pilsner glass. However, this Big Eddy brew with its "imperial" maltiness and overlay of cherry tones is best enjoyed in a snifter or another glass that will focus the nose and encourage sipping, thereby building appreciation of its multitude of flavors.
Pairs well with: Big Eddy Cherry Doppelschwarz is best as an after-dinner beer because of its dessert-like cherry and chocolate-malty flavors. Moreover, as it's a strong beer, it's great for a little relaxing. As a pre-meal appetizer beer, it pairs well with Sartori BellaVitano Gold. The buttery-sweetness of the cheese is a pleasant complement to the cherry flavors in the beer.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: Big Eddy Cherry Doppelschwarz offers an inviting blend of semi-sweet chocolate and caramel maltiness with a firm background of cherry tartness. I really don't consider this beer to be at a level of sourness that's reflected in the lambic-style and wild fermented brews that are growing in popularity. While the cherry is distinguishable, this brew is more about contrasting layers of sweetness. It's a cherry beer where the fruit really complements the strong malt qualities.
Brewing this as an imperial version of a schwarzbier imparts a subtle but important difference from other brews with assertive cherry flavor. There's a boatload of heavy cherry beers, typically built upon imperial stouts or imperial porters, and often aged in bourbon barrels. But even though this Big Eddy starts as a bigger, bolder version of a dark lager, its chocolate, caramel and coffee tones are held more in balance with the fruit. That allows tartness to emerge without becoming sour, or the cherry getting lost in all the malt. Rather, it's a marriage of all those great flavors.
Of course, this is also a great beer for Thanksgiving. Big Eddy Cherry Doppelschwarz will fit well with the variety of foods that come together on the holiday table, and it can stand up as a dessert on its own. I'm not exaggerating; this beer reminds me of chocolate cake with cherries on top.
Cherry Doppelschwarz is the best Big Eddy yet and I hope it becomes a regular fall release. It's a departure from what breweries typically do when developing limited release big beers, which seem to revolve around styles like barley wines, imperial IPAs and Russian imperial stouts. This brew falls outside of that range of expected big styles, and will help Big Eddy redefine what it can be by offering beer hunters unexpected quarry. It's a good example of how Tenth and Blake can make Big Eddy, well, a big deal.