In February of 2017, Southern Grit and Exception(ALE) got together and put on the Norfolk Stout Bowl. It pitted the four leading Norfolk-made and distributed stouts at the time, O’Connor’s Odis, Smartmouth’s Cowcatcher, Coelacanth’s Kopimanis and Bold Mariner’s Coconut Stout against one another in a blind tasting. Six industry judges (Commercial and Home Brewers, Chefs, and Beer Enthusiasts) along with the public weighed in with Coelacanth prevailing. The following is a recap of what transpired and why the publisher/writers/contributors at Southern Grit thought it would be interesting, even if only on a small scale, to do a blind tasting. Congratulations to Coelacanth and thank you again to Exception(ALE) for making this possible.
Article and photography by Fitz
Lead photo of Aaron Holley, Owner/Brewer of Wasserhund Brewing Company at The Norfolk Stout bowl February 2017 at Exception(ALE)
Do you like Picasso because you like Picasso or because it’s a Picasso? I know, that sounds mad confusing. It’s a question I heard a lot in my “I fucked up in high school so I’m at community college days” though. Ultimately, that question more precisely put means, do you like Picasso’s art or do you just say you like Picasso’s art because of the iconic status of Picasso the man, the artist?
That question has started popping in my head lately during the growing number of local craft beer convos I’ve been having. I’ve been noticing a trend. While many of my friends are passionate and have their favorite craft beers that they profess to prefer, when you ask them details as to why, it can get a little vague. Most of the responses I get didn’t involve details like say chew on their stout or drinkability of their lager. Missing were the arguments for the malty or hoppy backbone of the amber ale they prefer or the ‘blow your head off’ hoppy bitterness or citrus notes of this or that pale ale or Imperial IPA they swear by. I’m not saying all my weekend warriors didn’t have convincing, substantive reasons, but for sure, quite a few were lacking substance. Additionally perplexing was the over abundance of admiration many had for their beer due to the illustrated packaging or the look of the swag at their adored brewery of choice.
Have the signs coming off of the Hampton Roads bridge tunnel, the blitzkrieg of ads in local newsprint rags, the hats, the local awards and the like all helped to create craft beer icons locally? And if so, does the quality of those iconic beers merit that status or are we dealing with the beginning of the Budweiser-ization of our local craft beer scene? I wanted to start trying to find out. And also, admittedly, get some people together who know their shit in terms of beer and see what happens during a blind tasting of, in this iteration, Norfolk made stouts. Why stouts? Let’s just say there are a lot of stout lovers at Southern Grit.
Answering the call to this tasting was Aaron Holley (Owner and Brewer at Wasserhund), Eric Nelson (Executive Chef at Chops and beer enthusiast), his wife Jennifer Nelson (former wine rep and beer enthusiast), John Walter Williams ( Co-owner at Lynnhaven Coffee Company and beer enthusiast), Jon Scheidt (Sous Chef at Streats and beer enthusiast), and Casey Bates (a long time home brewer). We also, last minute, opened it up to the public for a separate vote.
Stepping up to the plate also was Exception(ALE) whose owner Greg Hartman agreed to get, on tap, the four main stouts made locally in Norfolk and being distributed at the time of this article’s creation: O’Connor’s Odis, Smartmouth’s Cowcatcher, Coelacanth’s Kopimanis, and Bold Mariner’s Coconut Stout. Exception(ALE), with 41 taps for all your growler fill needs, is also now THE place for a truly special beer experience in Norfolk, having just begun serving on premises at the time of this article. It’s now effectively one of the best bars in Norfolk and that’s not even mentioning their vast bottle selection.
So enough with all the build up, what were the results and why? After being handed 4 unmarked stouts, the judges were told the names of the four beers they would be blind tasting. The judges were then asked to rate each unmarked stout according to taste, mouthfeel, aroma, appearance, and finish on a 1 to 5 scale, 5 being the highest, and to choose their favorite. They were told the names so as to attempt to guess which stout was which.
By and large, the guessing was very much a miss, Holley of Wasserhund led the way with guessing two right. The Cowcatcher from Smartmouth was the most correctly guessed of the Stouts, with four of the six judges choosing correctly. In terms of judging results, coming in last place was Bold Mariner’s Coconut Stout with no votes and an average rating below 3. Coming in third place with one vote (Holley) and an average rating of 3.25 was Smartmouth’s Cowcatcher. Coming in second with two votes (J. Nelson/ Scheidt) and an average rating of 3.75 was O’Connor’s Odis. Coming in first with 3 votes (Williams/E.Nelson/Bates) and an average rating of 4.25 was Coelacanth’s Kopimanis. In addition, the public vote also went to Coelacanth’s Kopimanis which received close to 75 percent of the public vote at an average score just above 4.5.
Clearly, just in terms of its size, this blind tasting was more for fun than anything else. Our hats are off to all the local brewers who are passionate about making great beer both in Norfolk and greater Hampton Roads. The question of how much marketing is driving the popularity of certain craft beer locally versus how much the quality of the beer itself matters is up for you to decide.
For more on Exception(ALE) visit them online HERE
For more on Coelacanth visit them online HERE