Saturday, February 9, 2013

Review: Harvester Brewing, Once Again!

So, back in July of 2012, I finally got my hands on a sampler pack of Harvester's gluten-free beers, after many months of following their progress online and drooling over what I imagined must be the best gluten-free beers in the world.  As my long-time readers will remember, I was less than impressed.  I had wanted so badly to like their beers, but the ones I received were starchy, lacking hop aroma flavor, and shot through with all kinds of ashy/tobacco/burnt-plastic flavors that rendered them undrinkable.  I ordered 12 beers and poured nearly every single one down the drain, and lamented the future of gluten-free commercial-scale brewing in the U.S.A.  

But I am a strong believer in second chances, especially when I could tell that at least philosophically, Harvester had the right idea about how to approach gluten-free brewing.  They have a true craft-beer ethos: they use unusual locally-grown hops, as well as local chestnuts, and they seem to be constantly experimenting with new ingredients and adding new beers to their portfolio (something no other dedicated GF brewery seems to be doing—take the hint, guys!).  They are clearly passionate about their craft and relentless in their quest.  Writing them such a bad review made my heart hurt, so six months later, in Janurary of 2013, I ordered another shipment of their beers from  This one again included the Pale, Red, and Dark Ales, but instead of Raspberry, it included their IPA.

Well, boy howdy am I glad I gave them another chance, because the beers I received this time are completely different.  I don't know if the first batch I got was old or just a bad batch or what...but this second batch of beers completely lacked the starchy feel and ashy/tobacco/plastic flavors of the first batch.  The Red and the Dark were still a little short of perfection, but the Pale and the IPA actually blew me away with their flavors, and are officially my favorite commercial GF beers at the moment.  I'm adding "proximity to Harvester" to my growing list of reasons to move to Portland!

Detailed reviews of each beer after the jump, this time with some unsolicited constructive criticism (when possible).

Harvester Red:
Appearance: deep hazy red, with a thick creamy tan-colored head that recedes slowly to a thick and persistent lacing.  A beautiful beer.

Taste: Sweet and light nuttiness up front with a hint of English toffee, followed closely by a clean hop bitterness and a prominent hit of the sour sorghum twang.  Slight hint of citrus from the hops, fading to a long nutty toasted bread finish.

Mouthfeel: thick and chewy, moderate alcoholic/solvent character.  Appropriate carbonation for the style, but thins out as the carbonation fades on the tongue.

Rating: 3.5/5.  A good beer, solidly drinkable, good on a cold day.  Comparable to a Green's Amber Ale in many ways, but with more bready and nutty characteristics.  The finish could be thicker, and with some caramel notes this beer would be perfect.

Unsolicited Advice from a Homebrewer: like most darker gluten-free beers, it's lacking the supporting caramel notes normally provided by crystal malts (though the toffee notes of the chestnuts are very nice).  It also has a bit of sourness from the sorghum, which might be contributing to a thinness of body in the finish that feels out of place with the nutty and bready flavors from the oats and chestnuts.  From my experience, some things that might help these minor short-comings would be the addition of candi syrup, probably D-45, as well as throwing some sweet potato in the mash (which can also contribute a nice malty sweetness and thicker body that is otherwise hard to come by).  Using rice syrup in place of some (or all) of the sorghum can alleviate the dreaded "twang", and using rice syrup in lieu of cane sugar might also help the body stay strong all the way through.

Harvester Dark Ale:
Appearance: deep translucent copper, a moderate eggshell head that recedes quickly to a persistent off-white lacing.  Only very slightly darker than the red, and the head is actually lighter.

Aroma: nutty dark chocolate, sweet, with a hint of almond.  No hop presence.

Taste: short initial sweetness quickly giving way to a woody espresso-like roastiness, which borders on being smoky. More dry than I expected from the aroma, and not as chocolatey.   Moderate bitterness from the roast chestnuts, indiscernible hop presence (which is not a bad thing; hoppiness could easily upset the balance of this beer).  Finishes roasty and smoky with a slight sweetness and a strong acidity.  Tastes darker than it looks.

Mouthfeel: creamy at first, but followed shortly by a moderate acidity, which is somewhat harsh and leaves a lingering astringency, like an over-brewed black tea.  This astringency increases with each sip.

Rating: 2.5/5.  Beautiful color and nice aroma, but the nice roasty flavor is knocked out of balance by the acidic astringency, causing an unpleasant mouthfeel after swallowing that intensifies over time and makes the beer difficult to drink.  Half-way through the pint, I could drink no more, because the acidity made my jaw hurt, as if sucking on a Warhead candy.  If not for the acidity, it would easily be a 3.5/5.

Unsolicited Advice from a Homebrewer: the acidity really needs to be fixed.  If dark-roasted chestnuts behave in the mash the same way dark-roasted grains do, then they might be the culprit (assuming the brewing water is not being modified accordingly).  The usual fix is to add some CaCO3 (calcium carbonate, aka chalk) to the mash to help buffer the pH and keep the acidity from becoming excessive.  If this beer is made with *only* dark-roasted chestnuts (which I suspect to be the case), it might also be a good idea to round out the grain bill with some lighter roasts.  I can imagine a different yeast, perhaps something more English like S-04 or Windsor, could also help out by attenuating less and thus leaving more residual sweetness.

Also, to my palate, this beer is practically SCREAMING for some Belgian dark candi syrup, D2 or D-180 specifically, to add some sweetness and notes of dark fruit to balance out the smoky roastiness.  I use D-180 to excellent effect in my stouts and porters, and I think that combining it with their roasted chestnuts would make a perfect stout—one which even looks the part!

Harvester Pale Ale:
Appearance: transparent honey color, with a fizzy white head that disappears quickly to a thin white lacing.

Aroma: Fruit punch or maybe Fruity Pebbles cereal, light citrus/grapefruit, mild herb and spice character; very soft and delicate

Taste: Clean hop bitterness up front that immediately gives way to a unique taste like fruit punch, mingled with some citrus and spice--this must be the elusive and mysterious Meridian hops.  A sort of velvety softness to the hop flavor, which floats above a mild and sweet malt base with just a hint of raw cashew nuttiness.  The bitterness lingers throughout, a very clean Northwest character a la Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.  Finishes with nutty sweetness, hop bitterness, and a faint echo of the initial fruit punch flavor.

Mouthfeel: full-bodied with moderate-to-high carbonation, very smooth with a long linger.

Rating: 4.5/5  This is a very unique American Pale Ale, which exceptionally balances the fruit flavors of the hops against the subtle nutty flavors of the chestnut/oat/sorghum base.  Light and refreshing without being thin, this beer is delicious and extremely drinkable.  And I really can't get over the taste of these Meridian hops--it's seriously like a bowl of Fruity Pebbles cereal, in a good way.  This is the best GF pale ale on the market, hands down.  It mops the floor with New Planet and St. Peter's, both of which are excellent beers.  I would drink this every day if I could afford to.

Unsolicited Advice from a Homebrewer: I can't really think of anything within my realm of expertise that would make this beer better.  I suppose there is still some twang from the sorghum hiding under those nice hops, which could be remedied by using some rice syrup instead of sorghum and adding a bit of honey...but I might just be getting nit-picky.  

Harvester IPA:
Appearance: perfectly transparent deep gold, with a thick and extremely persistent eggshell head that very slowly recedes to thick eggshell lacing.

Aroma: orange-grapefruit citrus and slight piney/resiny note, blended with sweet fruit punch and a hint of spice.

Taste: Initial notes of bright citrus and pine followed quickly with that sweet Fruity Pebbles flavor from the Meridian hops, giving way to oranges, spice, and notes of candy (which I believe is from the Horizon hops).  The bitterness is assertive, but very soft and clean--not rough or catty at all.  The malt backbone is sweet and crisp, with hints of nutty toffee.  The finish is sweet candy, spice, and fruit with a lingering clean bitterness.  Very refreshing!

Mouthfeel: full-bodied, thick and smooth.  Moderate alcoholic warmth, very mild astringency.  Long linger.
Rating: 5/5.  I feel a little nervous giving full marks, but this is really a paragon of an IPA.  It's unique, but it has everything I look for in an IPA: strong hop aroma that hits you as soon as you pop the top, smooth clean assertive bitterness, a complex and intricate hop flavor profile that really tells a story, and of course, a refreshing and sweet malt backbone to balance the hops.  This beer is really just perfectly balanced--it's not a palate-wrecker like a lot of Californian IPAs, and it might not satisfy someone looking for an IPA along the lines of Lagunitas Maximus or Stone's Ruination, but for those of us who are interested more in innovative flavor profiles than maxing out IBUs, Harvester's IPA is tough to beat.

Unsolicited Advice from a Homebrewer: Nothing!  This beer has set the standard for all other gluten-free beers, and if someone can outdo it, I will bow to them.  And really, this is just IPA #1; I can't wait to find out what IPA #2 is going to be like!

Comparison to Harvester's Pale Ale: out here on the West Coast, our pale ales often push into IPA territory, and I've had pale ales that are hoppier and maltier than some IPAs.  In Harvester's case, the pale ale is lighter in color, and features the soft, fruity Meridian hops more strongly, is less bitter, and has a lighter malt profile; on the other hand, the IPA features the Cascade hops more prominently, with stronger notes of resin and citrus up front, and has a more powerful bitterness as well as a sweeter body with more nutty/toffee accents.  The two are similar, but the differences are clear.  


  1. I have to agree with you. My first trip to Harvester I have to same experience where I wasn't truly impressed but I like their approach and gave them a second chance. They truly do make some of the best GF beers I have had in Portland. I wouldn't consider their IPA and IPA but it was good none the less.

  2. I'm pretty sure they can't mail to Pennsylvania with our archaic blue laws, but my daughter lives in Portland and is coming to visit. She MUST bring the pale ale and IPA!