Sunday, October 25, 2009

Beer of the Week: Yorkshire Stingo

This week's featured beer is Yorkshire Stingo. Sting-what you say? Good question. Stingo is not a beer style per se but rather a slang word for strong beers produced in England in the 17th and 18th centuries. Yorkshire Stingo would have been produced in, you guessed it, Yorkshire. A particular method of fermenting beer was in use in Yorkshire at the time called the Yorkshire Square system. More on that later.

Yorkshire Stingo was so influential as to inspire the name of a famous pub near London which is known for, among other things, charging a cover (redeemable for beverages once inside) to discourage the poor from entering. But I digress, we are interested in beer from Yorkshire, not pubs in London named after beer from Yorkshire, right?

Yorkshire Stingo was virtually extinct during the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, it would be nearly impossible to recreate the beer faithfully since the Yorkshire Square system was so important to the production. Enter Samuel Smith Brewery, one of the few remaining breweries employing the Yorkshire Square system (Black Sheep is the only other brewery using the Yorkshire Square system whose beer you are likely to find on this side of the pond).

What is the Yorkshire Square system? I am glad you asked. According to Wikipedia:
A Yorkshire Square vessel is a two-story system consisting of a shallow chamber approximately two meters high, above which is a walled deck. Cooled wort, the liquid extracted from malted barley, is fermented by a special yeast in the lower chamber, while the yeasty head settles on the deck above.
During the first stage of fermentation, the fermenting wort is periodically pumped from the bottom of the chamber over the yeasty head, to keep the yeast mixed in with the wort. Later, the mixing is stopped and the wort in the chamber allowed to settle and cool gently.
Most of the yeast rises onto the deck, and is left behind when the beer is drained from the chamber.
The whole process takes at least six days. However, beer straight from a Yorkshire Square vessel will still have a harsh flavor. Before it can be considered drinkable, the residual yeast must be allowed to ferment any remaining sugar, producing a little extra alcohol and carbon dioxide, which mellows the beer and produces a wonderful balance of taste and aroma. This conditioning begins in tanks at the brewery and continues after the beer is filled into casks, hence the phrase 'Cask Conditioned'.

Recently, Samuel Smith reintroduced the world to Yorkshire Stingo beer. Their interpretation is rich with English yeast character, caramel malt flavors, and a subtle oak flavor. This is an excellent example of a barrel-aged beer that tastes like oak and not bourbon. Samuel Smith Yorkshire Stingo is 8% alcohol by volume, dark and features just enough hop bitterness to balance the caramel sweetness. The barrels employed are quite old but have only been used to condition beer. It is amazing that they are still able to lend a discernible oak flavor to new beer!

According to the press release:
A traditional strong ale that originated in the north of England, “Stingo” is mentioned in literature before 1700. Samuel Smith’s Stingo melds the signature elegance of the brewery’s ales with a long historical tradition. Brewed from British malts and multiple hop varieties, Stingo is fermented in open-topped stone Yorkshire Squares, then aged over a year in oak barrels that previously held cask-conditioned ale, gaining subtle complexity from the wood. Some of the barrels at Samuel Smith’s are over a century old – if a cask is damaged, the coopers carefully replace broken staves and put the cask back into service.

Samuel Smith’s Stingo shows rich, superb flavors of toffee, raisin, dried fruit, and caramel; waves of flavor ascend and ebb leaving soft oak notes. Hops add a perfect enhancement to dramatic malt and fermentation flavors, but without pushing bitterness past the point of balance. Bottle conditioning – that is, including live yeast in each bottle – produces soft carbonation, a fruity aroma and finish, and allows Stingo to age and develop in the bottle.
You should be able to find Samuel Smith Yorkshire Stingo at better stocked liquor stores in Kansas City (I bought mine at Royal). It is a limited annual release so be sure to pick one up sooner rather than later. It is a great beer to drink on a cold and wet autumn evening like this one.

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