From the Beer Writer: When going to any brewery tasting room alone, my favorite spot to sit is right where the beer is ordered. Not only do I get a feel for what everyone is ordering, I usually end up with fun spontaneous bar conversation. At Gunwhale Ales in Costa Mesa, listening to people order their nautical-themed beer names can sound like a secret menu at a tiki bar in an alternate universe. “I’ll take a Hawaiin Sling,” says one guy in line. “Yeah, can I get a Baitball with a taster of Aloha Shirt and a Tropical Downpour?” asks a beachy girl with flip flops and dark tan.
I originally went in to check out their new brut IPA, but Aloha Shirt, their new pineapple saison caught my eye. I can’t say I’ve ever had grilled pineapple in a saison, and maybe the closest thing to it was a smoked-pineapple gose Modern Times brought to Firkfest 2017 (Shameless plug: I’m the Firkfest founder and organizer) that was inspired by al pastor tacos.
Aloha Shirt looks like any other unfiltered fresh saison with some dense haze. The nose pushes hints of saison spice, a bit of coconut from the oak fermentation, and a balanced note of pineapple. Fruiting a saison is a precarious idea as copious additions can damper the nuance and complexity of what is already there. In this beer, the flavors are natural, and I’m happy that pineapple is just a note…not a dole plantation.
From Gunwhale co-owner Bobby Fitzgerald: Our head brewer, Kevin Hammonds, wanted to make a Pineapple Wheat beer. Since we opened a year and a half ago, we have been playing with various yeast strains with our oak foeder and have been drawing some very fun tropical flavors from it. Our brand is about citrus and tropical hop profiles, as we have a coastal vibe (and terroir) that we try to implement in our beer. Naturally, our beers already play in the direction of tropical, but I also think we are pulling vanilla and coconut notes from the oak. So it was decided we would ferment in oak, with the Trois yeast strain. It is a Belgian strain and we are treating it like a farmhouse strain in some cases and other times to drive yeast character into our IPAs and West Coast/Farmhouse hybrid styles. We also prefer complexity, so I think it was Kevin that wanted to take the 200 lbs. of fresh pineapple and lightly grill it to intensify the flavors and caramelize the sugars a bit. The grain bill is 2-Row, White Wheat, and Flaked Wheat and it is hopped with Cascade. It finishes pretty dry around 2 Plato and 20-25 IBUs or so. We grill the fresh pineapple (we never would use extract in our beer) so it doesn’t char, then we add it to the brite tank. I named it Aloha Shirt for its obvious tropical essence, but especially because it drinks very fun and this time of year it definitely conjures summer vacation and the many Hawaiian shirts that are very on trend right now. It is a blonde, hazy farmhouse ale at 6.4% ABV, and its aroma smacks of pineapple and some of the yeast character, which I describe as clove and pepper spice. I think the wheat comes through despite being a big showcase for the pineapple juiciness. There are some cool earthy middle notes, typical of a saison, and a subtle pronouncement that it’s still beer due to the citrus and herbal hop flavor. A pretty lively mouthfeel and a dry finish makes it supremely drinkable, without the beach hotel cocktail hangover. That is unless you drink a dozen of them.
Gunwhale Ales, 2960 Randolph Ave, Costa Mesa, (949) 239-9074; www.gunwhaleales.com.
Greg Nagel has been writing about beer since 2011, is an avid homebrewer of wine, cider, and beer, is a certified Cicerone Beer Server, level 1 WSET in Wine, a podcaster with the Four Brewers Show, and runs a yearly beer festival called Firkfest happening this June!