Mikkeller - Mexas Ranger
Suggested Glassware:Dimpled Mug or Snifter
When one sees a label that indicates a list of ingredients like “ale brewed with spices, almond milk, cocoa, chili, black beans and avocado leaves,” there’s a certain part of our discerning selves that’s very curious, and perhaps a similarly sized piece that’s very skeptical. We’re not alone here. The addition of atypical ingredients has arguably gone from points of desperately needed innovation early on to approaches that suggest a “Hey, I wonder if I could use this legume/mushroom/feral animal in the brewpot” sloppiness. We’re better off being skeptical in many cases, but we’d miss out on a lot of great beer if we weren’t still persistently curious.
Mikkeller’s Mexas Ranger tends to defy expectations derived from its ingredients list. Instead of a spice bomb, or chili-heat-seeking missile, or something that makes one think of $2 taco night, this tastes like… well, an especially well-appointed sweet stout or strong porter around 8+% ABV. It’s merely 6.6%, and brewed with a collection of ingredients that normally have little to do with dark beers. If one tasted this blind, one might presume a special treatment of Cigar City Moat Water (a vibrant, deliciously viscous sweet stout) with spicy chilies added.
This impressive (and challenging) beer, like the very best of them, calls for renewed attention with each and every sip. Forget the special ingredients. Engage it for what it is in the glass. It pours a pitch-black hue with just a hint of cola-colored light coming through near the edges. The deeply colored brown head is formed by small bubbles that linger endlessly on the sides of the glass. There’s plenty of viscosity, and body that’s rather remarkable from a sub-7% anything and that most likely comes from the black beans and almond milk (two of the six special ingredients). Both of these will offer up fermentable sugars, but will also tend to leave some residual sweetness behind. Is this starting to make sense now? Let’s dig a bit deeper.
The aroma prominently showcases a third ingredient: That cocoa addition manifests as the chocolate-focused, robust midsection of this beer throughout, aligning with a base beer that brings in plenty of roast, milk and dark chocolate, and a welcomed amount of specialty-malt bitterness that accompanies a hop presence that mostly remains in the wings (hints of pine and citrus, but mostly a bittering contribution). The first sip offers up a miniscule-bubbled carbonation that contributes vibrancy at the tip of the tongue, with that viscous, palate-coating, cocoa-laden goodness following behind. In the mouth is where the spices play out, offering a lightly peppery counterpoint and the mild touch of fiery heat (just perceptible) to temper that core chocolate-layer-cake sweetness and help the various bittering elements steer things. From a distance, again, this would seem like an intricate strong porter or sweet stout. Knowing what goes into it, one can better appreciate the intriguing sleight of hand involved.
That’s five ingredients. And what about the avocado leaves? Well, we have no idea what they taste like either. Sometimes leaving a bit of mystery behind matters—but see if you can find them. For food pairings, we suggest trying Mexas Ranger with spicier fare (whether Oaxacan mole or fiery barbecued pork) or counterpointing it with buttery English Cheddar or a triple cream. Do savor those earliest sips with a fresh, undistracted palate (and an open mind).
On a variety of levels, Mikkeller has challenged how the craft-beer world thinks about artful brewing. Mikkel Borg Bjergsø started Mikkeller in 2006 with then-business-partner Kristian Keller (who would soon after depart for an editorial position at Copenhagen-based magazine Soundvenue). They began without an actual physical brewery, choosing to instead rent capacity at existent locations like GourmetBryggeriet and Belgium’s de Proef Brouwerij. It wasn’t too long before the notion of a locale-hopping “gypsy brewer” manifested—and quickly stuck.
But the term tends to oversimplify what Mikkeller is and is not, particularly as other similarly minded folks have followed in Mikkel’s footsteps. Whether contract brewing, an “alternating proprietorship,” or any of the other innovative new approaches to starting a brewery without having to build a new one from scratch, what tends to matter most from the consumers’ side is the quality and artistic clarity of that final product. (One could make obvious parallels with the publishing and music industries, among others.) What Mikkeller has done time and again successfully is realize Mikkel’s expressive recipes at world-class breweries such as BrewDog, Amager, Anchorage, and—most often—de Proef. This month’s selection was born from the ongoing artistic partnership between Mikkel and de Proef’s owner/brewmaster Dirk Naudts
The gypsy-brewing model affords creative flexibility elsewhere, and Mikkeller has deservedly become known for its use of nontraditional ingredients and concept-driven efforts that, well, actually work. Mikkeller’s Single Hop and Yeast Series lineups incorporate savvy, educational elements, while other offerings include ingredients such as Kopi Luwak coffee, lychee fruits, currants, Chateau d’Yquem barrels, and apparently (per the Mikkeller blog) even cabbages.
Of all the unique efforts, we think our current choice is one of the most ambitious and tasty. Very limited quantities of Mikkeller Mexas Ranger were exported to the U.S., with only 60 cases released for the whole country earlier this year, and the remainder set aside for our members.
The first time I met Mikkel was in southern Brazil, where we (along with Tore Gynther from the Danish brewery To Øl) were each performing our own separate duties as part of a larger weekend surrounding a craft-beer festival in the city of Curitiba. Subsequent days would find us on a boat headed to the idyllic Ilha do Mel (“Honey Island”) with a local brewer, and then in the public markets searching for brew-worthy Amazonian fruit—but it was early on in the trip that I asked Mikkel about his previous employment, and how he and Tore had first met.
Before Mikkeller existed, Mikkel was teaching physics and math at a Danish primary school. And before To Øl existed, Tore and co-founder Tobias Emil Jensen were Mikkel’s students. After discussing the dismal state of their country’s brewing scene, they tried to convince the school’s administrators to buy them brewing equipment—in the name of science, of course. Because their high school was apparently infinitely cooler than my own, it happily consented.
The three were also granted use of the school’s kitchen, though it often wasn’t available until around ten o’clock at night. So before Mikkeller and To Øl existed, before Mikkeller had its distribution network encompassing over 40 countries (including Brazil!), before Mikkel had become part owner of To Øl to work with his former students and support a major brewery expansion—well before any of these things—the three would brew in their school’s kitchen until 6am, fantasize about a different Danish beer scene, and then head straight back to class.
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