Clementine White Ale from Clown Shoes Beer in Lexington, Mass., includes “clementine essence” in addition to the standard sweet orange peel and coriander. It has a great balance of flavors, with a tart orange muscling its way through the spicy coriander that often dominates in American versions of the witbier style. It’s unusually well-hopped for this type of beer, with a finish that’s spritzy, dry and refreshing.
Normally, when you pull a bottle of a complex, well-crafted beer from the fridge, I’d advise you to let it warm up to the mid-40s or higher to let the full range of flavors come through. But Clementine might just be more enjoyable closer to the freezing point.
My only quibble is with the alcohol content of 6 percent by volume, which is about 20 percent more than a typical mass-market lager and a little high for a beer intended as a summertime refresher. Chalk it up as another example of “alcohol creep.” With all the imperial stuff clocking in at 10, 11, 12 percent and above, brews that our grandparents would have regarded as high-test have become our session beers.
Why the name Clown Shoes? On his Web site, company founder Gregg Berman writes, “Clowns are questionable but the shoes make me laugh. They remind me about humility and to find humor in life.”
When I met Berman at Rustico in Arlington a few weeks ago, he offered a slightly different explanation: “Clown shoes” is an epithet roughly equivalent to “dumb a--,” popularized by the cinema’s Jay and Silent Bob .
Berman nearly gave the name away. In 2010, the Alstrom Brothers, who run the BeerAdvocate site, held a contest to come up with an unusual name for a beer that Dogfish Head Craft Brewery was making especially for their annual Extreme Beer Fest. The beer, a brown ale made with malt smoked over pecan wood and flavored with plantains and carob, was eventually christened “Wrath of Pecant.”
“Clown Shoes didn’t even crack the top five,” recalls Berman of his submission. The rejection galvanized Berman, who runs a wine importing business and co-owns a liquor store, into commissioning his own line of beers. The Clown Shoes brews are made at Mercury Brewing Co. in Ipswich, Mass. “We own the brand but not the brewery,” he states.
Contract-brewing — borrowing someone else’s tanks to make your beer — is a cost-effect way to break into an increasingly crowded industry. It allows you to focus on product development and marketing without the headache of assembling a physical plant. The catch is that you need to back up a colorful name and label with something unique in the bottle. A lot of budding entrepreneurs didn’t, which is why you don’t see Redneck Beer, Three Stooges Beer, Bad Frog Beer, Apollo Space Beer — I could easily name a dozen more flash-in-the-pan brands — on the market anymore.
“Be fun, be tongue-in-cheek, but back it up with quality,” asserts Berman.
Clown Shoes offers proof that extreme beers (in the sense of powerfully flavored) don’t have to be unbalanced. Hoppy Feet, a black IPA, has a fudge-cake richness that smooths over the hops and keeps the high alcohol content (11 percent by volume) from being intrusive. Tramp Stamp is a spiced Belgian-style IPA in which sweet orange peel, a Belgian-Canadian yeast and a blend of Pacific Northwest hops combine for a harmonious fruitiness and a dry finish that mirrors that of the Clementine.
Clown Shoes beers are currently available only in northern Virginia and only in 22-ounce bottles, although Berman intends to move into Washington D.C. and the Maryland suburbs later this year and to add 12-ounce bottles to the mix. He’s also planning to introduce an “American black ale” called Lubrication.
Volume constraints are forcing Berman to move slowly. He sold 700 barrels in 2010; he estimates that he’ll make between 4,000 and 5,000 barrels this year. “I could do four or five times that if the brewery could make it,” he estimates.
“But I’m not really inclined to start my own brewery,” he adds. “My skill rests in marketing and creativity.”