The 118th Christmas Bird Count (CBC)  began yesterday and I’m sure many of you have at least one count scheduled in the next few weeks. If your CBC experience is anything like mine here in eastern New York, you’ll be counting an awful lot of crows. I’ll be on my first two counts of the season this weekend, and when I finish counting all those dot-dash tally marks at the end of each day, I won’t be at all surprised when American Crow (Corvus brachyrhyncos) invariably comes out on top as the most abundant species – though they’re occasionally edged out by Canada Geese (Branta canadensis). Now that Fish Crows (Corvus ossifragus) have established themselves as year-round residents of the Hudson Valley, we get a little more corvid variety, but even they ceased to qualify as rare birds some time ago. And I think it’s safe to say the other two North American crow species aren’t showing up in New York any time soon. So, barring an equally out of the question Old World vagrant, I won’t be seeing anything but common crows this weekend – and that’s fine. But this week’s beer by the Allagash Brewing Company of Portland, Maine is called Uncommon Crow, and I offer this review in the spirit of wishful CBC thinking and drinking.

Uncommon Crow is a dark, sour ale brewed with blackberries, with a name inspired by the American Crow and its appetite for this juicy bramble fruit. To be honest, I see crows picking at roadkill a lot more than I see them gulping down ripe summer berries, so I’m relieved that Allagash chose to incorporate this latter, more palatable element of the corvid diet into their beer. It’s entirely possible that I’ve just given some adventurous craft brewer a really bad idea, though it certainly wouldn’t be the first or even most questionable use of animal ingredients in brewing. But crows seem willing to eat everything, and I’ll drink just about anything, so who am to judge?

Two juvenile American Crows, undoubtedly begging for blackberries near Lake George in Washington County, New York.

Fermentation of Uncommon Crow is carried out exclusively with a local strain of Brettanomyces, the wild yeast family we’ve encountered before in some other sour beers. Continuing an age-old Belgian-inspired tradition of adding fruit to sour beers, Allagash ferments each batch of Uncommon Crow for half a year before aging it on 1,000 pounds of blackberries for a further five months. I’m certain Allagash used the familiar, cultivated blackberry in Uncommon Crow, but an unrelated “blackberry” found in northern climes more widely known as the crowberry is a favorite of many wildlife species. It would make a fitting choice for this beer, but I suppose it’s best to leave the crowberries to the crows.

Of course, blackberries work wonderfully in Uncommon Crow, producing a beautifully deep garnet beer with mauve tints, crowned by a pale cappuccino head. Bright summer berries dominate the fragrant, jammy bouquet, supported by the more rounded aromas of cherry pie, stewed plums, and pomegranate. The wild yeast contributes a distinct yogurt-like tang, along with more elusive traces of saddle leather, earthy hay, and white cardamom. This is unquestionably a fruit-forward beer, but there’s enough malt to provide a balancing dark chocolate richness. On the palate, Uncommon Crow is tart and dry but bursting with blackberry flavor, recalling a well-made and complex country wine as much as any beer. The dry finish is crisp, and effervescent, with a lemony tartness that invites sip after sip.

A beer this intricate when young should age well with some careful cellaring, and it’d be especially delicious at the height of summer when blackberries are ripening if you care to wait several months. But it’s certainly robust enough for wintertime drinking. Uncommon Crow is handsomely packaged in cork-and-cage Champagne half bottles, making it an ostentatious choice for your Christmas Bird Count compilation dinner, but at a respectable 7.1% alcohol by volume, it might provide just enough liquid courage to slightly embellish some of the day’s more common sightings.

Here’s to uncommon crows, happy drinking and good Christmas bird counting!


Allagash Brewing Company: Uncommon Crow

Four out of five feathers (Excellent)

Written by Tristan Lowery
Tristan Lowery’s busy homebrewing schedule took a hit in 2010 when he discovered birding and found that scanning the waterfowl at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge on a frigid midwinter morning could be just as much fun as standing over a steaming mash tun in a sweltering Queens apartment in August. While his growing commitment to birding has undeniably diminished his brewing output of ales - fine and otherwise - Tristan finds that birding still affords him plenty of excuses to at least keep drinking beer, especially when celebrating life birds, lamenting unsuccessful chases, and capping off an exhausting Big Day or Christmas Bird Count. After leaving behind a hectic cooking career in New York City’s fine-dining scene, Tristan moved inland to the New York's Capital District, where the relative abundance of Pileated Woodpeckers almost makes up for the fact that he’s only seen a single Sanderling in Albany County ever. When he isn’t birding his local patches in urban Albany, Tristan works in energy regulation for the State of New York.