Thursday, November 1, 2007

A New Favorite and a Couple of Oktoberfestbiers

I have recently discovered a beer that easily takes a place in my Top Ten Beers I Go Back To Again and Again (something will have to get knocked out of that list.)

It's Abbot Ale, from the Greene King Brewery ( I stumbled onto this beer by accident—bought it on a whim while scanning the shelves—and am I ever happy. Basically, British pale ale is my favorite style of beer. And Abbot Ale is a really distinct and enticing example of this style. You will often hear British ales described as "fruity" or "estery". Well, if you want to know exactly what that means, taste an Abbot Ale. You may love it and you may hate it—remember, De gustibus non est disputandum—but at least you'll know exactly what distinctive British ale character is like.

It pours a rich mahogany, with a slightly orange cast. The taste is incredibly complex—slightly spicy, fruity, estery, and bold. This beer holds together to the very end, even as it warms to room temperature. You can sip away on one of these all evening (if you have that sort of will-power) and the last warmish sip will still be delicious and satisfying. I buy it in cans and don't let that scare you off—modern cans are a great way to package premium beer; they're much better than those crazy clear bottles. If you are a British pale ale afficionado like me, or if you want to try a striking example of the style, I highly recommend Abbot Ale.

I know this is November now, but I must include reviews of a couple of oktoberfestbiers that I recently tried on a business trip (and hey, Oktoberfest is held in September anyway, so there's no need to quibble about months.) The first is Paulaner Oktoberfest Märzen from that great monastic brewery (albeit no longer run by monks.) Oktoberfestbier is a lager beer, brewed using special strains of yeast that ferment in cooler temperatures and then further cold conditioned for a smooth, clean taste. This beer pours fairly light for the style and is indeed smooth and rich. Very malty, with a balanced hop finish. Good stuff.

Even better, however, is the Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest Märzen. This beer has more of everything, compared to the Paulaner. It has a richer, coppery red color. It is spicier, with a distinctively sweet, caramel note. It is smooth and crisp. Hands down this is my favorite example of this wonderful German style, which is readily available as a real treat this time of year.

I haven't yet brewed an oktoberfestbier, but if I ever brew a beer even close to as good as the Hacker-Pschorr (or even the Paulaner) I'll call myself a brewer.

Pumpkin Beers

Happy All Souls' Day! In keeping with the season, I thought it would be nice to review a round-up of pumpkin ales. You should still be able to get at least some of these in your local store, although you'll want to pass up at least one of them, I think........

Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale (reviewed by DP): The word that came immediately to mind when I took my first sip of this beer was, "Yikes!" This beer is way too heavy on the cinnamon and the spicing in general has an artificial quality to it—in fact, it tastes a lot like an apple Pop Tart. And it has a medicinal finish that is just short of nasty. It's reasonably priced, but you'll be much happier if you pay a few shekels more for something that's actually good.

The "Pumpkin Ale" by Post Road Brewery poured a lovely dark orange/brown, and smelled fantastic - hints of pumpkin and clove spice in the bouquet. But where is the taste that goes along with this scent? It's missing. The taste is more like a slice of raw pumpkin, with a few moments of ... what is that? Bubble gum? Strange. It looked and smelled better than it actually tasted. The taste is actually a bit bland. Disappointing. (Reviewed by JM.)

Here's another review of Post Road's entry: After visiting two well-respected liquor stores in my area and speaking with the most knowledgeable beer aficionados at each, I chose Post Road first. At each store I was assured that this was “the pumpkin ale” to drink. And so, I purchased and entire six-pack, confident that I would finish it rather quickly.

Wrong. I was disappointed. While this ale could not fairly be described as offensive to the palate, neither is it particularly tasty or interesting. There were hints of pumpkin and spice in the aroma, to be sure, but precious little of anything I would have expected in terms of flavor. No pumpkin. Mild spice. That’s all. In fact, I was so perplexed after the ringing endorsements given this ale that I wondered if perhaps I wasn’t suffering from a cold. Perhaps my taste buds were off? So I tested my nose and palate on another beer. No problem. Olfaction and gustation each checked out just fine. It was the beer. (Reviewed by MF.)

On the other hand, there is this bottle from Buffalo Bill's Brewery, also called "Pumpkin Ale." It poured a bit lighter than the Post Road, a bit more amber. But my goodness, the taste ... heavy splashes of clove and cinnamon spice. Much sticky sweetness. This is the closest thing to drinking a slice of pumpkin pie I have ever experienced. A nice long finish, with a lingering aftertaste. I can't say anything bad about this beer. It came as a single bottle in a sampler six-pack - but I will definitely go back for a full six-pack of nothing but this ale. Truly amazing. (Reviewed by JM.)

Also outstanding is the "Punkin Ale" by Dogfish Head Brewery. The spicing in this beer was clean and assertive. The emphasis seemed to be on allspice and ginger with the cinnamon appropriately sitting a little more lightly in the mix. A wonderful, creamy mouthfeel and smooth, subtle carbonation contributed to the exact sensation that JM touched on above, that of eating a slice of pumpkin pie. As is typical, the perceived sweetness of this beer rises as it warms. Its higher-than-average alcohol (7% ABV) brings a nice warming sensation. This is a finely crafted beer which should be sipped and savored. (Reviewed by DP.)

Another fine entry is Southampton Pumpkin Ale. This pumpkin ale is brewed at Southampton brewery, Saratoga Springs, NY. Hitting an even 6% on the alcohol meter, Southampton describes their brew as “ale brewed with Pumpkin and Spices (Cinnamon, Nutmeg and Allspice).” And indeed, it delivered on all of the above. The aroma of pumpkin and spice was pleasing but not forced or overpowering. As expected, I found that the longer I drank the ale (and the more it warmed up), the more pronounced the pumpkin and spice became. The pumpkin was subtle and smooth, and the spices did not overwhelm the pumpkin overtones. This brew pours a very inviting golden-brown and has a nice, smooth mouth-feel. All in all, after tasting a few pumpkin ales, I would have to say that they can be very enjoyable. But it is perhaps a good thing that they are seasonal. (Reviewed by MF.)
And finally there is this seasonal entry from Blue Moon . I found this beer to be pleasant, but unremarkable. There is nothing wrong with it—the hop balance is good and the spicing is clean, albeit subdued. But to me it's a bit too dry and crisp—I would wish for more of a caramelly sweetness and a thicker mouthfeel in a beer in this style. I enjoyed this, I would drink it again if one was offered to me, but probably I won't buy this again. (Reviewed by DP.)

The tastings have definitely inspired me to have a crack at homebrewing a pumpkin ale.....but it'll probably have to wait until next year.