Friday, December 21, 2007

Holyday Beers

Now that we are just about out of Advent (you did give up alcohol for Advent, didn't you ;o)?), here is a lineup of reviews to help you decide what beers to drink between Christmas and Epiphany. Thanks to JM for the delightful reviews of an impressive line-up of Christmas/Winter ales. I tacked on a few of my own tastings to round things out.

I want to wish all of you a blessed remainder of Advent, a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.

Goose Island Christmas Ale (Reviewed by JM)This was the first beer up for review in the 2007 Search for the Best Christmas Ale. Initial thoughts: this ale is definitely a keeper, a nice "middle-of-the-road" beverage that goes well with winding down on a cold winter's eve. It didn't knock my socks off, but it was certainly pleasant.

It poured a nice deep amber color, even a touch of brown. Had a respectable head at first, but it evaporated too quickly. The carbonation was just this side of "heavy", but this too passed before long. Included in the tapestry of flavors, I detected hints of orange peel, some all-spice, vanilla, perhaps a touch of ginger, and a faint whisper of raisins. The flavors that dominated, however, were strong hops, brown sugar, caramel, toffee, and nuts. This beer is classified as an English brown ale. Mouthfeel was very crisp, and surprisingly light, given the complexity and richness of the flavor. Perhaps the thing that was missing in this ale was a stronger presence of Christmas spices - granted, there was a dusting of all-spice, ginger, and orange to be detected, but these flavors needed to present themselves in a more striking fashion for this ale to really feel like "Christmas". I give it a 7 out of 10.

Wychwood Brewery "Bah Humbug" Christmas Ale (Reviewed by JM)—The second beer I sampled in the 2007 Search for the Best Christmas Brew was an unheard-of (for me, anyway) brew called Bah Humbug! (Wychwood Brewery, out of the UK). I paid $4.00 for the pint bottle, but the package seemed worth it - apparently the guys in marketing had done their job. The label featured an endearing cartoonish sketch of Ebenezer Scrooge in night-clothes, holding a candle and being haunted by Marley's Ghost.

Ah. Dickens. The Christmas Carol. Bring on the Yuletide. The description on the back of the bottle, written by the head brewer, promised a "rich, full bodied, Christmas Ale, brewed from the choicest hops and malts." Ok! We'll give it a try! This Winter Warmer poured a murky reddish-orange-brown with a respectable head, but the head vanished rather quickly. The label did not mislead - the malts were right up front from the first sip. It was a bit difficult to untangle the tapestry of flavors at first. The "close-your-eyes-and-smell" test suggested baking gingerbread and orange peel. Maybe a shade of dark molasses as well ... yes, definitely something dark, and sweet, and bitter. But also comforting - Grandma, baking holiday goodies in the kitchen.

Still, the flavors were sufficiently blended that none of them overpowered, or even really stood out, for that matter. The top notes were fruity and even a bit tart, but these quickly vanished into the malty mist. At various points I thought I detected just a hint of pine, which was quite nice. Lower in the mix, near the bottom, was the suggestion of butterscotch, toffee, molasses. The hop-malt-yeast foundation remained strong throughout, and made this a little like eating a special loaf of Christmas bread. The mouthfeel was more creamy than smooth, which, in my opinion, is befitting a Christmas beer. The drawback of this Winter Warmer was that it occasionally tended in the direction of "too sour", or even "chemicalesque." This was not the rule, mind you, but one sip in about every ten took me to the edge, and I had to concentrate to "listen" for the flavor hidden in the almost-offensive. It never achieved sourness or a full chemical taste, it just leaned in that direction once in a while, for some reason. I can only assume that this is because of the alcohol content or the malt-dominance - but the beer was only a 6.0% ABV. That shouldn't have posed any kind of a problem. On the whole, a tolerable beer. The packaging and overall presentation added quite a bit to the experience, and even made up for some of this beer's lack of pop and shimmer. It's a good beer, but a quiet beer. Nothing flashy, just some nice Christmas flavors subtly imprinted on a large malt canvas. I give this a strong 7 out of 10.

Samuel Adams Cranberry Lambic (Reviewed by JM)—The third beer of the Best Christmas Beer review, this Cranberry Lambic by Samuel Adams was probably the most quirky - and disappointing - of the lot. Poured light pink with a large frothy head, quickly fading down to what, in the end, looked like a glass of sparkling berry champagne.

This is classed, officially, as a Fruit Beer, but it barely qualifies as a real beer at all. True, there was a strong presence of yeast throughout, but this beverage was ultimately very one-dimensional and bland. True to the name, the most dominant flavor was that of tart cranberries, with perhaps a hint of plum, but overall smothered in yeast. It was a lot like I imagine it would be to drink a loaf of cranberry bread - lots of yeast, lots of cranberry.The mouthfeel was crisp and sharp, with lots of bubbles - again, very like a champagne. The aroma was almost an exact match for the taste - very, very powerful scent of yeast and tart berries. I won't say that this wasn't an enjoyable beer - I had no trouble drinking the entire bottle. It would be a nice beverage to serve at the end of a large meal, as a kind of liquid dessert. But as a stand-alone beer, it lacked severely. No real complexity of which to speak, and any more than one-to-two bottles would undoubtedly lead to a sugar-induced headache. Most people, I think, would find this beer too tart. The clash of the yeast and tart berries can be a bit much, admittedly. The finish is very dry, leaving the lingering taste of the sour cranberry. I give this a 5 out of 10.

Delirium Noël (reviewed by JM)—This was the beer I had been anticipating. After falling head-over-heels for Delirium Nocturnum, I was very excited at the prospect of trying the Delirium Noel, a dark Belgian ale. The familiar pink elephant that is the mascot of the Delirium products sports a Santa hat and winter scarf on the label of this bottle - a nice touch, I thought.The pour was a cloudy and rich amber color, with a good thick head that showed some staying power. On closer inspection, there was some sediment swirling in the glass, a constant stream of bubbles running up the side.

The smell was very yeasty, as you would expect from a Belgian ale. Now and then, I thought I caught a whiff of apple cider mixed in with the yeast. And then, the first taste. Wow. Creamy, creamy mouthfeel, with a lovely blend of apples and malt/yeast. Perhaps a hint of cherry in there somewhere? What was most amazing is how well this brew masked it's 10% ABV. I expected some of this to come through in the flavor, but it was barely noticeable - aside from the warming sensation it created, of course. Although it was definitely fruit flavor that spoke the most loudly in the initial tastes, it would be misleading to call this a fruity beer. This is a rich Belgian ale with plenty of meatiness to it, a substantial body, a nice apple-slanted top end, a thick yeasty bottom end, and a heavy carbonation that makes the whole presentation sparkle and pop. However. This is not really a Christmas ale. It lacked the necessary dimensions of spice - the ginger, cinnamon, orange peel, clove, etc. - that would make it a true yuletide brew. It's not a bad beverage by any stretch. I would drink it again, for a special occasion (but not more than one, due to the ABV and richness). But in this particular contest, it was holly and plum and cocoa and spice that I was looking for, and I just didn't find it in this beer. So-good beer, even better-than-good, but even though I might normally rate this a strong 7 out of 10, for the purposes of this series of Christmas beer reviews, I give it a 5 out of 10.

Anchor "Our Special Ale" 2005 (reviewed by JM)—And now for something completely different. The next beer in the 2007 Christmas brew review was actually a 2005 bottle of Anchor Brewing Company's Our Special Ale (2005). As the bottle explains:"This is the thirty-first Our Special Ale from the brewers at Anchor. It is sold only from early November to mid-January. The Ale's recipe is different every year, but the intent with which we offer it remains the same: joy and celebration of the newness of life."So how does a "vintage" 2005 brew hold up to scrutiny after two years? Pretty darn well.

It poured a dark, muddy brown - just this side of black, in fact. A small head that quickly faded, and some nice lacing finished out the presentation. The smell was immediately strong and recognizable: molasses and vanilla, dark malt and brown sugar ... sweet, but with just a hint of tartness. Buried deeper in the bouquet was a suggestion of pine - very interesting. The fragrance was actually quite amazing - I don't remember the last brew I had that smelled so strong. The taste was incredibly complex and, for that reason, enjoyable. It took my breath away at first, but finished with an eye-opening "ah-ha!" as I began to recognize the various flavors in the tapestry: pine again, brown sugar, ginger, smokey molasses, roasted malts, some light spice, a certain kind of "woodsy" backdrop, dates, perhaps a bit of cocoa or dark chocolate, and ... figs? Yes, yes, figs. What a pleasant surprise!I was certainly impressed with this beer. After all the adjectives have been spent, and all the similies used up, there is one thing left to say: it was just plain good. No real carbonation to speak of, which meant a very smooth drinking experience. Great creamy mouthfeel, and those wonderful smatterings of eyebrow-raising flavors that evoked all sorts of nostalgia. This is what Christmas should taste like. This is what Christmas should feel like.For its amazing drinkability, for its unique combination of Christmas-appropriate tastes, and for properly evoking a spirit of Christmas and pleasant memories, I give this beer a 9 out of 10.

Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale (reviewed by JM)—After the syrupy-sticky sweetness of the Anchor Our Special Ale, this brew by Sierra Nevada - Celebration Ale - was an amazingly refreshing contrast. This IPA poured a lovely dark orange color, and left some nice lacing. The smell was quite powerful: lots and lots of hops, lots and lots of citrus (more grapefruit than lemon, say), and a strong dose of floral to balance it out. The scent reminded me very much of Founder's Red's Rye. It's a beautiful scent, and very inviting.The taste was not much different from the scent. Immediate splash of citrus and hops (bitter and tangy at first, like biting into a grapefruit peel), followed by a medium-body malt. There may have been a touch of pine in this one, but it was hard to tell with all of the citrus hops blazing away in the forefront.

The mouthfeel was snappy, with a good deal of carbonation - which played an extremely effective complementary role to the citrusy flavor. The whole ensemble felt very light and refreshing, while not at all lacking depth or character.The 6.8% ABV made itself present in the mix once in a great while, but for the most part, the alcohol stayed quiet in the background. Still, the hard citrus-and-hops character makes this beer good for sipping, not for gulping. I noticed that, as the beer warmed up a bit, the flavors got a bit more balanced, and the citrus splash settled down quite a bit. This, of course, only made it all the more enjoyable. Perhaps the next bottle I get will stay out of the fridge altogether.As a Christmas brew, this IPA was acceptable. I would definitely serve it at a Christmas party as a special holiday drink. The shades of orange peel in the top end of Celebration Ale make it work as a Christmas beverage, but it would also be nice if there were a few more spices thrown in - perhaps some ginger and all-spice, to round it out.Great beer, good winter drink. I give it an 8 out of 10. (Editor's Note: I concur with JM that this is a wonderful brew and gets at least an 8 out of 10.)

Thanks again to JM for some great reviews. Now here are a few I tried this season.

Point St. Benedict’s Winter Ale (reviewed by DP)—Great label, with a likeness of St. Benedict reading an illuminated manuscript by candlelight. The beer pours a beautiful rich brown with a slight orange cast. Clean nose with just a hint of clove. But the taste, alas, does not match up with the look. The bittering is out of balance and is a bit too aggressive. But the real problem is a pronounced, lingering astringency in the mouth and on the finish. They had to have tasted this at the brewery. I think they got some tannin extraction on this one and couldn't bring themselves to dump the whole batch, so they just went ahead and bottled it up anyway. Bad move and quite unpleasant. I dumped out more than half the bottle. St. Benedict definitely deserves better than this. Rates 0 out of 10. (Reviewed by DP)

Schell Snowstorm Ale (reviewed by DP)—Pours a light brown with a nice stable head. Clean but very faint malt on the nose. Faint spice. A tiny bit of astringency on this one too. Also a bit of a chemically finish. Rates 3 out of 10.

Anchor "Our Special Ale" 2007 (reviewed by DP)—First off, good for Anchor Brewery for cutting through the PC junk and saying “Merry Christmas & Happy New Year” on the label. This beer is very dark brown, with a huge, billowy, long lasting head. Smells like dark dried fruit, chocolate, rum, and cinnamon on the nose. A sip…..Wow! This is different. The spicing is unlike anything I’ve had in a beer before. I'm pretty sure there’s some cinnamon in there. But what is the rest about? I confess, I had to look around on the Internet and one other reviewer got it, I think—a hint of anise. And to me it tastes a little like Concord grape - but let's just call it plum, in keeping with the season. Nice thick mouthfeel, in keeping with the style. Very good. Rates 8 out of 10.

Avery Old Jubilation Ale (reviewed by DP)—Wonderful stuff. Thick, sweet, molasses, raisins, and caramel. Great malt backbone with a perfect hop bittering. This beer carries its formidable 8.0% ABV very lightly. So forget the spices. All you need for a great winter ale is plenty of chewy caramel and raisins. Loved it. Gets a 9 out of 10.