Thursday, January 3, 2008

Holyday Beers, continued

Epiphany is not here yet, so there's still time for more holyday beer reviews. In fact, you may wish to grab one (or more!) of these for your Epiphany party.

Samuel Adams Winter Porter (reviewed by JM)—It seemed against my better judgment to include a "commercial" brewer like Sam Adams in this series of reviews, but since this was a somewhat unique brew that I had not sampled before, I went against my instinct. This Holiday Porter came as part of a 12-pack of Samuel Adams' "Winter Classics" (also included: Cream Stout, Old Fezziwig Ale, Boston Lager, Winter Lager, and Cranberry Lambic).

As you would expect for a porter, the pour was dark black, with a respectable head that dissipated after about seven minutes, leaving some good lacing in its wake.

The scent was a muted caramel and molasses mixture, with a touch of hops buried deeper in the mix. Not overpowering at all, just a nice and soft presentation of Christmas smells. The first sip was very, very good. Creamy mouthfeel, and a fair bit more depth than the scent had revealed. While the scent tended more toward the sweeter and brighter side, the flavor mixture presented a strong showing of cocoa, chocolate, coffee, and brown sugar, with a light dusting of spices and nutiness. I thought I picked up a bit of cinnamon on the finish, but I can't be sure.

All in all, this Porter was exotic and rich. It presented very well for a Christmas beer, including all of those necessary elements that make a brew fit for the holiday season: nice aroma, plenty of spice and sweetness in the taste, lots of power to evoke Christmas memories. I would like to sip on this Porter some winter's eve by the fire, perhaps with a warm slice of gingerbread.

Hats off to Samuel Adams for pulling this off. For being a mass-produced beer, it certainly holds its own against any of the micro-brews I've tried this year. This will definitely find a place in my Christmas brew offerings next year. I give it an 8 out of 10.

Bell's Winter White Ale (reviewed by JM)Bell's Brewery down in Kalamazoo, MI, has a pretty good reputation for putting out some outstanding brews. I have enjoyed their Java Stout, their HopSlam IPA, their Octoberfest beer, and their Two Hearted Ale IPA, among others. It was with some excitement, then, that I looked forward to tasting their winter offering: the Winter White Ale. This would be the seventh beer I had sampled in the 2007 Search for the Best Christmas Beer.

At the crack of the cap, I caught the strong smell of yeast right away, a smell that was heavily tempered by the light fragrance of citrus fruit (possibly oranges or lemons, or both).

This "Witbier" poured very cloudy, with a light golden-orange color, and it stayed cloudy throughout. It lacked any substantial head - just a bit of fuzz that melted away pretty fast. From the thousands of bubbles running up the side of the glass, I could see that this brew was very carbonated.

The first several gulps featured a biting, carbonated mouthfeel that was very light and poppy. The flavor was even a bit bitter, or tart, no doubt due to the strong presence of the citrus flavors. However, it had a nice yeasty finish that provided a pleasant end-note to the experience.

As this beer warmed, it got much better. The flavors balanced out and actually felt better "mixed"; the harsh citrus notes became warmer and more cooperative with the wheat base, and the end result was a very smooth and seamless presentation.

However! This was supposed to be a Christmas beer, and it tasted more like a summer wheat beer. I would really enjoy this brew on a hot summer's day, but it really didn't make sense in the context of winter. There were no real spices of which to speak, no ginger or nutmeg, no molasses or figs.

It was a fine beer. I should probably buy a six-pack and leave it in the fridge until the summer rolls around. [Editor's Note: Nope, a light-bodied beer like this will have lost its freshness by then.] But as a winter beer in a Christmas contest, I have to give it a 6 out of 10.

Abita's Christmas Ale 2007 (reviewed by JM)This was my first experience with the Abita Brewing Company, out of Abita Springs, Louisiana. The marketing presentation was rather bland: plain silver label with some red text. No matter - it came as part of a winter beer sampler six-pack that my local beer store was putting together and selling this season. Boring label or no, I figured I should give it a try.

Featuring a heavy floral fragrance, mixed with some citrus and a strong "hop factor", this Amber Ale produced a "two-finger head" that stuck around for just a little while, and left lots of nice lacing.

It poured a deep-dark amber color, and came with mild carbonation. The taste was as dark as the hue - strong prominence here of sweet malts, bitter hops, some wood-smoke, a bit of caramel, and just a whisper of some spice.

A highly drinkable beer, to be sure. It got 100% as it warmed, and the "darkness" of the flavor began to emerge even more. Very, very enjoyable experience. I give this an 8 out of 10.

Tommyknocker Cocoa Porter (reviewed by JM)—As Christmas brews go, this one was by far one of the most interesting of the bunch. The label promises an "ale brewed with cocoa powder and honey", and the contents of the bottle do not disappoint. This was my first experience with the Tommyknocker brewery, but based on the results of this sample, I will definitely be trying more of their product offerings.
As might be expected, the bouquet was heavy on the dark sweets: chocolate, molasses, toffee, and shades of coffee here and there. The scent was far more on the sweet side than on the sweet-tart side, as opposed to, for example, the "Special Ale" put out by Anchor Brewery.

It poured a dark and thick brown-black, like chocolate syrup or molasses, and left little-to-no head. The taste and mouthfeel was very smooth and sweet: the cocoa and honey were immediately noticeable on the top-end, and these two flavors stayed dominant throughout the life of the beverage. Once those dominant flavors faded, a heavy dark chocolate, toffee, and roasted coffee flavor lingered on the finish.

Some would undoubtedly find this brew too sweet, but it is what it is, and there are no surprises: the label clearly says that this is a cocoa porter brewed with cocoa powder and honey. It is entirely true to its promise, and I found it to be a smooth and pleasant experience from start to finish. I will definitely be buying this in six-pack form next year for handing out at my Christmas gatherings. I give it a 9 out of 10.