It was a pleasure to read Christopher Barnes recent post on I Think About Beer where he passionately complains about what writer Matt Taibbi would call the vampire squid aspects of AB-InBev sticking its tentacles into beloved beer brands and ruining them. This is most certainly the case with many of the breweries acquired, and it is also true that many of these famous brands have become simply more products to disguise the fact that AB-InBev would like to own all the beer in the world. But what I find rather ridiculous is the notion that the American beer drinking public really cares where their beer actually comes from (and hey, Carlos Brito and the boys have you covered there, get your Bud app for your I-Phone!).
It was essayist Lewis Lapham who pointed out that the genius of market capitalism is that it has no morality. This was most certainly the case when the last irresponsible heir of the Busch family was made an offer the stockholders could not refuse, and the historic American brewing giant passed over into InBev’s global hands. But what is also rather silly is this notion that the brewers ethos is actually important in a country that has now embraced market capitalism to the exclusion of everything else.
Consumer boycott of products considered unethical has been practiced many times before. But to base your shopping decisions on what the Brewers Association has decided is righteous brew, is to say the least, beyond laughable. This was the same organization that at one time excluded from their club Yuengling and August Schell, two of the oldest breweries in America. But enough on this lunacy, let me get to some recent beers.
Sierra-Nevada Nooner Pilsner is a very good take on pilsner but I find the term Nooner to a be a superfluous marketing ploy, but nevertheless essential to marketing to the beer drinking crowd that uses words like session beer. But on the label, the use of Adirondack chairs in front of a body of water, is a graphic rip-off of the Saranac line by F.X. Matt Brewing of Utica, New York. Nothing original there, but what is original is the fact that Nooner Pilsner is Sierra Nevada’s first year-round lager and a quite good one at that.
For the over-the-hop folks there is Sierra Nevada Beer Camp Hoppy Lager 2015 an India Pale Lager, and it most certainly is that. Citrus like bitterness made somewhat more mellow by the longer lagering time.
Locally, I came across Pure Fury from Rheingeist Brewery. A hoppy pale ale, it is called, which has become nearly generic amongst artisan creations. But for me, there simply was not enough malt support to make this a substantial experience.
Two recent samples from New Belgium Brewing: Shift Pale Lager is yet another hoppy pale lager that takes into account the lupulin concerns of the younger generation. While their 1554 Black Lager I found much more interesting, mainly because I do enjoy the schwarzbier style, from Krostritzer and beyond. 1554 has captured this style with delicious accuracy. The same can be said of New Belgium Porter, with its very good roasted malt profile.
It is the 106th anniversary of the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, Texas, which has lead to the release of Shiner 106 Birthday Beer. A chocolate stout that is an easy drinking desert beer. Like all Shiner beers, it is only made in one place: the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, Texas.
One of the advantages of the beer expansion in the United States is you have plenty of brewers willing to try all kinds of experimental recipes, with no regard for tradition, and often, any kind of historical perspective. This of course lead to extreme beers, bourbon barrel age stouts, and sometimes beers that are brewed with nearly everything, including the proverbial kitchen sink. Unfortunately, there is also a down side to this because a drinker unfamiliar with what makes beer a beloved beverage for thousands of years may never know the advancements in culinary civilization that made truly great beer possible.
So it was with great pleasure to discover Newcastle (owned by Heineken) release their collaboration edition Scotch Ale, brewed by the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Scotland has a 5000 year history of brewing, going back to the Picts and beyond. But what Caledonian Brewery represents is the last of the 40 breweries that operated in the 19th century, when Edinburgh was one of the brewing capitols of the world. This was due to the local hard water, rich in minerals and as famous as the brewing water in Burton-on-Trent, England. Happily, unlike Bass, Caledonian Brewery still makes their ales using fire brewed open copper kettles. This historical tradition helps to explain the extraordinary taste of this ale. A wee heavy, or to put it in the shilling vernacular of those times, a 90/-, which refers to the amount of taxes.
What a delicious brew this is! Exquisitely balanced. It would be easy to go on about the rich malty toffee notes etc., but why bother? It is best to discover this on your own.
As another year winds to a close I am astounded by the variety of beer available in the United States. So without further ado, here are some interesting examples:
Guinness Blonde American Lager From the glass lined tanks of old Latrobe comes this Guinness take on American lager, No. 1 in their Discovery Series. An expertly produced recipe employing Mosaic and Willamette hops, in combination with their brewery yeast. This is quite different than their Canadian made Harp Lager (a beer doctor favorite) but equally refreshing.
With Two Brothers Peppermint Bark Porter 2014 Is a very nice Holiday beer offering. A substantial porter infused with a touch of peppermint, but not overpowering, with excellent malt support and enough hops to give it some distance from sweetness.
On the other hand their is Brown Sugga from Lagunitas Brewing Company A thanks to Will Gordon for giving me a heads up on this one. A strong ale that hides its boozy (9.9% abv) content completely. This is indeed a true original. Which reminded of my first encounter with sugar brewing, many years ago, and that was Thos. Cooper & Sons Big Barrel a cane sugar brewed lager that came in a 25 oz steel can. But with Brown Sugga I discovered a top fermented, over the top ale, where malts, brown sugar, yeast and hops combine into a sweet profile that reminds me of the mythical little brown jug. Others have described the nose of this brew to be similar to a bag of potent ganga buds. Unique.
It is also a source of pride to discover a local world class Imperial Stout simply called INK from Rhinegeist Brewing. This expensive beer is worth checking out. A very tasty malt showcase where chocolate and to a lesser extent coffee notes abound. A 10% presentation without any alcohol burn, this is a very rich and mellow brew, with an incredible flavor depth.
When it comes to beer, life is very good.
How long has it been? My god it was in the last century that I had a long conversation with Matthias Neidhart of B. United International, who told me about the first time experiencing 5 year old Aventinus, while visiting the Schneider& Sohn brewery in Germany. He explained to me that the magnificent dunkel weizenbock developed a port-like character after a half a decade of aging. Then he spoke of the Schneider & Sohn house yeast of which he said they are so proud of.
And rightfully so. As Professor Beer has pointed out: “the secret to Hefeweizen’s banana-like character is the yeast.”
Esterification is extremely important in German beers using only the four classic ingredients (water, barley malts, hops and yeast) and it reveals the reinheitsgebot genius of brewing where the yeast produces flavor profiles that are unique, ranging from floral to tropical, to chocolate and caramel, with many subtle variations in between.
For centuries yeast was a very mysterious agent in beer production. The English brewers referred to a strain of yeast that produced ale as God is good. Before science isolated yeast strains that not only would make ale but also bottom fermented lager, every time. In that sense, Louis Pasteur can be regarded as the father of modern brewing, along with Emil Hansen, who identified the cultured yeasts capable of producing beer. Pasteur concurred, while visiting the Carlsberg Laboratory in 1884. This is where pure yeast was created, using single cell cloning. A technical discovery that without would make modern beer production impossible.
Not so surprisingly I was reminded of all this while sampling my local Christian Moerlein Bay of Bengal Double IPA A cleverly packaged presentation that does not infringe upon any NFL trademark but does connect with local football fans, similar to the way Great Lakes Brewing Company came out with Cleveland Brown Ale when their beloved franchise returned. But what is truly remarkable about this Bengal beer is the flavor profile created, especially in the very long finish, which I can only describe as brown mustard like. So much so that I can imagine using this for a brat beer bath. Another testament to the power of Ester. Cheers!
Recent discussions about what to serve on Thanksgiving has revealed that the simple kindness of sharing beer can be fraught with socio-political implications. Part of this of course is due to the ever expanding portfolio of recipe styles, and unless you are at a beer tasting party, the unfamiliar can seem a bit frightening, if not threatening.
I recall many years ago attending a holiday party where I showed up with a couple of fifths (25.4oz) of Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig (yes that long ago) and was demonstrably denounced by a Budweiser enthusiast who said: “I only drink American Beer.”
Which was ironic, even in that time, because Sam Adams was brewed in my own hometown of Cincinnati. Even more ironic now when the faux-patriotic marketing of Anheuser-Busch InBev instructs me to go out and “find some Holiday Buds”. Which is also ironic in another way, since marijuana is now a legal commodity in some parts of the country, and this has lead to a slight tweaking of a Shakespeare line in Henry V:
I would give all my fame for some pot, some ale and safety
When it comes to serving beer at a party for a variety of guests there is (or should be) etiquette involved. Offering a variety of styles is certainly in order. Concern for the comfort of your guests means being conscious that your taste, no matter how evolved, is still a singular affair. The very wide universe of beer drinkers requires an acknowledgement of this fact. This is especially true in the 21st century. A time when people will stand in line in the Chicago cold to obtain a bottle of Goose Island Bourbon County Stout, while 18% of the US market is still devoted to another A-B InBev product: Bud Light. Because this is about etiquette, a quote from Emily Post seems appropriate:
“The most advertised commodity is not always intrinsically the best: but sometimes merely the product of a company with plenty of money to spend on advertising.”
The late Justin Wilson was once asked what kind of wine should you drink. His reply: “The kind of wine you like.” The same could be said of beer, with the caveat that what you like may not be the same as others. And that is one of the true beauties of civilization. Variety, not branding conformity, promotes greater human understanding. I most certainly will drink to that.
It is a pleasure to write this article. First, let me cover what is undoubtedly the original American wassail, now in its 40th manifestation: Anchor Brewing’s “Our Special Ale” This year’s version is one of the best I have ever tasted.
Having sampled 23 of the 40 versions, this year’s achievement, dials back a bit what is sometimes called the spruce essence to emphasize the incredible balance of this beer, where the Anchor house yeast has a chance to display how drinkable and soulful this delicious ale is. Outstanding.
The Silver Anniversary of Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome 2014-2015 reveals that a Winter/Holiday ale, does not need spices, nor a kitchen sink of hops, to produce a festive ale that is rich and yet subtly nuanced. Whole dried Golding and Fuggle hops support luxurious malts. After 25 years, this is indeed a time honored recipe.
One of the world’s great examples of a malt showcase are the five specialty malts used in Avery Brewing’s Old Jubilation Ale. A masterpiece recipe that has amazing malty depth, revealing chocolate, hazelnut, mocha and toffee. The finish has what I would describe as chocolate grape. This beer is a law unto itself.
The overuse (or should I say abuse?) of the IPA style has diminished, at least in superficial perception, the greatness of the original Holiday IPA: Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale 2014 . Now brewed in California and North Carolina this annual recipe of fresh hops has what many of the extreme examples of this style do not: proper malt support. When the lupulin obsession has run its course, Celebration Ale will still be there as a supreme example of what can properly be called New World Holiday Ale.
Christmas time means the return of another exquisite strong ale: Breckenridge Christmas Ale where 2-row pale, caramel, black and chocolate malts combine to create a very festive ale with a full body character that is timeless.
Avery’s Colorado cousin Great Divide Hibernation Ale is a dry-hopped take on English winter strong ale, that has become a classic in its own right. Yes Virginia, the season is indeed upon us. Cheers!
Sometimes the beer doctor has a problem with BeerSpeak. The term winter warmer for example, has come to be a rather loose description for holiday wassail, although a beer that is warming in winter does not have to (here I go with the beer geek speak) actually be a spice bomb, nor does it have to assume the boozy parameters of extreme beer. A good example of a great winter warmer is Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome which does not rely on spices, but rather a subtle, nuanced body, achieved through a time-honored method where hops are employed to support a judicious blend of malted barley.
The same can be said of Smuttynose Winter Ale a very tasty malt showcase that proves that a winter warmer can be more about body than booze.
But of course extreme beer has been in vogue the last few year (imperial this, imperial that) so there are numerous examples of what might be called wassails gone wild. A sterling example is Troegs The Mad Elf Ale an 11% production utilizing cherries and honey. Beers brewed to such strength assure that if you knock back a few of these, your holiday celebration will soon metamorphose into a sleepy silent night.
Strangely, one of the most festive and drinkable wassails, Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig Ale seems to be made these days as only an after thought. Two decades ago, this delicious ale appeared in 25.4 oz bottles.
From there it went to 12 oz size, and then it only appeared as part of their winter variety packs. This year 3 bottles can be found in their winter variety pack, which is a shame, since it is not a novelty beer, but a recipe that deserves to stand alone.
This year, the Bend, Oregon brewer Deschutes has their famous Jubelale available throughout Ohio. A non-wassail that presents a very spicy palate through its expert use of malts and hops. And yes it is, in the traditional sense a festive winter ale.
Just what exactly is Holiday Beer? Well that depends on who you are asking. In the German tradition, bock and most importantly dopplebock, were a part of holiday tradition for centuries. This influence appears in Samuel Adams Winter lager, a wheat bock that departs from that tradition by being subtly spiced. For a more traditional winter bock approach, there is Penn Brewing Company’s St. Nicholas Bock Bier a 6.5% masterpiece, or if you want to kick it up another notch in strength, there is the Brewers Reserve version at 9%.
And so I have heard: Xmas time is coming and Santa will soon be here.