I guess it was simply a matter of time for this development to occur. Extreme beer recipes have been the rage in certain circles: the imperials, as it were, whether it was India Pale Ale, Helles Lager, Pumpkin Ale, Barley Wine kicked up to notches unknown, etc… But leave it to the independent Scots at Brew Dog Brewery, to take Ice Beer to a brand new level. Tactical Nuclear Penguin begins life as a 10% Imperial Stout, then gets double cask aged for 16 months, the first eight months in a Isle of Arran whisky barrel, then transferred for the remainder to an Islay cask. After that, it is stored at -20 degrees for 3 weeks. The result? 32% alcohol by volume ale. The world’s strongest beer.
News of this release made me recall the conversation I had with B. United International president, Matthias Neidhart, some 14 years ago, when he described for me how Eisbock was produced. Where the beer is stored in very cold temperatures and the ice formed is removed, and then stored (or lagered) for many many months. A reinheitsgebot description of German invented ice bier. A much more elaborate process than that which is employed to make Icehouse, Labatt Ice, in North America.
Concentrated flavor is what this is all about. A fine example to compare would be Schneider & Sohn’s Aventinus and their Aventinus Eisbock. But the folks at Brew Dog it seems, have decided to further expand the definition of ice brewing.
At one time, exceptionally aged and strong beer meant Hurlimann Samiclaus or Kulmbacher Eisbock or Scaldis Noel. But this was before Brew Dog’s Tactical Nuclear Penguin or Samuel Adams Utopia.
Strength has always come as a bit of a shock to the American beer drinker. After decades of mainly weak, cereal adjunct, mass produced beer. The re-introduction of flavorful brew was indeed a mini-revolution, to that small segment of beer seekers now often referred to as craft brew fans. But I think that ice beers were (and still are) quite significant amongst the larger beer drinking population. Before ice beer, there was only malt liquor, a dubious term used to refer to high gravity corn lager, ( which also went through a bit of transformation, when established brands such as Schlitz and Colt 45, introduced higher gravity versions.)
There is a novel effect to strong beers. This attraction has been partially enhanced by ridiculous state alcohol laws that prohibit their sale. Some of the legends that I am sure, some readers remember having for the first time: Carlsberg Elephant, Sierra Nevada Big Foot, Stone Double Bastard, etc… I am sure some folks have fond memories of those encounters. Like recalling the first time they drank a shot of Jagermeister liquor!
I learned quite awhile ago that strength alone can not be the final arbiter when determining the quality of a beer. If imperial and extreme become the only criteria, they you going to automatically deprive yourself of my flavorful experiences. In other words, Milk Stout, for example is not suppose to knock you out of your chair. In fact many stouts of moderate strength, are there to remind you that beer is food and if hootch is really what you are seeking, they many other avenues.
Because of Charles Dickens, Christmas and associated holidays will always have a supernatural touch added to memories. Call this The Ghosts of Christmas Past as I remember memorable pleasant moments that now seem irretrievably lost:
For example, at one time, here in the state of Ohio, beers produced by The August Schell Brewing Company were available, including their annual winter/holiday offering. sometimes called Blizzard, but more often called Snowstorm.
Not only does Schell change the recipe every year, it also changes recipe styles. Forgive this old beer drinker’s war story, but I remember sampling their Cherry Bock, over a decade ago, when a carpenter friend I worked for, ordered a half-barrel to start up his holiday season with very festive authority.
This year I gather, that Snowstorm is a Baltic porter, but alas, unless I travel to another state, it will appear and disappear without ever tasting it.
Other famous American holiday brews sometimes take unexpected turns. Goose Island Christmas Ale, which use to be a Midwestern holiday staple (available often in affordable 12 packs) is now a limited 22oz affair. It seems the brewery in Chicago has gone off in nearly an entire new direction, with its Bourbon County Stout, which it describes on their web page as “a great cigar beer”, which personally I find aesthetically disgusting, but that’s just me.
One great Christmas ale that I am so happy to discover is still being produced, and that is the Belgian masterpiece La Binchoise Speciale Noel. Probably my favorite wassail in the entire world.
Speaking of spice ale, I recently tried Anchor Brewing’s “Our Special Ale” 35th edition, which is a lively, dark mahogany colored pour, with that prerequisite spicy-spruce aroma in the nose that is a trademark for a recipe that varies from year to year. I have sampled their Christmas Ale since the 17th edition, and this year’s version is not the most memorable, Although it is fairly easy to drink, with moderate strength, the palate starts out front with a citrus-soapy approach, but then gives way to some chocolate notes that seem hesitant at best. This ale is good, but not remarkable, when compared with other previous manifestations.
But of course, this holiday season is just getting started.
When it comes to beer, the winter/holiday season will always be my favorite time of year. The annual return of many favorites made over so many years, they can rightfully be deemed classics. Memories abound here too. For I recall first tastings: Samuel Adams Winter Lager, when it was just a non spiced, raw wheat beer. La Binchoise Speciale Noel: the incredible Belgian Christmas wassail, back when a gentleman from Michigan, Jeff Dafoe, introduced this world classic to the United States for the first time, 14 years ago.
I will also never forget my friend Gar’s reaction to first tasting Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale 1993: “that’s one spicy taco!”
It is impossible for me to forget these things. The first Anchor Brewing “Our Special Ale” was the 17th edition of their Christmas offering. As a determined seeker of beer, this was quite a revelation.
The same can said of my beloved Saranac Season’s Best (an all-time Beer Doctor favorite). At one time it was a Holiday Amber and then later, Nut Brown Lager. A Vienna style beer, rich in malt flavor with lively hops, but not extreme or boozy in any way. It has become nearly impossible to obtain in Ohio any longer. The brewery was kind enough to send a gift of a six pack, right after the New Year of 1997. Such kindness and generosity I will never forget.
There have been many surprises along the way. Coors Winterfest 1995, was truly a shock for how good it was in those days, when macro and mini breweries were marketed like the Berlin Wall, where never the twain shall meet.
I would also like to mention that Leinenkugel’s Winter Lager was a great moderately priced holiday beer, that alas, was abandoned. Much of the distinctive aspects of the Leinie portfolio has been lost, as they aggressively market more pedestrian beers.
Moving away from remembrance of beers past, I would like to mention that this year is the first time I’ve tried Shiner Holiday Cheer, a unique dark wheat ale brewed with peaches and pecans. A very tasty, original recipe contribution.
For flat-out big time boozy wassail, Lakefront Brewery’s Holiday Spice Lager Beer, is what the doctor ordered. A massive, full strength, bold Holiday beer.
My only prayer is Thank You!