These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things

The 38th edition of Anchor’s “Our Special Ale” has the familiar very dark brown coloured pour with the signature spruce-pine essence in the nose, that I first encountered 21 years ago in the 17th edition. Variations on this Christmas wassail recipe have produced some memorable versions (the 1995 edition immediately comes to mind). But there is talk that Anchor may discontinue the wassail tradition after this year. I first heard of this 2 years ago, when a trade representative from Anchor told me that the brewers felt the parameters of the style had been fully reached. Which is really not such a shock when you consider the history of “Our Special Ale”, where the first few versions contained no spices at all.
This 38th edition of their Christmas ale incorporates all the elements that make “Our Special Ale” the legendary holiday brew that it is. Here you’ll find the medium to fully body, the incredible flavor complexity, with layer after layer of warming, if not downright toasty notes, all presented in a medium strength (5.5%) format.
It is a kind of annual pilgrimage to seek out this classic American wassail. If this truly is the last version, the 38th is a glorious departure.

Although more attention is focused on Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, Brooklyn Winter Ale should not be overlooked. A delicious tribute to the power of Maris Otter malt, this is a new world take on the Scottish wee heavy style, with all the nutritional goodness associated with it. Expertly made for Brooklyn by the Matt Brewing Company in Utica, New York.

This truly great English style, old winter Holiday ale, is Avery Brewing Company’s proofthat spices are unnecessary when five speciality malts are combined with expert hops support, to produce an incredibly rich flavor profile where notes of mocha, hazelnut, caramel, chocolate and toffee, are presented in a full strength (8.3%… yeah, it is!) format. A great American ale. It is said to be cellarable for 3 plus years. But why bother with that? A fresh bottle of Old Jubilation is one for the ages.

When Julebryg Abounds

I was recently asked: What is Holiday beer? My only answer was: Whatever the brewers at a brewery decide. Which is the holiday season truth of it. Time was, a few decades ago, holiday beer or bier was usually considered to be a Christmas bock, or an old (or olde) English winter ale, or a celebratory spiced ale known as Wassail. But then the explosive growth in artisan recipes has led to many different brewing styles to be considered: from black bier, porter, stout, IPA, and all manifestations in-between.
Take for example Leinenkugel’s Snowdrift Vanilla Porter. I shared a six pack with a group of non-craft brew seekers, outside on a chilly November evening, which they drank straight from their bottles, glad that the Leinie’s came with a twist off cap.
Call it my research group, but these folks who drink beer with the only criteria that it be cold, liked the Snowdrift Vanilla Porter, which in that drinking context, seemed richly sweet and boozy, even though it is only a 6% brew. A more formal tasting later (inside and poured into a glass) revealed a Snowdrift that was nuanced, with vanilla and malts combined to create various chocolate notes, but still somewhat sweet, without being overbearing.
Then there is the intense Wassail approach that has become somewhat popular on the American brewing scene. Southern Tier Brewing Company’s 2XMAS Aleis a good example. A dark, amber- brown coloured ale, this is a spicy and boozy production, especially if served at American ice cold temperature. Is there balance here? No, its more of a conglomerate battle of spices and malts, with hops serving as a reconciliation, in the long, somewhat dry finish. Strong and flavorful, with subtlety giving way for intensity.

Which is quite a contrast to Ohio’s beloved Great Lakes Christmas Ale a magical combination of spices with honey, that creates a flavor profile that seems to press the buttons of Holiday consciousness from Christmases past. A strong 7.5% ale where all alcohol mechanics are completely hidden. It is not surprising that this beer is loved by drinkers of spirits of many stripes.

Across the Atlantic, at St. James Gate, Dublin, Ireland, there is Arthur Guinness Generous Ale A traditional Holiday Amber style ale where the interplay of barley and hops are given a winter body context that finishes dry.

For the beer doctor, the return of beloved holiday recipes is always a welcome sight. Such is the case with the very tasty brown ale known as Smuttynose Winter Ale   with its rich malty, chocolatey, nutty approach, which serves as a beautiful reminder that the holiday season should be a joyous occasion indeed.

A Great Local Beer For This Season

First, a full disclaimer: I am in no way connected to the Christian Moerlein Brewing Company. I have never visited their famous Lager House, located in downtown Cincinnati. My only connection to their operation was a couple of tweets I sent to the owner, Greg Hardman, which I received no response. Which is for the best, because my impressions of their beer portfolio is based solely on trying them, which was always the path of discovery, 20 or more years ago. Such is the time honored path of the beer seeker.

The revival of the Moerlein brand coincided with the revival of local beloved brands: Hudy 14-K, Hudy Delight, Burger, and Schoenling Little Kings. This revival included going back to their original recipe formula, before those local breweries ceased operation. From there new beers were added: Moerlein OTR ale, Emancipation Bock, Sangerfest maibock, Christkindl christmas bier, and recently Exposition Vienna Amber Lager.
All of these are flavorful examples of a brewing company seeking to restore Cincinnati’s brewing heritage (Fifth & Vine Oktoberfest). But the line of beer I enjoy the most, is the Hudepohl pure beer series, that is ofcourse, beers made only with the four classic ingredients: malts, hops, yeast and water.
The first to arrive a couple of years back was Hudepohl Amber Lager, a no-nonsense flagship brand, reasonably priced and quite good. Then came the seasonal offerings, a Hudepohl Festive Bock for spring. Then, as of this year, a summertime Hudepohl Summer Pils. A Hudepohl Oktoberfest Bier for the fall. And now for winter, what is proably their finest offering, Hudepohl Classic Porter.

This porter is deeply rooted in the American brewing experience. A bottom fermented (or lager), it takes its inspiration not from the famous Baltic porters such as Okocim, but rather from the Pennsylvania porters associated with the roots of United States beer making. Yuengling Porter is a good example. But a reinheitsgebot pure recipe was a difficult luxury to achieve in those times. New World inventiveness lead to pumpkin ale and many other adjuncts such as birch and spruce, along with assorted spices. But the love of porter goes back to the colonies. So it wasn’t all that surprising that porter continued into a bottom fermented format, using both corn and rice.
But here is where Hudepohl Classic Porter proves to be truly remarkable. This pure beer recipe brings together the friendly drinkable style in a delicious malty showcase. A lager for the season to be sure. In fact, of the many winter seasonal offerings, this one is near the top of the list. Perhaps I was seeking a winter lager without any spices added. This certainly fulfils that. What a remarkably great local beer.

There’s Always A Cure With The Wintertime Brews

It is always a pleasure to try a winter sampler pack of beer. This year the folks at Matt Brewing in Utica, New York, creators of the Saranac brand, have some tasty options in the six selected. Their Big Moose Ale is a triple dry hopped creation, where Amarrilo, Centennial and Cascade hops are combined with pale English and Caramel malts, producing a good medium to full bodied ale, with a nice citrus note finish.

Their Red IPA uses the very marketable West Coast style of IPA, to create this well balanced red ale, using European dark crystal malts and Chinook, Paradise and Calypso hops. Not seeking to be an example of hops extremity, this is quite drinkable.

The Belgian Pale Ale is for myself, the least interesting of the group. Not that it is bad, it’s reliance on the Belgian yeast strain gives it flavour, but without much complexity. Just a bit too simple for my taste.

The 4059′ Porter is outstanding. This has an expertly achieved balance, full of malty flavour notes, without being too heavy. An unequivocal pleasure to drink.

The Saranac Chocolate  Lager is a testament to the perception that chocolate is synonymous with the holiday season. A delicious dessert beer, made with Cacao nibs from Belize, combined with Caramel malt Hallertau hops.

My favourite of this sampler, and in fact a Beer Doctor favourite, is the Saranac Black Bear Bock which is a new name for Black Diamond Bock, which is one of my favourite Saranac recipes of all time. A dark amber coloured pour, with the kind of balance I truly love, using traditional German malts and hops. Outstanding in every way.

Locally, the Samuel Adams Winter Classics selection is very strong this year. The newest beer to the lineup, Samuel Adams White Christmas is an unfiltered, golden hazy version of a White ale, using holiday spices, and is quite refreshing. A focused wheat and citrus dry finish, make this very festive indeed.

The return of Samuel Adams Holiday Porter is always welcome. This fine interpretation of a taditional English porter reminds me of a line from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:  “When this result was brought about, old Fezziwig, clapping his hands to stop the dance, cried out ‘Well Done!’ and the fiddler plunged his face into a pot of porter, especially provided for that purpose.”

Which is as good a lead-in as any, to Samuel Adams original Holiday wassail. the magnificent Old Fezziwig Ale I am old enough to remember the first year it appeared, when it was presented in a 25.4 oz bottle. It was contract brewed by Hudepohl-Schoenling, before the Boston Beer Company acquired the brewery outright. Strangely, despite being a beloved beer by many Sam Adams drinkers, it disappeared a few Christmas seasons, only to reappear as part of the Winter Classics sampler only. But putting old marketing considerations (or errors) aside, this is one of America’s truly great holiday recipes. A dark brown-red coloured spiced ale, with a full body that is fully delicious.

The inclusion of their flagship brand Samuel Adams Boston Lager is always a good idea. Although I have read some preposterous comments about this wonderful beer, I only have to taste it once again, to be reminded what a perfect recipe it is. Alas for those jaded craft beer drinkers who believe that familiarity breeds contempt. How wrong they are. As the late Fela Kuti would say: “I must look and laugh.”

The evolution of Samuel Adams Winter Lager includes the use of the very aromatic Saigon cinnamon, which has been tweaked the last few years, producing a refined Holiday beer that is a kind of subtly spiced wheat bock, where the brewing mechanics remain hidden, all the way to the fully integrated finish that is bright and malty.

The Samuel Adams Chocolate Bock like the Saranac Chocolate Lager, prove that sometimes great brewing minds can sometimes think in the same direction. This too is a marvelous chocolate beer, where dark nibs from Ecuador are utilized with roasted malts to produce a velvet chocolate finish.

Suddenly, the notion of upcoming winter, doesn’t seem bad at all.

New And Old Arrivals

There is a paradox usually associated with Zen where the diligent monk attempts to sweep the floor of every speck of dust, totally conscious that this is an impossible task, but nevertheless, is devotedly attempted. The same can be said for the beer doctor, who vainly pursues sampling as many different beers as possible, fully aware that this task is also beyond the infinite.

But what a remarkable time to be alive! An astounding display of the brewer’s art and culinary skill can be found in creations from all over the world. Take for example, Samuel Smith’s Organic Chocolate Stout , what could easily take the claim as the definitive chocolate desert beer, with a layered richness that is astonishingly nuanced.
This is a stout to give someone who normally does not drink beer, but would not mind taking a trip to chocolate paradise.

Global but local, as it were, it is a great pleasure to see the return of Mt. Carmel Winter Ale, a hometown festive wassail that is lively and fresh, each new winter.

It was a bit of a surprise to obtain for the first time, Kona Brewing Company’s Pipeline Porter a very delicious coffee porter, made with 100% Kona beans, grown on the Big Island’s Cornwell Estate. A recipe with a remarkably drinkable balance.

It has also been a few years since I had Redhook’s Winterhook the 28th variation of their recipe, created under the supervision of master brewster Jennifer Talley. A dark copper coloured pour with hops in the foreground, but not in the west coast IPA range. There is ample malt support here, providing a solid 6% abv wintertime brew.

With the upcoming of winter the annual return of brewing legends can be found. This includes Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, Avery Old Jubilation Ale, Great Divide Hibernation AleSaranac Season’s Best, Breckenridge Christmas AleAnchor “Our Special Ale“, to name just a few.
A new edition to this illustrious lineup is Sierra Nevada Narwhal Imperial Stout 2012. A bit of a surprise from the hop-centric brewery in Chico, California, for this is a pull-out-all-the stops showcase for the complex density of malts, where layer after layer of flavour notes reveal themselves: from dark chocolate to caramel to a black currant fruitiness. This is a wonderful and blessed meditation on the Imperial Stout style.

Another lovely reminder of a style of winter beer sometimes forgotten, is Widmer Brothers Brrr a Holiday amber ale that is bold and fully bodied, and deliciously strong.

Last, but certainly not least, there is the magnificent gingerbread stout, from the Samuel Adams Small Batch Series, Merry Mischief. A 9% Holiday Stout that is truly one for the ages. The balance achieved with the combination of spices is astonishing. Proof that alchemy, can sometimes mysteriously manifest its own reality.
Cheers! So many beers, so little time. Thank you. Thank you very much.