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.
There was a time when people complained about Christmas crashing into Thanksgiving, But this was before global capitalism’s Black Friday (a term that always seemed to me to be a bit odd), and now nearly everyone in the business world wants to dip into the money gravy while its still hot. Holiday beer is no exception. Great Lakes Brewery’s Christmas Ale debuts in Cleveland before my November 1st birthday (another holiday by the way). Holiday beers appear in October, and by November, there is an extraordinary variety available.
Locally, I had a chance to sample two new ones in aluminum cans: MADTREE BREWING’S THUNDERSNOW and RHINEGEIST BREWING’S DAD.
THUNDERSNOW is an outstanding holiday ale, incorporating both Scottish and wassail traditions.
DAD is Rhinegeist’s take on a hoppy red ale, in the tradition of Sierra Nevada Celebration and Widmer Bros. Brrrr… new world style, as they say.
Both of these beers are quite good and totally different, which by the way, is one of the great things about Holiday Beer. If you do not care for beer brewed with spices, there are plenty of examples of non-wassail. Wiedemann’s Pragerbrau is an easy drinking pure winter lager, expertly made by the Stevens Point Brewery in Wisconsin. Then of course there are the more familiar suspects: Brooklyn Winter Lager, Breckenridge Christmas Ale, Great Divide Hibernation Ale etc. And this does not in anyway cover the great Belgium Holiday experience. But that is for another day. There are plenty of holidays, it has been said, just around the corner. Cheers!