Session #10: Winter Beers

This month’s Session, sponsored by Barley Vine, is Let It Snow: Winter Beers. Of all the seasonal beers, the ones released during winter are my favorites; the ones I look most forward to sampling each and every year. The category of winter beers lacks the tradition of, say for example, oktoberfest beers or springfest beers, both of which owe their existence to the seasons, a lack of technology and brewers having to adapt themselves to the weather. And, of course, even calling them winter beers is a modern conceit to be politically correct and, perhaps more importantly, to try to insure they will continue to sell beyond December 25. Because for the most part, whether we say so or not, most of the “winter beers” are really Christmas beers. And they are, like Christmas itself, largely a modern invention.

For centuries, the most important Christian holiday was Easter, because — as I remember it being explained — the redemption and resurrection it represented was the miracle that made Christianity different from other religions and so it was the centerpiece of an ecumenical year filled with celebrations Sunday after Sunday. Our present calendar system, the Gregorian calendar (named for Pope Gregory) was created precisely to more accurately predict the date when each year’s Easter would be because under the prior system, the Julian calendar (which is still used today by some Christian denominations) had allowed the year to drift by several days because it did not accurately reflect the true length of a year. (For a riveting account of the history of our calendar, read David Ewing Duncan’s Calendar: Humanity’s Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year.) The calendar geek in me could go on and on about this but the point is simply that for the majority of Christian history, Easter was the big day. Beginning in the 1840s, things gradually shifted toward Christmas so that now most people would say Christmas is the number one holiday.

The first Christmas beers were most likely brewed in medieval times by monks making a special beer — and stronger — at Christmastime to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. But it would take far longer for commercial breweries to begin making and bottling seasonal beer. And while there were breweries in decades past that made a holiday beer (I have, for example a full bottle of Ballantine Christmas Ale that was brewed in 1946 but not bottled until 1957), it was not the big business it is today. In my experience, here in the U.S. Christmas beers were more the exception than the rule until somewhat recently.

Germany has a rich tradition of Weihnachtsbier, as do several other Scandinavian countries. So does Great Britain with winter warmers and Belgium with beers like Delirium Noel and many others. My friend and colleague Don Russell (a.k.a. Joe Sixpack) is currently working on a book about Christmas beer which will be published next year. I can’t wait for it to come out, it should be a very interesting read.

For a time, there were only a few holiday beers, and most of them were quite obviously Christmas beers. Sierra Nevada’s Celebration, Samuel Adams’ Winter Lager and even Noche Buena (from Mexico’s Grupo Model) were all early favorites. Little by little, more breweries began making a holiday beer and by around 1996 practically every brewery made one and a large number bottled it, too. And they all sold pretty well. But oddly enough, the day after Christmas sales would abruptly stop. With the exception of the most popular two or three brands, you could barely give away a Christmas beer once the holiday was over. This made it tricky for retailers trying to balance not running out before Christmas but not wanting any inventory immediately thereafter. When I was a beer buyer, I can’t tell you how many offers at rock bottom bargain prices I would get in the weeks after Christmas by breweries trying to unload their remaining Christmas beer.

So what most breweries did was secularize the beers, calling them names like winter ale or holiday beer. Whatever the name, it de-emphasized Christmas in the hope that the fickle consumer would continue to buy them after December 25. And for the most part the strategy worked and eventually led to many breweries having a seasonal beer year-round, whether four different ones quarterly or more often. The reason for this is more business-related than you might assume at first blush. Most grocery stores have very specific beer sets (which is a schematic layout of what beers they carry and where they will be put on the shelves).

Breweries work very hard to get a slot on a grocery store’s beer set. No one wants to put in the effort to get their Christmas beer in the beer set over the holidays only to lose it as soon December ends. So what many did was get a seasonal sku authorized in the set that would be filled with whatever the seasonal beer happened to be. In other words, the same hole would be filled in summer with a summer seasonal beer, etc. throughout the year. One seasonal release would follow the last so that all year long there would be a rotating beer in that same slot on the store shelf. In that way the brewery would not lose it’s spot on the shelf and as a result, today we all have much more diversity on the shelf, a boon for consumers and breweries alike. Nielsen and IRI data confirms that the category “seasonal beer” is one of the fastest growing and best-selling categories of craft beer today. And this all grew out of Christmas beers and trying to figure out how best to sell them.

In modern times, one of the first and to my mind still one of the best is Anchor’s Christmas Beer. Technically, the name of this beer is not Christmas Ale as it is usually called but it’s more proper name is actually Our Special Ale. The first one was brewed in 1975. While there are certainly many other truly great holiday beers, this is always the one I look most forward to each year. It used to be released the Monday before Thanksgiving each year, making it one of the last Christmas beers to come out. A few years ago they bowed to market pressure and it’s now available in early November, usually the first week. I can’t say I don’t like getting it earlier now, but there was something grand about having to wait for it that built up your anticipation and made it somehow more special.

To me, there are two (or three) other factors to this beer that make it so great. First, they change the recipe each year. So not only is there anticipation about its release generally, but also about what it will taste like this year. How much time have I spent sitting around with friends trying to figure out just what spices are in each year’s version? I know there a lot of people, including many beer enthusiasts and the entire nation of Germany, who don’t like spice in their beer. I am not one of those people. I love spicy beers. Not every day, of course, but the more different types of beer loose in the world, the better off we are. The more choices, the better we can experiment and decide what works best when and with what. And there are times when spices in beer work perfectly. I usually pair my Thanksgiving meal with Anchor Christmas, for example, because the spices work so well with turkey’s modest flavors, making both taste better. In addition, the mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and stuffing all benefit from being lubricated with a spicy beer.

Second, they change the label each year. Each year it’s a new mini-work of art featuring a different tree (which I confess I’ve always had a thing for: trees, that is). They’re beautiful labels and each year they create a new poster featuring all of the labels from 1975 up to the current year. I have one from a couple of years ago framed and hanging in my kitchen. You can see this year’s poster at Anchor’s website and you can even buy one in their gift shop. That also adds to the anticipation, finding out what tree will be featured on each year’s incarnation. They also do a kick-ass neon sign. But there’s one more thing about this beer that I love. It can be aged.

Despite it’s modest strength and most likely due to the spicing, Anchor’s Christmas Ale can be laid down, usually for almost ten years and still be drinkable. For a time during the late 1990s, when the beer was more heavily spiced, it actually seemed to taste better after being aged for at least a year and I would lay down quite a bit of it to take advantage of that phenomenon. I still have several Magnums from year’s past in one of my beer refrigerators, as well as at least a case of 12-ounce bottles from various years stretching back to the early 1990s. There’s nothing more enjoyable than doing a vertical tasting of Anchor Christmas beers. I’ve done a few myself, at least one at the Celebrator and twice at Anchor Brewing with older beers from their private cellar. It’s great fun to compare both the different year’s recipes and also what the aging process has done to the beer.

Last night was Anchor’s annual Christmas party and it was my first chance to have this year’s Christmas Ale on draft, though I’d had bottles several times. To my mind, this year’s tastes quite similar to last year but I haven’t yet had a chance to do a side-by-side comparison. The spicing is mild, as has been typical in recent years. As a result, it has a wider appeal — though for myself I miss the heavily spiced days — and is still a wonderful beer. I won’t even try to speculate on what spices are there, that’s a better thing to do with friends over a shared pint or bottle.

One last thing about winter ales that is somewhat different from most traditional seasonal beers. Unlike springbocks or marzens, which are distinct styles, holiday beers can be any style that the brewer chooses. This has led to much more diversity in Christmas beers than in any other kind of seasonal. Even summer ales, which have no style attached to them, still tend to be lighter so they’re more appropriate during that season’s warmer weather. This makes tasting all of the holiday beers the most enjoyable one each year, because you never know what you’re going to get. It’s fun seeing what a brewery decided to brew when left to do whatever they fancied. Since brewers under such circumstances tend to make what they like, you can learn different brewers’ personal tastes, which can be useful in evaluating their other efforts. Plus, it’s just plain fun, the best time of the year to try different beers is without question the winter when strong, full-flavored beers of striking diversity are king. It’s the most wonderful season of all.

Holding a cup of Christmas Ale by the Anchor “tree” at their annual Christmas party last night.

 

Pacific Coast Brewing’s “A Taste of Holiday Beers”

The 19th annual holiday beer tasting at Pacific Coast Brewing in Oakland is this Saturday from Noon to 4:00 p.m. Sad to say, I’ve never managed to make it to this one but everybody tells me it’s a great event.
 

 

12.8

Pacific Coast Brewing’s Taste of Holiday Beers (19th annual)

Pacific Coast Brewing, 906 Washington Street, Oakland, California
510.836.2739 [ website ]

 

Dogfish Downtown Brooklyn

Downtown Bar & Grill, located in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York at 160 Court Street, will be hosting a pretty spectacular tasting of Dogfish Head beers on the 27th of November, including the debut releases for 2007 of World Wide Stout, Pangaea, and Golden Era, along with seven other Dogfish Head beers on draft. The festivities will begin at 6:00 p.m.
 

 

Sierra Nevada to Bottle Fresh Hops

Almost a dozen years ago, Sierra Nevada head brewer Steve Dresler was having lunch with renowned hop expert Gerard Lemmens. He had just returned from England, where he’d been helping a brewer there figure out how to use whole, unkilned hops. Gerard asked Dresler if he’d ever considered using fresh hops.

He hadn’t, of course, but the idea marinated and a few days later he mentioned it to Ken Grossman who told him to “go for it.” The first year, Dresler made only one 100-barrel batch. In the intervening years, as demand for the beer has risen quickly, many obstacles have been overcome, such as how to ship that many hops or how to convert a recipe from regular hops (which are 8-10% water) to fresh hops (which can be as much as 80% water). Also that first year, an entire UPS truck was filled with small boxes of fresh hops bundled together with holes poked into them. Today, they’re overnighted in mesh onion sacks laid out flat in a single layer of a 18-wheel refrigerator truck. Each year, both Cascade (@2/3) and Centennial (@1/3) hops are used, but because they’re different from year to year — and because the exact quantities of each differ — the beer has to be reformulated on the fly. When it’s brewed is always a moving target because it’s contingent on when the hops are ready to be picked. Often it’s around Labor Day weekend, but you never know. Over the last eleven years, the most Harvest Ale they’ve made in a single year has been around 800-900 barrels available on draft only.

This year, however, Sierra Nevada is taking a giant leap and is planning to brew 3,000 barrels, using 16,000 pounds of fresh hops in two batches. And more exciting still, two-thirds of it will be available nationwide in 24-oz. bottles. I suspect it will sell out fast, not least of which because even though they’re making triple the usual amount, it will be sent all over the country meaning only small amounts which reach most markets. I’ve learned that the final brew was done last Thursday, September 6, and they hope to have it in the bottles as early as September 24. Keep an eye out for it, and buy it right away. But more importantly, drink it right away, too. This is the very antithesis of a beer meant to be aged. Make up your own special event to drink it. Get some fresh, locally made food and cook up a great meal. Invite your favorite people over to share it with you. This is the best way to celebrate harvest time, with the fruits of the harvest, both food and drink.

Hell in a Rice Basket

Great Divide Brewing has been making some terrific beers for years and years, and with the recent addition of brewer Brit Antrim, I only expect them to get even better. They’ve just released a pair of new seasonal beers, Hades and Samurai that are in a slightly different direction for the brewery.

From the press release:

Hades is a Belgian-style strong golden ale (7.3% ABV) brewed with a proprietary Belgian yeast strain originally from Belgium’s Moortgat brewery. The yeast gives the beer a distinctive spicy flavor and aroma. A noticeable hop level and a medium malt character make the beer an assertive, yet extremely well-balanced and crisp ale.

Great Divide founder Brian Dunn decided that a Belgian-style strong golden would be the brewery’s next beer and set the general parameters, while Brit Antrim, brewery operations manager, developed the recipe for the beer.

“I wanted a Belgian-style beer with lots of character and flavor,” Dunn says, “but with slightly lower alcohol for drinkability reasons. You can drink a couple glasses of Hades and not end up with a helluva buzz.”

Dunn says the beer pairs up well with steamed mussels, crusty breads and virtually any artisan-style cheese. He says the beer’s spicy charm makes it a fine summer time refresher.

Hades is only the second Belgian-style beer brewed by Great Divide. The company made a Belgian-style wit back in 1999. Hades is available in all Great Divide markets in 22-ounce bottles, and on draft in limited supply.

Brewed with rice and barley malts, Samurai is an easy drinking and unique version of unfiltered ale. The addition of rice gives Samurai (5.2% ABV) a crisp, refreshing and clean taste that pairs well with fish, Asian food, and lighter styles of cheeses.

Dunn points out that Samurai is not an Asian-style beer despite its name and rice component. “Asian beers are typically tightly filtered lagers brewed with rice and barley,” Dunn says. “Samurai is very different, it’s fermented with an ale yeast and it’s unfiltered. The ale yeast gives Samurai a slightly fruity flavor and aroma.”

“I felt,” Dunn says, “that we needed an accessible, super-quaffable beer for the summer, but one that wasn’t brewed with wheat. The rice makes Samurai crisp and clean, and gives it a unique twist for a craft-brewed summer beer.”

Now available in six packs and on draft, Samurai has been a draft-only beer in the Denver market for the past 2 years. Growing interest and demand for the beer in the Denver area prompted Great Divide to release the beer as a bottled summer seasonal.

Dunn is proud to acknowledge that his company’s two new beers may come as a surprise to Great Divide fans. “We’ve become known for Yeti-sized, hoppy, assertive beers,” Dunn says. “But these beers allow us to flex a different set of our brewing muscles, and mix things up a bit for our fans.”

I’ll be in Denver at the end of the month, so hopefully I’ll get a chance to give both of these a try while I’m there.


 

Tomme “Moses” Arthur Releases 10 Commandments

Tomme “Moses” Arthur, Director of Brewing Operations for Port Brewing and the Lost Abbey, today announced their newest seasonal release. The new seasonal is called the Ten Commandments, a big, complex beer to mark their first anniversary.

From the press release:

While not exactly descending the mountain with two stone tables, Port Brewing / Lost Abbey’s award-winning brewmaster Tomme Arthur did make his mark on the craft beer world today with the release of Ten Commandments, a Belgian-style dark farmhouse brewed with raisins, fresh rosemary and honey. As an added twist, a secondary wild yeast was also added to the brew during bottling.

The craft brewer’s anniversary issue, Ten Commandments is a mocha-garnet-colored ale that offers a rich, rustic texture with strong notes of banana and fig, invoking the complexity and character of the artisanal beers of the southern Belgian countryside.
“I’ve always been inspired by the unpredictability and artistic style of Belgian ales like Fantôme’s Black Ghost,” said head brewer Tomme Arthur. “In creating Ten Commandments I wanted to emulate that perspective but add an unexpected touch. Using mercurial yeast like Brettanomyces in combination with raisins, herbs and honey delivers a pleasant, full-bodied profile and mélange of flavors unlike any other beer.”

Ten Commandments is 9 percent alcohol by volume and ships in 750ml cork-finished bottles. Brewed in limited quantities (280 cases in 2007) and released annually during the brewery’s anniversary, it is available directly from the brewery and in Port Brewing markets May through September.

About Port Brewing / Lost Abbey

Founded in 2006, Port Brewing Company produces a line of award-winning American ales as well as the groundbreaking Lost Abbey family of Belgian-inspired beers. Craft brewed under the direction of co-founder and two-time Great American Beer Festival brewer of the year, Tomme Arthur, four beers are issued under the Lost Abbey label year-round: Avant Garde, Lost and Found, Red Barn and Judgment Day. Additionally, a number of seasonal and specialty releases including Ten Commandments, Cuvee de Tomme and the Angel’s Share, are offered at various times throughout the year. As many of these are blended and aged for up to 18 months in French Oak, Brandy and Bourbon barrels, Lost Abbey beers are universally recognized for their complexity, unique flavors, and bold, boundary-pushing styles. Port Brewing is located at 155 Mata Way, Suite 104, San Marcos, CA 92069, USA., web: www.lostabbey.com.

Skinny Dipping Returns

New Belgium’s seasonal Skinny Dip, which debuted least year, is returning this month through September as their summer seasonal. From the press release:

Skinny Dip, New Belgium Brewing’s summer seasonal beer, is back for an encore. Skinny Dip received an overwhelmingly warm reception in 2006, second only to the launch of Fat Tire.

The summer brew, with only 108 calories in each 12-ounce bottle, is an alternative to traditional “light” beers, with a unique and satisfying flavor. New Belgium Founder and tri-athlete Jeff Lebesch asked brewmaster Pater Bouckaert to formulate a beer that would quench his thirst after outdoor athletic endeavors – but have high-quality taste and body. Bouckaert responded with a bright blend of kaffir lime and sterling hops that makes Skinny Dip the full-bodied, figure friendly choice for the flavor-minded.

The result was a blazing success. In the summer of 2006, Skinny Dip sales grew 385% vs. prior year seasonal sales and positioned Skinny Dip as one of the top 15 craft brands in the entire U.S. (per IRI 13-week scans, 13-Aug-06), although it was distributed in only 15 states. Skinny Dip was one of the top three hottest craft brands in 13-Aug-06 IRI data, gaining 0.8 share within the blistering craft segment.

Skinny Dip is positioned to have another incredible year, as most markets placed orders early and for above-average stock

“Skinny Dip hit the mark in satisfying the need for a summertime beer that was low in calories but full of flavor,” said Bryan Simpson, spokesperson from New Belgium. “Last year we’re pleasantly surprised by its popularity and we’re looking forward to another great season.”

Making Hay While the Sun Shines

The second of BridgePort’s new seasonal series will be out shortly. From the description, it sounds like it may be a good candidate for Lew Bryson’s “Session Beer Project.” We’ll know more, of course, when the samples start arriving.

BridgePort Brewing Co. is encouraging beer lovers to “Make hay while the sun shines,” an adage meaning to take advantage of any good opportunity that comes along. There’s no better truism for BridgePort’s new summer seasonal, Haymaker Extra Pale Ale: Haymaker is an ideal beer with which to take full benefit of the long summer days. Haymaker will appear on shelves and on draft the first part of May.

A refreshing extra pale ale, Haymaker features a distinct blend of four malts and three varieties of hops that create a slightly complex ale with a light body and a crisp finish. Its alcohol by volume of 5.3% complements the low bitterness — 15 bittering units — and original gravity of 12.8 degrees Plato. Bright golden in color, it can best be described as “sunshine in a glass.”

“We were looking to expand our seasonal lineup, and an extra pale ale was the ideal choice,” explained head brewmaster Karl Ockert. “We couldn’t be more pleased with the resulting color and flavor profile of the beer.”

Like the other two products in the BridgePort seasonal series, Haymaker’s packaging is a divergence from the BridgePort brand family. The beer’s label and six-pack carrier focus on a whimsical red rooster with a fiery crown standing upon a weathervane, set against the backdrop of a round sun bursting forth with rays of light. The rooster is tossing back an outline of a pint, which is filled with the golden sunlight. The blue sky and hay-colored fields evoke the warmth and imagery of summertime.

Haymaker is the second seasonal in a three part series, following BridgePort’s popular Beertown Brown. Haymaker will be available May through August, followed by Ebenezer Ale. The beer will be distributed in eight Western states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Washington.

Two New Pelicans

The award-winning Pelican Pub & Brewery, along Oregon’s coast in Pacific City, is releasing two new beers, a saison and a Grand Cru. Both are now on tap at the brewpub and also available bottle-conditioned.

The first, Saison du Pelican, is described as “a spicy, herbal aroma from the special Belgian yeast and Golding hops, and a snappy, refreshing finish, Saison du Pelican combines traditional flavors with excellent drinkability.”

The second is the Grand Cru de Pelican.

Grand Cru de Pelican is the result of inspiration, creativity, and imagination. With a nod to the great brewing traditions of Belgium, we have been inspired to create this dark, sensous brew. Grand Cru de Pelican entices with a rich, complex aroma, and satisfies with deep malty and caramel flavors. Spicy, aromatic flavors provide a harmonious counterpoint to the malty foundation of this robust beer. A snappy finish and medium-light body enhance the smooth drinkability of this beer.

From the press release:

“We’ve really had fun thinking out of the box in creating these beers. They are unlike anything we have brewed before,” said Headbrewer Darron Welch.

The brewers brought in a special Belgian yeast for the production of the beers. Each beer also utilizes unique ingredients. The Saison du Pelican includes spelt, an ancient grain, adding texture and dryness to the finish. The Grand Cru de Pélican includes 115 pounds of hand caramelized sugar. It took Brewery Manager Ben Love two days to carmelize the sugar, 15 pounds at a time. The complex caramel flavors in the beer prove that all the work was well worth it.

Once the initial fermentation finished, the brewers added more sugar and then hand-bottled and corked the beers. Inside the bottle, a second fermentation occurred, adding complexity and natural carbonation in the beers.

These bottle conditioned beers are available in limited edition 750 ml bottles. The bottles will be available at the Pelican Pub & Brewery and at selected bottle shops in Oregon. Beer fans outside Oregon can have the beer shipped to them through Belmont Station or Liquid Solutions.

New Belgium Springs Springboard for Spring

New Belgium Brewing will be releasing their spring seasonal, Springboard, a unique beer made with oats, Mt. Hood hops, Schisandra (an ancient Chinese herb), Gogi berries, and wormwood. Then it’s blended with a small amount of one of New Belgium’s other beers aged in wood.

According to the press release, “Springboard opens with fruity berry-like tones, has a spirited, tart threshold and ends with a dry, crisp finale. It’s partially filtered, resulting in a cloudy blonde appearance, and moderate body. Springboard was created to satisfy our desire to introduce new flavors and produce a spring seasonal that is innovative and inspiring,” said Brewmaster Peter Bouckaert. “Springboard maintains an equilibrium that keeps it balanced and easy to enjoy.”

Springboard will be available on draft and in bottles from the end of February into April.