Wednesday, December 23, 2009

On the ninth day of Christmas...

Stoudt's Brewing Company brought to me: a 12 oz. bottle of Stoudt's Winter Ale, a 6.2% abv. red ale.

Well, we're getting down to the nitty gritty. One six-pack has already been torn through, and the second one's numbers are dwindling. We've traveled to San Francisco and the fields of Belgium, stopped in the Philly suburbs and even made it to Kalamazoo and back, all the while testing my palette in ways both good and bad.

And it's time for a break. Well, a semi-break. I've maxed out my ability to write flowery, saliva-inducing reviews, so today I'll leave you simply with this: drank beer with some old friends, enjoyed said beer but the the company even more.

Now if you'll excuse me I have to go get the pole -- always aluminum, high strength-to-weight ratio-- out of the crawl space.

Monday, December 21, 2009

On the eight day of Christmas...

Anchor Brewery brought to me: a stubby 12 oz. bottle of Our Special Ale 2009, a classic 5.5% abv. winter warmer.

Each year, every beer drinker has a few seasonals on their must-try list. Last year's might have tasted like a mix of dirty bath water and Red Hots, but dammit [insert brewery here] will redeem themselves this time with something delicious. More often than not, the second time around is no better than the first. I still regret that second bottle of Harpoon Winter Warmer, even more noxious than the first if that's possible. Then there are those beers that are just plain good, year in and year out -- nothing spectacular, nothing earth-shattering enough to send the beer geekdom into a rage. Just good.

Our Special Ale, no matter the year, is one of those for me, as is Sierra's Celebration Ale. Instead of reviewing them both, I'll just leave it at this: I've already enjoyed a few Celebrations this year.

Pours a deep brown with touches of red sneaking through when it's held to light. A couple fingers of off-white head sit on top, lingering around for a while. This beer smells like Christmas: handfuls of cloves and a dusting of fresh nutmeg stirred into whole wheat bread dough tinged with molasses, vanilla and red fruits. As it warms I pick up a little more pine than at first. Sweet up front, not nearly as spiced as the nose with a nice balance of malty richness and an earthy, piney bitterness offered by the hops. Flavors are really subdued, with nothing jumping out of the glass at me. Sips nicely, with a light-medium body and solid carbonation, just enough to cut through some of the early sweetness. Paired beautifully with a handful of cayenne-cinnamon candied walnuts and almonds.

This is what I want in a winter warmer. Enough spice to let me know it's Christmas, but with something in the background so I don't feel like I'm sucking on a cinnamon stick.

Only four more left! Lurkers -- I know there are a few out there, buy some beer and give me a little help. I don't know if I can hold out on my own.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

On the seventh day of Christmas...

Brasserie Des Geants brought to me: an 11.2 oz. bottle of Noel Des Geants, termed an herbed/spiced beer by the folks at Beer Advocate and tipping the scales at 8.50% abv.

I've been in a celebratory mood all day. Last night Penn State women's volleyball team extended its winning streak to an unthinkable 102 matches and in the process hoisted its third consecutive national championship -- this after falling behind Texas 2-0. Then the Steelers rallied, faded, and rallied again to keep their slim playoff hopes alive this afternoon with a last second touchdown pass from Big Ben to 60 Minutes' anchor-cum-Steelers' wideout Mike Wallace. Phew, what a win... too bad it brings their record to 7-7, again still a long shot for the last AFC Wildcard slot.

Where were we? Right, celebration. Somehow I need to tie all this sports talk back to beer, which brings me to today's brew, Noel Des Geants. When I think Belgians, I think occasions. Sure I like to incorporate them into the usual rotation every now and again, though I'm inclined to support small(ish) breweries and buy American. But when there's something to celebrate, the aura surrounding these historic breweries (Brasserie Des Geants is housed in a castle dating to the 13th century) draws me in their direction. Today fits the bill. Not only are we toasting the ladies of Penn State and the Steelers, but we're marking the start of the second half of the journey through the land of Christmas beer.

Pours a cloudy caramel amber, bordering on brown, with a finger of fluffy white head with really solid retention. Lots of spice on the nose, heavy on the cloves, with a good dose of red fruit and some molasses lingering in the background. Quite sweet to start, in a cinnamon cookie sort of way. The spices definitely play nicely with the underlying malts kissed with caramel sweetness. A touch of fruit creeps up in the mid palate, followed by a warming feel from the alcohol. Finish is a tad bitter, but not overwhelmingly so. In my mind, a quintessential winter seasonal. This has a good bit going on, but for the level of alcohol, is scarily drinkable. Complex, but easy and enjoyable enough to drink -- what more can one ask for in a beer?

Well, this was the most expensive of the 12 pack, so I could nitpick and say I want this stuff at Natty prices. But I won't.

Note: Seven beers down, and five to go. Nothing has jumped out at me as a real 'wow' beer, but I haven't been terribly, terribly shocked or disappointed, either. I think this exercise is revealing a lot about the breadth of beers available on the winter seasonal spectrum.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

On the sixth day of Christmas...

Bell's Brewery brought to me: a 12 oz. bottle of Bell's Special Double Cream Stout, a 6.1% abv. milk stout, according to the fine folks at Beer Advocate.

It's snowing. Hard. I awoke this morning to a few inches, and the pace hasn't altered much, leaving the Northeast blanketed with 12-plus inches of the fluffy white stuff. Needless to say I haven't left the apartment once today, and after a hearty meal of steak and potatoes (pan seared ribeye with dijon roasted potatoes) I needed a hearty beer. Something about this kind of weather brings out some sort of uber-masculinity in me that can only be sated with big hunks of meat and a rich, dark stout. Twice in one week it's happened, though I'm not complaining.

Pours ink black with a finger of tan head that sticks around for the duration and leaves some nice lacing. A little coffee creeps out of the glass, but overall the aroma is pretty muted with some roastiness/biscuit becoming apparent on second whiff. A sip leaves me thinking much the same thing: nothing offensive in here, but nothing all that impressive either. Some caramel/toffee sweetness hits first, followed by some smoky malt notes and a touch of chocolate. There's a lingering bitterness, bordering on soapiness, that I'm not all too fond of. That finish does make it easy to go back in for another sip though, if only to erase its remnants, and I made short work of the glass.

This beer looks great, but I can't help but being underwhelmed. The flavors are there. They just aren't reaching their full potential. Six down, six to go!

Friday, December 18, 2009

On the fifth day of Christmas...

Boulder Beer Company brought to me: a 12 oz. bottle of Never Summer Ale, a 5.94% winter warmer from Boulder Beer Company in Colorado.

For the second straight day, I struggled to decide which of the eight remaining beers to gift to myself. Instead of contracting out the job as I did yesterday, I reached blindly into the fridge and out came a chilly bottle of Never Summer Ale. Fair enough, I'll give it a shot. I remember trying Boulder's Hazed & Infused a while back, and to be honest, I can't remember if I liked it or not. I probably did; that's usually the case with beer. All right, enough with the pleasantries -- on with the tasting.

Pours a nice coppery brown, capped with a finger off fluffy off-white head that disappeared quickly but clung heartily to the the sides of the glass. Smell doesn't give any hints of this being a winter warmer. There's a faint floral hop aroma -- not getting much else. There's a touch of caramel sweetness up front, followed by a burst of grapefruit bitterness backed up with notes of roasted malt, toffee and biscuits that I can't quite pinpoint and I don't much like. Some bitterness lingers, led off by a slightly off metallic flavor. This would be pretty drinkable stuff were it not for the finish.

Is this really a winter warmer? In the sense that I expected some spice, something evocative of the season, I'd say no, probably not. But the style is pretty indiscernible. Tasting vaguely of gingerbread does not a winter warmer make, I suppose. That said, this isn't a bad beer. It's reminiscent of many regular old ales I've had and deemed quite worthy. Just goes to show that labeling affects one's tasting mindset.