In 1990, I attended a Christmas beer tasting at the then exotic Sisson's Brewpub in Baltimore, Maryland. Host and brewer/owner Hugh Sisson talked to us about the nearly-forgotten tradition of breweries rewarding employees and, maybe, good customers, Fezziwig-like, with one-off, stronger (or spiced) beers to celebrate the Christmas holiday.
Oh yes, of course, there were Christmas beers and winter warmers available in those erstwhile years. (This isn't' one of those hoary 'back in my day' rants.) But the spigot of choice was a rivulet compared to today's gusher. To name a few from then: Anchor Our Special Ale (which resuscitated, in the U.S., a tradition of sweetly-spiced beers for the winter months), Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, Swiss Hürlimann's Samichlaus, England's Samuel Smith Winter Welcome, and, in the mid-Atlantic: Wild Goose Snow Goose, draft-only British Brewing/Oxford Brewing Santa Class, and Sisson's own spiced beer, Prancer's Pride. Some of these, Sisson would pour that night, while also demonstrating the older-style brewery lagniappe, by pouring a winter beer from ... Coors.
My, how times have changed!
Twenty-three years later, in her year-end state of craft beer wrap-up of 2013, Julia Herz —of the Brewers Association— notes that there are now 2,700 breweries in the United States. It could be safe to assume that each one brewed its own winter beer. That would be 2,700 different winter beers this year, within the U.S. alone.
What a feat it would be to honestly appraise all of them and declare one supreme. Every year about this time, such Sisyphean attempts do occur. Best-of listicles bloom like weeds, and not just of the best winter beers of the season, but of the best among ALL beers brewed ANYWHERE during the preceding year. That's an endeavor, not only superhuman (Bibendum, the new X-man?), but logistically prejudiced toward production breweries over brewpubs. Pete Brown, author of several books on beer (Shakespeare's Pub: the, err, best beer book of 2013?), refers to this solipcistic exercise as beery navel-gazing.
On this last day of 2013, I'm not staring a-midsection. Not a conversation-starter. Rather, I'm appreciating one particular beer and its delicious progression to now.
By December 1995, Hugh Sisson had sold his stake in his family's brewpub, and opened the Clipper City Brewing Company on the southern outskirts of Baltimore, Maryland. That timing would allow his first seasonal beer to be a Christmas gift: Winter Reserve, which he brewed loosely in the Anglo winter warmer tradition but with an American 'craft' beer (a term not as over-used back then) flavor.
The beer's destiny was not to be limited to a brief solitary appearance. The ruddy-hued ale would be brewed every Christmas season thereafter, its recipe albeit evolving, but always recognizable. Sisson has since re-branded his brewery as the Heavy Seas Brewing Company, and the beer as Winter Storm Category 5 Ale. (The beer-style designation might be too cute of a pun, perplexing the Weather Channel-deprived: "What's a 'category five', Hugh?")
Here's the brewery's own description:
Our winter ale draws on hops from the West Coast and the UK for its pronounced bitterness. A mix of pale and darker malts give it its tawny color and its bigger body. True to the style, Winter Storm’s aroma is nutty malts and earthy hops. This is a perfect fall beer, especially because of its warming qualities.
Style: Imperial Extra Special Bitter (ESB)
Hops: Warrior, UK Goldings, UK Fuggles, Cascade, Centennial
Malts: 2-row, Crystal, Caramalt, Chocolate Malt
Now, a disclaimer. I work for a beer and wine wholesaler in northern Virginia that distributes Heavy Seas' beers. And, prior to that, I had worked for the brewery itself. So, maybe a reader should take everything from this point on with a barleycorn of salt, or some such skepticism.
In the mid-aughts, one could find reviewers on RateBeer and BeerAdvocate criticizing Winter Storm for a lack of hops necessary in a 'double IPA'. Of course, the brewery had never made a claim of the beer being a 'double' or 'Imperial' anything. To counter this, Sisson began to suggest, at public appearances, beer dinners, and the like, that his beer wasn't a double or Imperial IPA at all, but rather ... an Imperial ESB. The experiment worked, only too well. Reviewers would begin to protest that the beer —the exact same beer— was too hoppy to be an Imperial ESB. The fanciful designation had become an accepted style.
"But, how does the beer taste?", a wizened brewmaster might ask, weary of all this preamble. I would quickly reply: the 2013 iteration of Winter Storm might be the best ever for this beer, under whatever name.
The 2013 Winter Storm is unlike some 'double' beers that suffer crises of identity, their big, gloppy, malt sweetness chased by acerbic bitterness, confused by a yin-yangy riot. It manages to be at once flavor-full yet dry in sensibility (that's non-sweet, in non-jargon). "More-ish," the late, great beer-writer Michael Jackson would call this character.
Look at the beer. Auburn-hued, with a beige-tinted white collar head of foam. Now, take a good whiff. There is, indeed, much American citrusy hop aroma to be found, de riguer nowadays ... but, there!, smirking in the background, you'll discover some English hops too —earthy, buttery, and truffle-ly. Take a good sip: you'll taste plenty of high-kilned caramel/crystal malt, but also a hearty slug of, what appears to be (but isn't), dark unsweetened chocolate. The whole thing finishes in full-flavored fettle, but, again I emphasize, well-attenuatedly dry, in a warming 7.5% alcohol-by-volume package. As when old painting masterpieces have been found, under modern x-ray inspection, to have been improved upon several times by the artist, so too past years' Winter Storms appear to have been re-worked to become this year's spot-on confection. No spices, no doo-dads, no frou-frou. Just a good, dark-amber malt-forward, hop-infused winter ale. A Category 5, if you will.
As in these things, the closer to a brewery's fermenter, the fresher, the better. The Winter Storm in bottles was wonderful; indeed, this encomium was written after tasting one. But, in kegs, the beer was more so; think of the difference as an etched brilliance. Casks might have been more brilliant still, but, aargh, none were shipped to northern Virginia.
You won't find this beer on many best-of lists. The brewery isn't a sexy new-thing; the beer isn't hipster-cool. So, what? Consider this best-it's-ever-been Winter Storm Category 5 Ale as a Christmas 2013 gift to us from Mr. Sisson and his Heavy Seas brewing team, and, as well, a 'Do Widzenia' to us from Joseph Marunowski, the brewery's recently departed Director of Operations.
No champagne bubbles, tonight. I'll be toasting the incoming year with my final bottle of the 2013 Winter Storm. It's been 18 years to get to this. It'll be another 10 months before you or I can taste the 2014 edition.