Saturday, November 15, 2008

Embargoed 'til December: winter beer tasting

Swirl, examine, sniff, taste, and ... spit. Repeat.

The Wine Source —a Baltimore, Md. wine and beer store in the Hampden neighborhood— has been organizing Christmas/winter beer tastings for several years. Early in December, Baltimore Sun columnist Rob Kasper publishes the results.

On a recent dreary, rainy, November Wednesday afternoon, twelve folk gathered in a cozy back tasting room at The Wine Source and sat down to taste sixty seasonal bottled beers in ninety minutes.

That's right: 60 beers! A flight of 15 Belgian beers, followed by a flight of 35 US beers, and finishing with 10 English beers.

Beer Tasting Panel

The dozen members of the courageous (or foolhardy) troupe were:
  • Rob Kasper, columnist for the Baltimore Sun
  • Robert Blau, past Managing Editor for the Baltimore Sun
  • Hugh Sisson of Clipper City Brewing
  • Volker Stewart of The Brewers' Art
  • Al Spoler of WYPR-FM
  • Kevin and Mary Zajac, local journalists
  • Tim Hillman, Wine Source manager
  • Bryson Dudley of Wine Source
  • Brian Leonard of Wine Source
  • Jed Jenney of Wine Source
  • me
Wine Source manager Tim Hillman uncapped (or uncorked) the bottles and wrapped them all in brown paper, identifying them only with a number.

And then the session became a real 'power' tasting. We swirled, examined, sniffed, tasted, and spit. To expedite expectoration, Tim had placed several dump buckets on the table.

I would have preferred to have had the beers split into several flights divided among the tasters. As it was, there was little time for contemplation or reflection.

But the pell-mell pace did have two benefits. It forced each of us to be precise and concise. And it was enjoyable ... in a masochistic way.

Brown Paper Bag

Here is the list of beers we sampled:

Geants, St. Feuillien, Thiriez Biere de Noel, Blaugies La Moneuse, Dupont Les Bon Voeux, Klein Dumpje Kerstbier, De Ranke Pere Noel, Goudon Carolus, Delirium Noel, De Le Senne Zinnebir, DeProeuf Kerstmutske, St. Bernardus, Kerkom Winterkoninske, Scaldis Noel, Corsendonk Noel.

Brooklyn Winter, Smuttynose Winter, River Horse Belgian Freeze, Redhook Winterhook, Sam Adams Winter Lager, Abita X-mas Ale, Flying Dog K-9 Cruiser, Geary's Winter, Leinenkugel Fireside Brown, Blue Moon Full Moon, Saranac Seasons Best, Weyerbacher Winter, Wild Goose Snow Goose, Clay Pipe Winter Warmer, Lancaster Winter Warmer, Budweiser Winter Bourbon Cask, Anderson Valley Winter Solstice, Allagash Grand Cru, Anchor Our Special Ale, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, Harpoon Winter Warmer, Fordham Scotch Ale, Rogue Santa's Private Reserve, Avery Jubilation, Southern Tier Old Man Winter, Great Divide Hibernation, Otter Creek Raspberry Porter, Troegs Mad Elf, Magic Hat Roxy Rolles, Clipper City Winter Storm, Mendocino Imperial IPA, Victory Hop Wallop, He'Brew Jewbilation, Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout.

Ridgeway Bad Elf, Ridgeway Very Bad Elf, Ridgeway Seriously Bad Elf, Ridgeway Criminally Bad Elf, Ridgeway Santa's Butt, Samuel Smith Winter Welcome, St. Peter's Winter Ale, RCH Ale Mary, Ridgeway Lump of Coal.

Among the Belgians, I liked the barnyardy funk of what turned out be the 9.5 % alcohol Avecs Les Bon Voeux from Dupont, and the hops and restrained lemony sourness of the Thiriez Biere de Noel. (And two more that were also selected by my fellow tasters.)

In the American flight, I liked the good use of bittering hops and caramel malt in what turned out to be Wild Goose Snow Goose; the honeyed herbal hops of the Geary's Winter Ale; the acidity and spiciness of the Allagash Grand Cru; and the hearty interplay between dark malt and ginger in the Anchor Our Special Ale.

Of the English winter ales (of which 7 of the 10 were from the same brewery), I liked the notes of raisins, coffee, and baker's chocolate in what turned out to be Ridgeway's Santa Butt; I liked the cardamom and nutmeg spices in Ale Mary from RCH.

But among my selections, only two were also favored by my fellow judge-mates. De gustibus non est disputandum.

So, what were the choices of the majority (including the two Belgian beers we agreed upon)?

Sorry, but that's embargoed until Rob Kasper writes his Winter Beers article in early December. I'll link to it here. [UPDATE 2008.11.26: Rob has published his article -- Holiday Beers: Something to celebrate]

Caveat: I work for a distributor that sells Allagash beers.


  1. Two points...

    You spit, for shame.

    The flight was too large by far. Anything over 15 or so beers is far too much for accurate tasting.

    As a certified judge it sounds like a poorly run event in terms of design. Spitting really? It won't hit all your tastebuds. Second the flight size is unfair to the beers and your taste buds.

    I am glad you had a good time, but I don't know I'd trust the results of a tasting panel ran that way.

    Thomas of Geistbearbrewing

  2. I liked the conviviality, and the seriousness, of the planned event. I noticed a Mendocino IPA; their beers run heavy on the oak for my taste, the White Heron and the Red Tail are two which they produce with less of that added flavor, the latter substantially heavier than the former.

    I visited your site trying to help a small winery where I worked a long time ago, find a name for a winter solstice barrel tasting which they traditionally held. I recalled one of their cellar workers was a beer buff who had great acclaim for winter beers. I am still looking for the nametag for their yearly family celebration in the dark of winter, but was happy to see the cheer of your internet site during this search.
    John Lopresti


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