Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bah, humbug: Winter Beer

Just as magazine issues are released weeks before their printed issue date, seasonal craft beers are often brewed well before their 'season'.

Calendar winter begins on 21 December. Winter beers can appear in early October. On the very day after Christmas, they are undesired by beer shop owners.

Don Russell's Christmas Beer
In a December beer column in the Washington Post, Greg Kitsock reviewed a new book about Christmas beers, written by Don Russell, who is the Joe Sixpack of the Philadephia Daily News.

The common denominator of Christmas beers is that they have no common denominator. <...> Generosity is a hallmark of the season, and many breweries add a little bit more of what they use during the rest of the beer.

Christmas Beer: The Cheeriest, Tastiest, and Most Unusual Holiday Brews
(Universe Publishing, 2008)

But in reading through the consumer reviews of winter beers (or Christmas beers or 'holiday' beers) on sites such as Beer Advocate, one can find comments such as this one:
Unlike most winter seasonals, this beer is very hoppy with no spiciness. While I'm a hop head by nature, the lack of spice and malt flavor and the overwhelming hoppiness leave me underwhelmed.

To these style Scrooges, I say: Bah, humbug!

Winter beers are celebrations of the season. They can be big, they can be malty, or they can be hoppy, or they can be spiced. Or maybe not. They are not an ordained style.


Early in December, Washington DC's Brickskeller hosted its annual Winter Holidaze Extravaganzee, a two-evening tasting of local winter beers.

Emcee Bob Tupper noted a change in style among local winter beers.

Five years ago, most would be spiced, à la Anchor's Our Special Ale. Now, he observed, even if spiced, they are much more likely to be Belgian in character: strong, dark, and yeasty-fruity.

Four of the attending brewers had brewed their beers all with the same yeast, reputedly the same strain as used by the Trappist monks at Westmalle in Belgium. It was fascinating to taste the differences and similarities. The four were:
  • Dubbel from Capital City Brewing, Shirlington (Brewer Mike McCarthy)
  • Tripel from Capital City Brewing, Capitol Hill (Brewer Ryan Curley)
  • Dubbel from District Chop House (Brewer Barrett Lauer)
  • Anniversary Ale (Trouble) from Rock Bottom Brewery, Bethesda (Brewer Grant Carson)
All four were brewed with remarkable restraint, the exuberance of strong Abbey-style ales balanced with repeat-drinkability.

A special treat was the 5 Apostles Saison brewed by Jason Oliver.

McCarthy and Oliver

Mike McCarthy of Capitol City Brewing (l); Jason Oliver of Devil's Backbone (r)
Greg Kitsock of Washington Post (back to camera)

For several years, Jason Oliver has been the executive brewer for the DC area Gordon-Biersch brewpubs. But he has since moved 3 hours south to the Wintergreen resort area of Virginia and opened the Devil's Backbone Brewpub.

The name of his saison derives from nearby moutain peaks of the Blue Ridge. Jason pointed out that the Appalachian Trail is on the ridge just above the brewery.

Other local beers poured that evening were:
  • Gordon-Biersch Winterbock (Brewers Ben Matz and Mike Grossman)
  • Old Dominion Baltic Porter (Brewers Favio Garcia and Jesse Brenneman)
  • Clipper City's Winter Storm Hop3 Ale, served from a cask (Owner Hugh Sisson)
Brickskeller owners Dave and Dianne Alexander then treated us to three additional beers.
  • Wyerbacher Wit
  • Southern Tier Old Man Winter
  • Sam Adams Chocolate Bock
By this point, Jason Oliver, feeling the winter cheer, happily announced:
It wouldn't feel like Christmas without tasting beers here with Bob and Ellie Tupper at the Brickskeller [a 25 year tradition].

Winter continues until the vernal equinox on 20 March 2009. You'll have the time to enjoy these beers of winter.
  • More photos here.
  • Read a review of the Wednesday tasting, featuring beers from other local breweries, written at blog DC Beer.
  • A different tasting of many other Christmas/winter beers described here.

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