’tis the Season for Local Beers (with an update)
Beers really should be seasonal treats. There’s a reason most of the mainstream BudMilCoors products are called “lawnmower beers.” They’re light, rather flavorless drinks, but can be marginally refreshing on a hot afternoon, if water isn’t readily available. But they rarely have any flavors (despite football ads to the contrary) that you’d like to sip and contemplate.
Lately, though, we’ve turned to the season where all the landscaping firms are attaching snow plows to the front of their pickup trucks, and families are starting to think about how nice it would be to burn a few logs in the fireplace (high-rise denizens … sorry about the lack of real fireplaces).
It’s a time to sip, and a time to contemplate everything the season represents. So, by definition then, it’s a time for winter beers.
What is a winter beer? One easy definition is that it’s anything that has “Winter” or “Christmas” on the label. But typically, they’re darker beers, usually with a higher alcohol content than lawnmower beers – say, 6.0% ABV or higher. (The alcohol content is part of the reason these beers are often called “Winter Warmers.”) And if “Christmas” is in the name, or hinted on the label, the beer may be flavored with some of the same herbs and spices that might also be used for a mulled wine.
Is it just a gimmick to sell some different beers during the cooler months? Maybe, but it does have a historical precedent.
“In New York, and also in some other of the middle colonies, it was customary before the revolution, to have brewed a sufficient time before the holyday season to give it due age and strength, a large quantity of what they called “right strong Christmas beer,” so says The United States Democratic Review, Volume 3 , Making of America Project 1854.
And perhaps the tradition is even older. The holiday tune “Here We Come A-Wassailing” refers to hard cider with spices and herbs. But possibly even prior to that, ”Good King Wenceslas” in the 13th century restricted hops sales outside Bohemia, so brewers found all sorts of other herbs and spices to flavor their beers. (And, of course, beer was a drink of choice then, since, being boiled, it didn’t have the bacterial load that “fresh” water had in those days.) It’s unclear, but Wassail may have referred to beers then, too. (Thanks, beerhistory.com.)
Whatever the history, it’s a trend the craft brew industry has fervently embraced. So, strictly as a public service to you, dear readers, I forced myself to sample a random number of local or regional winter or Christmas beers. A few notes:
Chicago’s Goose Island’s 2011 Christmas Ale – a brown ale – doesn’t seem to be spiced much, but has a tan, short-lived head, and rich caramel flavors with a big mouth feel. It comes in at 6.2% ABV. According to the bottle, it’s ageable up to five years (which Goose typically puts on its better beers, but many may benefit from even further aging, as I noted here). In the eloquent evaluation of a friend, “Hey, this stuff is pretty good.”
Goose Island 2009 Christmas Ale – “dreams of Christmas past” – is still available at selected stores. It definitely demonstrates the value of cellaring a beer for a couple of years, with its rounded, rich, roasty flavors and light tan, long-lasting head. Goose tweaks its Christmas ale recipe every year, so anyone with four or consecutive five years of Goose Island Christmas Ales should contact firstname.lastname@example.org immediately.
As good as those are, possibly the best of the area’s winter beers is – not surprisingly – from Munster Indiana’s Three Floyds. Alpha Klaus, described as a seasonal relative of its signature Alpha King, is an Imperial Porter, redolent with American hops, a light brown, long-lasting fine-beaded head, and a roasty finish that might last all night long, or at least until a Mr. Claus falls down the chimney. As a big, dark beer, at 7.5% ABV, it’s no wonder that Ratebeer gives it the rare rating of 100 out of 100 points.
On the other end of the scale, Kalamazoo, Michigan-area’s Bell’s Winter White Ale is a winter ale in a Belgian witbier style. That is, it’s a bit hazy, full of citrus and banana aromas, and relatively light and refreshing at 5% ABV. Worth checking out.
But not all winter beers as impressive as these. For instance, Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin’s Leinenkugel’s Fireside Nut Brown (“Beer with natural flavor”), now from MillerCoors’ Tenth and Blake subsidiary, has, to its credit, a dark, prune-y flavor, roast burnt aroma, but at 4.9% ABV it’s not enough to support the additional thin, flat, hazelnut character. They’re playing it safe.
Also, as they say, “beyond the Cheddar curtain,” Hinterland Winterland is a porter brewed with a subtle touch of juniper berries. A nice, dark beer without too much spicing (after all, it’s beer, not gin). It’s brewed right across the street from Lambeau Field, so this could well be the beer for fair weather fans who want to jump on the bandwagon of a football team that’s having a particularly good year. (As a life-long Cubs fan, I’m used to struggling through difficult times. I’ll struggle though this year’s Bears season, too.)
A few others … Local Beet fave Metropolitan had a holiday-spiced version of its Dynamo Copper Lager at Michael Diversey’s (670 W. Diversey, Chicago); there might be a bit of it left there, or possibly at other premium beer bars around town.
And, December 16 will see the release of Chicago’s Half Acre’s Big Hugs Imperial Stout. If you can wait in line at their Lincoln Avenue store (4257 North Lincoln Avenue Chicago), do it, otherwise visit the Blind Robin (853 N. Western Ave., Chicago, for its initial pouring on draft.
Let me know how many local seasonal beers I’ve missed.
UPDATE: Big Hugs Imperial Stout has been a big hit. In three days, over 75 ratings have come into Ratebeer, and raters are using language like “Tasted like crazy layers of citrus and spice, dates, fruits, chocolate of course, coffee, roasted perfectly,” “Deep roasty aroma with hints of coffee/espresso bean, silky chocolate malt, molasses, caramel, toffee and hazelnut. I’m also picking up some slight lactic cream, burnt toast and subtle hops, “ and “Overall, this is an intense coffee experience that only becomes thicker and more coffee-like as it warms. An amazing beer, I’m starting to become a big fan of Half Acre…” It’s received a rare rating of 98 out of 100.
I’m also increasingly impressed with what Half Acre is turning out.