Last night the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club gathered once again, this time to celebrate Holiday Beers and Winter Warmers. Our host for the night was club member Rachel who is the only person to have attended EVERY club event. I can’t even claim that and I’m the organizer. Rachel’s condo was also the site of our very first meeting nearly a year ago. We had a record number on hand for the nearly sold-out event. As always great beer was tasted and great conversation was had.
The highlight of the evening was also the first beer we tasted; a bottle of 2007 Samuel Adams Utopias. For those who don’t know, Utopias is the gold standard of extreme beers. Made from a blend of several different beers aged in several kinds of wood and fermented to a whopping 27% ABV, Utopias is more like a spirit than a beer. It is un-carbonated and best served at room temperature in a snifter. I had tasted the 2007 previously, but it had been at least a year. The passage of time has served this beer well. Rich and warming with a complex blend of butterscotch, maple, sherry, and vanilla flavors, this was a real taste treat. Utopias was the nearly unanimous favorite for the night. Of course paying $12 for 1 ¼ ounces may have influenced people a bit.
From there we tasted our way through nine holiday beers from around the world, with examples from the United States, Great Britain, Denmark, Austria, Belgium, and Italy. We began in England with two very different examples of the classic British winter warmer, Samuel Smith Winter Welcome and St. Peter’s Winter Ale. Winter Welcome is the more traditional of the two, an excellent example of an English Old Ale. Falling somewhere between a strong bitter and a light English barleywine, this beer has beautiful caramel and toffee malt character with plenty of plum and citrus fruit to complement. While balance to the sweet side, there is enough hop bitterness and floral hop flavor to keep it light and drinkable. The St. Peter’s Winter Ale is a much darker brew, verging on a porter or brown ale. The malt has a nice nutty and biscuit character with a background of roast and deep dark fruits. Both were excellent beers, although the St. Peter’s suffered for having come after the Utopias.
Next we came back home with two classic American holiday beers, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale and Anchor’s Our Special Ale (A.K.A. Anchor Christmas Ale). To introduce the concept of holiday beers I explained to the group that it is a wide-ranging category. Whether spiced or simple, high or low gravity, a holiday beer is such because the brewer says it is. These two beers exemplify this concept. Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale is really nothing more than a great, hoppy, American IPA. While the hop flavor does emphasize the pine-resin notes of the American Cascade hops and the malt backbone is a bit heftier than some others, there is nothing specifically “Christmas” about this beer except the timing of its annual release and the holiday theme of the packaging. Anchor’s Christmas Ale on the other hand is the quintessential American holiday beer. A yearly tradition for nearly 35 years, the 2009 version is a dark and spicy beer with luscious fresh plum fruitiness underlying festive nutmeg and allspice flavor. One member said of this beer that it tasted just like the “old-time, traditional gingerbread” that he makes.
We straddled the Atlantic for the next beer, Van Twee, a collaboration between Belgian brewer De Proef and Bell’s Beer from Wisconsin. Van Twee is a mash-up of styles combining elements of a Belgian dubel and a porter, then adding fresh cherries and wild Brettanomyces yeast for a bit of barnyard funk. You can read my detailed tasting notes for this beer here. This brilliant brew inspired the quote of the night when one member stated, “This is like licking a cherry pony.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, but everyone seemed to agree…in a good way. Van Twee was one of the favorite beers of the night.
Next we had three very different examples of the Belgian strong dark style all brewed in different parts of the world, Nöel from Birreria Baladin in Italy, Klosterjul from Denmark’s Ølfabrikken, and St. Bernardus Christmas Ale from Brouwereij St. Bernardus in Belgium. Nöel is a straightforward example of the style with rich dark fruits, bready malt, and the characteristic cotton candy Belgian sugar and yeast flavors. The bottles we had exhibited slight papery oxidation, but not enough to ruin the beer. While Nöel is a good example of the style, it doesn’t really hold up to some of the better Belgian versions that are available. Klosterjul is a strongly spiced version of the style with pronounced anise flavors. Yeast-derived green banana notes detracted from my overall enjoyment of this beer, but it is still an interesting example that reminds me in some ways of a Gruit. The best of the Belgians was the St. Bernardus Christmas Ale. Built on a base of the St. Bernardus Abt 12, one of the best examples of the strong dark style, subtle spicing adds cinnamon and clove notes to the ample bready and dried dark fruit character to make this resemble bottled fruitcake. This is one of the best holiday beers out there and it was a big hit with the club.
We finished off the evening with what is perhaps the world’s foremost holiday beer, Samichlaus from Austrian Brauerei Schloss Eggenberg. Samichlaus is brewed one day a year on December 6th, St. Nicholas Day, and then aged for eleven months before bottling. It has been described as a doppelbock, but its 14% ABV puts it at nearly twice the strength of the typical beer of that style. However you wish to classify it, it is a world-class beer. Definitely a sipper, it is remarkably drinkable for its strength. Smooth, sweet, caramel and melanoidin malt is balanced by spicy noble hops and warming alcohol, with rich dark fruits and light chocolate notes forming a compelling undercurrent. While big and sweet, it still has the crisp, clean character of a lager. Samichlaus is a beautiful beer and a fitting capper for the official tasting part of the evening.
After the official tasting, we entered the usual “free-for-all” portion of the club meeting. I want to give a shout out to Flat Earth Brewing. Club member Cory brought a growler of Grand Design, the S’more infused version of their Cygnus-X1 porter. It made for a tasty desert. Huge marshmallow aroma was a teaser for the chocolate, graham cracker, and vanilla flavor explosion that filled each sip. I have never liked S’mores. This beer might lead me to reconsider.
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