Sometimes you get a beer that you really want to pay attention to. You want to dig into its nooks and crannies to seek out whatever might be lurking there. But that sort of attention takes time and often that time isn’t available. With most bottles that’s okay. I’ll open one in the morning, cure taste my sample, and then dump most of it down the drain. It’s just beer, right? But the kind of bottle I’m talking about is one that you anticipate wanting to finish. I’m not going to pop a 750ml of 10-percent alcohol beer in the morning. I have work to get done through the day. It won’t happen if I do that. And so, these bottles often sit in my refrigerator longer than I might like, waiting for that rarest occurrences, a free evening.
Such was the case with Surly Nein. The ninth anniversary ale from Surly Brewing Company is said to have been inspired by a trip to Bamberg, Germany, home of smoked beer. It’s described as an imperial smoked dunkelweizen. I love smoke. I love dunkelweizen. Imperial is often, but not always good. And did I mention wood-aging? I was at the very least intrigued. I wanted to give it the attention that I hoped it deserved. And so it waited several days until I had the opportunity. That day finally came.
Aroma: Smoke and dark fruits. Belgian-like. Low caramel and toast. Cherries, plums, low high note of lemon. Floral alcohol.
Appearance: Full, creamy, tan head with excellent retention. Dark mahogany, nearly black. Appears clear.
Flavor: Malt and yeast driven. Caramel that lingers into the finish. Dark cherries, plums, raisins, dates. Background of smoke that seems to get stronger through the glass. Low note of chocolate. Very low bitterness. Alcohol is apparent. Vanilla. Finish is semi-sweet with lingering caramel, vanilla, and dark fruits.
Mouthfeel: Full body. Creamy and smooth. Medium-high carbonation. Warming.
Overall Impression: So much fruit. The rich, dark malts and the strength of the beer coaxes a Belgian flair from the German hefeweizen yeast – lots of dark fruits and less banana and clove. The alcohol is a touch high, but that should smooth out with a little bit of time. It’s not a deal breaker. I love the lingering caramel. This is what I might expect from blending a smoky scotch ale with a Belgian dark ale. Yummy.
My relationship with pumpkin beers has been one of ups and downs. As I was first getting into beer, generic I really loved them. I bought and drank them a lot. I tried fairly unsuccessfully to make a couple of them at home. Talk about a stuck mash! As time went on, my feelings changed. Pumpkin beers and I just grew apart. There was too much spice and too much squash. But now, things seem to have come full circle. The flame has been rekindled.
I’ve been writing a lot lately about pumpkin beers. My Star Tribune column published today with a rundown of a few good ones. The style profile in the current issue off The Growler is all about the beer de gourd as well.
If I’ve been writing a lot about pumpkin beers, that means I’ve been drinking a lot of them as well. I’ve sampled a lot of them in the last couple of weeks. Drinking so many in such a short time has reminded me just what it was that I used to love about them.
What follows here are my raw, unedited tasting notes for a few of the beers I tried.
Pumpkin Patch Ale Rogue Ales, Newport, Oregon
Style: Pumpkin Ale
Serving Style: 750ml bottle
Aroma: Balance of malt and spice. Malt is graham cracker and caramel. Spices are allspice, ginger, and cinnamon. Maybe slightly spice forward. No hops.
Appearance: Medium amber/copper and brilliant. Moderate, mixed bubble foam. Off white. Good retention.
Flavor: Malt and spice in approximate balance. Malt is graham cracker and caramel with light toasted biscuit. Sweetness is low. Spices are ginger, nutmeg. Low clove or allspice. Bitterness is medium-low. Cuts the sweetness. Low fruity esters – orange. Finish is just off dry with lingering orange, graham cracker and spice.
Mouthfeel: Medium body. Medium carbonation. Low warming.
Overall Impression: Good malt/spice balance, but spices do take the lead. Much more and it would be too much. Pleasant enough, but somehow lacking that essential interest factor.
Pumpkick New Belgium Brewing Company, Fort Collins, Colorado
Style: Pumpkin Ale
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
Aroma: Melanoidin malt and spice. Subtle fruity notes. Malt is most prominent. Light caramel, melanoidin and low biscuit. Spices ginger and cinnamon. Orange peel fruitiness. Like a potpourri.
Flavor: Same potpourri effect from aroma. Fruit is very prominent. Orange peel, lemony citrus. Light floral notes. Cinnamon and nutmeg spice melds with the fruit. Malt is subtle – low caramel and graham cracker. Emphasis is on fruit and spice. Like mulled cider – slight acidic character. Lemony, lactic acid. Finish lingers on that acidity. Not dry, not sweet. Orange and lemon fruit carries over along with cinnamon spice.
Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Medium carbonation. Not warming.
Overall Impression: interesting sour take on the style. Very much like mulled cider – almost not beer like. Once I wrapped my head around that, the potpourri character didn’t bother me so much. I wish there was a touch more caramel to give a kind of caramel apple effect. Nice for a different approach, but I wouldn’t drink too much of it.
Alaskan Pumpkin Ale Alaskan Brewing Company, Juneau, Alaska
Style: Pumpkin Ale
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
Aroma: Balance to spices with supporting malt. Ginger, nutmeg and allspice. Moderate level. Low cinnamon. Underlying malt is graham cracker and nutty. Low perception of sweetness. No hops.
Appearance: Light amber and clear. Full, creamy, ivory head with good retention.
Flavor: Spices lead. Cinnamon, ginger and allspice. Malt is low – with caramel and graham cracker character. Just supports spices. Moderate orangey esters bring a high note. Bitterness is medium-low. Not hop flavor. Finish is dry with lingering orange and ginger.
Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Medium carbonation. No warming. Not creamy.
Overall Impression: Nice balance of malt and spices, but spices are just a touch too much for me. Pleasant, but would only have one. Good pumpkin-pie character.
Wick for Brains Pumpkin Ale Nebraska Brewing Company, Papillion, Nebraska
Style: Pumpkin Ale
Serving Style: 12 oz. can
Aroma: Malt and spices in balance with brightening hop presence. Spices take a slight lead – allspice and ginger. Malt is lighter than many pumpkin beers – caramel, honey, low cereal graininess. Low perception of sweetness. Background of bright, citrus hops. Low fruity esters.
Appearance: Full, creamy, off-white head with good retention. Dark gold/orange and brilliant.
Flavor: Malt and spices in balance. Malt has caramel and grainy graham-cracker. Moderate perception of sweetness. Spices balance – allspice, ginger. Low notes of honey and some low red apple ester. Hop bitterness is low, but present – bolstered by spices. Finish is off-dry with lingering spices and caramel malt.
Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Medium carbonation. Low warming. Low creaminess. Not astringent.
Overall Impression: Lightest overall in this sampling. A bit “meh.” I like that spices don’t overwhelm. Most prominent “pumpkin” presence of all of them.
True story. A few days ago I had a dream about a new Minnesota brewery that made only German altbier. They made multiple varieties of altbier, cheap most of which I had not even known existed. I was personally excited by this. I love altbier. But I remember telling the owner that his business plan seemed ill advised. Altbier is kind of an obscure style here in the US. And American consumers expect that breweries will make beers in a range of styles, prostate unless the style that they make is overloaded with hops. In which case they can make as many variations of the same style as they want.
The notion of an all-altbier brewery did indeed seem strange in my dream. Yet, if you go to Düsseldorf, Germany, you will find not just one, but many breweries making nothing but altbier. It’s a whole city of altbier brewers.
“Altbier” in German means “old beer.” The term refers not to the age of the beer, but to the mode of production. Germans started making lager beers as early as the 1400s. Bottom fermenting yeast strains adapted for cold temperatures developed accidentally in the country’s south as a result of winter brewing and cave aging. Cold fermentation inhibited the growth of bacteria and other spoiling agents. Lager beers tasted cleaner than their top-fermenting counterparts. They had a longer shelf life and were therefore suited to wider distribution.
Over the period of a few hundred years, lager brewing gradually took over in the Garman-speaking realm. But a few cities clung tenaciously to their old (read “alt”) ale brewing traditions. One of those was Cologne or Köln, home of Kölsch, where in 1603 city leaders outlawed the making of bottom-fermented beer.
A little further downstream along the Rhine River was another holdout town, Düsseldorf. There are at least five altbier brewpubs located in the old city center (altstadt) of Düsseldorf. A number of other breweries making the style are located in and around the city outside the altstadt. They all brew beer that falls into a fairly narrow profile – amber to almost brown colored with assertive bitterness and complex, balancing maltiness reflecting kilned malt types. But each brewers imbues the beer with their own unique stamp. Some are bitterer, others lean more toward malt. Some are lighter, others more rich and filling. But these differences aside, when you are in Düsseldorf, altbier is what you drink.
Sticke (“secret”) Alt is a special variant on the altbier style that is brewed for special occasions, usually only twice a year. It is stronger, richer, and fuller-bodied than the typical altbier. Hopping rates are higher. 60 IBU is not unheard of for the style. But the malt profile is bolder as well. Sticke alt gushes with the nutty and toasty notes of kilned malt, occasionally overlaid with hints of bitter chocolate.
Summit Unchained #20: Sticke Alt Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Sticke Altbier
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
Aroma: Malty with low supporting hops. Malt is bread crust with low nutty and toasty background notes. Hops are low – spicy/herbal, a touch of licorice. Clean fermentation.
Appearance: Dark mahogany and brilliant. Full, creamy, ivory to beige head with excellent retention.
Flavor: Malt forward but with ample hop balance. Bread crust, toast, caramel-like melanoidin, and a hint of dark chocolate and coffee. Medium-low sweetness. Hop bitterness is medium-high, but sharp and firm. Low spicy/herbal hop flavor – again with the hint of licorice, even mint. Clean fermentation. Finish is very dry with lingering malt – melanoidin and roast – and spicy hop flavor.
Mouthfeel: Medium to medium-full body. Medium carbonation. Some creaminess.
Overall Impression: Typically I’ll drink a first sample of a beer to form an impression and then write notes on the second. I’m writing these on the fourth sample. I like the first so much that it demanded another and another (not all on the same night). This beer hits all of my buzzers; lager-like fermentation, toasted malt flavors, malt-forward with ample supporting hops that are spicy, not fruity, in character. In short, it’s my kind of beer.