Holiday Ales & Winter Warmers Recap

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.

Sam Adams UtopiasThe 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 Sierra Nevada Celebration 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.

St Bernardus Christmas AleNext 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. SamichlausSamichlaus 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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Session Beer Night Recap

TC Perfect Pint Beer ClubMembers of the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club who have attended even one meeting have heard me rant about balance and subtlety in beer. While I like big beers and appreciate the complexities of high alcohol, barrel-aged, über-hopped, snifter-sippers, my real preference is for simpler, smaller brews. With this in mind, the club met Saturday night at the home of member Vickie Parks to explore session beers. A session beer is the essence of balance and moderation. Low alcohol allows you to down a few and still retain reasonable possession of your faculties. The best ones are both flavorful and light enough to make you want more. Session beers are beers for socializing and conversation. For the purposes of this event defined session beer as having no more than 6% alcohol by volume. It would have been nice to stay below five percent, but in this time of “bigger is better” those beers can be a bit hard to find. We persevered, however, and sampled our way through eight flavorful beers ranging from 3.3% to 6% ABV.

We began the evening with Samurai from Breckenridge Brewing Company in Denver. Like an ale version of an Anchor Small BeerAmerican or Japanese rice lager, Samurai is light, crisp, and refreshing. Lightly sweet and grainy malt is balanced by moderately bitter spicy licorice hops that set off a nice apple and citrus fruitiness. A great lawnmower beer for the lingering summer. Samurai was followed by Anchor Small Beer. For this beer Anchor Brewing, the folks that make Anchor Steam, have revived an old English brewing practice of getting two beers from one barley mash. The rich, sweet first runnings become their Old Foghorn Barleywine, while the more dilute second runnings become Small Beer. At 3.3% this was the lowest alcohol beer we tasted. But low alcohol doesn’t have to mean no flavor. Small beer has a sweet caramel malt profile with hints of toast that serve as a base for an assertive bitterness. Pleasantly grassy hop flavor and light fruitiness round it out. The big taste in this small beer led one person to ponder why all the supermarket 3.2% beers aren’t as flavorful.

Next up was Trout Slayer from Montana’s Big Sky Brewing. This beer was the surprise hit of the night. Big Sky calls this beer a “wheat pale ale” and the description is apt. This is a very well balanced 4.7% beer with moderate bitterness, bright citrus hops, and a beautiful bread and biscuit malt. Neither malt nor hops dominate as the beer heads to a clean, dry finish. This one’s a keeper. A fruit beer was next. Samuel Smith’s Organic Cherry Ale to be exact. Next to the Belgian Red and Raspberry Tart from New Glarus, the Samuel Smith fruit beers are the best tasting fruit beers I have had in a while. These blended wheat-based ales are brewed in collaboration with Melbourn Bros., the last sour beer brewery in England. They are lightly tart, deliciously refreshing, and enormously fruity. While the strawberry and raspberry versions are great, the cherry gives the most fruit bang for the buck. I would drink this beer all night and at 5.1% ABV I could.

Tyranena Brewing CompanyIt’s time for Oktoberfest, so we celebrated the season with Ayinger Oktoberfest-Märzen. Traditionally brewed in March at the end of the legal brewing season in Bavaria, Märzen style beers were stored cold over the summer to be consumed in the fall to celebrate the harvest. Lighter in body than some examples and with a crisp, clean lager character, the Ayinger Märzen still has a rich caramel/melanoidin malt profile. Malt is the star, but it is supported by moderate bitterness and spicy German hop character. The other German style session beer that we tasted was Headless Man Amber Alt from Tyranena Brewing Company in Wisconsin. Brewed in the style of a Düsseldorf Altbier, it has a caramel and toast malt profile with assertive bitterness and spicy German hops. This was everyone’s least favorite beer of the night. I found it to be a bit out of balance with thin malt and overdone bitterness that was somewhat astringent in the finish.

The favorite beer of the night was Moose Drool Brown Ale, our second beer from Big Sky Brewing. Moose Drool displays a rich toasty and Moose Drool Brown Alecocoa malt profile that I described as toasted Tootsie Rolls. The balance leans toward the malt, but spicy/resinous hops play a significant supporting role and assertive bitterness from both the hops and the light roasted malt keep it in check. It had been a couple of years since I had tasted this one. I don’t think I will wait so long to try it again. The last beer of the night was also the biggest. At 6% ABV, the silky smooth Black H2O Oatmeal Stout from the Town Hall Brewery in Minneapolis seemed almost decadent compared to the evening’s other selections. While some thought it was lacking in body and oat character, I found it to be quite satisfactory. Smooth and a bit sweet with pronounced coffee and cocoa roasted flavors, Black H2O was a satisfying capper.

At the end of the night, after tasting eight great beers and consuming the leftovers, we each headed our separate ways still sober. That is the real beauty of session beers.