December 2011 Archives

2011 Year End Musings

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As 2011 comes to a close, everyone and their mother is putting out top 10 lists and recaps for all manner of subjects, including beer. Here at Kaedrin, we're usually pretty lazy about it. Over on my generalist blog, I always put together a top 10 movies of the year list, but it usually doesn't come out until February. In that case, it's because I'm trying to catch up with movies on DVD/BD/Streaming/Torrents/etc..., but beer is a different matter entirely. For one thing, beer isn't released the way movies are, and while I've certainly had my fair share of one-off 2011-only brews, most of what I drank this year has been around for a while. So I've been lazily compiling a couple of lists, all based only on what I drank this year.

As such, this post will be an intensely personal affair, entirely dependent on my 2011 consumption. Almost everything in this post will be represented in my archives somewhere, because as a true nerd, I've done a pretty good job about documenting the beers I drank this year. Before I get to my top beers of the year, I thought I'd spend some time musing on the trends of the year. Not necessarily trends of the whole craft beer world, just my own personal tastes.

  • Stouts - When I began beer blogging a little over a year ago, I wasn't much of a fan of stouts or porters. But I forced myself to try some, and the more I tried, the more I enjoyed, especially when it comes to imperial stouts. There are still some varieties that I don't love, particularly stouts that emphasize coffee flavors (I'm looking at you, Founders Breakfast Stout), but I've really come to enjoy strong, dark beers over the last year.
  • Barrel Aged Beer - In particular, bourbon or scotch barrel aged beers have become a bit of an obsession (wine barrel aged beers with wild yeasts/bacteria are a different story, see below). One sure-fire way to trick me into buying your beer is to make a bourbon barrel aged version. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to cattle calls or paying through the nose, but I'm willing to jump through some hoops for beer this good. I know some folks think bourbon barrel aging has gone too far, and there's something to be said for harnessing a balance of flavors (which some barrel aged beers emphatically do not accomplish), but I think my tolerance for bourbon/scotch flavors is higher than most. I kinda love these beers. This is something that I imagine will continue to explore through 2012...
  • Aging/Cellaring Beer - As evidenced by a few recent posts, I've been toying with the concept of aging beer in my basement. Conditions are apparently not entirely ideal down there, but I tend to buy more than I can drink, so sometimes this happens by accident. I intend to cover the subject in more detail in a separate post (including a list of beers I'm currently saving), as it's an interesting practice.
  • Homebrewing - I brewed 5 batches of beer in 2011. This roughly translates to once every 2-3 months and even that has left me with 3-4 cases of beer in my basement. I think my next step is to try making smaller batches more frequently. Speaking of which, I should really get cracking on my next batch!
  • The Discovery of Barleywines - I never quite knew what to make of this style, and owing to the extremely high ABV, these aren't exactly every day beers, but some of my biggest discoveries and surprises this year were barleywines. I don't expect to go crazy with the style in 2012 - again, very high ABV beers require certain circumstances - but I'll most definitely be exploring the style a little more in 2012 (and hey, the style often gets the bourbon barrel treatment, so there's that too!)
  • Sour Experimentation - I've really only gotten my feet wet with my exploration of sour beers. I've enjoyed a lot of what I've had, but only one has really knocked my socks off (the Sierra Nevada ExPortation). Expect more exploration in 2012, though I can't say as though these beers have really captured my imagination the way other styles have.
  • Finding my White Whales - When I started this blog, I was a little frustrated by reading about beers I could never find anywhere. Well, somewhere along the way, I started to get a sense for how to find me some white whale beers. My list of beer purveyors has increased significantly over the year, and the ridiculous PLCB rules notwithstanding, Philly is a pretty bitchin beer town.

Well, there you have it. It's been a great year, filled with a ton of great beers. So great, in fact, that I couldn't quite bring myself to put together a top 10. I mean, seriously? I wrote somewhere on the order of 170 posts this year, and some of those contained multiple beers (including some with 10+ beers), meaning that I have somwhere on the order of 200-250 beers to choose from. Narrowing the list down to 30 was hard enough. All of the below beers have been reviewed, and I'm linking to each one. They're all at least an A- on my grading scale, and they're being listed from best to "worst", though I'd like to emphasize that the order is relatively fluid in my mind. Some of the beers on the bottom of the list could easily float up towards the middle or even top of the list, depending on my mood... Indeed, I could probably add another dozen beers to the list with no real problem. So take it with a grain of salt and if you want to see more, check out the A- archive.

Bottom line, though, is that these are all exceptional beers in one way or another.

  1. Trappistes Rochefort 8 (Belgian Strong Dark Ale)
  2. Harviestoun Ola Dubh Special Reserve 40 (Old Ale)
  3. Avec Les Bons Voeux de la Brasserie Dupont (Saison)
  4. BrewDog and Mikkeller Collaboration: Devine Rebel (Barleywine)
  5. Victory V-Twelve (Belgian Specialty Ale)
  6. La Trappe Quadrupel (Quadrupel)
  7. Ommegang Rare Vos (Belgian Pale Ale)
  8. The Bruery Autumn Maple (Belgian Fruit/Vegetable Beer)
  9. Ommegang Three Philosophers (Quadrupel)
  10. Trappistes Rochefort 6 (Belgian Strong Dark Ale)
  11. Iron Hill Kryptonite (Double India Pale Ale)
  12. Trappistes Rochefort 10 (Belgian Strong Dark Ale)
  13. Victory Dark Intrigue (Imperial Stout)
  14. Chimay Grand Reserve (Blue) (Belgian Strong Dark Ale)
  15. Sierra Nevada ExPortation (American Wild Ale)
  16. Allagash Big Little Beer (Belgian Pale Ale)
  17. The Bruery Mischief (Belgian Strong Pale Ale)
  18. Cape Ann Fisherman's Imperial Pumpkin Stout (Pumpkin Ale/Imperial Stout)
  19. St. Bernardus Watau Tripel (Tripel)
  20. Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout (Imperial Stout)
  21. St. Bernardus Prior 8 (Dubbel)
  22. Pretty Things Baby Tree (Quadrupel)
  23. Russian River Pliny the Elder (Double India Pale Ale)
  24. Uinta Cockeyed Cooper (Barleywine)
  25. Lost Abbey The Angel's Share (American Strong Ale)
  26. Lagunitas Hop Stoopid (Double India Pale Ale)
  27. Mikkeller I Beat yoU (Double India Pale Ale)
  28. La Chouffe (Belgian Strong Pale Ale)
  29. Dogfish Head Burton Baton (Double India Pale Ale)
  30. Victory Hop Wallop (Double India Pale Ale)

It's no Beer Samizdat 100, but it's a start! Hopefully, it will be up to 50-60 beers by next year... In any case, this concludes my 2011 beer wrapup. Still a few more beers to be drunk, and I need to figure out a beer that fits New Years, but I'll include those in next year's recap (like I did above with Dupont's Bon Voux). Here's to a great 2012.

Samichlaus Double Feature

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I discovered this beer last year and somehow manged to get my hands on a few bottles to lay down. Since it was such a rich, malty, boozy, almost syrupy beer, I figured that laying it down in my basement for a year would do it some good. And, of course, I needed a basis for comparison, so I picked up a few bottles of the most recent incarnation as well.

Unlike the annual Holiday beers I've been having lately, this one is brewed with the same recipe every year, so drinking these two different versions actually does represent a "vertical" tasting. To recap the beer's background: it's only brewed once a year, on December 6 (for the uninitiated, that's the feast day of Saint Nicholas, hence the name of the beer.) It is then laid down to mature in cold cellars for at least 10 months. This is an extremely long period of secondary fermentation, owing to the beer's extraordinarily high original gravity (apparently around 1.224), which of course leads to an obscenely high alcohol content (14% - thank goodness I was able to get the small bottles for this tasting). Michael Jackson speculates that "the brew is moved from one lagering tank to another, in order to restart the secondary fermentation. The brewery is coy about this, but the fact is that conventional methods will not easily make a beer so strong." This is indeed quite true. Most beer yeasts start to crap out once the beer reaches 9 or 10% ABV, and thus the brewer needs to be tricky to coax more out of the yeast. There are a lot of techniques for doing this, including the use of a more tolerant champagne yeast to finish off the beer. But the brewers of Samichlaus instead prefer to use patience and time (and apparently agitation during the lagering process).

It's not entirely clear to me when this beer is bottled. The labels for the beers showing up on shelves in 2011 said "bottled in 2010". When you consider that this beer is brewed in December, I'm not sure if that means that this year's beer was originally brewed in December 2009, or if the lengthy 10 month aging process all happens in the bottle. Well, whatever the case, the years listed below are what the label says.

Samichlaus 2010

Samichlaus (2010) - Pours a clear amber color with just a hint of head. Smells strongly of clean, dark fruits, along with some general malt-based sweetness and alcohol. The taste is sticky sweet and clean. That muted fruitiness is here in the taste too, maybe raisons or plums. There's a strong alcohol component to the taste, an almost rum-like character. As it warms, complexities emerge. Caramel, brown sugar, and more fruit. The mouthfeel is smooth and slick - actually better than it was on tap, perhaps more carbonation here this time around. The finish is very sticky and sweet, almost syrupy, but it never quite reached cloying, which is good. The alcohol provides a nice warming feeling as you drink. Overall, this year's variety is just as good as I remember, and even more complex. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 14% ABV bottled (11.2 oz). Drank out of a tulip glass on 12/23/11. Bottled in 2010.

Samichlaus 2009

Samichlaus (2009) - Pours a clear amber color, maybe a little darker than the newer vintage, with that same minimal head. The smell is similar, though perhaps a little cleaner. That sweet fruitiness and alcohol seem a little more well balanced here, but it's a subtle difference (if there's a difference at all). The taste is also very similar, with that dark fruitiness and sugary character. The real difference is in the mouthfeel, which is a little more creamy than the newer versions. Less sticky and more creamy. Definitely a better balanced version. I'm really glad I still have a few bottles of this year's vintage which I can try in a few years, as I'm sure it will get even better. For now, I'll say that I'm enjoying this more than the 2010 version, but the differences are subtle. Also a B+, but again, this one's slightly better... Perhaps in another year, this one will reach an A-...

Beer Nerd Details: 14% ABV bottled (11.2 oz). Drank out of a tulip glass on 12/23/11. Bottled in 2009.

Well, there you have it. I was drinking these as I wrapped presents and watched Christmas movies, so I had paced myself rather well throughout the night... and I still got pretty well drunk. These things happen. I still have 3 bottles of the 2009 and one of the 2010. I do believe this will become a nice annual tradition in the Kaedrin household. I really can't wait to try one of these 2009 beers a few years from now to see how well the flavors marry.

Fantôme De Noël

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Brasserie Fantôme, they of the farmhouse saison, is a strange beast. According to Beer Advocate, they currently produce 24 different beers - 20 of which are saisons. And I suspect that most of them are funky, wild saisons (as opposed to super spicy or super dry saisons). I've had a few of their offerings before, but they're hard to find and the labels usually aren't in English (seriously, look at all those accents and umlauts and stuff*) and I never really know what I'm getting. Mysterious stuff but the beer nerds seem to love the beer and all the labels have this mischievous looking ghost on them and what's not to like? I've already talked about the surprise of my first Fantôme experience, and my most recent experience was also surprising, though this time in less of a good way. As Christmas beers go, this one is definitely of the "make it stronger" variety - it's the highest ABV beer they make. Unfortunately, it wasn't carbonated very well:

Fantome De Noel

Fantôme De Noël - Pours a surprisingly dark color for a saison. A cloudy brown colored beer with minimal head (seriously, a vigorous pour produced next to no head). Aroma is full of tangy sour smells with a lot of sweetness in the nose as well. Taste is not nearly as sour as I expected from the nose, but there is a tart, tangy character to it. It's very sweet tasting though, with some spicy complexities emerging as it warms. The mouthfeel is very disappointing though. It's light on the carbonation, which makes it a little too syrupy. This is really unfortunate, as the rest of the beer feels like it would be fantastic if only there was some more carbonation... It was certainly drinkable and it's not like I didn't finish the bottle or anything, heck I even enjoyed it, but I was still bummed. B-

Beer Nerd Details: 10% ABV bottled (750 ml capped and corked). Drank out of a tulip on 12/17/11.

As with all things Fantôme, I don't really know what to make of this. Is it supposed to be undercarbonated? Did I just get a bad bottle? Even if it was just a bad bottle, does that indicate lax QA on their part? According to the label, head brewer Danny Prignon changes the recipes for his beers every year. Does that mean that next year's Noël beer could be much better? Strangely, I don't think I'll mind testing that out next year (assuming I can find a bottle). It's all part of the mystique, I guess.

* All two of 'em!

Yule Smith Winter

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Somehow, Alesmith makes two different beers that are both named Yule Smith. And one of them comes out in the summer. Now, the word "Yule" is derived from a Germanic winter festival that was absorbed by Christmas (one of many such occurrences), so the summer one doesn't really make much sense unless you consider the dubious holiday of Christmas in July an event worth celebrating. Then again, if it's an excuse to make good beer, who am I to complain?

What we have here, though, is the actual Christmas version of the beer. Apparently both varieties are hoppy, imperial ales, with the summer incarnation being a DIPA and this winter one being an imperial red ale. In my recently formulated hierarchy of holiday beers, this one represents category three - the do whatever the hell you want and call it holiday beer approach. I guess red is a color associated with Christmas, so there's that.

Alesmith Yule Smith Winter

Alesmith Yule Smith (Winter) - Pours a dark reddish brown color with a finger of whitish head. Smells strongly of sweet, fruity hops. Maybe even a little pine. Taste starts very sweet, with some of that hoppy fruit and sticky pine. Then you get a small dose of bitterness. Nothing overpowering, but it's prominent. A nicely balanced beer. Body is full, and you get that sticky resin feeling too. Overall, I find this quite enjoyable and the strong hoppy character was a welcome change of pace. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 8.5% ABV bottled (22 oz. bomber). Drank out of a tulip on 12/16/11.

As it turns out, this was my first Alesmith beer. And it's made a good impression too, so much so that I think my next homebrew might end up being an imperial red. Anyways, I'll definitely want to pick up some of the summer Yule Smith, and I know folks seems to love the Speedway Stout as well.

Ølfabrikken Jule Ale

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I've been drinking and reviewing lots of holiday beer recently, so I thought I'd take a step back and think about what makes a holiday beer a holiday beer. There are, of course, no easy rules for holiday beers, but there are a few approaches that seem to work really well.

Approach the first: spice the hell out of it. This is usually done to a style that focuses on malts. The spices and malts lend a warming sensation (hence the "Winter Warmer" style). Approach the second: make it stronger. This seems to be a Belgian thing. Oh, it's Christmas? Let's make our dubbel, but give it 3% more alcohol. That'll be fun. Of course, Belgian beers are often spiced and those distinctive Belgian yeasts also contribute some spicy character to beer, so there is that too. What you end up with is a spicy, malty, boozy treat, and with all the alcohol, you can really get that warming sensation going.

Then there's approach the third: do whatever the hell you want! This is typified by Sierra Nevada's Celebration, in which they just decided to do a strong, hoppy, reddish IPA thing and slapped a holiday label on the bottle. Nothing particularly festive about it, but it somehow manages to work anyway (we're going to see at least one more of these before the year ends).

I tend to prefer approach 2 (see: Ommegang Adoration, Affligem Noel, St. Bernardus Christmas, etc...), but approach 1 has its charms as well (see: Anchor's Christmas Ales and my own take on the style). The third category has some wonderful beers, but I also don't find much holiday charm in there either.

Anywho, browsing the international section of State Line Liquors, I spotted this bottle from Ølfabrikken and bought it on a whim (insert nerdy joke about the null set here). As it turns out, this is a beer of the first approach, and one of the finer examples of that style:

Olfabrikken Jule Ale

Ølfabrikken Jule Ale - Pours a dark reddish brown color with a finger or so of quickly disappearing off-white head. The aroma is great. Rich malts, bready yeast, some spiciness, and even some piney hops. The taste isn't quite as complex as the nose, but there's still a lot to enjoy here. Sweet malt backbone, some of that spiciness, and a fair amount of hop character. Not a ton of bitterness, but the fruity, piney hop character flavors are certainly there. Mouthfeel is a little strong to start, but it mellows out as it warms. Overall, a very well executed beer, and a nice change of pace from the throngs of normal winter warmers. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 8% ABV bottled ( bomber). Drank out of a tulip glass on 12/16/11.

So I had never heard of Ølfabrikken before, but now that I've had this, I'm interested in sampling more of the Denmark brewer's offerings. Indeed, Dave seemed to really enjoy their porter, which only makes me want to take another trek down to Maryland to get me some...

Maudite

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I know what you're thinking. This isn't a holiday beer! Well, it is one of Unibroue's year-round brews, but the story behind it is rather interesting. The word "Maudite" means "damned", and the story follows a group of French-Canadian woodsmen who made a deal with the devil to make it home by Christmas by flying their canoe (this is apparently a variation on a class of flying canoe legends). One of the woodsmen broke the pledge, and thus the canoe plunged to the ground. Pleasant story, eh? For a more detailed telling of the legend in a funny French-Canadian accent, check out the video on Unibroue's website. Anyway, let's drink this thing:

Unibroue Maudite

Unibroue Maudite - Pours a deep orange brown color with a lot of white head. Aroma is full of peppery Belgian yeast and dark fruits. Taste is very sweet, lots of that fruitiness coming through strong. Plenty of spiciness here too, and no real bitterness at all. Extremely well balanced taste here. Mouthfeel is a little on the harsh side (in a good way). In the past, I've always found this beer to be undercarbonated, but this time it seems just right. Overall, it's quite a nice beer. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 8% ABV bottled (11.2 oz). Drank out of a tulip glass on 12/10/11.

Unibroue has one of the best year-round lineups out there, and this one is widely available and usually pretty cheap too. Well worth a try this holiday season!

Mikkeller Santa's Little Helper 2010

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Yet another annual Christmas ale that is vintage dated with a different recipe every year. In this case, brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergsø is a bit of a perfectionist. It's not a completely new recipe every year, but he does make small tweaks with each iteration. Details on the changes are sparse, but they generally seem to involve the spicing. Previous incarnations featured spices like cocoa, cinnamon, and coriander, but the 2010 version I had recently was apparently made with bitter and sweet orange peels and nutmeg. This sounds like it would be a big difference, but this is a huge, 10.9% ABV Belgian Strong Dark, so there's a big backbone to overcome. Like a lot of great Belgian beers, you can taste the complexity of the spicing, but you can't quite pick out what specific spices were used...

I bought this beer a while ago (early summer, perhaps?) and have been saving it for the holidays. So its time has come:

Mikkeller Santas Little Helper 2010

Mikkeller Santa's Little Helper 2010 - Pours a very dark brown color with a finger or so of light brown head. The aroma is very complex and quite nice. I'm picking up lots of vanilla, a little belgian yeast character and spiciness, maybe even some chocolate or roastiness. It smells like it will be full of rich flavors, and that is certainly born out in the taste. Sweet and spicy, with just a hint of that distinctive Belgian strong dark feel and spiciness. The twist here is the chocolate and roast flavors, which I typically don't love in my Belgian darks, but it's very well matched here. Just a hint of clean bitterness in the finish and aftertaste. Mouthfeel is full bodied but silky smooth. For such a strong beer, the booze is pretty well hidden. As it warms, it seems less Belgian and more Imperial Stout. Overall, a fantastic, well balanced but complex beer and a candidate for best Holiday beer of the year (though there are still some heavyweights to come)... A-

Beer Nerd Details: 10.9% ABV bottled (750 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a goblet on 12/10/11.

Well, I liked it enough that I picked up the 2011 version that same weekend, though I haven't drank that one yet. I doubt it will make it to next year though!

Sly Fox 2011 Christmas Ale

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Well, what have we here? Another annual Christmas Ale with a recipe and label unique to that year? Well, don't mind if I do:

Sly Fox 2011 Christmas Ale

Sly Fox 2011 Christmas Ale - Pours a dark brownish red color with tons of billowy head. The smell is filled with spices (clove and ginger with a hint of cinnamon/nutmeg) and bready aromas. The taste starts with a carbonated bang, with the spices emerging quickly and some other flavors coming out a bit as the beer warms. But that mouthfeel is quite aggressive - carbonation is through the roof in the beginning, though it quickly smooths out in the relatively dry finish. If it weren't for the carbonation, I'd say this was a light to medium bodied beer, but the initial rush really does kick it up a notch. Not a revelation, but quite intriguing (and better than last year's variety, if I remember correctly)... B+

Beer Nerd Details: 6.5% ABV bottled (750 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a tulip glass on 12/9/11.

Seriously, this is like, what, the 4th Christmas beer I've had this year that is vintage dated with a new recipe every year? Not that I'm complaining (I actually rather like the switchups, though I could really go for a bottle of 3 French Hens right about now and that probably ain't gonna happen), but I did find it funny. My holiday beers this year have also skewed towards the winter warmery style, while last year was more of a Belgian Strong Dark affair. Well, I've got a few more posts in the pipeline and long weekend's worth a drinking ahead of me, so there's plenty of room for variety...

Winter Wünder

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It's the umlaut that makes this beer. I just want to pronounce it vinter vunder as if I'm German (or, at least, an American poorly impersonating a German). In all seriousness, I have mixed feelings about Philadelphia Brewing Company. They make beers that I like in styles I don't normally go for (i.e. their Kölsch). But their takes on styles I do enjoy tend to be disappointing (i.e. their IPA or their Wit). None of their beers are outright bad or anything, but they are an unusual brewery, focusing more on sessionable ales than most craft breweries. But I figured I'd give this spiced holiday ale a shot:

Philadelphia Winter Wunder

Philadelphia Winter Wünder - Pours a clear, light orangish brown color with a finger or so of head. The aroma is sweet and quite spicy, especially with clove. The taste also features lots of spicing, though it seems a bit more diverse than the nose would have you believe (you can get more cinnamon and fruit out of it). Mouthfeel is a bit harsh and strangely carbonated. You get a rush of carbonation as you drink, but then it dissipates quickly. And yet it's got a bit of a dry finish. Very strange. Still, it's a decent beer. Not something I would probably rush to try or recommend, but certainly festive and enjoyable enough. B-

Beer Nerd Details: 6.5% ABV bottled (22 oz. bomber). Drank out of a tulip glass on 12/3/11.

So this is about par for the course for the Philly Brewing Co. A solid beer, but nothing mind blowing. Still, they make a couple of higher gravity beers that I wouldn't mind trying... but that may take a while. Holiday beer reviews will continue for the near future...

Decembeer Club

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Tonight was beer club, a meeting of beer minded individuals from my work who get together for a meal and lots-o-beer once a month. Tonight, we wondered why we don't do this more than once a month. We had a strange turnout this month. Lots of people, but really only 4 of us were drinking lots of beer (other folks bring wine or don't drink at all). Still, a good time was had by all, and we had a pretty nice selection of beers:

December 2011 Beer Club
(Click for bigger image)

For the sake of posterity, some thoughts on each beer we tried are below. As usual, conditions were not ideal, so take it all with a grain of salt. Actually, no. It's the final word on the subject. In order of drinking (not necessarily the order in the picture):

  • Harpoon Winter Warmer - A pretty straightforward winter warmer style beer. Not quite as dark as I'd expect, lots of holiday spices in the nose and taste. Decent, but nothing special... B-
  • Achouffe N'Ice Chouffe - Achouffe's holiday beer brewed with spices turned out to be a bit disappointing. Pours a nice brown color with a bunch of head and a nice Belgian aroma. But the taste is filled with sweet raisiny character that doesn't always work well for me. It got a little less powerful as it warmed up a bit. Very sweet and raisiny. A decent beer, but I expect more out of Achouffe... B-
  • Great Lakes Christmas Ale - It's got all the standard winter warmer characteristics, but it's also brewed with honey, and you really get that additional honey character in the taste. It makes this a somewhat unique brew, and it's actually well balanced. That being said, I've never been that big of a honey person, so it's still not knocking my socks off. B
  • Leinenkugel's Fireside Nut Brown - I've never been one for Leinenkugel's beers, and I don't think this was anything special, but it's a reasonably well executed brown ale with a nice nutty flavor. Not something I anticipate trying again, but it wasn't repugnant either. B-
  • Rogue Santa's Private Reserve Ale - I actually reviewed this last year and my thoughts on the beer have changed very little. A decent beer, but not something I'd go out of my way for...
  • Dixie Blackened Voodoo Lager - My least favorite beer of the night, this one wasn't really offensive so much as it didn't really have much going for it. Flavors seemed a bit muted (especially considering the context of a beer tasting) and while it was crisp and clean, it just didn't do much for me. C
  • Goose Island Christmas Ale - ZOMG! It's a beer mostly owned by Anheuser Busch. I have a reflexive dislike for that, but then, this was actually one of the better beers of the night. A really well balanced and tasty winter warmer style beer. Hop flavors of pine and spruce dominate the palate, but it's not particularly bitter either, which is an interesting combination and everything is rather well matched. B+
  • Heavy Seas Yule Tide - A Belgian style tripel, this one doesn't really have much in the way of holiday spirit, but it's a decent strong pale ale. Typical Belgian yeast flavors are there, but it is extremely sweet. This worked fine for the limited portions of beer club, but to be honest, I'm positive this would become overly cloying if I tried to drink an entire bottle of the stuff. B-
  • My Homebrewed Christmas Ale - I've been trying these ever since I bottled it, but this particular bottle seemed a bit under-carbonated. My regular 12 ounce bottle sseem to be fine (I'm sipping on one right now, actually), but this 22 ounce bottle seemed a bit light on the carbonation. Not sure what to make of that, but it should hopefully work itself out by Christmas...
A few of the beers in the picture were not actually opened. We ended up using them as a sorta Holiday beer exchange/white elephant style gift for each other. Overall, we all had a good time and I'm already looking forward to the January edition of beer club. Until then, expect a whole slew of additional holiday beer reviews!

Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome Ale

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Like Anchor's Christmas Ale, these are apparently vintage dated and feature new artwork on the label each year. Unlike Anchor, the recipe appears to be the same each year. While I haven't sampled a lot of Samuel Smith's catalog, what I've had so far has been uniformly solid stuff. No face melters, but really well executed examples of classic styles like oatmeal stouts and brown ales. As such, I was quite looking forward to this beer. Alas, my hopes were dashed.

Samuel Smith Winter Welcome

Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome Ale - Pours a clear amber color, lighter than I'd expect, but with a nice couple fingers of head. The smell reminds me more of an English Pale Ale - light malts and grassy hops. The taste is also like an English Pale Ale. Light malts in the beginning with some buttery notes (typically not a good thing, but they're light here) and earthy hops coming out in the finish. Not a bitter bomb, but it's there. There's a slight spiciness to it, but it wouldn't surprise me if they got all that character out of yeast and hops. Mouthfeel is definitely a bit too light. It works well enough to start, but as I got towards the end, the carbonation was too low. It wasn't a bad beer, but it's not particularly in my wheelhouse either and it's not something I see myself revisiting anytime soon. C

Beer Nerd Details: 6% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a, uh, glass. I mean, you can see the picture, right? I don't know what to call that glass. But I drank it on 12/2/11.

A disappointing effort from Samuel Smith, but I'm still a fan of their stuff and will most certainly be trying something else from them in the near future. Well, if I keep buying beer the way I have been lately, it probably won't be the near future. Seriously, I've got a lot of stuff in my cellar these days. Good stuff. Stuff I should really drink soon. Not to mention 4 cases of homebrew. But I digress. Beer club tomorrow! See you then.

Anchor Christmas Double Feature

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Every year, the craft beer pioneers at Anchor Brewing put out a special Christmas ale as the holiday approaches. It's apparently quite the beer dork tradition, and while I've only started drinking these last year, I was excited for this year's installment. The recipes change with each iteration (as do the labels), so it's only natural that folks save a few from previous years and compare them. Since the recipes are different, it's not technically a "vertical" tasting, but I thought it would be a fun exercise and besides, I had totally forgotten about the 2010 bottle that was sitting in the back of my fridge. So on one cold evening, I threw on a couple of Holiday horror movies (both of which were rather unremarkable) and popped my two Anchor Christmas vintages (both of which were rather good) for a comparative tasting, starting with the 2010.

Anchor Christmas Ale 2010

2010 Anchor Christmas - Pours a very dark brown, just a hint of ruby red when held up to the light. About a finger of tan head. Aroma is quite nice. Very sweet smelling, maybe brown sugar and vanilla in there with a faint hint of dark fruit (raisins?). Taste has some spiciness to it, and that brown sugar character is there too, but there's an overarching flavor I can't quite place and a strange bitterness that settles in the finish. There's an aftertaste that isn't particularly pleasing. Mouthfeel is still quite nice, even after a year, though perhaps a bit on the light side. Here's the strange thing - I like this beer and I think it might even be better than it was last year, but I'm rating it lower than I did last year. I definitely overrated this last year, but I'm really glad I retained this bottle. B

Beer Nerd Details: 5.5% ABV bottled (12 oz.) Drank out of a tulip glass on 12/2/11.

Anchor Christmas 2011

2011 Anchor Christmas - Also pours a very dark brown, though not quite as dark as the 2010 variety, and more reddish colors show through when held up to light. Aroma is very spicy - cinnamon is clearly apparent. It smells sweet, but with none of that brown sugar or dark fruitiness from 2010. The taste seems much spicier (again with the Christmas spices of cinnamon and nutmeg, etc...) with a complex arrangement of malts. On the other hand, the bitterness here is much more subdued and better matched to the beer, leading a nicer finish and less of an aftertaste. The mouthfeel is again nice, though again a bit lighter than expected. As the beer warms, it seems to get more complex and ever more drinkable. Overall, I think it's a small improvement over last year, and quite a good beer. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 5.5% ABV bottled (12 oz.) Drank out of a tulip glass on 12/2/11.

I actually really like some aspects of the 2010 beer (a fantastic aroma coming off that thing), but I do believe the 2011 to be a more balanced brew. This was fun - I'll probably save a few of the 2011 bottles and do the same thing next year. I've also been cracking a few of my homebrewed winter warmers lately, and I'm happy to report that they compare favorable to the Anchor beers (which were the basic inspiration for my recipe).

St. Feuillien Cuvée De Noël

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Not quite Belgian Beer Roulette, as I've had St. Feuillien's Saison before (a solid beer, that), but I wasn't really sure what to expect from this either.

St. Feuillien Cuvee De Noel

St. Feuillien Cuvée De Noël - Pours a medium dark brown color with a couple fingers of tightly knitted off-white head. Aroma is full of raisins and Belgian yeast spice. Taste is extremely sweet up front, with some Belgian yeast spiciness and those raisins coming in full force in the middle. The finish surprisingly dry for such a sweet beer (not super dry, but much moreso than I would have expected from the initial taste...) Mouthfeel is medium to full bodied with lots of carbonation and a slight warming character due to the alcohol. Overall, a nice beer, but perhaps just a bit too sweet. B

Beer Nerd Details: 9% ABV bottled (11.2 oz.) Drank out of a tulip glass on 11/26/11.

Certainly not at the top of my Holiday beer list, but I'm glad I tried it...

4 Calling Birds

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This may have been a bad idea. The Bruery consistently knocks my socks off with their beers, so starting the Holiday beer season off with one of their entries might set the bar too high. But humbug to that. As soon as I saw this, I grabbed it and consumed it that night.

You have to respect the audacity of the concept. This is the 4th installment of a 12 year long project, matching beers with each verse of the 12 Days of Christmas. In addition, these early beers are designed to be aged, so that the patient beer nerds among us will have amassed all 12 varieties at the end of the project. I was mightily impressed by last year's 3 French Hens, and was thus looking forward to this year's installment:

The Bruery 4 Calling Birds

The Bruery 4 Calling Birds - Pours a dark brown color with a small amount of tan colored, big bubbled head. The aroma is very musty and bready, with lots of spiciness apparent. From the nose, they seem to have gone in a more traditional winter warmer direction this year - I'm getting traditional winter spices like cinnamon and ginger, maybe even nutmeg. The taste is very sweet and boozy. Those spices are here, but they're taking a back seat to rich malt flavors, even a little bit of roast emerging in the finish and aftertaste. It's full bodied and chewy, but also quite smooth. Just a little sweet, sticky booze character in the mouth as well. At 11% ABV, it's a bit of a monster, and that warming alcohol character matches well with the gingerbread spices. The myriad flavors seem to become more balanced as it warms up, but I'm also guessing this beer will harmonize even better after a few years as well (I should really try to find me another bottle!) A-

Beer Nerd Details: 11% ABV bottled (750 ml capped). Drank out of a goblet on 11/26/11.

Not having the foresight to pick up an extra bottle of 3 French Hens or 4 Calling Birds is disappointing, though I'm holding out hope that I'll be able to find another bottle of 4 Calling Birds somewhere. I doubt I'll be able to hold on to it for 8 more years, but I would really like to see how it would mature...

Dogfish Head Squall IPA

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It's alive! As it turns out, this beer is basically a bottle conditioned version of Dogfish Head's 90 Minute IPA. What does that mean? It's pretty straightforward, but I'm going to make it complicated, because that's what we do here at Kaedrin.

Let's start with the magical wonder of yeast. The simple description of yeast's role in brewing is that it eats sugar, processes it, then poops alcohol and farts carbon dioxide (this is known as "fermentation" in respectable circles that I do not belong to.) Since fermentation typically takes place in a closed vessel (to keep out nasty bacteria and other unsavory bugs), brewers need to release the gas building up inside, least we have exploding equipment due to the additional pressure. What this means is that at the end of the fermentation process, when you're ready to bottle or keg your beer, you've essentially got a flat product. There are typically two approaches to carbonating the beer. The most typical approach is to filter all the yeast and proteins out of the beer, then force carbonate the beer (basically just injecting a bunch of carbon dioxide into the liquid, then bottling/kegging it right away). The other method is to "prime" the unfiltered beer with a small amount of additional sugars, then bottle it. The yeast remaining in the unfiltered beer (which is still alive) will eat up the new sugar and carbonate the beer, right in the bottle*.

There are pros and cons to each approach. Force carbonation allows for a quicker, more consistent product. On the other hand, it also means the beer won't stay fresh as long. Bottle conditioning can and will change the character of the beer over time - as the yeast is still "alive". Indeed, while most beer is meant to be drank fresh, bottle conditioned beers are often suitable for aging. The down side is that you end up with a layer of yeast on the bottom of your bottle, the end product can be less consistent (this can be a plus or minus when it comes to aging), and, of course, it takes a while to condition in the bottle. This is, of course, a drastic simplification of the subject, and there are many things I'm leaving out (i.e. kräusening, re-yeasting, bottle bombs, caged and corked beers, Belgian methods and so on...)

So Dogfish Head filters and force carbonates their 90 Minute IPA**, but their experiment with Squall was to see how bottle conditioning the same exact beer would change its character (there may or may not have been some extra dry hopping as well). They also barrel age their 90 Minute IPA (that version is called Burton Baton), and they blend the 90 and 60 minute IPAs to make the 75 Minute IPA. Alas, Squall seems to be going the way of the dodo. Given that hoppy beers tend to deteriorate with time anyway, this makes a certain sort of sense. I'm sure an aged version of Squall would be quite nice, but it would also be lacking a lot of the hop character you look for in an IPA (yeast will keep the beer viable with age, but it won't do anything about various flavors and aromas derived from hops). It was still an interesting experiment that I'm glad I got to try, though:

Dogfish Head Squall IPA

Dogfish Head Squall IPA - I think this might be my favorite Dogfish Head label ever. Anyway, it pours a cloudy, dark goldish orange color with a couple fingers of creamy head that leaves tons of lacing as I drink. Aroma is full of earthy hops and sugary citrus. Taste is very citrusy sweet with a light bitterness emerging in the finish. There actually is a musty yeast character here too. The mouthfeel is surprisingly full bodied, with lots of carbonation. Overall, a wonderful beer. I don't know that it's better than the 90 minute or Burton Baton, but I'm glad I got to try this variant. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 9% ABV bottled (750 ml capped). Drank out of a tulip on 11/11/11.

I didn't realize it, but this would have really made a good double feature with the standard 90 Minute IPA. I suspect there wouldn't be a huge amount of difference, but I always find it illuminating to try such things together. Alas, with Squall going away, it seems that this is not destined to happen. Oh well, I guess you can't win them all. Stay tuned for the start of this year's holiday beer extravaganza.

* Bottle conditioning tends to be the favored method of the beginning homebrewer, as it doesn't require any additional equipment. But you do have to wait. Most folks who invest in kegging systems also gain the ability to force carbonate the beer in the keg, which means you get to try the beer right after fermentation ends. Unlike me, who has to wait a couple weeks to try the beer. Not that I'm bitter.

** And it's still an exceptional beer. Don't take this post to mean that filtered beers are inherently bad, because there are lots of amazing beers in both camps.

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Hi, my name is Mark, and I like beer.

You might also want to check out my generalist blog, where I blather on about lots of things, but mostly movies, books, and technology.

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