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Miscellaneous Holiday Beer Roundup

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Once upon a blog, I used to really hit the holiday beers hard. And yeah, I wrote about a few of them recently, but this year, I kinda reserved all these beers for the actual holiday itself. Alas, it seems silly to be writing about some of this stuff after the holiday has passed, so I'll just lump it all together and call it a season. First up, a beer I should have drank on December 23:

Manayunk Festivus 2014

Manayunk Festivus 2014 - Man, I haven't been to the Manayunk brewpub in probably a decade. It's not a place I've ever been particularly in love with, but when you live near there, it's convenient. Now they've started canning and distributing, and I have to admit, this holiday beer for the rest of us (or uh, you) makes me want to put up my aluminum pole, air some grievances, and conduct some feats of strength. But how's the beer? Pours a deep dark brown with dark amber highlights and a finger of white head. Smells very unique, lots of brown sugar, plums, raisins, and some sort of spice that I cannot place (apparently: cardamom!) but which is definitely familiar. Taste is less intense than the nose implies, but it's decent, a fruit and spice come through well in the middle and finish. Mouthfeel is on the lighter end of medium bodied, well carbed, a little bit of dry spice. Overall, an interesting and unique change of pace for the style, thus fitting for this singular holiday. B

Beer Nerd Details: 7% ABV canned (12 ounce). Drank out of a tulip glass on 12/24/14. 2014 Vintage.

Samichlaus Barrique

Samichlaus Barrique 2013 - Every Christmas Eve, I break open some vintage of Samichlaus as last minute wrapping fuel. Given the 14% ABV, it's amazing that I don't cut off a limb in a scissor mishap or label the presents wrong or something. I have vintages of this dating back to 2009, and of my experiments with aging, these have been among the best. This year, though, I took a flier on the Barrique variant, which is the standard Samichlaus (what with its already long 10 month conditioning stage) aged in German wine barrels (apparently Chardonnay) for an additional 5 weeks. I wasn't quite sure how well this would work, but it turns out to be a really good idea. Pours a clear dark amber color with a bit of big bubbled head that quickly subsides. Smells of dark fruits, sticky sugar, and of course, booze. The taste is rich and sweet up front, lots of dark, vinous fruit flavors pepper the middle, and the booze hits pretty hard in the finish. The barrel character is not super strong, but I feel like it does take some of the bite out of the booze considering the young vintage (which is usually quite hot at this stage) and it contributes to a more well rounded mouthfeel. Speaking of which, this is rich, more carbonated than I remember from Samichlaus, but still very sticky, with a heaping helping of booze. Again, I feel like the barrel character maybe contributes a bit to the richness of the mouthfeel, though it's not a huge impact. In general, it feels like the barrel aging smooths out some of the sharp edges of young Samichlaus. B+ but I'm wondering if age will treat this even better than the standard stuff.

Beer Nerd Details: 14% ABV bottled (750 ml capped). Drank out of a snifter on 12/24/14. 2013 Vintage.

HaandBryggeriet Nissefar

HaandBryggeriet Nissefar - We're big fans of these Norwegians here at Kaedrin, and this beer, not particularly exciting on paper (a 7% Old Ale?), turns out to be possibly my favorite holiday beer of the year. Named after the Nisse, one of the many European precursors/contemporaries/versions of Santa Claus. A gift giver, but much more gnome-like in appearance. The beer itself pours a deep, dark brown with the barest hint of amber in the highlights and half a finger of light tan head. Smells faintly of dark fruit (plums and raisins), brown sugar, caramel, and maybe even some unidentifiable spice. Taste has a hearty malt backbone, some dark malts, dark chocolate, brown sugar, with more fruity notes emerging in the finish, which also throws up some bittering hops to dry things out a bit. Mouthfeel is on the lower end of full bodied, substantial but not a monster, with a very well matched, tight carbonation, and while I wouldn't call this "dry", it does veer in that direction towards the finish. Easier to drink than a sipping beer, but not really a chugger either, they've found a fine middle ground here. Overall, this is my kinda winter beer! Complex, well balanced, tasty. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 7% ABV bottled (500 ml capped). Drank out of a tulip glass on 12/25/14. Batch: 611. Total Bottles: 2280.

Sierra Nevada Barrel Aged Narwhal Imperial Stout

Sierra Nevada Barrel Aged Narwhal Imperial Stout - Narwhals are Christmassy, right? How about barrel aged Narwhals? Alright that's pushing it, I guess, but this was my nightcap on Christmas night, and it was a nice one. Perhaps not quite the surprise that BA Bigfoot was, but it's a solid BA stout. I didn't really take extensive notes, but this was a pretty good, but standard take on the barrel aged imperial stout: dark color, tan head that quickly disappeared, nice barrel character with bourbon, vanilla and oak in both the nose and the taste, mellowing out some of the stronger roast character of the base stout, and leaving this with a nice caramel and chocolate character that worked very well. Perhaps not a top tier BA stout, but close. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 12.9% ABV bottled (750 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a snifter on 12/24/14.

And there you have it. We shall move on to regular fare soon enough, but I'm already thinking about taking a break again this year, like I did last year. That will probably be a few months away at this point because I have some great beer incoming, so stay tuned.

Samichlaus Helles 2007

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I discovered Samichlaus a few years ago and immediately sought out some bottles to lay down in my cellar. Breaking out a vintage bottle on Christmas eve whilst I belatedly wrap presents is quickly becoming one of my favorite Christmas traditions. Last year, I cracked open bottles of both 2009 and 2010 and was quite impressed with how well the age treated the 2009 edition.

Today's beer was actually bottled in 2007, but it's also the Helles version of the beer. Helles is German for "bright" and this beer is supposed to be a paler version of the traditional Samichlaus, but the trouble with this is that the beer has such a high original gravity that the end result looks more or less the same as the traditional variety. Back in the day, Michael Jackson noted that: "In recent years the brewery has accepted the traditional view that Christmas and winter beers should be dark." This translates to the fact that the brewery only puts out the Helles every four years. However, it appears that they haven't completely given up on the idea, as I've seen 2011 bottles around.

In truth, this may be the oldest beer I've ever had (aside from a miniscule sample of 2003 120 Minute IPA I snagged a while back, but I don't think that should count). Fortunately, I bought this just last year, so it's not like it was sitting in my cellar for 5 whole years. Let's see if age has treated this one well:

Samichlaus Helles 2007

Schloss Eggenberg Samichlaus Bier Helles 2007 - Pours a clear amber/orange color with visible sediment (my bad) and next to no head at all, just a thin film of white head fading quickly to a ring of head that eventually disappears completely. Smells strongly of dark fruits, cherries, sweet malts, and maybe some booze. Actually really nice, better than what I remember from other Samichlaus vintages. Taste is very sweet, intense flavors of caramel giving way to fruitiness, plums and cherries, and a sorta rummy booze liqueur character pervading throughout. Mouthfeel is sticky and syrupy, but carbonated enough that it doesn't get cloying, lots of alcohol heat, a sipping beer for sure, but it's got a very smooth, almost creamy texture that I'm going to credit to the age of this particular bottle. Though I've never actually had the Helles before, given my experience with the regular Samichlaus, I'm going to say the age has actually improved this beer considerably. I'm really enjoying this more than I expected. It feels more like an old English Barleywine than a doppelbock (or helles, for that matter), and I'm guessing that a bottle of this stuff would age really well for many years (even more than the 5 year old bottle I've got here). A-

Beer Nerd Details: 14% ABV bottled (11.2 oz). Drank out of a tulip glass on 12/24/12. Bottled in 2007.

At this point, I regret not loading up on the 2007 when I could. But I still have a few bottles of the 2009, and each year thereafter. So let's just say, you'll be seeing this every year.

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.

Samichlaus

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Yesterday, I made the trek into Philly to see Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a Finnish movie that might be the world's greatest homicidal Santa movie (not a highly populated subgenre, to be sure - when your chief competition is Silent Night, Deadly Night, the bar's set pretty low). Anyway, the film let out around 5 pm, and rather than battle the traffic, I headed over to Eulogy for some dinner, and, of course, good beer. After perusing the on-tap list, I noticed something labeled only as "Samichlaus". Say, that sounds kinda like "Santa Claus"! The bartender says that it's an "intense" Doppelbock, very high in alcohol (she also says it's kinda like a Barleywine). I say: Pour me a glass! Ordered some Belgian style mussels and sipped this beer throughout.

Samichlaus

Schloss Eggenberg Samichlaus Bier: This beer is 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 aged for at least 10 months before being released to the public, which means what I was having was probably brewed in 2009. Apparently it was once among the strongest beers in the world, and is even now in the Guinness Book of Records as the strongest lager beer in the world. Coming in at 14% ABV, that's not hard to believe, and it certainly smells and tastes of alcohol. The color is a nice, clear reddish brown. There was no real head on the beer, thus no lacing, and the carbonation was also low. This made for a relatively smooth mouthfeel, though there is a bit of a bite due to the alcohol. There's a distinct syrupy texture going on with this beer, but it's not super sweet or cloying. Taste is complex and boozy. I have to admit that it's not really my favorite style of beer, but it was damn good and indeed, very intense, as promised. I don't know that I'd have it on tap again, but I would love to get me a bottle of this and wait a few years to see how well it ages. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 14% ABV on tap. Drank from a Snifter glass.

I've been to Eulogy before, but it was always so crowded - this time I got there right around opening time, so it wasn't as crazy as usual (it was also only a Wednesday night, so that might also have something to do with it). Nevertheless, I think I'll have to take in some more movies at the Ritz and head over to Eulogy after...

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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.

Email me at mciocco at gmail dot com.

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