Monday, December 12, 2011

Beer style of the week; Hop Happy Christmas Ales

Week 43

As promised back in week 41, we examine a style (well, not actually a style, but a kind of ale) that expresses a brewer’s interpretations of a spicy/hoppy beer for the Christmas Season. Week 41 focused upon English-style Winter Warmers. Week 42 was all about German-style Christmas Lagers. This week we crank up the IBU’s (International Bittering Units) to look at ales with their roots firmly from the Pacific Northwest that explode into, rather than ease into the holidays.

Malt is to Winter Warmers and German Christmas Lagers, what hops are to Christmas Ales. These ales are definitely hop forward with firm, yet never heavy malt support. The hops can be citrusy, resinous and/or tea-like, but they should all include some spruce or piney bitterness qualities to get us thinking about Christmas trees. These hop happy ales can be in the spicy Brown or Red Ale, Old Ale, IPA to Imperial IPA bitterness ranges. They are deep copper to garnet-hued mahogany in color and wide-ranging ABV levels from 6.2% - 11%. They may also be disguised as Barleywines.

It’s fairly common to detect berries and spices in a Christmas Ale, because some brewers add both merry berries and holiday spices into the vat. And speaking of berries and spice…

From the land of origin

Our Special Ale (2005) - Anchor Brewing – San Francisco, California – 5.8% ABV

Reviewed in 2008. I have a sneaking suspicion that this Christmas Ale may be on the verge of ending its wonderful drinkable life. Maybe another year, perhaps two. That is a moot point, however, because I don't have another one with which to judge, besides Anchor tweaks their Christmas Ale recipe each year.
It pours a nearly impenetrable ruby tinged black. There is virtually no head or lace, except for a thin beige rim. A piney aroma is backed by the smell of cherries, sweet malt, vanilla and warming alcohol. The aroma is supported by a lightly musty and woody smell. The body is fairly thick and oily. Flavors of cherry cough drops, toffee, light lemon citrus and faint taste of sweet chocolate flow into the far reaches of the taste buds. An oaky flavor seems to carry a light taste of vanilla and sherry. And ever so slightly, a taste of tart apples begins to emerge. I would like to try this again next year, and the next….

Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale – Chico, California – 6.8% ABV – Served in a nonic tumbler.

This deep copper/amber IPA with a solid beige head is a joy to behold. The lace is webby and clumpy in spots.

The aroma is outstanding! Fresh floral and citrusy hops dominate. The faint smell of spruce, sweet malt, fruit and alcohol are present.

While this is an amply malted brew, with some caramel and herbal qualities, the focus here is on the hops. Sharp-edged grapefruit bitterness and piney esters are in abundance. A light fruity background and a bit of metallic tang, along with some noticeable warming alcohol, make for a very flavorful ale, without resorting to an overwhelming quantity of alcohol. Celebration Ale will be one of the Christmas Eve offerings at my home this year.

YuleSmith – AleSmith Brewing

Served in a Piraat Goblet.

Pours a deep dark amber color with an orange-hued beige head and lots of lacing.

Smells of sweet caramel malt, citrus and piney hops mingle and mix at first pour. A light whiff of berries slide in as does a fumy dark rum vapor.
The flavors are hop forward with tastes of pine, a bit of citrus and mild woody notes. A solid caramel malt presence carries a bit of a peppery spice kick. The malt edges through as it warms. The rummy alcohol remains fairly well hidden, but trust that it is there…
This is a creamy, highly hopped brew that goes down smooth and warm. A very nice Christmas fireside beer!

New England

Gritty McDuff’s Christmas Ale – Portland, Maine – 6.2% ABV

12 oz. brown bottle. Served in a SA Perfect Pint glass.
Pours a dark amber with a very fast-fading off-white head.
A smell of fruit cake leaps out at first pour. Smells of caramel malt, toffee, tea-like hops, plums and a whiff of rum follow.
A sweet fruity malt flavor carries tastes of citrus, tea, berries, edgy hops and white rum.
This is a very fluid, liquidy slip & sliding brew.
Highly drinkable, plus it’s a good value.

Holidale – Berkshire Brewing – South Deerfield, Massachusetts – 9.6% ABV

22oz dark brown bottle. No freshness date.

This Barleywine pours a lovely orange-hued hazy amber with a small, but slow fading beige head.

The first smell to rise is roasted malt soaked in Sangria. A light smell of citrus follows. I detected a whiff of alcohol, but it went into seclusion quickly and never did return.

Sweet caramel malt and vanilla cookie dough flavors are front and center. A faint taste of prune juice is noticed.

Lemony citrus bitterness and a bit of orange zest counter the malty sweetness nicely. A light herbal, spruce taste and peppery spiciness provide a pleasant finish. The white rum-like fruit punch flavor reminds me of the holidays.

If we enjoy these beers in the spirit for which they were intended, rather than take into question the brewer’s style-naming motives, we can all appreciate the fuzzy and warm feeling inside that these beers provide. Try strong aged cheeses, salamis with spicy mustards, hearty meat stews, or rich sweet desserts.

Next week; Biere de Noel


Quote: ““Then to the spicy nut-brown ale.” – John Milton (1608-1674)

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