Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland… (of beer)

Last year I posted an extensive (though, by no means complete) review of some of the most common and some of the most obscure Oktoberfest offerings from Germany and the U.S. I was originally planning a repeat of that, covering exclusively more of the obscure breweries, but I quickly realized that most of the beers I didn't cover fell into the “Fall Seasonal” category and weren't specifically Oktoberfest adaptations. So, to spare you a long list of boring and over rated “Punkin Ales” and the like, I decided to shift focus (and because I got a late start on the project so most of this seasons Oktoberfest batch was sold out). Winter seasonals are not as popular as their autumnal brethren hailing from Munich, but they are a fun variety to explore. Especially in food pairing. Typically lightly spiced with the flavors most associated with the season, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, pine, et al., they provide a great pairing option for roasts and pies. I was surprised by the sheer number that are out there. Equally surprising to me was the relatively low number of them that totally sucked! I covered 15 different Oktoberfests last year, of which 5 of them scored a 5 or lower. This time I'll be covering 10 different Winter seasonals, of which only one scored less than a 6! In fact, they all fell in the 6-8 range, save for the one. None of them scored the highest mark possible, but none of them were unpalatable, and honestly, in my opinion, any bottle sitting in front of me that doesn't say “Guinness Draught” or “Paulaner Oktoberfest” is gonna have a tough fight to get a score of 10 outa me... So, enough gibber-jabber! Let's start at the bottom and work our way up.

Run away! Run away!

Noel de Calabaza Jolly Pumpkin, Dexter Michigan $13 for a 25oz. Bottle 9% ABV Tasting notes: Nose- coffee, caramel, sourness Color- dark brown/black Mouthfeel- medium body, light/medium carbonation Taste- sweet, sour, mild citrus, sour malt, roasted malt Pairings- crème brulee, spiced game, goat cheese, anything to overpower the beer, the drain Comments: This was the first one I tried from Michigan, sadly. I've seen other sites giving it high scores, but I have no idea why... Those reviewers must not have a taste-bud in their heads. I get that they were trying to go for a hybrid of the Belgian Sour, but in my opinion at least, they woefully missed the mark. Too sweet, too sour. The kicker is, and this is one of the reasons for it's low score, have another look at the price. I was able to choke down the whole bottle, only because of what I paid for it! Had it been ANY worse it woulda went down the drain... If you're feeling brave give it a shot and let me know what you thought. With all the high scores for it I've seen maybe I got a bad batch or I'm missing something. Failing that, it sucks. Period. After reading up on it, it appears they employ a secondary fermentation for all their beers using wild yeast. Wild yeast in Michigan is NOT the same as wild yeast in Belgium... so knock it off! Score: ...and I'm being generous Jolly Pumpkin

Kerstmutske? WTF?

Kerstmutske, Christmas Nightcap De Proef, Belgium $4.80 for an 11.2oz. Bottle 7.4% ABV Tasting notes: Nose- caramel, brown sugar, malt Color- deep brown Mouthfeel- medium/heavy body, medium carbonation Taste- sweet, smooth, slightly nutty, hints of spice Pairing- pecans, chocolate, vanilla, sharp cheddar, roasted pork, roasted squash Comments: A good portion of our list today is from Belgium, and I don't know why that surprised me. I guess I just always associated winter seasonals with the Brits, but it seems the Belgians produce far more of these than the islanders do. This one in particular is fairly forgettable. Not vomit inducing, not spectacular. I say this because I actually have forgotten what it tasted like... In my notes I gave it a 6, so we'll go with that. Score: No official link available.

... more goofy Belgian names...

Noel des Geants Brasserie des Legendes, Belgium $4.00 for an 11.2oz. Bottle 8.5% ABV Tasting notes: Nose- spices, malt, faint citrus Color- amber-brown Mouthfeel- medium body, smooth, mild carbonation Taste- spices dominate up front, brown sugar middle, malty finish, little if any hops Pairing- squash, pumpkin, nuts, spiced game birds Comments: Another from Belgium and another I can't recall. It scored the same as the previous one though, and I had them on the same night so no surprise, I guess. Drinkable, but not mind blowing in any way. Score: No official link available.

Noel again... I'm sensing a theme here...

Brewery De Ranke, Belgium $4.30 for an 11.2oz. Bottle 7% ABV Tasting notes: Nose- mild, white wine qualities, faint maltiness Color- golden amber Mouthfeel- light body, medium carbonation Taste- white grape up front, mild maltiness, mild hop finish Pairings- fish, curry, chili peppers, chili, Mexican, Thai Comments: I wasn't eating anything during any of my tastings, but this one I'm betting would go great with food. The subtle complexities will make this a damn fine pairing. Maybe I'm a little bias because I think it would pair well with some of my favorite foods, but be that as it may. I didn't mention shellfish in the pairings because in my mind beer and shellfish pairing goes without saying, but this one would be exceptional for aquatic critters of all types. Score: No official link available. (What's with these fukin Belgians?)

Bark at the moon!

Howl: Black as Night Lager Magic Hat, Vermont $8.50 for a 6-pack 4.6% ABV Tasting notes: Nose-mild nose, hint of black malt Color- black Mouthfeel- medium body, light carbonation Taste- slight sweetness, mild bitterness from a combination of heavily roasted malts and hops, coffee Pairing- BBQ, chili, grilled meats, dark berries, sharp cheddar, Gruyere Comments: My admiration for this brewery is well documented. This isn't their best effort to date, but it by no means sucks either. Good with food or on it's own. Score: Magic Hat

Brewer, patriot...

Sam Adams Winter Lager Boston, Mass. $8.99 for a 6-pack 5.8 % ABV Tasting notes: Nose- malt, faint hops and spice Color- amber-brown Mouthfeel- smooth, medium body and carbonation Taste- rich malt but not cloying, very mild spice, clean finish Pairing- roasted meats, pilaf, game, aged cheeses Comments: Sam Adams is usually hit-or-miss with me, normally falling to the hit side. While none of their beers I hold as a benchmark for, well, anything, they are damn consistent and produce a quality product. This one is no exception. A solid beer probably better suited to cooking into foods than drinking with, however. Of all the things I can think of to pair this with I can also think of better options. Still a good beer though, and nothing to turn your nose up at. Score: Sam Adams

Pine trees in Michigan are rarely that sparce...

Bell's Christmas Ale Comstock, Michigan $9.00 for a 6-pack 5.5% ABV Tasting notes: Nose- barley, caramel, mild spice notes, brown sugar Color- deep amber/red Mouthfeel- medium body and carbonation Taste- malt, caramel, ginger, toffe, mild hop finish Pairing- ham, squash, cinnamon, anise, clove, vanilla, curry Comments: Say what you want about Bell's, I like 'em. One of Michigan's better, if not most eccentric at times, micros. But eccentricity is something I admire in a brewery. Why confine yourself to making beer styles that are already well defined and no one will ever top the benchmarks of? Color outside the lines once in a while! Admittedly, this usually only yields good results if the brewers know what they're doing. The fact that I mentioned spices a couple times in the notes belies the fact that there are actually NONE used in it's brewing. All the spiciness in this beer is derived from the malts used and how they use them. Also of note, they use 100% Michigan grown barley that's custom malted and roasted for them by Briess! (The home brew nerds will recognize that name...) Score: Bell's

Two Bell's a'ringing...

Bell's Winter White Ale Comstock, Michigan $9.00 for a 6-pack 5% ABV Tasting notes: Nose- light spice, canned meat? Color- light golden, some starch haze Mouthfeel- smooth, medium body and carbonation Taste- well balanced, malt, faint spice, little hops Pairings- plainly put, holiday foods. ham, turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberries, ect... Comments: Duped again by the alchemists in the Bells brewery. No spices were used in the brewing of this beer, they relied on the mixture of barley and wheat malt and Belgian yeast to deliver the mild hint that there may have been spices involved. At a meeting of the Rogue Estate where I had this on offer everyone present enjoyed it. R.E. Tested, R.E. Approved! And to those of you who bitch and moan about Bells, fuckin buy some of this and get back to me... Seriously! Go! NOW! Score: Bell's (again)

Twelve Days of good English Ale!

Twelve Days of Christmas Ale Hook Norton Brewery, U.K. $4.50 for a 16.9oz. Bottle 5.5% ABV Tasting notes: Nose- roasted malt, coffee, toffee Color- deep brown, nearly black Mouthfeel- full bodied, medium/light carbonation Taste- heavier black malt bitterness than a porter, but essentially the same as in all other ways Pairing- roast beast, pudding (both the American and Brit variations) vanilla, aged cheddar, plums, spices Tasting notes: Another great food beer if you pair it with the right things, and the right things happen to be popular Christmas and winter foods. Not spiced like many of the others on this list, but I certainly don't think that's a requirement by any stretch of the imagination. I'm a huge fan of porters and Irish Stouts (see intro) so the fact that this beer is kind of blending those two styles won me over pretty quick. The score might be predictable then, given that admittance. Score: No official link available. The Brits too? Really?

Samuel Smith, say "what" again!

Samuel Smith Winter Welcome U.K. $5.00 for a 550 ML bottle (18.7oz.) 6% ABV Tasting notes: Nose- malty, nutty Color- red/amber Mouthfeel- medium light body, mild carbonation Taste- caramel, vanilla, spice, smooth hop finish Pairing- game, oily fish, nuts, squash, mushrooms Comments: Sam Smith has a reputation as a truly world class brewery that is completely deserved. If a beer newb asked me to recommend an English beer the first words outa my mouth would be “anything from Sam Smith or Fuller's”. This may be my bias talking again, as I'm a huge fan of beers from the British Isles, but I'm sure my comrades in beer snobbery would agree. I've never been disappointed by this brewery. 'Nuff said... Score: No official link available. (Bloody hell!) I would love to hear feedback on this post, so please don't hesitate to leave a comment if you've had any of these and agree or disagree with my assessments. The holidays are soon upon us, and some of these (at least the best of the batch) are not hard to find. Tote a 6 or 12 pack of one to grandmas for Thanksgiving or Christmas. But not the Jolly Pumpkin crap... leave that one on the shelf lest you want your family to hate you... Live well and drink better! -Jack

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