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Friday, January 6, 2012

Holiday Beers

Sherman On the Mount
Take a look at this list of breweries, many of which you'll recognize: Absolut Cut, Alexander Keith, Bass, Becks, Bodington, Budweiser, Hoegaarden, Labatt, Lowenbrau, Rolling Rock, Shock Top, Land Shark, Spatan, St. Pauli Girl, Stella Artois, Tennent's, Tinkoy (from Russia), ZhuJiang (from China). What do all of these beers have in common? They are all owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, the mega-beer company which is the largest in the world. These are only a few of the 100 plus breweries that A-B InBev has wrapped their tentacles around. I was noodling around on Google the other day and happened upon a site that listed every single brewery and every single beer that came under the control of A-B InBev. I was amazed. Upon further investigation I found that they hold a minority ownership in Red Hook,Widmer Brothers, and Grupo Modelo as well as distribution rights for Kona, Fordham Brewing Company, and Old Dominion Brewing. On top of that, there is the "Green Valley Brewing Company" - which doesn't really exist - that produces Stone Mill Organic Pale Ale - a pseudo-craft beer brewed by A-B.

A-B's pseudo-craft beers
Don't be fooled!

Now certainly AB/IB has a right to buy up whatever breweries are willing to sell their souls to them. I believe in capitalism. My problem comes when AB/IB uses rather underhanded tactics which make it difficult for a true craft beer enthusiast to find real craft beer. While in Florida recently I walked into a bar which had ten or twelve taps and I was psyched that I would find a good beer there. Once I got close to the taps though I saw the following: Bud, Bud Light, Coors light, Stella Artois, Land Shark Lager, Blue Moon, Shock Top, Michelob Light, Ultra, Miller and Natural. So eight of the ten taps were AB/IB brews and the other two were Millers/Coors. In other words the bar was essentially dominated by the Big Two beer conglomerates. And what kind of a choice is offered here? Every one of those is a lager or (shudder) a light lager with the possible exception of Blue Moon and Shock Top which are both ostensibly Belgian whites.  Where's the Pale Ale? The IPA? The Porter? The Stout? Anything? Beuller?

I ordered a Merlot.

I recently checked on the traffic to this blog and was pleasantly surprised to find we have an impressive readership that extends around the world. So if you're new to BOTB - welcome! Please take a moment and sign in as a follower and feel free to comment (good or bad) on what you read here. Let me take a minute to familiarize you with us (If you've read this before, feel free to skip ahead to the ratings). We are a group of guys who, in a moment of divine inspiration came up with the idea for a beer club. All of us were fans of craft beers and particularly hoppy beers. We decided to meet once a month. The idea was to choose a style of beer (with the notable exception of light beers) and everyone was to pick a craft beer within that style to rate. The idea for the blog was a bit of an afterthought, but it seemed to make sense and I, frustrated writer that I am, thought that it might be fun. Since then, we have caught the eye (thanks to Dan, our intrepid PR guy) of a number of breweries - Middle Ages, Harpoon, Leinenkugel, Sam Adams and Saranac to name a few - who have provided us with samples to rate. Our rating system has evolved to one which is more anecdotal and subjective than empirical because taste is subjective. We try to be objective in those areas where it makes sense: color, head, aroma. When it comes to taste we attempt to describe as best we can, but the key part of our review is in the "comments" section. Here we wax philosophically on the merits of said beer. I take some grammatical liberties here for the sake of expediency, enclosing the entire group of comments in one set of quotation marks and separating rater's comments with a semi-colon.
Oh, and I usually have a section called "Sherman on the Mount" (my last name is Sherman - get it?) in which I generally bitch about the mega-breweries and light beer and anything else that comes to mind.

Holiday Brews

Back when we looked at Oktoberfest beers, I commented about the fact that the difference between the various brews was minor. We searched our taste buds mightily to identify the subtitles that differentiated one beer from the next. With our holiday brews this was not the case. Whereas Oktoberfest beers in general are Marzen style beers - well-aged malty beers, amber in color and with and ABV between 5% and 6.2% - Holiday Brews can be pretty much whatever the brewer wants. In part because of the colder temperatures, holiday brews tend to be stronger both in alcohol content and/or in flavor - often using bold spices and dark fruits along with rich malt and generous doses of hops.  

This month's meeting was at the Rileys. Their home was beautifully decorated for the season and the BOTB guys gathered in their finished basement - essentially as close to Heaven on Earth as any red-blooded male could hope to find; equipped with a flat screen TV tuned perpetually to ESPN, a pool table and a fully stocked bar. We began the afternoon with some of Dan's amazing whiskey-marinated cherries. These are sour cherries picked at their peak in July and allowed to languish in a marinate of whiskey and sugar. Yum!

We imposed a strict rule that there were to be no repeats - no beers we had previously reviewed. Each of us needed to visit our favorite beer store and come up with something new. The biggest problem turned out to be one of limiting. Which seven beers should we review? We ended up with nearly twelve beers! We were provided with beers from Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company as well as the Boston Beer Company, so we had our hands (and mouths) full!

Ultimately we settled on these beers to rate: Leinenkugel's Fireside Nut Brown, Abita's Christmas Ale, Otter Creek's Winter Red Ale, Weyerbacher's Winter Ale, Rogue Brewery's Yellow Snow, Rogues Santa's Private Reserve, and Grindstone Brewery's holiday Brew.

We also had a bottle of Samuel Adam's Infinium 2011. We didn't rate this, merely enjoyed it. This is a really unique beer. Very big, at 10.3% ABV with a taste that is very different. It looks more like Champagne than beer, with a golden, bubbly appearance, so we drank it in Champagne flutes and toasted in the new year. It is a bit sweet with a kind of yeasty and fruity combination of flavors. Definitely one of those brews that some will love and some will hate. Personally, I found it interesting and enjoyed a glassful, but it is hard to think of it as beer.

We used the rating form we've been using, judging on the basis of aroma, color, flavor, mouthfeel, overall impressions and then the comments (often the most revealing section).

Leinenkugel's Fireside Nut Brown

THE BEER FACTS: Fireside is available from November through December. It is a European style Brown Ale. ABV = 4.9%  IBU = 15

THE BOTB GUYS OPINE: Being unapologetic hopheads, we might normally look down our patrician noses at a beer with a mere 15 IBU. Yet, this is what we discovered... 
      Aroma: A pleasant malty/nutty aroma wafted out of pour with a solid, frothy head.
      Color:   Chestnut amber.
      Flavor:  Roasty, nutty, warm with a rich maltiness.
      Mouthfeel: Somewhat thin.
      Overall Impressions: While not quite "Can't Get Enough" the general impression was surprisingly positive considering the fact that this is not a particularly hoppy beer.
      Comments: "Nice creamy head; Well carbonated; Nutty taste; Good sit-by-the-fireplace beer; A nice starter beer for the evening."

Abita Christmas Ale 

THE BEER FACTS: Abita Brewing Company is a locally owned brewery located in Abita Springs, LA, just 30 miles from New Orleans. It was established in 1986 and by 1994 had outgrown it's original location and moved just down the road to a new facility. The Christmas Ale is sold from November through December. The ABV is 5.2% and the IBU is 35.

NUMBER OF CORE BEERS: 7 (Plus 5 seasonals, 3 harvest brews, and 4 Big Beers - including Save Our Shores, an unflitered Wizen Pils. Abita donates 75 cents for every bottle sold toward the Gulf shore cleanup.)

FLAGSHIP BREW: Turbodog - a brown ale

AWARDS, PRIZES, ETC.: 2010 "People's Choice Award" at the Atlantic City Beer Fest - Bronze for Purple Haze in the Specialty Beers category; bronze for Amber in the Amber Lager/Ale category; and Gold medal for Turbodog in the Brown Ale category.    2010 - Named "Best Brew" at Rocktoberfest in Fort Lauderdale, Fl.

MOST INTRIGUING BEER: Pecan Harvest Ale - Made with real Louisiana pecans.

WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT THEIR CHRISTMAS ALE: "...The recipe changes every year, offering a unique product crafted with special care."

THE BOTB GUYS OPINE:  It poured a very Christmassy red with a solid head.

      Aroma: a bit of a "musty" nose to it.
      Color:   Red.
      Flavor:  Sweet, malty but several noted an "off" kind of undertaste.
      Mouthfeel: Full
      Overall Impression: Generally not good. Tended toward the "Can't Stand it" end.
      Comments: "Off taste; If this was the last thing in the fridge, I'd drink it; I would cook with it. Great for cooking brats. Tastes of rutabaga; Is this from the Gulf since Katrina?: Looks good, but doesn't taste so great."

Otter Creek Winter Red Ale

THE BEER FACTS: 5.5% ABV - 45 IBU. We checked out Otter Creek brewery during our Porter tastings. 

WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT THEIR WINTER RED ALE: "Winter Red Ale has the traditional characteristics of a red ale with the addition of an ample amount of hops to create a subtle bitterness and medium aroma. A perfect ale for a bitter winter evening."

THE BOTB GUYS OPINE: A much hoppier brew than we expected from a red ale.
      Aroma: flowery hop fragrance that teased the palate for a taste
      Color: Dark amber to red.
      Flavor: Nice bitter hop presence here that nicely balances the maltiness of a red ale.
      Mouthfeel: Full
      Overall Impression: Very positive - toward the "Can't get enough" end of the scale.
      Comments: "It's got some hop to it; I would DRINK this!; Nice and hoppy - hoppier than expected for either a Christmas seasonal or a red ale."

Weyerbacher Winter Ale

THE BEER FACTS: Weyerbacher Brewing Company is located in Easton, PA. It was launched in 1995 by Dan and Sue Weirback. Their Winter Ale has an ABV of 5.6%. While "Winter Ale" is somewhat a generic name, most of their brews have great names. Check these out: Hops Infusion, Blithering Idiot, Old Heathen, Verboten, Merry Monks, Slam Dunkel, Insanity, Heresy.

NUMBER OF CORE (YEAR ROUND) BEERS: 7 (plus 10 seasonals and various specialty brews).


AWARDS, PRIZES, ETC.:  Gold Medal at The Great American Brew Festival for Dark Braggot Anniversary Beer in the Specialty Honey Beer category. Winter Ale won silver in the 1998 World Beer Championships. Quad was Grand Champion in 2000 and 2004 in the United States Beer Tasting Championships.

MOST INTRIGUING BEER: Bottle Conditioned Blasphemy. (Honestly, they have a number of very interesting limited edition brews).

WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT THEIR WINTER ALE: "Weyerbacher Winter Ale is brewed with deep-roasted chocolate malt. The taste predominates with a warm, roasty flavor, balanced out with a slightly dry finish. It's somooth but not cloying, with a warming belt of alcohol."

THE BOTB GUYS OPINE: Definitely a malt heavy winter ale.
      Aroma: Distinctly malty with a strong hint of banana.
      Color:  Dark amber to red.
      Flavor: balanced with a bit of banana in there with the malt.
      Mouthfeel: thin
      Overall Impression: For the most part UNimpressed.
      Comments: "Didn't really care for it; Ehhh, not so bad; Has a British yeast flavor; It's a little thin. The label is pretty busy."

Rouge Brewery's Yellow Snow

THE BEER FACTS: Rogue was founded in 1988 in Ashland, Oregon and is one of the early pioneers in the craft beer revolution. Yellow snow weighs in at 6.5% ABV and an impressive 70 IBU.

NUMBER OF CORE BEERS: 40 - though not all are year-round.


AWARDS, PRIZES, ETC.: Too numerous to list here. Check out their website at However Yellow Snow IPA won gold in the 2011, 2010, 2009 World Beer Championships.

MOST INTRIGUING BREW: Tough call. Take your pick. How about Morimoto Soba Ale just because I have no idea what it is.

WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT THEIR BREW: "Pale golden in color with a hoppy fruity aroma. Big hop flavor up front complemented by medium body and hoppiness mid-palate. Finishes with a characteristic lingering bitterness."

THE BOTB GUYS OPINE: To quote Frank Zappa: "Watch out where those Huskies go, and don't you eat that yellow snow." However, you might want to reconsider that if the yellow snow comes from Rogue Brewery. Takes a lot of guts and an extreme confidence in your beer to name it for a euphemism for dog urine; but when it's this good, you can call it whatever you want.

      Aroma: Rich grapefruit hoppy scent right up front.
      Color:   Pale honey blonde.
      Flavor:  In a word: delicious! A full-on hops assault. They don't mess around here.
      Mouthfeel: Full.
      Overall Impression: Can't Get Enough of That Wonderful Stuff!
      Comments: "That's why I drink beer!; Deee-licious!; This beer confirms my existence!; Boy that's a good beer!" (A full-on exclamation point assault!)

Rogue Brewery's Santa's Private Reserve

THE BEER FACTS: In an unusual occurrence here at Beer Force One we ended up with two beers from the same brewery. When that brewery is Rogue though, that's not a bad thing. It's a red ale, but double hopped. It weighs in at 5.5% ABV and 65 IBU's. 

WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT THEIR BREW: "A double-hopped Red, reddish in color, with a roasty, malty flavor and a hoppy spruce finish."

THE BOTB GUYS OPINE: We considered a head-to-head competition here with Yellow Snow, but one's an IPA and the other's a red ale so for us hopheads the IPA would automatically have a leg up on the competition. However, as we found, Santa's stands on its own quite well, thank you. While we didn't overtly compare the two, you'll notice comparisons made in some of the comments.

      Aroma: Piney hops dominate.
      Color: Dark red
      Flavor: Leans more toward the hoppy end, with notes of pine and grapefruit, but more balanced than Yellow Snow.
      Mouthfeel: Full and satisfying.
      Overall Impressions: Can't Get Enough. Another winner from Rogues. One of the better holiday brews.
      Comments: "It's unfiltered and darker that the Yellow Snow; There is more malt - it gets you from behind to hit you with the hops; It's not an IPA, but an ale - and a good one!; For a holiday beer, it's pretty good."

Grindstone Brewery's Hoppy Holidays 2
Black IPA


THE BEER FACTS: Grindstone Brewery's second holiday offering is a winner. Made in small batches along the banks of Grindstone Creek, this is Grindstone's second holiday brew.

WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT THEIR BEER: "We tweaked the recipe from last year, went a little darker with a bit more complexity."

      Aroma: Rich malty nose.
      Color: Very dark, nearly black, with a big mocha colored head.
      Flavor: Balanced - roasted grain, dark chocolate with a clean, hoppy finish.
      Mouthfeel: Full 
      Overall Impression: Can't Get Enough. 
      Comments: "Oh, this is good; It is balanced - complex and fills the mouth; I could drink this for breakfast. It's as dark as coffee; I think I would drink it after work; It's the 'I've got to go to the bathroom, but I won't leave my beer!'; Much like a black IPA, with a nice chocolate undertaste."

So, to recap: -As a group, we weren't crazy about the Abita or the Weyerbacher. 
                           -Some felt that the Abita had a bit of a skunky aroma and taste similar to what we experienced in an earlier session with Tanner's Jack.  The Weyerbacher was not bad but not one we'd go out and buy. 
                           -Leinenkugel we were pleasantly surprised with. Not a hoppy brew, yet it has a nice toasty, malty, cozy flavor reminiscent of a roaring fire on a cold winter night.  
                           -Otter Creek we all liked. Nice, hoppy presence in a red ale.
                           -Santa's Private Reserve, Yellow Snow and Grindstone's Hoppy Holidays Black IPA all scored as excellent. Beers we would buy year round were they available.

Coming Soon...

January - Our first true foray into Scottish Ales.  We'll huv to tilt a few kilts to figure oot what aw the palaver is ower the heavies and the wee heavies.

February - We double our pleasure with Double IPA's.

March - Justin Pytlak of H-Block Brewery joins the BOTB Guys - and he comes bearing beers!

The BOTB Guys

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