It has turned into the holiday season quite suddenly, as usual. As if there is a time of year or season during which I do not think about beer the holidays have got me thinking about beer and how enjoyable sharing a glass of something new, or a special aged bottle from the cellar with friends and family can be. It is a great time of year to drink something special. Amazing Christmas offerings from world class breweries make up a long list of options as well as any overlooked category from your regular drinking line up. Tasting beers or lining up a few drinks with a friend or relative you haven’t seen in a while is a highly enjoyable and affordable source of entertainment that can be hosted at home. I particularly enjoy getting into styles that I do not frequent throughout the year (and some that I do); Christmas beers, Imperial Stouts and Barleywines. The latter two on this list may have some of you wondering how a self-proclaimed beer lover could ignore such remarkable styles throughout the year. Well they are certainly not ignored, I am more pointing towards styles that are well suited to aging and this is the time of year when I dip into the cellar to crack what has been developing over the last 6 months to several years. Comparing vintages of repeating classics such as Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, Anchor Christmas, and Sierra Bigfoot always makes for a fine evening or afternoon. There are also numerous collector-level brews to consider adding to your cellar like Alesmith Speedway Stout or Stone Vertical Epic and if you are feeling adventurous there is a selection of numerous vintages of English strong ale from JW Lees and Gales available. Getting into the cellar is often a momentous event well suited for the celebratory season we are in. I also quite enjoy the exploration of overlooked styles and new seasonal offerings. For me the most overlooked style is weizenbock. Generally speaking I am not a fan of Weiss or Hefeweizen, however there is no denying the unparalleled quality of a beer like Schneider Aventinus. A revisit keeps me in touch with the breadth of brewing and aware of my ever changing palate. As for seasonal brews, the Belgian brewers have this season locked up. As much as I love American brewing, the Belgian Christmas beers are simply the best winter brews around. I look forward to the annual release of warming, yeasty beers that show off complexity, refinement and extreme deliciousness. St. Bernardus Christmas Ale and De Ranke Pere Noel are two of my favorites, but I also enjoy the glass packs that combine your beer of choice with the brewery’s glass specifically designed for drinking their beer. There is so much out there, but as long as you have what you like best in your favorite glass and have someone to share it with, you are all set for a great holiday season.
The cold has approached quite abruptly and with this seasonal change the right beer is needed to provide both warmth and refreshment. I would love to go on to claim that a well crafted Oktoberfest Lager would fit the season perfectly, but since the wonderful world of beer seems to wish it was like fashionable clothing O-fest brews are already in short supply and winter beers are not long from the shelves. Something like Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest is delightful when coming in from the coolness of fall to warm up also goes hand in hand with the need for refreshment. Although there is still some available I will completely shift styles and focus on what might be attainable for more than the rest of this week – Harvest Ales. Unlike many trends in beer which I find ridiculous, the growing popularity of the harvest style I am thrilled with. I hope that more breweries will become excited about these brews and that consumers will reward their efforts with repeated consumption. To be clear I am addressing the beer that is derived from the fresh harvest of the necessary ingredients. The most prominent of these ingredients is hops and usually that is the driving flavor of a harvest ale. Many breweries take this opportunity to make a ‘wet hop’ IPA, where the newly harvested hops are added in immediately with no drying in between. Being one who remains obsessed with the delicious flavor of hops I find harvest time quickly becoming my favorite beer season. Sadly my passion digresses from O-fest brews as breweries consistently push them back into the summer when the beer and the season just do not match up as well. I find IPAs to be more of a summer style than a winter style, but harvest ales are generally coming out as IPAs with a heartier malt balance and many pour a more rich amber than their lighter IPA counterparts. Sierra Nevada likely has the most recognizable harvest ale and it is indeed deserving of recognition. Founder’s makes one of the best harvest ales I have had, but MA is far enough from their operation that supplies are still pretty sparse. Back to the balance of warming and refreshment though… The boldness of many of these harvest ales brings a certain warmth to you on a crisp fall day but I am often also thirsty on a day like that. After mingling with the unholy rain of leaves that will only hide itself after hours of encouragement from me I find that some refreshment is called for. Hop driven beers are mouth watering and, as such, refreshing. The full bodied, full flavored, quenching freshness makes harvest ales a perfect compliment to the fall.
Home draught systems are generally sought after by most beer drinkers. In-home pouring (or in garage / basement pouring for most of us homesteaders) is more and more popular and many advantages are apparent; one empty instead of 164 empties, adjustable serving size, less $ per beer, being cooler than your friends and having lots of beer where you used to never have enough. I have to ask which is better though, bottles or barrels? Obviously the answer is both, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. An answer like that doesn’t give me much to say here does it? Read More about Keg or Bottle?
The flood gates are open and O-fest and Pumpkin brews are pouring in. Clearly I was not quite ready for this a few weeks ago, but after a week off to enjoy the heat and sun of the last week of August I return eager to embrace my favorite beer season. Really all weather produces a fine environment for beer drinking and I will surely explain why every season. With the sun still high in the sky, but cool nights following I find this time of year a most excellent climate for drinking delicious lagers. It is around now that I start thinking about my wood pile and working outside to build thirst. Oktoberfest lagers are coming in from almost every German and American brewery and there is almost not enough time to try them all before the winter beers replace them on the shelves. I have not totally warmed up to the Pumpkin beer thing but many of them are well made and interesting to try. I know many people who wait all year for these special brews and find the flavor irresistible. I do appreciate the additional character that is added to the beer without the typical dramatic increase in sweetness we find in most fruit beers. I oppose the spicy ones that have been built upon a beer of little substance and attempt to add excellence to an otherwise plain ale with cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and clove – it’s not a pie. The best offerings exemplify a pumpkin flavor fused into a real beer that would likely be tasty on its own. The best choice, if you ask me, is Fisherman’s Pumpkin Stout. Weyerbacher and Southern Tier have some pretty serious Pumpkin brews as well. I digress… Oktoberfest is where my excitement is. I mentioned some great choices in my last post and there are many more worth a look. Few American companies actually make an ale and try to past it off as Oktoberfest, but this is a farce. I enjoy the smooth, rich flavored yet still thirst quenching aspect of a well made O-fest lager. On a cool evening they just hit the spot.
It is about the time of year when I start to hear the frustration and sometimes disgust from many customers about the curtailing of the summer beer season. Oktoberfest brews are available as of now. Although I resist ordering them at first (as I am doing now) I am soon forced into it so that I can have the variety that is available before they sell out. Crazy, right? To think that I have to order O-fest supplies when August has barely begun to make sure inventory is complete for the season burns me up. Summer is but 1/3 over. Consumers are rightfully frustrated by retail seasons being far from real seasons, but it is not retailers at fault – it is suppliers. As much I love Oktoberfest beers (my favorite seasonal indeed) I hate the premature end of summer in the beer world. Competition for draft lines and many consumers’ distaste for purchasing a beer named October after October has passed have driven suppliers to madness in the summer. This year summer seasonals were released before the first day of Spring and as we find ourselves finally enjoying the heat of the summer they are stripped away from us. As ludicrous as I find retail seasons to be I have to admit that in my opinion summer beers pale in comparison to Oktoberfest beers (no pun intended). I much prefer the hardy lager when the weather is cooler and fall is in the air but at least the quality is there, besting many summer styles. So, forget about the name and the implication that summer is coming to a close. Autumn isn’t here until September 22nd even though the beer with its namesake is. Just enjoy the brew while you can because this season will also be closed before its time. Long time favorites are Berkshire Brewing, Victory, Hofbrau and Ayinger. Soon to be on the shelves.
I’d like to point out how great a quality Pilsner can be. I will use the term Pilsner loosely here to describe a style. Pilsner, properly defined, is a pale lager created in the 1800’s in Pilsen, Bohemia. This beer uses bottom fermenting yeast and is cold fermented, as it would have been in caves long ago. So, Pilsners as I talk about them, mimic this style but come from all over the world and may employ different ingredients. Saaz hops are the traditional hop for Pilsner brews, but others are used today. Enough about that, I wish to proclaim pilsners an excellent style, too often overlooked by myself and others who demand mass flavor and extreme excellence from our beer. Now is the time to give this style a try. We finally have the heat of the summer and the thirst that comes with New England humidity. I find pilsners to be highly refreshing and satisfying on the flavor front. There is no comparison to be made to your favorite IPA, but the refreshment easily makes up for a subdued flavor profile and light body. What I have realized is that good pilsners are clean beers that strive for perfection. There is nothing to hide defects in the brewing as the beer is too light. A blemish or poor ingredient choice will be the dominant flavor in such a beer so good breweries are sure to avoid this. Most of us are familiar with the American pilsner farce, brewed with corn or rice and mass marketed. I would like little or nothing to do with these. At the top of my list is Victory Prima Pils. The floral notes and the crisp finish with plenty of hops (relatively speaking of course) make for a wonderful session, especially on a hot afternoon. Post yard work, what could be better? Yard work getting you down? You can grab a pilsner before you’re done and not worry about an extreme abv halting your progress or making your mower leave patches of tall grass everywhere. I also highly recommend Lagunitas Pils, Oskar Blues Yella Pils and Troegs Sunshine Pils. I also enjoy the more traditional Czechvar, Starobrno, and Staropramen. The style has plenty to offer and can represent great quality. I find pilsner a welcome respite from the power of my usual favorite IPAs and Stouts as well as from the heat.