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Monday, October 23, 2006

A Flurry of Winter Ales

Never mind the 65 degree weather, 'tis the season ... for winter ales. In fairness, global warming may be to blamed for the cognitive dissonance--isn't late October generally at least chilly? In any case, I have a few mini-reviews here. Two of the four deserve revisiting later, once they've had a chance to age and mellow. As is the case every year, the first bottles of Jubelale are a little green. (Wassail is generally also, though I failed to buy a sixer at the single grocery store I saw it--downtown Safeway, I think--and haven't seen it since.)

The Style
There is no actual, or sole, "winter warmer" style. Breweries have wide latitude this one season each year to create a truly unique beer. Broadly speaking, these beers should be strong and robust, providing enough flavor and alcohol to warm your core. But whether that's a doppelbock, a strong ale, a stout, or something without category--that's the brewery's choice. We've had an ongoing discussion on Beervana about the characteristics of the "Northwest style," and I think you can see it clearly around this time of year. Oregon (and Washington) breweries tend to go to dark malts and rich complexity. Although hops are celebrated, almost without exception these beers resist the label of "out of balance" or "overly hoppy." In many ways, I think they represent the truest passions of the brewers who make them.

Alaskan Winter Ale
This beer is aiming for something greater than it actually achieves. Brewed in the style of an old ale, Alaskan adds the tips of Sitka Spruce for character. It is amber, rather on the pale side, with a very light (and quickly-evaporating head). I got a sweet caramel nose that may have had a note of diacetyl and also may have had a bit of spruce, but both were rather shadowy. The flavor of the beer is likewise subdued--mellow and sweet, with a butterscotch candy palate and a mild pineyness that may have come from the spruce. I also thought I detected a mint quality which I retrospectively identify as spruce. The sum is not quite the promise of the parts. I'd like a little more of everything--maltiness, hops, and spruce. Call it an interesting experiment that needs to be taken an iteration further.

Malts: pale, wheat, Munich and caramelized malts, hops: Saaz, alcohol:6.4% abv, original gravity: 1.066; bitterness units: 27. Rating: Average.

Deschutes Jubelale
Here's an interesting factoid: Jubel was the first beer Deschutes ever bottled, a fact about which I was until recently ignorant. Despite this, the brewery seems inevitably to always brew it late and/or release it early, so when I buy my first early-October bottle, it's green and not indicative of the beer will become. And again, as constant as the seasons, the pattern repeated--the beer's too green, but I'm still buying it in October.

What I can tell you is that it's a beautiful chestnut, full of roasty malt aroma and garlanded with a delicious peppery hop. The hops and alcohol currently overwhelm the smoothness of the malt, but give it time. This is typically one of the creamiest and smoothest of the big winter ales, so let's give it an incomplete.

Alcohol:6.7% abv, bitterness units: 60.

BridgePort Ebenezer
Tawny amber, very bright--looks a lot like an Oktoberfest. Comforting fresh-bread aroma, with a touch of black pepper and cola-like sweetness. I recall this being a slightly harsh, thin-bodied beer, but the 2006 incarnation is neither. It's a mellow, creamy, candyish ale with a slightly piney, spicy hopping. Some winter ales are a little like a brandy, with a sharper alcohol edge, while others are like hot toddies. Put Ebenezer in that last category. As with the Alaskan, I'd like a little more oomph, but Ebenezer has its charms.

Alcohol: 6.4% abv, original gravity: 16° Plato; Bitterness Units: 40. Rating: Good.

Redhook Winterhook
Extremely aromatic, rich with green, citrusy Cascades. No mention by the brewery that it's dry-hopped, but I wouldn't bet against it. This incarnation of Winterhook is a strangely summery beer, with a bright, layered hopping that comes off fruity and mild. It must be a new recipe--I recall an older version of Winterhook (it was actually one of the first winter warmers) that was darker and more vibrant.

A recurrent criticism I have with Redhook is similar to Portland Brewing--their beers are far too safe. This is a pleasant and polite beer, the kind you'd take home to someone's mother. But it isn't a hearty ale that could beat back the frost. Even the stats tell the tale--5.5% abv/28 IBUs. I definitely wouldn't turn one down--a beer with this kind of hop aroma is a keeper--but I'd hate to be stuck at a December Seahawks game with nothing more than Winterhook to protect me from the elements.

: English caramel and Munich, hops: Cascade, Northern Brewer, alcohol:5.5% abv, original gravity: 1.053; Bitterness Units: 28, Rating: Good.


  1. Nice write up of the new wave of seasonal brews. I too have been trying to get to some of the newer ones and it seems to be totally hit or miss. Alaskan has been on my list for quite some time and I'm definitely going to give it a shot soon.

    I did a little write up about some of the seasonals I tried as well, so you might want to take a look at that. I'm definitely a fan of Jubelale though. I dove in head first and bought a whole 12 pack. Sadly only one is left, but if what you said is true then I can't wait to see if it evolves.

    One brew I did find surprisingly delicious was Bison Brewing's Gingerbread Ale. So far it is by far my favorite, yet it gets no love from BeerAdvocate or RateBeer.


  2. Drunken Blog Troll10:54 PM, October 23, 2006

    If anybody comes across an Aass Jule from Norway, check it out. Very nice Holiday Ale.

    Just had a very nice Deschutes Jubel on Cask at Moon and Sixpence here in Portland. I love the cask version it mellows out some of the "northwest style" ;-} It creates a nice martiage of flavors...

    Also, check out a new Grand Cru and Bourbon Barrel Stout from Alesmith from san Diego...

    Although, I'm tired of the spices, we should be getting a batch of Anchor's Holiday ALe coming our way too..

    Looking forward to the Holiday ale Fest in December... Midnight Sun's Black Pengiun seemed to be the Star last year... and local Baltic Porter, kicked bootay... Big and chewy malt, hops were almost non-exsistent but along for the ride with a balance...

  3. Rick,

    I've given up on the Beer Advocate and RateBeer ratings. It's the curese of the multitudes. People who are relatively untutored about beer weigh in by the thousands, and so the beers that come to the top are all stronger beers with bold character. No subtle beers make it past the masses. Besides, it's all subjective, anyway, right?

    DBT, I have Tannen Bomb, Wassail, and Rogue Santa Ale (don't recall the actual name) in the fridge. I will try to track down some of the ones you mentioned--Midnight Sun used to be brewed by Portland Brewing. Maybe it'll be around town (though not at Belmont Station now).

  4. Drunken Blog Troll11:53 PM, October 24, 2006


    Yes, BA and RB are very annoying to read... I agree, most people just rate the BIG beers really high and don't "Can't" appreciate and subtle beer styles...

    I think a web site should be created with a group of beer judges (BJCP or the equivalent) who RATE beers ane let other come to read the REAL reviews. Of course, taste is subjective, but I think the general public would get an evaluation of quality within the different styles...

    Also, had Great Divide Hibernation Holiday Ale...Very nice, big fruity nose with a complex hop aroma. A strong ale verging on a Barleywine.

    The other one I was thinking of was the "Killer Pengiun" from Boulder brewing...

    ..Those Colorado guys again.... ;-}

    Two interesting Belgian beers I just picked up!

    Thelonous Monk Strong Belgian from North COast BC in CA... Very nice, but need another taste for a better evaluation... ;-}

    ANother is from BJ's here in Portland! A special PORTLAND Belgian beer... Have not tried yet...

  5. The other one I was thinking of was the "Killer Pengiun" from Boulder brewing...

    ..Those Colorado guys again.... ;-}

    Ha--now I've got you! David Zuckerman, the brewer at Boulder, learned his chops in the 80s at BridgePort before heading off to Colorado. We were actually in college together, and I used to go over to his house where he had a fridge outfitted with a keg and a tap that ran through the door. It was, needless to say, one of the primo off-campus houses to visit. (He was three years older than me and already graduated by the time the fridge came on line, and I regarded the fridge--and David--with awe.) He still makes an annual trek to Oregon for the OBF, where I catch up with him for a couple hours. He loves Oregon.

    Everything he learned about beer he learned in Beervana. No wonder Boulder's one of the best Colorado breweries!

    (I'll check out the Penguin--it's at Belmont Station.)

  6. Drucken Blog Troll12:30 AM, October 26, 2006

    Ha--now I've got you!

    Your scaring me, Jeff! Do you this I'm this Zuckerman guy? The only Zuckerman I know are the guys who made the Airplane movies....But, they were the Zucker Brothers...

    Maybe you really need some "Killer Pengium...." ;-}