I've done two blind tastings of winter warmers (the original iteration that gave us Wassail and Snow Cap) over the past few years, and in both cases, Jubel came out on top. It had a candyish sweetness balanced by a perfect blush of peppery hops. It was incredibly smooth and warming, like a hot chocolate on a chill day.
This year's, by contrast, has a much pricklier hide. It's got some roast roughness and what I perceived as a dry tannic note. In fact, it was so dry I suspected that some wood-aged, brettanomyces-soured portion had been blended in. It is a startling departure from the Jubel of my memory. I shot Deschutes owner Gary Fish an email to get the lowdown, and he described the changes:
The original motivation for Jubelale that John Harris formulated was an English Old or Strong Ale.... I had been noticing for several years as our brewing techniques have gotten better and the equipment we were using became more sophisticated, a “drift” of our Jubelale flavoring to becoming, essentially, cleaner and drier (less estery). My comment to the brewers a couple years ago resulted in a project to, essentially, engineer back in the flavors or characteristics our processes were removing, but to do it deliberately, not by accident the way we, and most small brewers, have done things. The result is what you perceive as a change, whereas, from my perspective, we have simply returned to the way Jubelale used to taste, before these “improvements.” It is interesting you perceive wood aging. There is no wood aging in Jubelale, no brett, no oak.So there you have it.
Fish says the beer is selling well and the customers seem to like the change. For my part, I think it's a step backward. The Jubelale of 2009 and the few years before was in my view a nearly perfected beer. There's not a thing I would have changed, even by the smallest degree. I will damn the new (or return to old) recipe by that weasel word we use in beer reviews and call it more "interesting" than the old Jubel. There is more going on here. So much, in fact, that I was completely thrown off about what was in the beer. Simplicity has its virtues, though, and the seductive balance and approachability of the recipe from a couple years ago was a triumph of clarity and drinkability. The new beer is more challenging, less satisfying and way, way less moreish.
That Deschutes will tinker with sacred cows and risk losing customers like me by reformulating recipes is one of the many reasons I think it's a model for large craft breweries. Deschutes has launched a branding strategy based on the slogan "bravely done," but they've earned it. This is a ballsy move, and the consequence is that people like me will buy less Jubel this year. They've always bet on their own palates, though, and Fish clearly believes they'll earn more customers in the trade-off. (And it may work, if reviews like this are any indication.)
Relatedly, I had this year's Full Sail Wassail last night, and it is an excellent vintage. (There was one in the early aughts that remains the standard-bearer, but this one's not super far behind.) Wassail is sometimes a bit hoppy for my taste, but this year's is a wonderful blend of chocolate and caramel malts and assertive woody hopping. It is deeper and rounder than some years--my preference in a winter ale. Stock up--this is definitely a beer to have in the fridge for the long nights ahead.