When I lived in India, there were two seasons--hot and oven. The shift from one to the other was subtle. You knew it was winter when your skin stopped visibly crisping when it was inadvertently exposed. People always talked about "change of seasons," as though something profound washappening. In any case, I was reminded of this when all of a sudden I started getting flooded with beer. In the US, fall is a big moment to shift from summer sippers to the more complex, fuller beers that get geeky (and brewer) blood flowing. So here's a few reviews, with more to come.
Ninkasi Lady of Avalon
BeerAdvocates as they sputter) but delighting me.
In about two weeks, I will have a far, far better handle on the style of beer they've brewed with Lady of Avalon (I will be in Franconia beginning the 19th and then on to Munich). As it is, dunkel being rare in these parts (both locally-brewed and imported), I'll skip thoughts about fidelity to style. Indeed, with a perfume of earthy hops and a noticeable spicy bitterness, it probably qualifies as "Oregon Dunkel." Pure comfort beer for chill nights--creamy, walnut malting with a roasted twist. If you're in a mood for Black Butte Porter, let your hand wander to a sixer of this instead. It will satisfy.
Final question: how did Ninkasi get the nipple past the TTB?
Gordon Biersch Weizen Eisbock
Gordon Biersch has entered the big-beer, barrel-aged, specialty-bottled beer market (someone should come up with a category name for these). I failed to review the imperial pilsner they sent over the summer. It's a style I don't love, but GB managed to find hop delicacy in its heft, and I quite enjoyed it. An impressive debut.
Next comes a Weizen Eisbock, which is pretty self-explanatory. The brewery started with a weizen (probably a strong one, based on the beer's final ABV--10%) and coaxed plenty of banana from the yeast. Then they froze it, took out some ice, and concentrated the beer. This method of distillation is a tricky one and it works--when it does--because the concentrated flavors continue to harmonize. Bocks make a great starting point; they're clean and balanced. Weizens emphatically do not. What Gordon Biersch has done is concentrate the banana flavors but also roasted flavors. This is an unhappy coincidence--like anchovies in your chocolate mousse. One of those ideas that draws up interestingly on paper, but doesn't pan out in the real world.
I was recently writing about how Northwesterners like their winter ales (Full Sail Wassail, Deschutes Jubelale), and a classic brand is Winterhook. It is very much in the vein of those eighties winter beers that seem to have sort of died out--but which are really quite special. Brewed with a touch of warming alcohol (usually closer to 7%, but Winterhook is six), a deep blush of color and a touch of Maillard roastiness all spiced with the finest, usually insistent local hops. It's a wonder no one has said, "screw it, let's just make one of these and sell them year-round." They are always welcome and always loved.
Winterhook has had its good years and it's meh years, and this is a good one. The beer is deep amber, but has a noticeable roast in both the nose and palate. It has been laced with wonderfully lush, floral hops--they deepen into spice at the swallow. Very nice beer. One word of caution: most winter ales can use a bit of ripening, and some are nice after a year. Don't cellar Winterhook. The hops are a big reason this beer succeeds, and they're delicate and crisp, two qualities that won't age well.
Southampton Burton IPA
I think Southampton gets it pretty close to the mark--close to the mark in my head, anyway. In my head, a Burton should be pale-ish (but not pale), strong, thick, minerally, and relatively hoppy. Burtons are sticky with high terminal gravities, but they achieve balance through pretty stiff hopping. All true with Southampton's. As a bonus, the Burtonized water adds quite a bit to the experience and is a key element to the balance. Heavy maltiness is sweet and gloppy on the tongue; the minerals cut against this perception and help lighten the experience. You wouldn't want this beer on a hot summer day. Fortunately, you don't have to worry about that anymore. As time travel goes, this is a pretty cheap way to do it.