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Thursday, December 04, 2014

Good Pours at the Holiday Ale Fest

There are no absolutes in the subjective realm of taste.  "Good" moves along a sliding scale, depending on our preferences.  So consider the following beers provisional recommendations.  But you knew that, right?
  • For me, the pick of the fest was Gigantic's Red Ryder BB Gun, a cranberry-infused saison.  The fruit choice was inspired: cranberries both offer a note of acid but also a fruitiness, so that the contrasting favorable qualities of the yeast--esters and attenuated dryness--are both accented.  With all the heavy, boozy beers, it also serves as a very welcome palate-cleanser.
  • Cranberries were also put to great use in Burnside's Jingleberry, a hugely-thick imperial stout.  Again, the acid in the berries help cut through the dense folds of black malt (though they're nearly consumed by them).  Unlike some of the heavy beers, it wears well, too.  I could easily have enjoyed a pint.
  • While we're on the porter-stout continuum, another winner was Coalition's Big Maple.  If you know its smaller incarnation, Loving Cup Porter, big brother will be familiar.  The maple is less obvious, which works to the beer's advantage by keeping the level of perceived sweetness down.
  • A beer you might otherwise overlook was quite nice: McMenamin's Lord of Misrule.  It's called a stout, but tracked more like an old ale to me.  Anyway, the use of habanero peppers gives it a ton of spicy flavor and only the tiniest hint of heat.  (I suspect that only two of ten people would even make the ID if they tasted it blind.)  The beer is very sweet and I don't think I could do a pint.  Still, it's well-done and clever.  Definitely worth a pour.
Overall, the fest is studded with a ton of great beers.  I was not in love with Ex Novo's Moonstriker, a mole Baltic porter (too thin; the flavors didn't come together) or Viking's Aurora Braggot (I may not be a braggot guy), but those are mostly matter's of preference.  I didn't encounter a single beer I'd warn people to skip--though in the usual manner of trading recommendations, I was guided away from one or two.  (For obvious reasons, I won't be passing that info along second-hand.)

Gentlemen excited to pursue MORE BEER.

If you care for other picks and pans, check out the New School, Beer Musings, Not So Professional Beer Blog and Beervana Buzz for alternate run-downs.


  1. I'm curious about your thoughts on barrel-as-provenance in some of these beers. I think that the freshly-dumped barrels probably lend more of the flavor of the liquor that was inside it than any actual wood notes, as there will be a little left-over from the dump. Also, this year there are two that made me raise my eyebrows:
    1)Deschutes' Frosty the Snow Quad, which featured a beer "aged" for two days inside barrels used for pinot noir (new oak? neutral?) in a cold snow cave.
    2) 10 Barrel's Rare Breed, which was aged in a scotch barrel. There are many types of Scotch, and most scotch whiskies are aged in used barrels, so the brewery saying "a scotch barrel" is pretty ambiguous.

  2. Anon, breweries use barrels to achieve different effects. Wet barrels will leech back into beer through osmosis, infusing flavors in whatever was once in the barrel. New barrels contribute wood notes. Aging for a long time allow the beer to interact with oxygen. Breweries will use barrels differently depending on the effect they want.

    You'd have to ask the breweries what they were trying to achieve, but two days is enough time to get a bit of the wine out of the barrel and not much else. Scotch barrels were almost all formerly used for other spirits (usually bourbon, since those barrels can only be used once), but it's definitely fair to call them "Scotch." Scotch whisky spends a lot more time in those barrels than bourbon ever did, so what comes out of them is Scotch-y. I've tried various Scotch-aged beers, and, especially with Islay barrels, they are pronounced and very much Scotch-flavored.

  3. I'll add that beer is far more delicate than wine--a barrel a winemaker would call neutral will still impart some oak in a beer.
    You never get all of the liquid out of the wood of a barrel. A barrel can be dumped, cleaned, and stored for quite a while and still have a fair amount of wine/booze to add (assuming, of course, it's well stored and maintained).
    Barrel aging is like riding a bike without handlebars--you can exert some influence, but you're never really in control. When it works out it sure looks awesome, but if it doesn't... well, we'll always wish it had.