The holidays are always decadent: we eat too much, we sleep too much and obviously we wind up drinking too much. Beer may be far from your mind when you want to warm yourself up after shoveling snow or a complement to a good book and a roaring fireplace. As a beverage, beer is obviously on the cooler end of the spectrum and its sparkly effervescence usually connotes crisp refreshment rather than the full-body warmth of spiced wine or liquor.
But obviously this column is about the merits of beer, not of mulled port, grog or hot toddies. Though summertime-themed advertising campaigns by the likes of companies like Corona or Miller might cause you to forget, beer can and should be enjoyed in all seasons, even on those days when you drink out of a frosted glass whether you ordered it or not.
First of all, as I have mentioned in my first column of this semester, seasonal offerings add a great deal of variety and weather-appropriate flavors to your normal palate. Generally, brewers will seek to complement the weather by putting out styles that trend towards the dark, the sweet and the spicy.
For example, a personal favorite of mine and of many of my close friends is Wassail Ale from Oregon’s Full Sail Brewing Co. The name, taken from the Old Norse word, refers both to a wintery festival and the toast said during such celebrations. The beer itself is classified under the “Winter Warmer” style heading, which is about as ambiguous and broad as you can get. In general terms, a beer calling itself a “warmer” will contain a higher than average ABV — in a similar sense of the qualifier “imperial” — and “winter” is a catch-all way to describe flavors like nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. Moreover, these beers tend to be malt-forward, focusing more on the savory and the sweet; the hops that are included will trend toward the subdued, spicy character of English varieties like Fuggles, and complement the malt rather than competition with it.
Not all breweries follow this pattern, however. The venerable Sierra Nevada (a company I hope by now you, my readers, recognize as one of the premiere national brewers) bucks the Warmer trend with their seasonal release, Celebration Ale. An American IPA clocking-in at 6.8% ABV, Celebration seems to be not too much different than Sierra Nevada’s year-round hop-bomb, Torpedo IPA, but the difference is in the details. For almost every beer made on a commercial scale, hops are either added to the boil in the form of compressed, concentrated “pellets” or as dry whole cones. Sierra Nevada, however, celebrates (get it?) the changing of the seasons and the arrival of the hop harvest season by using “wet hops” — in other words, whole cones right off the vine — in Celebration’s boil.
For those readers familiar with some technical brewing terms, this technique is not necessarily related to “dry hopping,” which is when beer is fermented on top of a layer of hope cones to impart flavor and aroma without necessarily adding bitterness. “Dry” in this case refers to the hops exclusion from the boil, and one would easily dry hop a beer with “wet” cones. Regardless, Celebration is delicious and is perfect for hopheads that aren’t willing to go over to the dark side (that is to say, the malt side).
Finally, the holidays are the perfect excuse to bring out those beers you have saved all year (or even longer) for special occasions. As I have alluded to in previous columns, beer has the ability, just like good wines, to develop new flavors as it ages under proper conditions. Known as “cellaring,” putting a beer in a cool, dry and dark place for anywhere from six months to ten years can mellow out the heat and bite of alcohol, subdue the sharpness of hops and balance the sweetness of malts.
Though I try to shy away from anecdotes in this column, my first experience with beer cellaring actually involved a Winter Warmer — Lakefront Brewery’s Holiday Spiced Lager — that I was given as a Christmas gift a few years back. At 11%, the Spiced Lager is one of the highest ABV lagers I have ever seen on shelves period, outdoing German dopplebock behemoths like Weihenstephaner’s Korbinian in terms of alcohol. Moreover, the beer is heavily and heartily spiced, resembling Jaegermeister in terms of viscousness and pungency. After slurring my way through two of the six, I decided that this beer would be a perfect candidate to tuck away for a while to balance out what was a rather intense beer. The following Christmas I tried one of two battles kept in my beer fridge/cellar. Ideally beer should be kept at 50-55° F in a dark, low-humidity environment. Most closets or basements in moderate climates are sufficient, but a dedicated beer fridge can double as cooler and cellar.
Finally, Stone Brewing Co. has an event that makes this particular winter beer season especially exciting. A beer tasting designed by a mad scientist or magician, the Stone Vertical Epic series is an audacious project decades in the making. Starting on 2/2/2002, Stone has released a unique beer one year, one day and one month after the previous entry. There is no limit to styles, but all of the beers are above 7.5% ABV, and this December 12, a rather special day, Stone will introduce the capstone of the Epic Series. Though it is hard to find these beers on shelves anymore except most likely the last two entries, a more quotidian vertical tasting is still a great idea to bring in the New Year or spice up any other winter gathering when you have a bunch of people looking to drink a lot of beer. Try to focus your purchases on beers with higher alcohol content and that are malt-forward. Don’t be afraid to reach into the back of dusty shelves, because you might get lucky and find a beer that had the aging done for you. Cheers.