What’s a girl to do during the late autumn and winter warmer season?
I seem to fall in love as late autumn rolls into winter … not that I find anything terribly romantic about Pilgrims. No, no. In actuality, it must be that last crunch of leaves under-foot, a crisp chill in the air as the seasons wind down, smelling of dampened earth and ripening apples. I’m a bit promiscuous at this time of the year. How could a girl possibly be loyal to one, with so many wildly vibrant beasts awaiting discovery each night?
Standing amidst all those strong figures with coppery bronze bodies or gleaming black middles, I find it hard to choose without exploring every nuance. I want to indulge in them all, each one making my lips tingle, brimming with spice. Some call themselves Seasonals, and others, Winter Warmers, but each one heats-up with a unique style. I want them all. Women who love craft beer are like that.
These seasonal release beers are really the culmination of ideas from the brewers’ secret vault, a cornucopia of brews unleashed late in the year, waiting for a special occasion. Thanksgiving, St. Nicholas Day, Chanukah, Christmas – all are ideal occasions for these hefty mouth-pleasers. Disguised in the form of Pumpkin ales, Imperial stouts, spice-infused warmers, or beers dressed in spruce, they capture the imagination and stimulate the palate.
Just in time for Thanksgiving, Victory Brewing of Downingtown releases 2011 Dark Intrigue on November 23rd, a limited edition offering for those who love the sweet tingle of bourbon. Starting with their signature Storm King Stout as a base, Victory aged this dark beast in 150 cellared barrels from Jim Beam and Heaven Hill Distilleries; then, blended and decanted them into 750 ml bottles with cork and cage. The resulting elixir has 9.2% ABV, and is dripping with vanilla, dried cherry, caramel, brown sugar and earth, the perfect partner with currant pie or as an after-dinner digestif.
Another big, brawny temptation for the tongue is Dock Street Bourbon Barrel Aged Prince Myshkin Russian Imperial Stout, an infinite reflective onyx with sticky, mocha-mousse head. Crafted with toasted and chocolate malts, this bad boy drips with flavors of dark berries drizzled with chocolate, black bread, vanilla and earth. Refermented in 750 ml bottles, the Prince is primed for release on November 22nd.
Pumpkin adds another dimension to beer for late autumn. These may come in the form of ales, stouts or chocolate beers, emerging full-flavored with the traditional bouquet of spices. Dogfish Head Craft Brewery of Delaware presents Punkin Ale at 7% ABV, intoxicating with flavors of real pumpkin, brown sugar, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg. Iron Hill Brewery, with eight locations across Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey, released The Great Imperial Pumpkin Ale as a new addition to their Bottled Reserve Series this fall, brewed with 200 pounds of Crookneck pumpkins from local PA farms, autumn spices, molasses and Belgian candi sugar.
Pumpkin beers marry particularly well with Holiday fare: turkey, cranberry dressing, yams, and candied sweets, as well as warm pecan pie and oatmeal cookies. They vary in alcohol intensity, and may be brewed with hand-cut or roasted pumpkin, puree, or just a hint of pumpkin flavoring. All use spice-blends, but these spices may arrive as a subtle touch or an in-your-face explosion. They are hot on the scene from October until December.
I’m an enthusiastic fan of Weyerbacher’s Imperial Pumpkin Ale at 8% ABV, with its deep-russet body and clinging lace. Aromas of pumpkin pie give way to less sweetness on the tongue, adding complexity to a style that can initially appear to have less depth. But my palate also likes the spice-infused echo of The Great Pumpkin at 8% ABV and The Greater Pumpkin at 9% ABV, both Heavy Seas Beers from Clipper City Brewing in nearby Baltimore, MD. Fegley’s Brew Works in Allentown, PA spills over into the Imperial Pumpkin world with Devious, a 9% heft of suds, light-bodied, clean, earthy, and rich in cinnamon and nutmeg. This lady is getting lightheaded just thinking of the choices! With so many luscious brews, how is a girl to keep her figure in check throughout this Holiday season?
Yards of Philadelphia offers a reprieve from the deluge of pumpkin spices with Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce Ale. Although sold as a year-round brew, Tavern Spruce takes a front-seat among winter ales. Crafted with freshly-cut spruce tips from a local PA farm, the piney subtleties, along with molasses, pepper, ginger and a firm, bready foundation rope the celebrator into jovial festivity.
Classic Olde Ales are warming to the mouth, and consequently, to the spirit. Bill Moore at Lancaster Brewing crafts his Winter Warmer as this multi-layered style, with 2-row barley, caramel and chocolate malts, drenched in Cascade and Goldings hops. A Fino-sherry profile paints the tongue, undressing with complexity that cuts the winter chill.
Victory’s Yakima Glory comes to the spotlight again this year, a Black IPA and the fastest selling seasonal Victory has ever released. The
tannic dryness, a result of the blending of 4 whole-flower varieties of hops, blended with dark malts, makes a luscious and lustrous brew with a bright citrus-and-grapefruit front and cherry-pit spiced-cake in the depths.
Belgians hold center stage during the early winter, before giving way to Barley Wine styles. Tröegs Mad Elf Ale is a Belgian Strong Dark Ale, as assertive as many Holiday wines at 11% ABV. This ruby red classic has flavors of honey, chocolate covered cherries, rum-drenched fruitcake, and spices, to seduce you into winter hibernation.
Weyerbacher’s Quad, an Abbey Style Quadruple, is even more head-tugging at 11.9% ABV and lingers, warm in the throat. Stoudt’s Belgian Triple conquers the Holiday table with two-row and wheat malts, bittered with Perle and Warrior hops; then softly perfumes it with Hallertau and Saaz for a gentle floral profile.
Flying Fish of Cherry Hill, NJ unrolls Grand Cru Winter Reserve, with its golden-tangerine body and frothy cream head. Drenched in melon, lemon, and hints of rock candy, this Belgian Strong Pale Ale gathers followers with its seductive aromas of clove, bubblegum, florals and yeast. Dock Street’s Prisoner of Hell, at 8% ABV, is a devilish seduction with spiced tropical flavors that finish with black, white, and green peppered heat.
In the winter cellar, I reserved a few bottles of Life & Limb Two, the collaboration between Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada Brewing and Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head. Released for the first round in November 2009, the pair combined forces for a second release in August 2011, for “those who risk life and limb to shape the vibrant craft-brewing community.” With barley from the Chico, California farm of Grossman’s family estate, and Maple Syrup from the Calagione family farm in Massachusetts, this brew came together at the Sierra Nevada brewing facility in Cali. After blending house yeasts from Sierra and Dogfish for a primary fermentation, they revived a second fermentation in the bottle with birch syrup, a product of the Alaskan frontier. Strong, measured at 10% ABV, and dark as the Alaskan winter, this sipping sweetheart can be served as a gently mulled drink as the nights get longer. A different one each night, and I didn’t even touch on the Barley Wines. Is this promiscuity, or just love of the craft?