It's mid-January and our Christmas decorations are packed away. My New Year's resolution to exercise regularly has already been broken and Valentine's Day merchandise fills the seasonal aisle at Kroger. Yet, even with the small blast of snow last weekend, winter doesn't feel like it's arrived. The mid-50s afternoons throughout this month aren't exactly "normal" winter weather for the Ohio Valley, are they? Still, Rush Limbaugh insists that global warming is a left-wing hoax. Well, at least you can count on some things.
Another thing you can count on this time of year -- from around Thanksgiving through February -- is the availability of winter beers. The number and variety of these seasonal selections increases each year: Old standbys like Sam Adams Winter Lager appear alongside small-production domestic microbrews and imports from Europe.
So, as the crocuses nose up into the recent unseasonable warmth, we soldiered on with a long-planned Winter Beer Tasting.
While the 10 beers we tried showed a wide breadth of styles -- from medium-bodied and hoppy to dark and richly malted -- they shared a common link to ancient traditions.
Centuries ago, a common greeting among the pagan Anglo-Saxons was "ws u hl," meaning "be thou hale" or "be in good health." (Similar expressions predate this one, such as the Old Norse vas heill and Old English wes hál.) Whatever its linguistic origin, the term morphed over the generations to become "wassail."
The word survived into modern times, bridging pagan Winter Solstice traditions to become associated with the Christmas season. It's still used in familiar carols, such as Here We Come a-Wassailing: "Love and joy come to you/ And to you your wassail, too." The Gloucestershire Wassail extols wassail's association with beer: "Wassail! Wassail! All over the town!/ Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown!"
Today wassail usually refers to mulled wine or cider seasoned with citrus, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Originally, though, wassail was mulled beer, grape wine being a rare commodity in pre-Christian Britain. Producers of winter beers hearken to this original wassail, showcasing flavors representative of the holiday season since ancient times.
Since no one had a vested interest in one product showing better than another, we didn't taste these beers blind.
I pre-arranged them in what I expected to be lighter-to-heavier order, although I wasn't entirely successful in predicting the styles. We used a rating and reviewing scale (you can download it from www.RateBeer.com) that includes five scoring criteria: appearance, aroma, flavor, palate and "overall" appreciation. Each reviewer then totaled his/her individual scores to determine a ranking from 1 to 10.
Finishing in each reviewer's top three, the consensus winner was Santa's Private Reserve Ale ($4.49/22-ounce bottle) from Oregon's consistently excellent Rogue Brewery. It pours a clear, reddish-brown with a persistent head and has intense aromas of sweet, roasted malt with a distinctive hoppy fruitiness. On the palate it was rich and full-bodied, showing pronounced fruit flavors (cherries, citrus) balanced by a bite of spice and a pleasing hoppy bitterness. While not quite as festively packaged as some of the others (it features Santa hoisting a sudsy mug while making an incongruous "Black Power" salute), it's conveniently available in both 22-ounce bottles and 12-ounce six-packs.
My personal favorite was more controversial: the Alpha Klaus Christmas Porter ($8.99/22-ounce bottle) from Munster, Ind.'s Three Floyds Brewing. Be warned: It pours a deep, opaque brown with a substantial head, showing rich yet intense aromas of dark chocolate and flowers. On the palate, it's loaded with a broad range of flavors, including milk chocolate, bitter coffee, licorice, roasted fruit and iron. This porter is a "love-it-or-hate-it" beer; another taster actually rated it dead last! Even the label can be off-putting, featuring a tubby, tattooed green "hop monster" wearing a Santa hat and sprinkling hops into a pint glass.
Porters, so called because the style was favored by Victorian England's luggage-bearers, can be heavy due to their distinctive maltiness. (Think of Guinness Stout as a reference point; the line between port and stout is hard to define.) The Alpha Klaus, however, makes good use of hops for balance and added complexity. To my palate, Ohio is lucky to be among the 10 states in which this distinctive brew is distributed. I'm looking forward to trying their current limited-release, Behemoth BarleyWine.
Cincinnati-made "Belgian-Style" Winter Ale ($3.99/22-ounce bottle) from BarrelHouse Brewery rounded out my personal top three (and also finished near the top for most other tasters). The nose was frankly sweet but very complex, reminding me of corn nuts(!), raisins, bananas and cloves. On the palate, it was full-bodied and smooth, showing lots of fruit and a slightly sweet but pleasant maltiness. It comes only in 22-ounce bottles with a label featuring a cantankerous-looking snowman in front of the Roebling Bridge and the Cincinnati skyline.
Interestingly, I preferred BarrelHouse's version to the actual Belgian Winter Ales we tried -- Delirium Noél (in an opaque, cream-colored bottle and a label featuring pink elephants pulling Santa's sleigh) from The Huyghe Brewery and Noél Christmas Ale from Affligem Abbey Brewery, founded in 1074 by Benedictine Monks. Though these finished near the bottom of the pack for most tasters, I liked them. The Affligem ($7.99/25-ounce bottle) had distinctive aromas and flavors that showed a surprising whiff of bubble gum but finished smooth and dry with no bitterness. The Delirium ($8.99/25-ounce bottle) was fruity and yeasty with a definite element of spicy ginger. It finished a little peppery and sour, though, pushing it down in the rankings.
We also tasted three beers from The Boston Beer Company's holiday 12-pack ($11.99): Samuel Adams Holiday Porter, Old Fezziwig Ale and Winter Lager. The porter was very good: Chocolate and black licorice flavors and aromas were evident, and it was full-bodied and smooth if a touch sweet. The ale showed yeasty aromas, yet the palate was more chocolate-driven with added complexity from notes of roasted coffee. The lager, on the other hand, came across as solidly made but just wasn't distinctive despite the label's rhetoric about using rare cinnamon from Saigon. (To be fair, upon smelling this one, my 8-year-old daughter immediately commented, "It smells like Christmas is coming!" Perhaps her olfactory senses are keener than my own.)
A vintage-dated "2006/2007" Winter Welcome Ale ($3.49/19-ounce bottle) from England's Samuel Smith Brewery came in ninth on my sheet, but most others had it in their top five. They felt it was smooth and easy to drink, showing toffee and caramel notes. To me, it just wasn't interesting enough to recommend.
By general consensus, the least impressive effort also came from England: Bah Humbug Christmas Ale ($3.49/17-ounce bottle) from Wychwood Brewery showed relatively correct (if light) flavors and aromas of cloves and banana bread. But it was flat and one-dimensional compared with the competition.
Many local retailers stock these seasonal brews -- especially Jungle Jim's, Party Source and even some of the local grocery chains, including Wild Oats.
With Super Bowl Sunday coming up, pick up a few of these to share with friends while you watch the game. Perhaps by then the weather will have turned cold, wreaking havoc on those misguided crocuses but creating the perfect environment for you and your pagan pals to come a-wassailing. ©