Beer, more so than wine, has a great variety of seasonal periods that bring forth a varied selection of brews at specific times of the year. On the heels of the release of Great Lakes Christmas Ale (my official mark for the beginning of the holiday beer season), here is a review of the latest and greatest seasonal (and other) beer offerings.
No matter what your nationality, if you drink beer, you think about Oktoberfest. Many breweries from Deutschland to Denver brew a seasonal marzen-style beer in honor of the festival celebrating the old wedding of King Ludwig. In Denver, the spirited Flying Dog Brewery features Dogtoberfest, a domestic beer made from Vienna malts, German hops and the freewheeling spirit of the gonzo brewery. The beer is amber in color, possesses a rich malt character with notes of cereal grain and citrus balanced out by a complimentary hop finish. As with most Oktoberfest brews, this beer is easy to drink in large quantities.
The other big-time beer event in the fall is the hop harvest. Many breweries release special ales to celebrate the freshest possible hop character in beers. Sierra Nevada marks the hop harvest with the release of Harvest Fresh Hop Ale. This brew is made with freshly picked "wet" hops and is redolent of the conical beer bittering agent in both flavor and aroma. The piney, floral scents and the drying finish showcase the 8,000 pounds of hops used in the limited release brew.
Warrenville, Ill.'s Two Brothers Brewing celebrates the hop harvest with the Heavy Handed I.P.A. This is a great operation tucked in the western suburbs of Chicago, and this uber-I.P.A. changes yearly (and even by batch) based upon the hops and the vintage. Most of what the Ebel brothers touch turns to liquid gold, and Heavy Handed is no different. This is a great beer. One of the other neat things about Two Brothers is the Brewer's Coop, which offers tons of home brewing materials, if you want to get beer directly from the source rather than from your corner liquor store.
Not all of the beer consumed in the fall needs to be seasonal in order to be interesting. Sometimes, being made to age makes a brew interesting. Few beers have the long history of cellar dwelling that accompanies Fuller's Vintage Ale. The recipe of the beer changes annually, and the beer is made to be aged for eons. This year's bottle conditioned beauty is made from Maris Otter malted barley, Fuggles, Target and Super Styrian hops and the specific Fuller's yeast strain. It definitely needs bottle age because the malt is tightly wound and massive. The beer is at least two years from being fully integrated, but it will drink magnificently from 2010 to 2020. Stash a few of these away and wait patiently for the rewards to come.
Another vintage brew in a crown colony made to be aged in the ale from Australia's finest brewery Coopers. The Extra Strong Vintage Ale is also bottle conditioned. This beer takes on yeast characteristics rapidly, and becomes lighter as time passes. It has a raisin and oatmeal flavor, and can be drunk with or without the substantial yeast deposits in the bottle. On the plus side, Coopers also comes in fantastic 12.7 ounce bottles. While it is a good quality beer, it is too expensive at $16 a six pack, so keep the cost in mind.
Oregon is a hotbed of craft brewing, and Full Sail is one of the many greats in the Pacific Northwest. The newest limited release from the Mount Hood brewery is the Limited Edition Lager, a clean, refreshing golden beer made with bottom fermenting yeast and aged to a refreshingly perfect, clean continental pilsner. This is a beer that shows off the talents of this Oregon mainstay.
Further down the coast, Lagunitas brewed up the Lucky 13 Red Ale in honor of their anniversary. This is a ruby American strong ale with intense fruit notes and hints of caramel, mint and brown sugar. This 8.2 percent alcohol by volume beer is well made. While not the most showstopping offering from the Petaluma brewery, it is nonetheless interesting enough to sample once.
No offense to Germany, but in my humble opinion, Belgium is the beer capital of the world. Belgium is the only place where you can get Trappist ale, an ale prepared by monks from specifically licensed breweries. Orval, the original Trappist ale, was founded in the 11th century. This was the first bottle conditioned ale made in this style that still exists today. It is dry and yeasty, with a fat midpalate tasting of wheat, citrus and apples, and it has a long, complex finish. Try this beer, because it is the original example of a world classic.
Not all Belgian beers are Trappist ales. There are multiple beer styles in the country, and only the properly licensed producers are Trappist. Many other beers are made in this style are called Abbey ales. St. Bernardus is one of the best of these breweries. Although not officially a Trappist ale, the beer has monastic roots. They produce doubles, triples and quadruple ales. The Abt 12 has 10.5 percent alcohol, and it displays notes of plums, wheat bread, cinnamon, clove, citrus and leather. This beer has so much alcohol that it might put you down for the night, so drink this monster with care.
It's a little out of season, but anything with the words "Three Floyds" on the label, you know it's going to be good. Gumballhead is a summer wheat beer with Amarillo hops. Anything these guys make is great, so don't hesitate to try the Alpha King, the Black Sun Stout, the Behemoth Barley Wine, the Dreadnaught I.P.A., the Rabid Rabbit Saison, and the Dark Lord Imperial are all top notch offerings that are not to be missed.
Nogne O Brown Ale comes from a region not noted for great beer production--Norway. This is a craft brewer that makes interesting brews from Scandinavia. Most of their beers have solid reputations. The brown ale is interesting if unspectacular. It has notes of coffee, cherries and smoke, with a thin, hot finish. This is the second brewery I have sampled from Norway after Aass, and although Nogne's beers have more character than Aass, the brown ale was fair quality at best.
The fall season sees the release of Bell's Best Brown Ale, a characterful brew chock full of flavor. The beer has a deep color, with roasted Belgian malts producing flavors of chocolate, maple syrup, malt and toasty nuts. This is another brewery that makes nothing but great beer. Bell's on the label is a sure sign of a quality product.
New Holland Brewing also features a brown ale. Their offering is called Cabin Fever and it is made with rye malt that gives the beer a deep color and a rich flavor with an earthy finish. The beer is lighter than expected, but it is very good beer for when the temperature drops and alcohol provides a little extra warmth while sitting in front of the fire.
New Zealand's premiere beer is Steinlager, a continental pilsner from Aukland. It has that funky skunky character that accompanies all green bottle beers, and it would be generally indistinguishable from any other green bottle import. Drink with care, because the longer these beers sit around, the skunkier they get.
New York micro Southern Tier produces interesting year round and seasonal offerings. One of their limited release beers is the Unearthly Imperial Pale Ale. This beer uses too much hops, and for me to say a beer uses too much hops, it indeed has to use too much hops. There is no balance. A beer can be uber-bitter and still be pleasant. This brew has an assault of pine flavors that overwhelm the palate, disabling your ability to taste it. The hops are not the best choice to use in a beer of this style, because instead of overwhelming your palate in a positive way, they succeed in drowning your palate with an overload of unpleasant bitterness.
Located in rural Oregon, Siletz Brewery bottles many of the beers available at its pizzeria brewpub. I sampled the Lovin' Lager and was greatly underwhelmed. I don't know if the bottle was old, but the beer was flat...not in terms of carbonation, but in terms of flavor profile. It had a meandering finish that was too unfocused to make any kind of statement. I'll have to sample the rest of the line to see if there is anything worthwhile in the rest of the portfolio.
That's all for now. I'll be back with more next time I get a minute. Check out the pictures below.
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