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Winter beers: 'Tis the season for a tasting party

Around this time last year, I gathered a small group of friends at my place to sample some of the newly released winter seasonal beers. It was good enough of an idea to warrant a repeat this year, so I stopped by Shep's and Rally's and came home with enough winter beers to truly ring in the season.

The biggest problem I encountered when making this year's selections was a major increase in variety. I selected only beers that didn't make an appearance at last year's get-together — with the exception of Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome Ale, as it's the seasonal brew I most look forward to each winter — and I still found that I couldn't fit in all the beers that I wanted. There's always next time!

We started out light with Sam Adams' White Christmas Ale and Bell's Winter White Ale. While everyone enjoyed the Winter White — barring Megan, who made it clear she didn't enjoy wheat beers in general — the White Christmas was a hit, with its use of cinnamon and nutmeg to add a little festive spice to an otherwise-straightforward witbier. Geneva thought it had a pleasantly "fluffy" mouthfeel, while Albert and I were impressed by the nose.

Next we tried Sam Smith's Winter Welcome Ale, which suffered a somewhat chilly reception last year. Things were different this time, with Albert applauding Sam Smith's masterful use of specialty malts to create a complex winter brew without adding spice or other flavorings, and John appreciating its distinctive warming quality — the hallmark of a traditional winter warmer ale.

We had two Southern Tier beers to work with this year. Old Man Winter Ale earned high marks, with a near-unanimous consensus on how flavorful and pleasantly rich the beer was, with Matt finding its distinctive hop profile an ideal counterpoint to its blend of "delicious malts." 2XMAS was next, and everyone agreed it was the most "Christmasy-tasting" beer thus far, with John detecting gingerbread and fruitcake specifically and Megan adding cherries into the mix.

Cisco's Winter Shredder and the Abita Christmas Ale proved to be quite polarizing. William felt the former was too tart and John thought it was bitter, but Jason and I enjoyed it, along with Megan, who liked the "sweet, syrupy finish." This is why I love beer tastings — tart, bitter, and sweet, all in the same beer! Abita's entry provoked many "oohs" and "aahs" as everyone took in the nose, easily the most interesting we'd experienced so far. Matt, John, and I loved this beer, with Matt noting a truffle-like "earthiness" and John pinning the nose down as chocolate and orange peel. Geneva, usually a big Abita fan, did not like this at all, and Megan agreed, citing excessive sweetness.

Next were two hoppy numbers. Boulder's Never Summer Ale was a pleasant, mildly hopped (especially for Boulder) and richly malted brew that Albert felt would play just fine year-round — indeed, Jason said this was the "most summery you could make a winter beer." Rogue's Mogul Madness was next, with William detecting pine, as well as a hint of raisins, and Matt noting a slight, pleasantly smoky finish.

Then we moved onto Belgians, with Corsendonk Christmas Ale first. William took one sip and declared it his favorite, while Jason commented that it seemed stale and sour, and that he was "turned off at the first drop." I especially enjoyed its bold fig and brown-sugar flavors. Brasserie d'Achouffe's N'ice Chouffe was next, eliciting 5-star ratings from much of the group, with Albert using the word "perfect" twice in his brief tasting note and Geneva giving it a tie for her No. 1, alongside the 2XMAS.

Magic Hat's Heart of Darkness Stout was next. I like smoky beers, and this was one of them. Megan, Lisa, and I all ended up with the word "campfire" in our descriptions. Albert thought it was overpowering, William felt it was just right, and Jason, not normally a fan of smoky beers, said this was perfect for him.

We finished with two heavy hitters. Schmaltz's He'Brew Sweet 16 Jewbilation was first, resulting in many capital letters and exclamation points in the tasting notes. William liked it, noting that it was "dark, sweet, and silky," while Geneva thought it was "too much!" My notes simply say, "WOW."

We ended with Cigar City's Warmer Winter Winter Warmer, which proved to be a surprise to those who had enjoyed last year's batch, as this was quite different. It had an unexpected sourness — I'd guess a happy accident of brewing rather than an intentional stylistic choice — which, intriguingly, managed to work in the beer's favor.

I feel pretty comfortable calling this a new tradition. Getting such a surprising range of reactions from the group after cracking open each new beer, and the subsequent reading of the tasting notes — which, by the way, tell an unintentional narrative in how progressively the handwriting loosens and superlatives start coming out toward the end of the lists — is a great way to spend time with friends and enjoy lots of great, festive, seasonal winter and holiday beers.

What did it tell us about beer in general? Who knows, but it sure was fun. — jg@saintbeat.com

Winter beers: 'Tis the season for a tasting party 12/13/12 [Last modified: Thursday, December 13, 2012 3:30am]
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