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2015 Winter Beer Tasting: Judging holiday hits and misses

From left: Geneva Johnson, Matt Kannenberg, Justin Tomlinson, Jason Kiger, William Pike, Cara Sebastian and Casey Swift.

Photo by Coleman McCormick/Special to tbt*

From left: Geneva Johnson, Matt Kannenberg, Justin Tomlinson, Jason Kiger, William Pike, Cara Sebastian and Casey Swift.

It wouldn't be winter in Florida without weather in the 80s and our annual Winter Beer Tasting, where our best friends get together and try some of the year's new winter seasonals. This year was characterized by atypical winter brews: light on spice, heavy on subtlety. Many beers were polarizing.

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For example, To Øl Snowball Saison, from Denmark, is a brett-fermented saison with rock candy and a blend of European and American hops. Geneva thought it was "festive and sweet," while Lisa noted that it "tastes as good as it smells, which is terrible." Ang, always a tough critic, added that it "smells like an armpit" but "tastes like candy" before giving it her highest rating of the night.

To Øl Shameless Santa was similarly divisive, with Geneva detecting "pickles" on the nose, and Matt calling it "spicy and warm," evoking "holiday vibes, for sure." Wes, whose notes were the most concise of the group, called it "explosively tasty."

Another saison came from New Hampshire's Smuttynose: Smuttlabs Chestnut Saison. William thought the nose was "sweet, like banana bread," while Addam thought the beer was "nice and peppery, with an anise finish."

Smuttynose Smistletoe, a Bière de Garde brewed with cherries, black currants, and plums, aged on American oak, was unquestionably the best-named and best-packaged beer of the night, in a beautifully designed, festive white bottle. Andrea liked the "cherry notes of sour goodness," while Geneva detected more cranberry flavor. Justin T. and William loved it, but Lisa and Ang, despite wanting to be on board, ultimately gave it low marks.

San Francisco's Anchor Brewing is a mainstay each year, as its Our Special Ale changes recipes slightly with each release. Paul found this year's version "smoky and tart," while Colette found it "very piney," noting that it would "pair well with trimming the tree." Lisa and Phillip agreed that it was a substantial improvement over last year's release.

Anchor Winter Wheat was polarizing. Paul thought it was "syrupy and overly sweet," but Addam found it "roasty, with a nice bitter finish." William detected "burnt cookie," and Casey — while lukewarm on the overall product — thought it was more evocative of the season than Our Special Ale.

Most enjoyed Alaska's Anchorage Whiteout Wit, with Coleman describing it as "one of the better wild yeast beers (he's) had" and Matt noting flavors of "bright wheat, with a slight funkiness and spice." Ditto Cascade Gingersnaps — a wild ale from Oregon, gifted by Ashley and Paul — which was a near-unanimous favorite, scoring no lower than 9 out of 10 on the collective tasting notes. I detected spiced apple flavors, while William found "ginger and cola on the nose" and "oak, ginger and raisin" flavors.

Two more ginger-spiced beers were in the lineup: Blue Moon Gingerbread Spiced Ale from Colorado, and Harpoon UFO Gingerland from Massachusetts. The former was not a huge hit, with Andrea mentioning that it "falls flat for a gingerbread flavor" and Lisa calling it "bland, boring and generally not impressive." Wes thought it was a "nice beer for the holiday season," and I enjoyed its sweet and spicy nose, which reminded me of gingersnap cookies. UFO had similar issues, with Jason noting that he "wanted to like it more, but it's pretty light." Casey thought it "smelled spicy but didn't taste very gingery." Laura like it, calling it "Christmasy, in a Florida sort of way."

Sierra Nevada Snow Wit, from California, is a white IPA and not a witbier, confusingly. It was enjoyed by Matt and Jason, the latter noting it was "better than expected, and better with each sip." Ang hated it, attempting to rate it a -2 out of 10.

Missouri's Boulevard brought two beers to the table. Nutcracker, brewed with molasses and brown sugar, was Wes's favorite of the night. Phillip "really enjoyed it," but Cara thought it was "average" and "didn't like the aftertaste." Andrea said that it "smells like a fir tree, tastes like branches." Snow & Tell, an oak-aged Scotch ale, impressed Lisa, who wrote, "clever name, delicious beer." Geneva and I both liked it but also both noted the faintness of the oak flavor.

Belgium's Brouwerij Kerkom delivered a hit with Winterkoninske ("Winter King"), a strong ale brewed with juniper and lavender. Justin T. detected notes of raisins and thought it was "delicious and complex." Geneva thought it was "very malty, with some molasses" notes. Phillip gave it 10/10, by far his highest rating of the night.

In a similar vein was Rivertown Winter Ale from Ohio, brewed with cinnamon and molasses. Matt liked its "notes of warm honey and light seasonal spices," while Andrea called it "holiday cheer on the tongue." It was Lisa's favorite pick of the night. Cara, however, thought it was "overly spicy."

Gypsy brewer Mikkeller had a hit with Winbic, a blend of the brewery's Spontanale (a lambic-style ale) and saison. Jason, Cara, and Justin T. all noted that it wasn't especially seasonal, but loved it. William's notes included mention of lemon grass and pepper.

We finished with two local beers: Clearwater's Pair O' Dice Hobo's Delight, a spiced winter warmer (gifted by Addam), and Tampa's Coppertail Seasonal Relief, a Baltic porter brewed with goji and elderberries. I found the former to have flavors of ginger, cocoa, and peppermint, while Matt said it "tastes like winter: smooth and spicy, with an appropriately tasty booziness." Casey called Seasonal Relief "goji berrytastic — a great winter beer." William thought it was "roast, with blackberry, cherry and chocolate" notes. Two very different local approaches to winter seasonal brews.

And that's how it went! Another year, another Winter Beer Tasting. I wouldn't have it any other way. jg@saintbeat.com | @WordsWithJG

2015 Winter Beer Tasting: Judging holiday hits and misses 12/22/15 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 22, 2015 5:26pm]
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