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Craft beer tasting: The great winter roundup of 2016

It's that time of year again, when friends get together and sample a dozen or so seasonal releases, taking notes on each along the way. Or maybe that's just at my house.

Either way, our party got off to a smooth start, with the relatively straightforward Bell's Christmas Ale, a Scottish ale made with Michigan-grown malt and hops. Casey thought it was "malty and smooth," while Matt found it "warm, with just a hint of spice." A "good starter," noted Jason S.

Next up was Big Storm's Dunder & Blixem, from Odessa. The can design received a lot of praise, and Laura pointed out some cool trivia from the description: Dunder and Blixem — aka Donner and Blitzen — is Dutch for "thunder and lightning." The beer was mostly well-received, with Coleman noting prominent clove flavors and Andrea describing it as a "sweet and fruity, malty delight."

Blackberry Farm Winter Saison is a dark farmhouse ale from Walland, Tenn. Andrea enjoyed a subtle smokiness in this one, and Casey detected "hints of coffee and winter cheer." Greg caught some additional fruit notes alongside roasted malt. Lisa agreed, suggesting that it would be "good for a fireplace fire, not so much for a campfire."

When it came to Highland's Cold Mountain 20th Anniversary spiced winter ale, Jason said, "I'd like it all year." Greg liked coffee notes in this one, while Jason S. thought it was "well-balanced and tasty." A solid brew, if not a head-turner.

The relatively mild response to Highland's entry was matched in opposite proportion by the Trois Dames Sour Ale Winter, a Swiss brew flavored with oranges and ginger. This was an overwhelming crowd favorite, with "best beer of the night" appearing on multiple notes. Cara and Greg both noted that while the citrus flavor was up front, the ginger was nearly non-existent.

Two traditional Belgian entries followed: Val-Dieu Winter Ale and Gouden Carolus Noël. The former is a fairly typical Belgian golden ale, while the latter is brewed with six spices, one of which is obviously anise. Of the Val-Dieu, Geneva found it "smooth and delicious, with a little spice but not overwhelming." Frank simply noted that it was "smooth AF" (thanks for that insight).

The Gouden Carolus tasted "like a black Twizzler," according to Laura (who enjoyed it), while Greg caught "licorice, raisins and dark malts." Albert described it as "the winter beer version of Jägermeister." This one caught Geneva's top rating ("a ton of flavor!"), and Matt called it "sweet, fragrant and jubilant."

(You'll note that the descriptions get more colorful as we go).

21st Amendment's Fireside Chat was "too spicy" for Cara, but Laura thought it was "surprisingly light tasting." Alan was a fan, as was William, who noted its "solid malt body" countered by a dry finish. Jason S. liked the beer but didn't like the fact that it came in a can; Greg liked the can but didn't like the beer. Can't please everyone.

Next up was La Fée Dragée, a rum barrel-aged ale made by the Hourglas in Longwood. The name refers to a mythical sugar plum fairy, and the beer is flavored with nutmeg, allspice and sweet orange peel before being aged in rum barrels with plums, pluots, figs and apricots. Whew.

Jason S. thought it was "decadent, but not overpowering," making it his favorite beer of the night. Greg, Cara and Matt, however, all thought it was a little boozier than it needed to be, and Jason K. thought that it "tasted like pennies!" Frank dug the beer, leaving another helpful note: "good job."

We then moved onto Cigar City Cider & Mead's Reindeer Games, a mixed four-pack of ciders brewed with blood orange tea and spices, then aged on oak chips soaked four ways: brandy (Dancer), bourbon (Dasher), rum (Comet) and Strange Bedfellows (Cupid), the latter being CCC&M's plum-and-blackcurrant-aged mead.

Casey and Greg got caramel apple notes from these, while William got honey and champagne. Andrea, who wasn't getting a big seasonal vibe from most of the entries, said that "this four-pack embodied Christmas" for her, with a good amount of "boozy goodness in each bottle." Jason K. found the Comet and Cupid versions "super yummy" in particular.

We wrapped it up with two stouts: the vanilla-flavored Magic Hat Winter Mingle, and Cycle's Christmas Blend, which features a blend of stouts aged in bitters, bourbon and Cognac barrels.

Magic Hat usually rates highly in this group with its winter seasonals, but many found this release to be thinner than expected, if still pleasantly flavored. Geneva, at least, thought it was "good, and festive."

The Christmas Blend, which I figured to be a slam dunk crowd-pleaser, was actually surprisingly polarizing. Several guests were turned off by the spice notes from the bitters barrel-aged portion of the blend. However, many rated it among their top beers. Matt took "cinnamon chocolate" from the beer's intense aroma, while Greg noted that it "smells amazing, loaded with spice."

As usual, each drinker found ups and downs in this year's seasonal lineup, but in the end, we all enjoyed a great night together, sampling some festive brews and taking in some quality winter cheer. Yes, it really is the most wonderful time of the year.

[email protected]; @WordsWithJG

Craft beer tasting: The great winter roundup of 2016 12/22/16 [Last modified: Thursday, December 22, 2016 4:02pm]
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