Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Winter beers to warm me up

The Christmas beers are hitting the shelves, and I've already been sampling a few. Of course the first one I got was the Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, which is not only my favorite winter brew, but maybe my favorite beer, period. No need to rave on too much about it – anybody who likes seasonal beers has had it by now, and if not, go get some immediately.

I also grabbed a 12-pack of Red Hook Winter Hook because it was on sale at HEB. I really don't understand why Red Hook went with this particular recipe. It's a particularly unexceptional beer. Which isn't to say it isn't good, just not spectacular. Most breweries like to really whip out Da Bomb for a special release, and this just isn't it. That said, you can rest assured I'll finish the 12.

Next I went to another special fave, Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome. Now this is a glorious winter brew – the alcohol level and malt combine for a nice warming effect that sits in your belly like a nice glass of hot chocolate. And it's even better when you get a fresh bottle, not the two-year-old bottles I've been drinking (see earlier posts).

And then today, I completely chanced upon another one. I noticed a guy in HEB carrying a six-pack that was clearly a New Belgium product, but not one I had ever seen before. And as I've noted before, just seeing that familiar red label on that peculiar brown bottle with the ring around the neck is all the recommendation I need. And sure enough, it's a winner. It's called 2 Below Ale (actually, it's 2 [degrees] Below Ale, but blogger won't allow me to make that little superscript circle), and it has a rich, warming flavor. Hints of orange, drizzled in brown sugar and butter, and heavy on the roasted malts. Mmmm.

But I'm confused. New Belgium, like the Belgian breweries it imitates, always makes a serving temperature recommendation on the bottle. The 2 Below bottle recommends that it be drunk very cold — 37 degrees. (Most of their beers come with recommendations of 45 or 55.) This is strange for two reasons: First, excessive cold numbs your tastebuds and kills the taste of beer. Second, why in the hell would you want an almost-freezing beer in winter? To get even colder?
All the great winter beers are best drunk after letting them warm ever so slightly out of the fridge – "chilled, but not cold" as I believe the Chimay bottles always say. I took a sip of 2 Below straight out of the fridge, and it didn't do much for me. After letting it warm, the flavors came out so much more. So I say ignore the brewmaster's recommendation and drink this like any sensible winter beer lover would.

Other winter brews I've spotted but haven't had a chance to grab yet this season: St. Arnold's Christmas Ale, and a longtime favorite, Young's Winter Warmer. And all this made me remember: We're only about a month away from Bobnoxious' Winter Beer Tasting Party! I finally got to attend my first last year, and it was a gloriously good time. I can't wait for the 2006 edition. I already feel warm and fuzzy just thinking about it.

EDIT: Others I just noticed: Samuel Adams Winter Lager, and the Samuel Adams Winter Classics Mix Pack, a 12-pack containing two bottles each of: Boston Lager, Old Fezziwig Ale, Winter Lager, Holiday Porter, Black Lager, and Cranberry Lambic. I was hoping to make it out of the Hancock HEB without spending any money, but I fell for the mix pack.

EDIT2: Well, so far I've tried the Old Fezziwig, Winter Lager, and the Lambic, and was only marginally impressed. The Old Fezziwig had a subtle taste of cinnamon, which was nice; the Lambic was actually too subtle, as I couldn't taste the cranberry at all.

Oh, and another I just thought of, but I can't get here in Texas (I have to grab it when I visit my in-laws in Kansas City every year): Boulevard Nutcracker Ale. Boulevard is a kick-ass brewery in K.C. that only distributes to the Midwest; thus, I and my across-the-street neighbor (who also has K.C. family) are probably the leading Texas distributors of their product, usually bringing home a case at Christmas and another in summer. It's pretty much the only beer I drink when I'm K.C.

What other special holiday brews do you know of? (And just as importantly, where can I find them?)

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