Holiday Beers (The Session #106)

This is my entry for The Session #106 with the topic of holiday beers; hosted at by Jay Brooks at Brookston Beer Bulletin, which is the home of The Session.

The Session, or Beer Blogging Friday

The Session, or Beer Blogging Friday

The prompt

So for this Session, write about whatever makes you happy, so long as it involves holiday beers.

Discuss your favorite holiday beer.

Review one or more holiday beers.

Do you like the idea of seasonal beers, or loathe them?

What’s your idea of the perfect holiday beer?

Do have a holiday tradition with beer?

Are holiday beers released too early, or when should they be released?

Do you like holiday beer festivals?

Those are just a few suggestions, celebrate the holiday beers in your own way. Happy Holidays!

General thoughts

I seem to have a somewhat fraught relationship with “holiday beers.” I’m going to talk about some generalities, some specific beers, and then answer Jay’s questions in the prompt.

This is what I recently wrote in a post about McMenamins’ 2015 Kris Kringle:

“Shortly after moving to the Pacific Northwest a couple years ago I looked forward to trying different winter warmer beers. I have gotten over them as quickly as I have pumpkin beers. Actually, I like some pumpkin (and yam) beers. What I pretty much despise are pie beers. Use the freaking pumpkin to flavor your beer. Keep the f’ing spices out of pumpkin beers though. I guess if you like Creme Brulee Stout and its ilk then have at it. But I think pie beer sucks.

Many, if not most (I’m betting), winter warmers are the equivalent of pie beers. Full of spices that are good for a sip or two but become gagging if I have to contemplate more than a couple ounces of said beer. Can’t stand beer like that.”

So my basic stance is “Um, no.”

But I followed those paragraphs up with “This is NOT one of those winter warmers.”

I also keep trying pumpkin, squash and yam beers and hoping they aren’t pie beers because I appreciate the subtle influence of those ingredients used well. Fort George has the wonderful Squashed Stout at the Festival of the Dark Arts, or has the last 3 years. There are others.

Perhaps more to the overall point, as Jay pointed out in his announcement post:

“So a holiday beer should be made to impress, to wow its audience, to stand out. That’s the only criteria that should be met by one of these beers. Will it impress? Different breweries, thankfully, do this in many, many different ways. Some use unusual spices or fruits, some use special malts or hops, some use other uncommon ingredients like spruce or rye, and some make a style that itself is unusual. So there’s nothing to tie these beers together apart from their celebration of the season.”

Thus, no stylistic rules to go by and while winter warmers do not fall into a coherent style many holiday beers are within its purview. But then anything “made to impress” can also be a holiday beer.

So I keep trying them.

Impress me. Please.

Specific beers

I have written positively about Kris Kringle twice now. But it is extremely lightly spiced and an otherwise well-executed amber perhaps. [McMenamins Kris Kringle (2015 | 2013)]

We recently shared a bottle of pFriem Winter Ale which turned out to be a very lightly spiced PNW IPA. It was a well-executed beer and I found it tasty although not what was expected. The wife spit and called them heathens. I told her that was a bit much but tilted her way a tad bit. Thankfully there are plenty of other pFriem beers we both adore.

Deschutes Jubelale is an annual ritual at the Deschutes Bend Public House. It gets some particular love for the free poster-sized artwork (which the labels are based on) with a signing by the artist each year. We have them all since we moved here in 2012 (um, 4 then). And the signing starts at a good time if you aren’t worried about dinner. Go to the bar at the Deschutes Pub and order a very fresh Jubelale and get in line to get your poster signed. We may have been first this year for posters. It is an easy in and out and you get to drink tasty beer, meet a talented artist and get a free, signed poster. Be sure to tour the brewery to get a view of the real artwork from most of the years as you finish your tour. Much of it is breathtaking. Thanks, Deschutes!

I actually need to pick up a six-pack of Jubelale as this is now the time of year for me to drink it. Was kind of craving it Tuesday night when we finally got home from work and the store. It is quite delicious this year. I don’t drink lots of it but a sixer or two each winter seems proper.

Wednesday night we had a Fermentum OG 1111 (2012?) [brewed at the Santa Maria al Carrabiolo convent per RateBeer] which I picked up a couple months ago at Corvallis Brewing Supply.

Carrobiolo

“birra stagionale invernale” = winter seasonal beer

This was an odd one. Smoked which I guess all of the flames on the label ought have tipped us off to. The aroma was of light smoke as was the taste. As it warmed that smoke became somewhat peat-infused. It was medium-bodied with the light peatiness lingering in the finish. Neither of us are smoked beer fans, nor especially of peat, but this was oddly drinkable. It wasn’t an awesome beer to us but I’m glad I tried it.

Deschutes Red Chair NWPA – fresh, in early to mid-Winter, it is one of the best beers in the world.

Maybe this is not actually a holiday beer I guess but I think of it as such seeing as it is a winter seasonal (available January – April). This beer has been named The Best Beer in the World a couple times, which is honestly ridiculous. But for about four to six weeks each year in early winter this is one of the world’s best beers. I don’t believe it would be if it was available year-round although it would still be an excellent beer. Just give me my several Red Chair between January and my birthday in February. Just please keep the nitro away from mine! Yes, I am a winter baby. Has something to do with my attitude towards holiday and winter beers, methinks.

Jay’s suggested questions answered

Discuss your favorite holiday beer.

In those special moments, that beer that makes, and marks, its own moments in time.

Review one or more holiday beers.

See McMenamins Kris Kringle (2015 | 2013) posts.

Do you like the idea of seasonal beers, or loathe them?

The idea is perfectly fine. It is the execution. And differences of opinion and literal taste and all that.

What’s your idea of the perfect holiday beer?

Nonsensical question to me. In a special context or situation—like I take it we assume “the holidays” to be—then I want a special beer. For me, and the wife, that is probably a massive imperial stout or a similar barleywine; quite probably barrel-aged. For me it could also be an excellent lambic or gueuze or Berliner Weisse on the rare occasion I get a chance to enjoy such lovelies. It could also be an aged Samichlaus. Considering so many other people who are routinely under the misguided impression that many of those are not year-round beers are now thinking the weather is right ….

There just are no holiday beers (as more commonly thought, but see below) that I have found yet that reach the pinnacle of my palate. Some are quite tasty and are indeed worth drinking by the numbers one can do on two or three  or maybe even four hands over the course of a couple months [see Jubelale and Red Chair, above]. But none have reached the level of preference for special occasions, or even if I just want a beer I will love [well, OK, extremely fresh Red Chair is a beer I will love BUT ONLY for a 1-2 month window].

For me then, holiday beers are those I drink across the holidays and winter but not particularly on special occasions. They are seasonally appropriate as (some of the) every day beer for the extended “holiday” period. And some are quite exceptional beers in their own right but they impress me in ways I consider differently, I guess.

Do have a holiday tradition with beer?

Deschutes The Abyss release day is a tradition for us. It is also a holiday for us. As far as I am concerned, it is one of the most important days of the year! The wife would also add Deschutes’ birthday which is (usually) release day for their Black Butte Reserve anniversary beer, which might be my second favorite Deschutes beer. Tis her first by a head.

The release the last couple of years [2013] has been between the second and third week of November so a great pre-Thanksgiving start. Last year (our 3rd) we got our first snow of the year the night before and it was a big one. The next day we faced the tough decision of whether to trudge the one mile each way to the pub in snow boots or to use our snowshoes. We opted for boots and was there for opening through a foot of snow, drifts were deeper.

I failed to write this up last year, which is one of my great ones along with nothing about Fort George’s Festival of the Dark Arts our 2nd and 3rd years.

It was an epic day but in a mostly fun and enjoyable way. We were able to spend several hours drinking our vertical flights and still leave while it was light out.

We will be there at opening (11 AM) this year on 17 December [got pushed back a bit this year but even more “holiday” now]. Cannot wait to compare 2011-2015 vintages and “Please, please, please!” have a truffle, Deschutes!

Based on this recent tweet I suspect they are. Not sure what that silvery gunk is but I imagine it is good or I can ignore it.

Official 2015 The Abyss release day info (10th release this year):

Sounds awesome but even I find that a tad insane. I’ll take my flight at 11 AM and settle in for the next couple of hours of tasty bliss.

If you want to read my sort of love letter (let’s be honest) to The Abyss then here it is. If all goes well I will get to have this experience again next month with even more vintages, all 10. Please, life. I am begging you.

Are holiday beers released too early, or when should they be released?

Ones that get wide distribution are released too early, in my opinion. Smaller, more local ones seem to be better timed.

Do you like holiday beer festivals?

I have not been to many. The only one that comes to mind was the 1st Annual Winter Beer Fest, sponsored by Growler Guys and hosted at GoodLife on 14 December 2013. The beers and the event were alright but we also had another beer event that evening, the inaugural event of a friend. We did not make last years event. This year’s event is the 3rd, now called the Central Oregon Winter Beer Festival.

Seems like it could be a festive mood in which to try various offerings and in smaller quantities. That’s one of those fraught questions which arises considering other beers in different styles, or various processes or ingredients: if it is only tasty for, say, 2 to 6 ounces can I call it a good beer? Let any superlative you choose that fits the context stand in for good? Is it then? I haven’t answered this one for myself yet. I can’t  answer it for anyone else.

Other holiday beers on hand to drink

HolidayBeers

I kept a couple Anchor 2014 Christmas Ales and picked up the pFriem and Stone yesterday.

Anchor Christmas Ale [Our Special Ale] 2015 release is here. This is its 41st year. See all of the labels here and see which trees have been used by artist Jim Stitt over the years.

We did drink one of the 2014s we held on Thanksgiving as our noon beer and it was OK. I don’t think the year did it any favors though.

pFriem Belgian-style Christmas Ale. Ah yes. Belgian (or Belgian-style) Christmas beers could almost be a class in itself. Not revisiting the others from over the years here. For instance, Delerium Noël or Fantôme Noël, which we had along with others at a Deschutes Brewery University class on Winter beer and cheese back in January 2013. Bring these DBU classes back please, Deschutes.

Stone Xocoveza Mocha Stout has just been rereleased (due to popular demand, by the way) and this time, now in 12 oz bottles versus first-run 22 oz bottles (bombers), it claims to be “For the holidays and the new year.” OK. It’s a holiday beer posing as a Mexican hot chocolate. It was damned tasty last time. Here’s hopin’.

It’s brewed with cocoa, coffee, chile peppers, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg. This semisweet milk stout was excellent last time. This is what I said about it in my Untapped checkin:

A full-on trigeminal attack. Oily mouthfeel; var. astringencies; spice & aroma of peppers w/hint of heat. 4.75

Oh yeah. I remember this. If you ever need a beer to engage every possible sense perception in your mouth, throat and nose this is a number one contender.

So. Much. Going. On.

In there all at once and in weirds successions and … It was mind-blowing actually. An experience, as they say.

Boy. I hope this can stand up to my hopes and memory now. But if this is a holiday beer then bring them on.

Final thoughts

So my holiday beer thoughts and experiences are fraught and complicated. I truly appreciate some beers that have spices and other flavorings; see Kris Kringle, Jubelale, and Xocoveza above as examples. Just as I do quite appreciate some pumpkin, squash and yam beers.

But these do not circumscribe holiday beers as Jay Brooks has described them for years in the annual holiday beer tasting for the Celebrator Beer News. Also above [with the clipped bit]:

“So a holiday beer should be made to impress, to wow its audience, to stand out. That’s the only criteria that should be met by one of these beers. Will it impress? … So there’s nothing to tie these beers together apart from their celebration of the season.”

As I said above,

“For me then, holiday beers are those I drink across the holidays and winter but not particularly on special occasions. They are seasonally appropriate as (some of the) every day beer for the extended “holiday” period.”

These are not the same things to one of a philosophical bent but I’m not defining “holiday beer” for anyone else either. Certainly not for myself for all time. This isn’t even a view I held 5 years ago.

But I see some overlap.

As I prefer a beer that impresses me–and those above that I want to drink several of do–I think they fit Jay’s description perfectly. [I am not claiming that he sees it as a definition.] The fact that they would only greatly impress me if they kept their seasonal, whatever the “season,” release and thus remain somewhat restricted is irrelevant.

Speaking of beers that impress me, I want to leave room in my description of holiday beers for the narrower one of “my favorite holiday beer:”

In those special moments, that beer that makes, and marks, its own moments in time.

Much overlap but these may also be beers that would make any occasion special, raise it from the ordinary, force you to pay attention. To it and to what is going on around it. They bring you back to yourself.

Cheers!

Thoughts from a real beer writer

Just in time, a new article by K. Florian Kemp from the Stylistically Speaking column in All About Beer v. 36(6) dated 2 December on the history of some kinds of holiday beers.

My previous posts for the session (one is by me wife)

Fort George Festival of the Dark Arts

This weekend Sara and I made a ‘quick’ (~7 hours each way) trip to Astoria, Oregon to attend the Fort George Brewery Festival of the Dark Arts, “A Carnival of Stout.”

Fort George, along with other breweries, has declared February as Stout Month. Seeing as February is my Birthday Month I consider this a wonderful declaration! They have many of their own stouts on tap all month along with having quite a few guest taps. But it all comes to an orgiastic head during Zwickelmania when Fort George hosts the Festival of the Dark Arts. Forty-seven stouts (47!) all housed in one brewery campus! They had 14 of their own stouts and the rest were guests. There was also lots of arts and artists present, tarot card reading, tattooing, blacksmithing, music, fire dancing, music and other diversions.

The Fort George Public House during the Festival of the Dark Arts

The Fort George Public House during the Festival of the Dark Arts

Art on the Taproom wall at Fort George

Art on the Taproom wall at Fort George Brewery

The event was hosted across Fort George’s brewery and public house and went from 2 – 10 pm on Saturday. We got up early on Saturday morning—well, not really as we always get up early, but we did get moving and left the house early and drove up to Astoria. We left around 7 am and arrived about 2 pm. We checked into our Air BnB and got our stuff together and walked the 12 blocks—mostly downhill—to Fort George.

Our Festival of the Dark Arts glasses

Our Festival of the Dark Arts glasses

Entrance was free but a cool glass mug for drinking from was $8 so we each dropped a $20 bill on a mug and 12 tokens. Some of the stronger and usually the barrel-aged stouts were 2 tokens per 3 oz. pour but most were only 1 token.

Fort George Brewery Festival of the Dark Arts token, both sides

Fort George Brewery Festival of the Dark Arts token, both sides

Sadly, we seem to have lost our Festival map which had descriptions of all of the stouts. The webpage announcing the lineup does at least profile the Fort George beers. I do know which ones we had and in what order as I was writing them down. Some people thought that was too organized but they also usually thought I was making tasting notes. I knew better than that! I simply recorded the names.

Almost all were good but there were one or two I wasn’t overly fond of, and there were a couple of the bourbon barrel-aged ones which tasted more like someone had poured a shot of bourbon in a stout; not all, just some.

Barrels at Fort George Brewery

Barrels at Fort George Brewery

The following list comprises the 21 (out of 47 available) stouts that we sampled, all in 3 oz. pours:

  • Bison Organic Chocolate Stout
  • Fort George Squashed Stout
  • HUB Army of Darkness (bourbon bbl-aged)
  • Fort George Kentucky Girl
  • Fort George Viva La Stout
  • Great Divide Espresso Oak-Aged Imperial Stout
  • Block 15 Super Nebula
  • Fort George Meeker’s Mark Stout
  • Fort George Polish’s Black Walnut Stout
  • Astoria’s Bad Ass Stout
  • Laurelwood Bbl-aged Moose & Squirrel Stout
  • Boneyard Bbl-Aged Suge Knight
  • Elysian Omen
  • Fort George Three Wisemen
  • Stone 2008 Imperial Russian Stout aged in bourbon barrels
  • Burnside Red Light District Stout
  • Lucky Lab Pavlov’s Russian Imperial Stout
  • Fort George Bourbon Bbl-Aged Cavatica
  • Fort George Coffee Girl
  • McMenamin’s Whiskey Bbl-Aged Terminator
  • The Abyss

I liked the Bison and I quite enjoyed the Fort George (FG) Squashed. It had a sort of “bright” taste to it the I liked. The FG Viva La Stout was a Mexican chocolate stout with cinnamon, vanilla and almond. If you had told me it was a milk stout with almonds I may well have said, “This is interesting.” All I could taste was sweet almond and stout and perhaps a hint of vanilla; no chocolate or cinnamon. It really needed those flavors to give it some balance. The Block 15 Super Nebula we had last year at The Little Woody and were disappointed when it was recently released but not sent to Bend (I emailed Block 15 to enquire) because we both thought it was the best beer at The Little Woody. Thus, we were happy to get to try it again. Sara still thought it was amazing; I thought it was excellent but have since had 2 to 3 better stouts in the intervening months.

Fermenters at Fort George Brewery

Fermenters at Fort George Brewery

Astoria’s Bad Ass Stout was quite drinkable but I wanted more from it with a name like that. The Laurelwood Bbl-aged Moose & Squirrel was quite tasty. The Boneyard Bbl-Aged Suge Knight wasn’t hitting the right notes for me this weekend. I have tasted this version in a small taster before and enjoyed it a bit more and I have spent a (very) recent evening nursing a non-barrel aged Suge Knight in a large snifter, which was exquisite. [And what is with the name of this beer? I have seen it spelled in probably 6-8 different ways, including a couple of different ways from the brewery.]

Tap Handle for a Fort George stout

Tap Handle for a Fort George stout

I would say that the Elysian Omen let me down but that’s only partly true. I generally like Elysian beers and I find their Dragonstooth to be quite toothsome. But the Omen is one of their 12 Beers of the Apocalypse from last year (2012) and I have had 3 of those so far and have not been impressed by any of them. The Omen is a Belgian raspberry stout. I am not a big raspberry fan but I have had a couple raspberry stouts that I found incredible. I am also a huge Belgian beer fan, having lived there for over 3 years. This just did not work for me, though. I do have a sad over the whole 12 Beers of the Apocalypse as if you’re going to go all out and have a line with that name then they best be incredible beers. The Stone 2008 IRS was incredible! The Burnside Red Light district, a strawberry stout, was quite drinkable but definitely a once in a while taste. The Abyss was, well, The Abyss; appropriately named.

Fort George Brewery courtyard at night with blacksmithing and fire dancers

Fort George Brewery courtyard at night with blacksmithing and fire dancers

Fort George descriptions:

  • Squash Stout, — 6.7% butternut and acorn squashes
  • Kentucky Girl — Coffee Girl on bourbon barrels, ONE KEG LEFT; http://www.fortgeorgebrewery.com/beers/occasionals/kentucky-girl/
  • Viva La Stout — 7.6%, mexican chocolate stout, cinnamon, vanilla, almond
  • Meekers Mark — 8.0%, oatmeal stout on Maker’s Mark barrels
  • Polish’s Black Walnut Stout — 6.4%, 6 lbs of walnuts – nutty, toasty
  • 3 Wisemen — 9.9%, whiskey, rum, and tequila barrels Oatmeal Stout; http://www.fortgeorgebrewery.com/beers/occasionals/three-wisemen/
  • Bourbon Bbl. Cavatica — 2 months on Makers Mark barrels
  • Coffee Girl — “strong malty chocolate profile” oats, malts, molasses; http://www.fortgeorgebrewery.com/beers/seasonal/coffee-girl/

These are the Fort George ones we did not try:

  • Campout Stout — 7.0%, dark chocolate, caramel, marshmallows
  • Rye Whiskey Bbl. Cavatica Stout — 9.2%, barrels for 6 months, special for festival
  • Long Dark Winter — 5.8%, milk stout with oatmeal
  • Murky Pearl — fermented with oysters, salty ocean; http://www.fortgeorgebrewery.com/beers/occasionals/murky-pearl/
  • Cavatica — 8.8%,
  • Spank Stout — honey malts and 30 lbs of roasted peppers – Spicy!

We had a grand time, met some folks, got our tarot cards read, got some brewery/festival clothing, and brought home a four pack of the 2013 Barrel Aged Cavatica Stout which has been aged in Heaven Hills Rye Whiskey Barrels, some of which will be cellared.

Fort George Cavatica Stout aged in Heaven Hills rye barrels

Fort George Cavatica Stout aged in Heaven Hills rye whiskey barrels

We are hoping to make this an annual tradition for us—weather depending, it is a 7-hour drive in February—although we hope to extend it a few days for a more leisurely pace and to allow for more sightseeing and experiencing of the local culture(s) along the way. We also are thinking of trying to volunteer at the Festival next year.

One of the many volunteers hard at work

One of the many volunteers hard at work

And on that note a big “Thank you” to Fort George and their staff and another even bigger one to all of the awesome volunteers who made this thing work so smoothly!

A few more photos follow. FYI: photos are not in the order taken.

A very important sign in the courtyard the next morning

A very important sign in the courtyard the next morning

The Fort George Brewery courtyard the morning after the Festival of the Dark Arts

The Fort George Brewery courtyard the morning after the Festival of the Dark Arts

The Fort George Public House façade and the Blue Scorcher bakery

The Fort George Public House façade and the Blue Scorcher bakery

The Fort George building, 1924, home of the Fort George Public House and the Blue Scorcher bakery

The Fort George building, 1924, home of the Fort George Public House and the Blue Scorcher bakery