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Yule Smith Winter

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Somehow, Alesmith makes two different beers that are both named Yule Smith. And one of them comes out in the summer. Now, the word "Yule" is derived from a Germanic winter festival that was absorbed by Christmas (one of many such occurrences), so the summer one doesn't really make much sense unless you consider the dubious holiday of Christmas in July an event worth celebrating. Then again, if it's an excuse to make good beer, who am I to complain?

What we have here, though, is the actual Christmas version of the beer. Apparently both varieties are hoppy, imperial ales, with the summer incarnation being a DIPA and this winter one being an imperial red ale. In my recently formulated hierarchy of holiday beers, this one represents category three - the do whatever the hell you want and call it holiday beer approach. I guess red is a color associated with Christmas, so there's that.

Alesmith Yule Smith Winter

Alesmith Yule Smith (Winter) - Pours a dark reddish brown color with a finger of whitish head. Smells strongly of sweet, fruity hops. Maybe even a little pine. Taste starts very sweet, with some of that hoppy fruit and sticky pine. Then you get a small dose of bitterness. Nothing overpowering, but it's prominent. A nicely balanced beer. Body is full, and you get that sticky resin feeling too. Overall, I find this quite enjoyable and the strong hoppy character was a welcome change of pace. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 8.5% ABV bottled (22 oz. bomber). Drank out of a tulip on 12/16/11.

As it turns out, this was my first Alesmith beer. And it's made a good impression too, so much so that I think my next homebrew might end up being an imperial red. Anyways, I'll definitely want to pick up some of the summer Yule Smith, and I know folks seems to love the Speedway Stout as well.

Sly Fox 2011 Christmas Ale

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Well, what have we here? Another annual Christmas Ale with a recipe and label unique to that year? Well, don't mind if I do:

Sly Fox 2011 Christmas Ale

Sly Fox 2011 Christmas Ale - Pours a dark brownish red color with tons of billowy head. The smell is filled with spices (clove and ginger with a hint of cinnamon/nutmeg) and bready aromas. The taste starts with a carbonated bang, with the spices emerging quickly and some other flavors coming out a bit as the beer warms. But that mouthfeel is quite aggressive - carbonation is through the roof in the beginning, though it quickly smooths out in the relatively dry finish. If it weren't for the carbonation, I'd say this was a light to medium bodied beer, but the initial rush really does kick it up a notch. Not a revelation, but quite intriguing (and better than last year's variety, if I remember correctly)... B+

Beer Nerd Details: 6.5% ABV bottled (750 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a tulip glass on 12/9/11.

Seriously, this is like, what, the 4th Christmas beer I've had this year that is vintage dated with a new recipe every year? Not that I'm complaining (I actually rather like the switchups, though I could really go for a bottle of 3 French Hens right about now and that probably ain't gonna happen), but I did find it funny. My holiday beers this year have also skewed towards the winter warmery style, while last year was more of a Belgian Strong Dark affair. Well, I've got a few more posts in the pipeline and long weekend's worth a drinking ahead of me, so there's plenty of room for variety...

Winter Wünder

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It's the umlaut that makes this beer. I just want to pronounce it vinter vunder as if I'm German (or, at least, an American poorly impersonating a German). In all seriousness, I have mixed feelings about Philadelphia Brewing Company. They make beers that I like in styles I don't normally go for (i.e. their Kölsch). But their takes on styles I do enjoy tend to be disappointing (i.e. their IPA or their Wit). None of their beers are outright bad or anything, but they are an unusual brewery, focusing more on sessionable ales than most craft breweries. But I figured I'd give this spiced holiday ale a shot:

Philadelphia Winter Wunder

Philadelphia Winter Wünder - Pours a clear, light orangish brown color with a finger or so of head. The aroma is sweet and quite spicy, especially with clove. The taste also features lots of spicing, though it seems a bit more diverse than the nose would have you believe (you can get more cinnamon and fruit out of it). Mouthfeel is a bit harsh and strangely carbonated. You get a rush of carbonation as you drink, but then it dissipates quickly. And yet it's got a bit of a dry finish. Very strange. Still, it's a decent beer. Not something I would probably rush to try or recommend, but certainly festive and enjoyable enough. B-

Beer Nerd Details: 6.5% ABV bottled (22 oz. bomber). Drank out of a tulip glass on 12/3/11.

So this is about par for the course for the Philly Brewing Co. A solid beer, but nothing mind blowing. Still, they make a couple of higher gravity beers that I wouldn't mind trying... but that may take a while. Holiday beer reviews will continue for the near future...

Decembeer Club

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Tonight was beer club, a meeting of beer minded individuals from my work who get together for a meal and lots-o-beer once a month. Tonight, we wondered why we don't do this more than once a month. We had a strange turnout this month. Lots of people, but really only 4 of us were drinking lots of beer (other folks bring wine or don't drink at all). Still, a good time was had by all, and we had a pretty nice selection of beers:

December 2011 Beer Club
(Click for bigger image)

For the sake of posterity, some thoughts on each beer we tried are below. As usual, conditions were not ideal, so take it all with a grain of salt. Actually, no. It's the final word on the subject. In order of drinking (not necessarily the order in the picture):

  • Harpoon Winter Warmer - A pretty straightforward winter warmer style beer. Not quite as dark as I'd expect, lots of holiday spices in the nose and taste. Decent, but nothing special... B-
  • Achouffe N'Ice Chouffe - Achouffe's holiday beer brewed with spices turned out to be a bit disappointing. Pours a nice brown color with a bunch of head and a nice Belgian aroma. But the taste is filled with sweet raisiny character that doesn't always work well for me. It got a little less powerful as it warmed up a bit. Very sweet and raisiny. A decent beer, but I expect more out of Achouffe... B-
  • Great Lakes Christmas Ale - It's got all the standard winter warmer characteristics, but it's also brewed with honey, and you really get that additional honey character in the taste. It makes this a somewhat unique brew, and it's actually well balanced. That being said, I've never been that big of a honey person, so it's still not knocking my socks off. B
  • Leinenkugel's Fireside Nut Brown - I've never been one for Leinenkugel's beers, and I don't think this was anything special, but it's a reasonably well executed brown ale with a nice nutty flavor. Not something I anticipate trying again, but it wasn't repugnant either. B-
  • Rogue Santa's Private Reserve Ale - I actually reviewed this last year and my thoughts on the beer have changed very little. A decent beer, but not something I'd go out of my way for...
  • Dixie Blackened Voodoo Lager - My least favorite beer of the night, this one wasn't really offensive so much as it didn't really have much going for it. Flavors seemed a bit muted (especially considering the context of a beer tasting) and while it was crisp and clean, it just didn't do much for me. C
  • Goose Island Christmas Ale - ZOMG! It's a beer mostly owned by Anheuser Busch. I have a reflexive dislike for that, but then, this was actually one of the better beers of the night. A really well balanced and tasty winter warmer style beer. Hop flavors of pine and spruce dominate the palate, but it's not particularly bitter either, which is an interesting combination and everything is rather well matched. B+
  • Heavy Seas Yule Tide - A Belgian style tripel, this one doesn't really have much in the way of holiday spirit, but it's a decent strong pale ale. Typical Belgian yeast flavors are there, but it is extremely sweet. This worked fine for the limited portions of beer club, but to be honest, I'm positive this would become overly cloying if I tried to drink an entire bottle of the stuff. B-
  • My Homebrewed Christmas Ale - I've been trying these ever since I bottled it, but this particular bottle seemed a bit under-carbonated. My regular 12 ounce bottle sseem to be fine (I'm sipping on one right now, actually), but this 22 ounce bottle seemed a bit light on the carbonation. Not sure what to make of that, but it should hopefully work itself out by Christmas...
A few of the beers in the picture were not actually opened. We ended up using them as a sorta Holiday beer exchange/white elephant style gift for each other. Overall, we all had a good time and I'm already looking forward to the January edition of beer club. Until then, expect a whole slew of additional holiday beer reviews!

Anchor Christmas Double Feature

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Every year, the craft beer pioneers at Anchor Brewing put out a special Christmas ale as the holiday approaches. It's apparently quite the beer dork tradition, and while I've only started drinking these last year, I was excited for this year's installment. The recipes change with each iteration (as do the labels), so it's only natural that folks save a few from previous years and compare them. Since the recipes are different, it's not technically a "vertical" tasting, but I thought it would be a fun exercise and besides, I had totally forgotten about the 2010 bottle that was sitting in the back of my fridge. So on one cold evening, I threw on a couple of Holiday horror movies (both of which were rather unremarkable) and popped my two Anchor Christmas vintages (both of which were rather good) for a comparative tasting, starting with the 2010.

Anchor Christmas Ale 2010

2010 Anchor Christmas - Pours a very dark brown, just a hint of ruby red when held up to the light. About a finger of tan head. Aroma is quite nice. Very sweet smelling, maybe brown sugar and vanilla in there with a faint hint of dark fruit (raisins?). Taste has some spiciness to it, and that brown sugar character is there too, but there's an overarching flavor I can't quite place and a strange bitterness that settles in the finish. There's an aftertaste that isn't particularly pleasing. Mouthfeel is still quite nice, even after a year, though perhaps a bit on the light side. Here's the strange thing - I like this beer and I think it might even be better than it was last year, but I'm rating it lower than I did last year. I definitely overrated this last year, but I'm really glad I retained this bottle. B

Beer Nerd Details: 5.5% ABV bottled (12 oz.) Drank out of a tulip glass on 12/2/11.

Anchor Christmas 2011

2011 Anchor Christmas - Also pours a very dark brown, though not quite as dark as the 2010 variety, and more reddish colors show through when held up to light. Aroma is very spicy - cinnamon is clearly apparent. It smells sweet, but with none of that brown sugar or dark fruitiness from 2010. The taste seems much spicier (again with the Christmas spices of cinnamon and nutmeg, etc...) with a complex arrangement of malts. On the other hand, the bitterness here is much more subdued and better matched to the beer, leading a nicer finish and less of an aftertaste. The mouthfeel is again nice, though again a bit lighter than expected. As the beer warms, it seems to get more complex and ever more drinkable. Overall, I think it's a small improvement over last year, and quite a good beer. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 5.5% ABV bottled (12 oz.) Drank out of a tulip glass on 12/2/11.

I actually really like some aspects of the 2010 beer (a fantastic aroma coming off that thing), but I do believe the 2011 to be a more balanced brew. This was fun - I'll probably save a few of the 2011 bottles and do the same thing next year. I've also been cracking a few of my homebrewed winter warmers lately, and I'm happy to report that they compare favorable to the Anchor beers (which were the basic inspiration for my recipe).

4 Calling Birds

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This may have been a bad idea. The Bruery consistently knocks my socks off with their beers, so starting the Holiday beer season off with one of their entries might set the bar too high. But humbug to that. As soon as I saw this, I grabbed it and consumed it that night.

You have to respect the audacity of the concept. This is the 4th installment of a 12 year long project, matching beers with each verse of the 12 Days of Christmas. In addition, these early beers are designed to be aged, so that the patient beer nerds among us will have amassed all 12 varieties at the end of the project. I was mightily impressed by last year's 3 French Hens, and was thus looking forward to this year's installment:

The Bruery 4 Calling Birds

The Bruery 4 Calling Birds - Pours a dark brown color with a small amount of tan colored, big bubbled head. The aroma is very musty and bready, with lots of spiciness apparent. From the nose, they seem to have gone in a more traditional winter warmer direction this year - I'm getting traditional winter spices like cinnamon and ginger, maybe even nutmeg. The taste is very sweet and boozy. Those spices are here, but they're taking a back seat to rich malt flavors, even a little bit of roast emerging in the finish and aftertaste. It's full bodied and chewy, but also quite smooth. Just a little sweet, sticky booze character in the mouth as well. At 11% ABV, it's a bit of a monster, and that warming alcohol character matches well with the gingerbread spices. The myriad flavors seem to become more balanced as it warms up, but I'm also guessing this beer will harmonize even better after a few years as well (I should really try to find me another bottle!) A-

Beer Nerd Details: 11% ABV bottled (750 ml capped). Drank out of a goblet on 11/26/11.

Not having the foresight to pick up an extra bottle of 3 French Hens or 4 Calling Birds is disappointing, though I'm holding out hope that I'll be able to find another bottle of 4 Calling Birds somewhere. I doubt I'll be able to hold on to it for 8 more years, but I would really like to see how it would mature...

Dogfish Head Squall IPA

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It's alive! As it turns out, this beer is basically a bottle conditioned version of Dogfish Head's 90 Minute IPA. What does that mean? It's pretty straightforward, but I'm going to make it complicated, because that's what we do here at Kaedrin.

Let's start with the magical wonder of yeast. The simple description of yeast's role in brewing is that it eats sugar, processes it, then poops alcohol and farts carbon dioxide (this is known as "fermentation" in respectable circles that I do not belong to.) Since fermentation typically takes place in a closed vessel (to keep out nasty bacteria and other unsavory bugs), brewers need to release the gas building up inside, least we have exploding equipment due to the additional pressure. What this means is that at the end of the fermentation process, when you're ready to bottle or keg your beer, you've essentially got a flat product. There are typically two approaches to carbonating the beer. The most typical approach is to filter all the yeast and proteins out of the beer, then force carbonate the beer (basically just injecting a bunch of carbon dioxide into the liquid, then bottling/kegging it right away). The other method is to "prime" the unfiltered beer with a small amount of additional sugars, then bottle it. The yeast remaining in the unfiltered beer (which is still alive) will eat up the new sugar and carbonate the beer, right in the bottle*.

There are pros and cons to each approach. Force carbonation allows for a quicker, more consistent product. On the other hand, it also means the beer won't stay fresh as long. Bottle conditioning can and will change the character of the beer over time - as the yeast is still "alive". Indeed, while most beer is meant to be drank fresh, bottle conditioned beers are often suitable for aging. The down side is that you end up with a layer of yeast on the bottom of your bottle, the end product can be less consistent (this can be a plus or minus when it comes to aging), and, of course, it takes a while to condition in the bottle. This is, of course, a drastic simplification of the subject, and there are many things I'm leaving out (i.e. kräusening, re-yeasting, bottle bombs, caged and corked beers, Belgian methods and so on...)

So Dogfish Head filters and force carbonates their 90 Minute IPA**, but their experiment with Squall was to see how bottle conditioning the same exact beer would change its character (there may or may not have been some extra dry hopping as well). They also barrel age their 90 Minute IPA (that version is called Burton Baton), and they blend the 90 and 60 minute IPAs to make the 75 Minute IPA. Alas, Squall seems to be going the way of the dodo. Given that hoppy beers tend to deteriorate with time anyway, this makes a certain sort of sense. I'm sure an aged version of Squall would be quite nice, but it would also be lacking a lot of the hop character you look for in an IPA (yeast will keep the beer viable with age, but it won't do anything about various flavors and aromas derived from hops). It was still an interesting experiment that I'm glad I got to try, though:

Dogfish Head Squall IPA

Dogfish Head Squall IPA - I think this might be my favorite Dogfish Head label ever. Anyway, it pours a cloudy, dark goldish orange color with a couple fingers of creamy head that leaves tons of lacing as I drink. Aroma is full of earthy hops and sugary citrus. Taste is very citrusy sweet with a light bitterness emerging in the finish. There actually is a musty yeast character here too. The mouthfeel is surprisingly full bodied, with lots of carbonation. Overall, a wonderful beer. I don't know that it's better than the 90 minute or Burton Baton, but I'm glad I got to try this variant. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 9% ABV bottled (750 ml capped). Drank out of a tulip on 11/11/11.

I didn't realize it, but this would have really made a good double feature with the standard 90 Minute IPA. I suspect there wouldn't be a huge amount of difference, but I always find it illuminating to try such things together. Alas, with Squall going away, it seems that this is not destined to happen. Oh well, I guess you can't win them all. Stay tuned for the start of this year's holiday beer extravaganza.

* Bottle conditioning tends to be the favored method of the beginning homebrewer, as it doesn't require any additional equipment. But you do have to wait. Most folks who invest in kegging systems also gain the ability to force carbonate the beer in the keg, which means you get to try the beer right after fermentation ends. Unlike me, who has to wait a couple weeks to try the beer. Not that I'm bitter.

** And it's still an exceptional beer. Don't take this post to mean that filtered beers are inherently bad, because there are lots of amazing beers in both camps.

Victory Baltic Thunder

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Beer styles are strange beasts. There are a lot of stories surrounding the origins of many beer styles and they're often vague or conflicting. Take the Baltic Porter style. In my 5 minutes of research, I come away with a number of unanswered questions. Did the style originate in England? Or did it originate in the Baltic states (like Finland, Poland, Denmark, Sweden, etc...)? What's the difference between a Baltic Porter and a strong English Porter? Is the difference that Baltic Porters were brewed with lager yeast (rather than the traditional ale yeast)? Come to think of it, what the hell is the difference between a stout and a porter?

Near as I can tell, the style originated in the Baltic states as an attempt to imitate the English Porters, but perhaps because they're Baltic, they amped up the alcohol. The British were exporting their beers throughout the Baltic region and Russia, so I guess the locals enjoyed the beer so much that they tried their hand at it. There are some sources online that say many of the Baltic breweries switched to lager yeast and processes later, which would certainly lend a different character to the beer (and it makes sense that brewers in the frigid Baltic region would gravitate towards processes that required lower fermentation temperatures), though I also get the impression that many breweries continued to use ale yeast. All of this is still rather fuzzy though.

Ultimately, when you see something at the beer store labeled a Baltic Porter, what you can expect is a porter with a higher than normal alcohol (in the 7-9% range). It's basically the Porter's equivalent of the Russian Imperial Stout. Today's example comes from local brewing hero Victory, who collaborated with Tom Baker from the now defunct Heavyweight brewing to create the beer:

"We were always fans of Tom's beers, his Baltic porter in particular. After he chose to close his brewery and his Baltic porter vanished from the shelves, we were left thirsty for that beer. So, to quench our own thirst and that of consumers, we worked with Tom and shared his notes and thoughts on the style." said Bill Covaleski, president and brewmaster of Victory Brewing Company.
Though inspired by Heavyweight's Perkuno's Hammer, this beer has a slightly different recipe (apparently they wanted to use the same Perkuno's Hammer label, but the local beer distributer objected and Victory thus came up with the Baltic Thunder name). It's also apparently one of the lagered varieties of the Baltic Porter, though I didn't really pick out any of that character in the beer. Speaking of which, here's what I did pick out in the beer:

Victory Baltic Porter

Victory Baltic Thunder - Pours a dark brown color with just a hint of amber highlights and minimal head. Aroma is full of chalky roasted malts, maybe just a hint of fruitiness and chocolate. Taste is nice and sweet, with the caramel and roasted malt character coming out in the middle and lasting through the finish. Really well balanced mouthfeel; nice full body, but the alcohol is well hidden and it still goes down easy. Overall, this is my kinda porter. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 8.5% ABV bottled (22 oz. bomber). Drank out of a tulip on 11/5/11.

So I'm still mopping up some old reviews, after which you can expect the Holiday beer review deluge to begin.

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Hi, my name is Mark, and I like beer.

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