A Few Trips to Levante Brewing

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It's hard to keep up with the throng of newly christened breweries in the area, but when the brewery in question is only a mile or two away, how can I not stop in? Of course, proximity isn't the only factor in play here, otherwise I'd be chatting up uber-local Boxcar's generally mediocre offerings (to be fair, they have opened a new brewpub, and it's a fantastic space, even if their beer still seems to be subpar). But being close helps, and Levante has more to offer than Boxcar ever did. (Full disclosure, one of the brewers there is a former coworker.)

They formally opened about six months ago, but had been open on a provisionary basis for a month or two before that. I've actually been there several times over the past few months, but I've only just recently gotten around to taking some formal tasting notes. The tasting room is just part of the little warehouse where they've set up their brewery, but they've done a good job making it a welcoming area, and they have a great little nook for food trucks to sidle up to the building. They're only open a few days a week, but they've gradually been expanding that, and their distribution footprint is getting larger as well.

Their standard lineup is comprised of your common opening break of styles (IPA, Pale, Rye, Wit, Kolsh, etc...), but their rotating limited releases have only gotten better over time. Out of the standard lineup, I've enjoyed Pallido Pale Ale and Ranger Rye the most (and the blended, bourbon barrel aged version of Ranger Rye? Excellent!). I've also quite enjoyed the Glen Mills Mild (now dubbed Mild Porter because no one understood what a mild was (I don't think I have any British readers, but I'm guessing some facepalms are in order)), a perfect little 3.2% session ale. They've been somewhat less successful with Belgian styles, though their most recent attempts have been improving.

But where they've really nailed it is with stouts. Longtime readers know I've been pining for a local brewery to really embrace stouts, and I appear to have found my savior. Darkness is Spreading was a superb little milk stout with well balanced chocolate and vanilla additions. And then we come to Bullit Train, an excellent imperial stout made with bourbon vanilla. Both stouts were delicious, so when my brewer buddy informed me that they'd be releasing a bourbon barrel aged blend of Bullit Train on the day after Christmas, I was all over it. Merry Boxing Day! Some notes on that and a double IPA are below:

Levante Bullitt Train Bourbon Vanilla Stout

Bullitt Train Bourbon Barrel Vanilla Stout - A blend of three batches, one of which was aged in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels, then it was put on the nitro tap. Pours a deep black color with a finger or two of gorgeous, dense light brown nitro head. Smells nice, big wafts of vanilla, caramel, hints of roast and chocolate. Taste follows the nose, lots of vanilla, some more roast than the nose, hints of the caramel and chocolate. The bourbon is there, but it's a light touch (I don't know the details, but I'm guessing only half or so of the blend was BBA). Mouthfeel is smooth and creamy, as befits a nitro pour. High medium to full bodied, very approachable at 10.5%, no real boozy notes at all. Overall, Levante has proven quite adept at stouts, and this is no exception! A-

Beer Nerd Details: 10.5% ABV on tap (nitro pour). Drank out of a tulip glass on 12/26/15.

Levante Panic Room

Panic Room - I have to admit that I'm not the biggest fan of Levante's single IPA, The Chief. However, their double IPAs are a different beast altogether. This pours a pale golden orange color with a finger or two of fluffy white head. Smells great, big citrus and pine hops. Taste hits the hops hard, again citrus and pine, with a substantial but well balanced bitter bite to it that lasts through the finish. This isn't one of them newfangled northeast "juicy" IPAs, but it's well crafted and delicious. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, well carbonated, no discernable booze, very nice. Overall, rock solid DIPA! B+ maybe an A- if I'm generous...

Beer Nerd Details: 8.5% ABV on tap. Drank out of a tulip glass on 12/26/15.

A promising start from an uber-local brewery! I am greatly looking forward to where Levante goes next. I'm sure you'll be hearing more about them in the near future, so stay tuned!

A Trip to Selin's Grove

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Back in the time of antiquity (i.e. the aughts), you could troll beer rating sites by state and when you got to Pennsylvania, the listings were dominated by this tiny little brewpup located in the middle of nowhere called Selin's Grove. The IPA even graced Beer Advocate's top 100 back when that was still a thing people cared about, and people 3,000 miles away would trade for it. They've since faded a bit in the popular consciousness due to the rise of other big PA names, but they seem happy toiling away in relative obscurity (then again, the IPA is still #7 on BA's PA list, so there is that).

Selins Grove sign

Selin's Grove is about 2 hours away from Kaedrin HQ, which depending on your fortitude is not too big of a deal (these days, there are a few other places you can stop along the way, which might make for a nice full-day trip). I've always meant to make a trip up there sometime, and finally pulled the trigger last week when they were celebrating their anniversary. It's a bit of a haul, but it's not a bad drive at all. I had a couple of samples when I was there, grabbed a decent sandwich, and of course some growlers. It's a neat little place, great atmosphere, very warm and inviting. Let's see if their beer lives up to their reputation:

Selins Grove IPA

Selin's Grove IPA - Pours a pale orange color with half a finger of quickly disappearing head. Smells sweet, citrus and lots of dank, resinous pine. I want to call this an expertly crafted old school IPA, and I'm guessing lots of C hops here. Taste is sweet, with some citrus and again, lots of dank, resinous pine, finishing with a nice bitter bite. Mouthfeel has lowish carbonation (probably a result of the growler), medium body, and it's quite approachable. Overall, it's a rock solid IPA, I can see why it had the reputation, but I can see why it's fallen off the radar as well. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 7% ABV from a growler (1L Boston style). Drank out of a snifter on 12/22/15.

Selins Grove Framboise

Selin's Grove Framboise - Pours a murky purple color with a finger of pinkish head. Smells of pure, unadulterated raspberry puree, sweet and a little tart. That sounds simplistic, but it's really quite striking. The taste has a little more complexity to it, though it's still a raspberry bomb. It's got a richness to it that fits well with the sweet, lightly tart rasberry. Mouthfeel is well carbonated, surprisingly full bodied, rich, and chewy, viscous but the carbonation helps break it up. No matter what the ABV, it's not really a session beer because of its intensity, but it's not like it's hard to drink or something. Still, I was very glad I was sharing this, as taking down a growler on your own is maybe possible, but not recommended. Overall, reminiscent of those New Glarius fruited bangers, this is fuller and more rich, and delicious. Really begs for some sort of Brett addition or barrel aging, but it's pretty great as it is. B+ or maybe an A- if I'm feeling generous, which I guess I'm not.

Beer Nerd Details: 6.5% ABV from a growler (1L Boston style). Drank out of a flute glass on 12/22/15.

It was worth the trip, but it is just a tad bit too far to make it up there regularly. Still, I could see it happening a couple times a year, as there are several other beers of theirs I'd love to try.

8 Maids-A-Milking

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Another year, another verse in The Bruery's 12 Days (beers) of Christmas. I always enjoy these, even when they're not spectacular, because I'm just a sucker for the concept of a 12 year vertical series centered around a Christmas carol. Some of these have been great, most have been middle ground. Most are a take on a Belgian dark ale, and some even incorporate ingredients inspired by the verse. For instance, 3 French Hens was partially aged in French Oak, 5 Golden Rings was the only "golden" colored beer in the series, gooseberries were added to 6 Geese-A-Laying and now we come to 8 Maids-A-Milking, which is obviously a milk stout. A Belgian-style Imperial Milk Stout, to be exact. This is actually a somewhat interesting combination. Belgian yeast typically ferments through at a higher attenuation, leaving a beer lighter bodied and more carbonated than the same recipe with a different yeast. But if you add in some lactose, you offset that, which is a nice concept. Also, I've found that this type of beer ages pretty darn well, so now that we're on the downslope of the 12 Days of Christmas (zoinks! Has it really been that long?), this one should most certainly be drinking well in a few years.

The Bruery 8 Maids-A-Milking

The Bruery 8 Maids-A-Milking - Pours a very dark brown color, almost black, with a finger or two of khaki head that sticks around for a while and leaves some lacing as I drink. Smell has a nice estery component that comes out before the more roasty stout-like aromas emerge. Taste is very sweet, with that fruity ester character coming through strong in the taste along with some more spicy phenolic elements from the Belgian yeast, clove and the like, finally some roasty notes are pitching in. Mouthfeel is highly carbonated but smooth and full bodied, the lactose cutting any dryness from the yeast without getting sticky, and a little booze too. Overall, this is a solid Belgian style stout, nothing to go crazy over but a nice holiday pour. B+

Beer nerd Details: 11.5% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a snifter on 12/19/15.

This was good, but I think it could really benefit from some barrel aging. I keep waiting for a return to the BA Christmas beer from the Bruery, but alas, it has not happened yet. I remain ever hopeful. See you again when those Dancing Ladies appear!

Firestone XIX Anniversary Ale

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Another year, another blend. You know the deal, every year Firestone Walker invites neighboring winemakers to get sloshed and blend a series of barrel aged component beers into a Voltron-esque super beer which becomes their Anniversary Ale. It's a process I've already covered in tedious detail, so I won't belabor that point.

Each blend varies considerably. XV was barleywine-heavy and fabulous. XVI was more evenly matched between stouts and barleywines, and while great, it's probably still my least favorite vintage. XVII returned to a barleywine focus and XVIII went to the dark side. Also of note with XVIII, it had a breakdown of 9 components ranging from 38% of the blend (the highest I've seen) to 2% (the lowest). This year, Firestone Walker ratcheted back the variety, making fewer component beers available for the blend (and removing the hoppy, stainless steel finished beers off the roster completely). As a result, we get a sorta back to basics look:

  • 33.33% Parabola (13% ABV) Russian Imperial Oatmeal Stout. Aged in Bourbon Barrels.
  • 33.33% Stickee Monkee (12.3% ABV) English Barley Wine. Aged in Bourbon and Brandy barrels.
  • 16.66% Bravo (12.9% ABV) Imperial Brown Ale. Aged in Bourbon and Brandy Barrels.
  • 16.66% Velvet Merkin (8.5% ABV) Traditional Oatmeal Stout. Aged in Bourbon barrels.

We're again trafficking the dark side here, with about 2/3 of the blend hitting the brown ale/stout territory (I guess it depends on how you categorize Bravo, but I've always put it in dark/stout territory). It probably helps that Parabola is the anchor here, any blend where that features so prominently is bound to turn out great I think. But what do I know? I'm just a dork on the internet. Let's take a closer look:

Firestone Walker XIX

Firestone Walker XIX Anniversary Ale - Pours a deep, dark brown color, almost black, with a finger of short lived light tan head. Smells nice, roasty, almost nutty, with that typically fantastically balanced barrel character, vanilla, oak, booze. Taste is all rich caramel, dark fruits, hints of roast, maybe even that nutty note, and plenty of bourbon, oak, and vanilla. As it warms, the fruity brandy notes come out too. Mouthfeel is full bodied and rich, well carbonated but thick, a little pleasant boozy heat, but not sticky at all. Overall, another knockout from Firestone's Anniversary program. A

Beer Nerd Details: 13.8% ABV bottled (22 ounce bomber). Drank out of a snifter on 12/18/15. Vintage: 2015.

Drinking a new Anniversary Ale is always a pleasure, and this one stacks up favorably with all the others that I've had. Already looking forward to next year's batch, and fingers crossed that Bravo sees bottles this year...

New Holland Double Feature

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One of the more interesting crossovers between beer and bourbon is New Holland's Beer Barrel Bourbon. First, they get old bourbon barrels to age their imperial stout in, resulting in Dragon's Milk (that accessible beginners BBA beer that is a reliable standby). Next, they went out and sourced some bourbon (presumably from MGP, because who else?) at 110-115 proof, then dumped that into the old Dragon's Milk barrels (i.e. this is a third use barrel). The result is a beer barrel finished bourbon that lots of people seem to enjoy and that I thought I'd never find. However, during a recent jaunt to the Garden State, I spied a bottle of this very juice and immediately snatched it up, knowing in my heart that I would also snag a Dragon's Milk to complete the double feature. So let's get it on with some hot bourbon on beer action:

Beer and Beer Barrel Finished Bourbon
(Click to Embiggen)

New Holland Dragon's Milk - Pours a very dark brown, almost black color with a finger of light tan head. Smells sweet, lots of vanilla, a little caramel, hints of roast. Taste has a nice caramel and vanilla character to it, roast in the background. Mouthfeel is medium to full bodied, smooth and creamy, no real evidence of booze. Overall, it's not quite the revelation it once was, but it's a rock solid BBA stout and you have to admire the price point and availability. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 11% ABV bottled (22 ounce bomber). Drank out of a snifter on 12/12/15. Vintage: 2015.

New Holland Beer Barrel Bourbon - Pours a light golden color. Smells kinda new makish, but with a nice kick, vanilla and caramel and toffee. The vanilla seems most prominent. Taste again has some new make rawness to it, a little more prominent in the taste than the nose, but there is some hints of vanilla in the background. Mouthfeel is light and smooth, hardly even boozy (ah, it's 80 proof, that explains it). Overall, its a little disappointing, but it's also interesting enough that I tried it. Was it worth the flier on the whole bottle? I'd have to drink more to find out for sure. Who knows, maybe it will grow on me. For now: B-

Whiskey Nerd Details: 40% ABV bottle (750 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass on 12/12/15.

Beer Nerd Musings: The beer barrel almost certainly lent some of those vanilla, caramel, and toffee notes to the bourbon, but my guess is that cutting it down to 80 proof did this a disservice. I'm not looking for barrel proof here, but maybe give us a little more heft, let those beery notes shine, you know? I'm betting this would be fine cocktail material though, and I should really try that. There are apparently some other beer barrel finished whiskeys out there. Sku has tried Abraham Bowman Gingerbread Beer Finished Bourbon (which used barrels from Hardywood's BBA Gingerbread Stout) and found it interesting, but perhaps not whole bottle interesting. Berkshire Mountain Distillers has a whole series of beer cask finished bourbons, using barrels from the likes of Troegs, Sam Adams, and Terrapin. I'm sure there are others, but the all appear to be small micro-distilleries, and thus it feels like they'd all be a little young. I'd gladly try more though!

This was fun, and something I will clearly need to try again soon. It appears that New Holland has even started putting out some variants of Dragon's Milk, though none of them sound particularly exciting to me. If I see one, I might take a flier on it, because I'm the worst.

Jack's Abby Saxonator

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In my effort to engage with more beers from the lager family, Jack's Abby is certainly a worthy ally. Last time I reviewed a beer by them and noted that I was becoming more acclimated to lagers, they responded on Twitter "One of us! One of us!" This reference to a classic movie only served to endear them to me further. As such I was looking forward to trying more from them, like this Doppelbock that I picked up in the summer, but only managed to open once the weather became a little more conducive to such a burly beer. In truth, it's not really my favorite style, but as always, I'm interested in branching out. Doppelbocks seem like the sort of style I could get into eventually, even if they're not really there yet. As such, while I enjoyed this, I'm also a bit restrained on it because of my preconceived notions. I'll get over this sort of thing someday, I swears. In the meantime, let's take a closer look:

Jack Aabby Saxonator

Jack's Abby Saxonator Dunkles Doppelbock - Pours a reddish hued brown color with a finger of off white head that sticks around for a bit. Smell has some raisiny dark fruit, but also an herbal, earthy, bready aroma that I associate with lagers. The dark fruit comes out a little more in the taste, sweet crystal malts, and that herbal, bready lager character pitch in as well, finishing sweet. Mouthfeel is medium to full bodied, low, tight carbonation (appropriate for the style), hints of booze, and maybe a little stickiness. Overall, it's a solid little dopplebock. Admittedly, this is not my style, but this feels like a well crafted version. B

Beer Nerd Details: 8.5% ABV bottled (500 ml capped). Drank out of a tulip glass on 12/06/15. Bottled: 02/05/15. ("Drink Lager")

Not my favorite Jack's Abby beer, but they will always be my lager gateway, especially once they start distributing more out here next year (at least, I hope so, fingers crossed!)

Yuletide Beer Club

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I don't know why I called this a "Yuletide" beer club except that 'tis the season and I am a bit tipsy (alas, none of the beers we tasted were particularly festive). For the uninitiated, Beer Club is a monthly get together amongst friends and coworkers (and former coworkers) to share some beer and partake in general revelry. We have been woefully neglectful of late, and indeed, after just barely sneaking a September meeting in at the very end of that month, we did not manage a meetup in October or November. But we're back on track and managed a pretty good showing.

Yuletide Beer Club
(Click to embiggen)

For the sake of posterity, some thoughts on each beer are listed below. Standard disclaimers apply, we were at a sushi place, not a sensory deprivation chamber. Notes are below, in order of tasting, not necessarily in the order pictured.

  • Fat Head Trail Head Pale Ale - It's like a toned-down version of Fat Head's Headhunter, dank, piney hops, tasty, a decent start for the night. B
  • Lost Nation Gose - Yup, a beer we've had many times here, and it's a nice, light, tart beer that works well as a warmup beer.
  • Rubber Soul Dropout - A super fresh crowler from this brand newish (less than 6 months old) Maryland brewery that is rather obviously comprised of Beatles Fans. This is a pretty solid DIPA, nice citrus and pine hop presence, and a decent amount of bitterness too (this will come into question later in the tasting). B+
  • Trinity Red Swingline - Was not expecting much from this beer named after an Office Space reference, but it wound up being one of the better of the night, super funky and earthy, with a decent amount of hop presence, and only a hint of sourness. One of these days, I'm going to buy a waxed beer that will totally lead me astray, and I thought this might be it, but I guess not. Also of note, the wax job was rather weird, like they dipped it once, realized that wouldn't be enough, so they dipped it again, and then just said "fuck it" and dipped it a third time because why the hell not. This is important, and I am totally justified in writing more about the wax job than the beer itself. B+
  • Free Will DC Cranberry Farmhouse - I picked this up at the semi-local Free Will release on Sunday. A pretty nice little saison number, but it's more subtle than the beer we just drank, so I think it suffered a bit from the comparison. Still, it seemed pretty darned good. B or B+
  • Pretty Things Jack D'Or - Thus begins a little, informal tribute to the sadly now defunct Pretty Things brewing company, this is a little more sweet and raisiny than I remember, but it's still relatively dry and a great match for the sushi we were eating at this point. B
  • Pretty Things Hopfenpop! - This was not a fresh bottle and you could sorta tell, but it was nevertheless pretty good and held up pretty well. I would have liked to have tried this one fresh, but for this, I'll give it a B
  • Stone Double Bastard In The Rye - This wound up being a sweeter take on the Double Bastard (as compared to, say, Southern Charred or even the base beer), but the hop character survived and tries its darnedest to counteract the sweetness. Still one of my favorites of the night though, and pretty fantastic. B+ or A-
  • Troegs Impending Descent - The Scratch beer that keeps on giving, I managed to get up to Troegs this Black Friday and pick up some of this solid imperial stout, perhaps not as great as their initial vintage, I still love it.
  • Pretty Things Fumapapa - A very nice imperial stout with all the standard notes and an additional and very complementary smoked malt character that manages to make itself known without overwhelming anything (or making you wonder who put their cigar out in your beer). Very tasty, and damn, I'm going to miss these guys. A-
  • Dogfish Head Hoo Lawd - Yes, this beer's premise, brewed to 658 IBUs (apparently the highest confirmed measurement ever, despite some others with higher "theoretical" IBUs), is gimmicky and such things tend to be hit or miss, but this was indeed an interesting beer to try. It pours a jet black color (i.e. not very IPAish), has a nice hoppy nose, dank citrus and pine, and the taste starts off just fine, like a malt-forward IPA, then the bitterness starts coming in towards the finish and building through the aftertaste. It's kinda like when you eat a hot pepper and you're all this isn't so bad and then 10 seconds later your mouth is on fire and 10 seconds after that you think you might die. Alright, so it never quite approaches fear-of-death levels of bitterness, but it is very bitter, which isn't that unusual, except that this lingers for much longer than normal. I'm really happy I got to try it and would recommend getting a sample if you see it, but the smallish pour I got was plenty, and it's not something worth really hunting for. Interesting though and one of those things that makes it hard to rate. B
After the Hoo Lawd, we opened a couple of "palate cleansers" that were IPAs that basically tasted like water, so I won't really go into detail on those. The Rubber Soul Dropout fared slightly better, but still didn't taste bitter at all. Go figure. So that wraps up this beer share, look for more in January, I hope!

He'Brew Jewbelation Reborn

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Last week, Jay at BeerSamizdat dusted off an unintentionally "laid down" 2011 bottle of He'Brew Jewbelation 15, and he seemed to enjoy it. Seeing this, I was inspired to dig around in my cellar for the vaguely frightening He'Brew Jewbelation Reborn. "Reborn" because Frightening because for the longest time, Shmaltz was a contract brewing operation (not usually considered a good thing in beer dorkdom), but by their 17th year, they had finally built their own brewery. "Frightening" because it's a 17 malt, 17 hop, 17% ABV monstrosity that I received as a gift a few years ago and just never found the time or inclination to open up. Jay hits the nail on the head when he describes the prevailing attitude towards Shmaltz:

You know, SHMALTZ may only get partial and begrudging props from the discerning modern craft beer enthusiast, probably because of their marketing gimmicks, the fact that they've been around so long (and are therefore "old") and because their best-known beers are the Coney Island lagers.
Yeah, that gimmicky stuff is one of the reasons this spent so long in the cellar. The whole 17 of everything just smacks of unnecessary artifice. Despite my fears, this wound up being pretty enjoyable, and heck, it's Hanukkah, so this is perfect (yeah, I cut it a little close as it appears today is the last day, but better late than never - and this is downright early by Kaedrin standards). Thanks again to Jay for inspiring this little adventure. He's a real mensch.

HeBrew Jewbelation Reborn

He'Brew Jewbelation Reborn - Pours a deep, very dark brown color, almost black, with a finger of light brown head. Smells very sweet, caramel, chocolate, vanilla, brown sugar, sugar cookie, almost snickerdoodle, are there spices in this? Also a pretty sizable hop presence, piney, resinous. Really nice nose, actually. Taste starts off with all rich malts, caramel, chocolate, vanilla, molasses, less sugar cookie, more roast here in the taste, and a big faded hop character too, piney and resinous like the nose. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and chewy, ample carbonation, lots of boozy heat, but not unpleasantly so. Overall, this is pretty good, if a bit overkill and probably too much for a bomber. I initially gave this a B but since it's Hanukkah, maybe make that a B+. L'Chaim!

Beer Nerd Details: 17% ABV bottled (22 ounce bomber). Drank out of a snifter on 12/11/15.

It appears that all later vintages of Jewbelation have abandoned the whole XX of everything approach (where XX is their anniversary, up to 19 now), at least for the ABV, which is now a more welcoming 10-13% affair. Good on them.

Drie Fonteinen Oude Kriek

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Along with the Oude Geuze, Drie Fonteinen's Oude Kriek is one of their flagship beers. It is basically youngish lambic aged on macerated cherries (pits included!) and refermented in the bottle. I'm reviewing one of the 2015 vintages, but the most intriguing vintage is the 2009.

Drie Fonteinen has been around in some capacity for over a century, but most of that time they were basically a blender. They would buy inoculated wort from lambic producers, then age and blend it. In 1999, they leased a brewing system and started producing their own lambic. In doing so, they became the first new lambic producer in over 80 years. It was pretty good timing too. Lambic was thought to be near dead in the early 90s, but the winds were shifting, and apparently Drie Fonteinen had their finger on the pulse, because the 2000s saw a dramatic increase in interest in Lambic.

This progress call came to a screeching halt one day when Armand Debelder entered his warehouse to find a catastrophic failure of his climate control system. In what's become known as the "Thermostat Incident", a hot air blower essentially never turned off, raising the temperature of the warehouse to 60°:C (14060°:F), essentially cooking over 80,000 bottles of lambic and even causing a few thousand to explode. Most of the lambic was ruined, and the 10 year lease of brewing equipment was coming due. Armand had to temporarily scrap his brewing operation and find ways to recoup. There were several strategies to do so, but the short story is that they're back to brewing again, and their future is bright.

One way they recouped was to take some of the cooked geuze and distill it into eau de vie called Armand'Spirit. They were also able to salvage a few thousand bottles of the Oude Kriek, which were released with a sticker that says "Saved from Thermostat Incident" and eventually became referred to as "Hot Cherry" bottles. You still see ISOs for these now and again, but reviews are difficult to suss out. It's hard to beat the romantic story behind it, of course, but that also tends to color impressions. Of course, this is all academic for me. It is unlikely that I will ever see a bottle of the stuff, let alone taste it, but a man can dream. In the meantime, let's check in with the current humdrum vintage:

Drie Fonteinen Oude Kriek

Drie Fonteinen Oude Kriek - Pours a striking, clear, radiant dark ruby color with a finger or two of fizzy pink head. Smells great, lots of tart fruit, cherries, blackberries, and the like, big funky earth character, and oak. Taste takes on a bright fruit character, lots of that cherry comes through strong, the earth and oak are present towards the finish but toned down a bit in favor of the tart fruit, and the moderate sourness anchors most of the taste. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, well carbonated, moderately acidic, maybe a hint of stickiness, but it's not syrupy. Overall, a rock solid Kriek lambic, not quite Cantillon levels, but on the same playing field. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 6% ABV bottled (375 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a flute glass on 12/5/15. Bottled: 2015 January 18th.

Drinking 3F is always a pleasure. Bottles are hard to come by, but not quite as impossible to find as Cantillon these days. Definitely something to keep an eye out for, and usually worth paying a premium for...

session_logo.jpgOn the first Friday of every month, there's a beer blog roundup called The Session. Someone picks a topic, and everyone blogs about it. This time around, Jay Brooks wants to talk about Holiday Beers:

So for this Session, write about whatever makes you happy, so long as it involves holiday beers.
You got it, Jay! I'll start with some brief answers to his questionnaire, then move right in to the 5 year Anchor Christmas Vertical tasting I held last night.

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

I love seasonal beers, but always try to keep some variety in the mix. Fortunately, the incredible breadth of beers available at all times allows for such exploration.

What's your idea of the perfect holiday beer?

That's a tough one, and I enjoy the variety of holiday beers we get. There's your typical winter warmer style, spiced (but not too strongly) and malt-centric, then you've got the make it stronger school of thought that seems to drive some Belgian examples, and then you get the people who just do whatever the hell they want. There's a place for all of these, I think, but what I associate with holiday beer tends to be the winter warmer style, spiced to perfection, with some hefty body to it.

Do have a holiday tradition with beer?

We're about to cover one in more detail (an Anchor Christmas vertical of some sort), but the other is drinking Samichlaus on Christmas Eve whilst wrapping presents. Given the strength of Samichlaus, it's a wonder the wrapping actually achieves its purpose of concealing the gift.

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

As with Pumpkin beers showing up early, this is just something I can't get worked up about. That being said, it seems like much less of an issue for Holiday beers.

Do you like holiday beer festivals?

I've sadly never been to one. I not really a huge fan of festivals in general, but a holiday beer festival sounds like it could be fun, given the right circumstances.

Alright, so we get to the main event, a vertical tasting of Anchor's annual holiday beer, Our Special Ale. Every year, I buy a six pack of the stuff, drink some, and reserve the rest for just this sort of occasion. In the past few years, I've been tasting two or three vintages side by side, and it's been fun seeing how they evolve from year to year. This is the first year I've managed to collect 5 different vintages, so I invited some folks over to do a little informal tasting and rating.

Anchor Christmas Vertical 2015

This was not a blind tasting, and we proceeded serially from 2011 up to 2015, each taking 3-4 ounce samples. Due to the social nature of the gathering, I did not take copious notes, but we did all rank the beers and I managed to jot down a few quick thoughts on each vintage. I also took a look back through my previous ratings to see if any patterns emerged.

  • 2011 - Still has a nice spice profile, has held up well, but it's a little thin and definitely showing signs of age. In three previous tastings, this one has consistently been a favorite. This time it fell in the middle of the pack...
  • 2012 - Fuller bodied and less spicy than the 2011, this one seems to have rebounded with age. For the past couple years, it's felt like this vintage was fading, but it held up well.
  • 2013 - This one comes in somewhere between 2011 and 2012, and not in a good way. Spices muddled, clashing with malts. I liked this one when it was fresh, but it has faded considerably each year.
  • 2014 - As I suspected last year, this one has held up very well, nice spice profile with a well balanced and strong malt backbone. This very well may be my favorite vintage of Anchor Christmas ever (though I've only really been doing this since 2010).
  • 2015 - This most recent vintage is quite a departure, feels more stout-like than any previous vintage, with a roasty, smokey kick to the normal fruity, spicy character (this seems very faintly spiced, if at all). I predict this year's vintage will age fabulously.

We only had 3 people rating the beer (I had planned on 5, but two flaked out at the last minute), yet some patterns emerged. 2013 was unanimously the worst of the vertical (average score 1 out of 5, standard deviation of 0!), while 2014 was the clear winner of the night (average score of 4.67 out of 5). Two of us voted it as the best, and one voted it the second best. After a rough couple of years, 2012 rebounded into second place (average score 3.67 out of 5, though it did have the highest standard deviation), and 2011 and 2015 occupied the middle of the pack. For all you statistics nerds, you can check out the details on Google Sheets (I also included my ratings from the blog over time on the sheet).

After this, one of us poured the remainder of each bottle into some unlabeled cups, so the other two could do a blind tasting. One of us completely failed, and I actually got them all right. Go me. I will say, as the beer had warmed and carbonation had mellowed, vintages from 2011 to 2014 became much, much more similar. 2015's unique character still stood out though, and I was pretty clear on 2013, but the rest felt like a toss up...

Finally, we poured all the remaining beer left into one glass. Cooooveeee! It smelled great, but by this point, there was no carbonation left. Also, there was only, like, an ounce or two of the blend. Still, this may be something worth trying more formally next year. Blending contest? I think that could be a lot of fun. Of course, my supplies of previous vintages are now dwindling. This was my last 2011, for instance. And I only have one 2012 left! Then again, 4-5 years does seem to be the ceiling on aging these beers. Spices fade over time, and while these are hearty beers, they don't seem to take age as well as, say, a higher ABV, darker beer. It's still a lot of fun, though, and while it's generally what's in the bottle that counts, I enjoy the romantic notions of associating these beers with Christmas, and the unique label artwork just puts me in the mood of the season. Have a great holiday season everyone, and may it be filled with tasty beer!

Update: It appears we've attracted the attention of Anchor's VP of Production, one Scott Ungermann, who had a few comments:

First - you are correct - the beers don't really age well past 3-4 years, so we recommend not laying them down much past that. Second - correct again - this year was a departure in that we felt less was more on the spice front, so we toned the spices down a bit as we upped the roasted malt to go darker & heavier... We agree that it will age nicely with this combo. Look for more of the same next year - maybe even a higher ABV & some more hops!

We are actually selling vertical 6-packs of '12, '13 & '14 in our taproom store this year for the first time this year so that people can try them alongside our 2015 Special Ale for anyone who wants to try this at home.

The notion of going further afield and maybe even playing with higher ABV and moar hops is tantalizing indeed! Very much looking forward to doing another vertical in 2016!

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

You might also want to check out my generalist blog, where I blather on about lots of things, but mostly movies, books, and technology.

Email me at mciocco at gmail dot com.

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