Sunday, December 2, 2012

My Great Winter Beer Hunt, Part I: Smuttynose Winter Ale and Blue Point Winter Ale

Artist's rendering of the author.
I've talked before about my beloved winter beer of choice (an obsession, I'll readily admit), Great Lakes Brewing's Christmas Ale, which is a so-called winter warmer (7.5% ABV) spiced generously with cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, with a backdrop of honey for fullness and sweetness.  Sure, some folks will automatically call a beer spiced like this (the same goes for pumpkin beers) a bastardization--and sometimes rightly say that it tastes like a scented candle--but I love the way the tastes of Christmas Ale come together; it feels like the perfect beer for cold weather and the holiday season.

Problem is, Great Lakes doesn't distribute their beer to the eastern half of New York, and even if I had a good reason to drive out to Rochester or Binghamton, Christmas Ale is traditionally snatched off the shelves with lightning speed once it appears.  If you're in Ohio, where Christmas Ale is native, that's not a problem at the start of the season.  But as I saw last year when living in North Carolina, pickings are very slim outside the Buckeye State.  I made the two-hour drive down to Charlotte last November--where Great Lakes is distributed--and visited one of the great Total Wine stores in town. When I asked the guys working there about Christmas Ale they just laughed.  "Gone in a day," they said.  "Two if you're lucky."  And guess what: no more shipments.

So until the day Great Lakes starts shipping their beer to the Capital Region, I've decided I need to find a replacement go-to winter beer.  It doesn't have to be spiced in a similar way to Christmas Ale, but of course there's a little bias in that direction (Natty Greene's Red Nose Winter Ale is the best alternative I've found--most brewers just can't get the spicing right--but they don't ship far from their Greensboro, NC, headquarters).  Still, I'm open to anything that's classified by the brewery as a winter or holiday seasonal.  Bonus points if it comes in a six pack and is reasonably priced.

Here are the first two candidates:

 Smuttynose Winter Ale

Another fine effort from the Portsmouth, NH, based brewery.  I'm definitely developing an affinity for Smuttynose, and a certain level of trust that anything they put out will be worth grabbing on a whim.  But their winter ale struck me as a bit of a surprise--a sort of "tweener" when it comes to its style, and--get this!--a winter beer that, according to the website, "contains no spices."

But that's okay, as there's a good amount of flavor that comes to the Smuttynose Winter Ale from its Abbey Ale yeast and Dark Belgian candi syrup.  Classified as a dubbel, the yeast and syrup make sense and function nicely together here.  It's not a particularly strong beer at 5.83% ABV, but the Winter Ale also never struck me as weak for the style or thin in body.

Smuttynose Winter Ale actually reminded me of 21st Amendment's Fireside Chat, a "winter spiced ale" with some awesome artwork on the can and packaging.  Well, I liked the Fireside Chat more than the average reviewer, and that wasn't necessarily from its spicing--it had an appealingly sweet malt profile that I think is replicated to some extent in Smuttynose's Winter Ale.  The sweetness here is sort of fruity, in the traditional dubbel style.  Doesn't strike me as a holiday beer, really, but I found it enjoyable and certainly wouldn't shy away from another in the future.

Blue Point Winter Ale

Here's another pleasant, solid winter seasonal, but even more so than the Smuttynose, Blue Point's Winter Ale especially doesn't strike me as a special holiday beer.  Heck, they could call it Shamrock Ale and put it out as a spring seasonal for St. Patrick's Day and it would fit the bill.  At 7% ABV it provides a nice little warming element for the chilly weather, but this is classified as an Amber or Red Ale, not spiced up for the season.

Give this beer to me with a different label, though, and instead of lamenting what it's missing, I could focus on the things that are working well.  There's a particularly nice maltiness going on here--I tend to like the way malts are in the forefront in this style.  According to Blue Point's website, "it’s created with pale, Vienna, crystal and chocolate malts."  I enjoyed the caramel and toffee notes created by the malts here, but I guess I'd just like to see a little more going on.  The balance is solid, the mouthfeel a little thin, but there's nothing inherently bad about this beer; it's just kind of ordinary, and a strange choice to be released as a winter seasonal.

The Verdict: Two pleasant, inexpensive beers--one more unique and fitting for the season--both of which I'd be happy to enjoy again.  But neither will end my winter beer hunt prematurely, let's put it that way.

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