Monday, December 31, 2012

My Great Winter Beer Hunt, Part III: Southern Tier's 2Xmas Ale and Magic Hat's Heart of Darkness Stout

It's New Year's Eve, so what better than the next installment of my search for a great winter seasonal beer?  Well, maybe a Champagne review, but that's not happening (though I do recall picking up a bottle of this very tasty Freixenet sparkling wine on sale at Whole Foods back in Ohio a couple years ago that I'd recommend), and my plan for this evening is to open a new beer.  At least it's a corked one.

Back to the winter beers.  This time, one very Christmassy one--Southern Tier's 2Xmas Ale--and a pretty standard, but still seasonal, stout--Magic Hat's Heart of Darkness.  In calling the Heart of Darkness standard, I don't mean anything negative (spoiler: I like it).  It's just that it pales in terms of seasonality, if you will, to the 2Xmas.  Just look at those label designs above.  One sings Christmas.  The Heart of Darkness?  Um, not Christmas.  But it does get bonus points for the literary reference in its title, even if I--as a former English major who was failed in his education of the classics--can't claim to have ever read the book.

Southern Tier 2Xmas Ale

I'll be honest: I haven't bought many six packs lately.  There are a few factors behind that, but I mostly have been attempting to try out as many new beers as possible after relocating here to upstate New York.  But I did pick up a six pack of the 2Xmas Ale in early December, based on the promise of a strong track record from Southern Tier (including their other winter beer), an appealing description, and some solid reviews.  

Ultimately, this wasn't a bad decision, but I also can't say I love the 2Xmas.  It's inspired by the Nordic Glogg tradition, and is spiced with figs, orange peel, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, and ginger.  That sounds so good, but as anyone who's tried a holiday-spiced beer before knows, it's really difficult to have those flavors come together in perfect harmony.

The problem with the 2Xmas Ale is that the spices, the way they're balanced, can pack a bit of a wallop.  K tried it and, though I think she's a little sensitive to some spices, like cinnamon, she found the 2Xmas to be cloying and sweet with the taste of cherry cough syrup.  A little harsh, in my opinion.

It is sweet, but 'tis the season, right?  And really, compared to so many other spiced beers, Southern Tier pulls things off relatively well with the 2Xmas.  I think part of that is because this is a fairly heavy beer.  The alcohol, at 8%, is pleasantly warming, something that I think works well with--and maybe is necessary with--a strongly-spiced beer.

That being said, I didn't detect any fig flavor here, and found the cinnamon and nutmeg to hit a little too hard at first.  As the beer warms, I think it starts to come together relatively well, especially once some of the citrus flavor from the orange peel becomes noticeable.  This isn't a beer I'd want to drink more than one of in a sitting, and it's unfortunate that the 2Xmas doesn't strike the balance of my beloved Great Lakes Christmas Ale.  I don't regret the six-pack and will certainly enjoy the last couple bottles from it, but next year might just grab a couple singles instead.

Magic Hat Heart of Darkness Stout

After a beer like the 2Xmas Ale, one that hits you from a bunch of different angles, it's sort of refreshing to drink a stout that's strong and straightforward.  Magic Hat's Heart of Darkness is just that--an English stout that, while not singing "holidays" with the spice of some seasonal beers, is very tasty and nicely warming for the cold winter weather.

The color, as you can see above, is awfully dark, almost pitch black, with a nice little head on top.  The aroma is nutty and bready, just what you want with a stout.  And the taste brings that nuttiness, that bready flavor, but that's not all.  Heart of Darkness provides an intricate balance of those elements from the malts, along with a really nice roasty flavor.  It's not burnt-tasting or overpowering, like I think Dogfish Head's Chicory Stout can be, and there's a hint of bitterness from some hops that really complements those other tastes.

So what seemed like a simple, straightforward beer is actually quite complex, balanced particularly well.  The alcohol comes in at 5.7%, which feels just right to provide some warming elements while still being completely masked under the overall flavor profile.  Released from Oct. 15 to Jan. 15, this is a beer you might want to keep on hand even through the chill of the final couple months of winter. 

The Verdict: I'm not trying to turn this into a Tournament of Winter Beers with head-to-head battles, but if that's what this was, then I think we'd have a mild upset on our hands.  Maybe part of this is just perception, or my changing beer tastes, but after writing this post, it's the Heart of Darkness that I'm left really craving.  Which is too bad, because I don't have any at home and don't need to be buying any more beer until I empty some of the bottles I'm currently hoarding.  But I can almost guarantee I'll grab at least another single or two of the Heart of Darkness before it disappears from shelves, and anyone reading this should go and do the same.

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