Review: Alaskan Brewing Company Winter Ale

alaskaAlaskan’s Winter Ale is brewed with spruce tips plus a selection of specialty malts and hops. The beer is sweeter than you’d think, think less evergreen and more winter spice mix — cinnamon, cloves, and ginger. Very heavy with malt, it’s quite sweet and it leaves behind a lengthy, sugary finish before fading out with the aid of a delicate dusting of hops.

Stylistically, it’s not my favorite, but considering it’s been made for 15 years running, it surely has a fan or two out there.

6.4% abv.

B- / $8 per six-pack / alaskanbeer.com

Review: Samuel Adams Utopias (2015 Release)

Utopias-Comp2-2The 2015 expression of Samuel Adams’ most extreme beer is the fifth time we’ve covered it — the first was the 2007 vintage — and it may just be the best Utopias we’ve seen to date.

Not familiar with the idea? Here’s some background:

Only the ninth batch brewed since the first release in 2002, this year’s Utopias, like previous vintages, was brewed in small batches using traditional methods, blended with previous vintages going as far back as 1992, then finished in the Barrel Room at the Samuel Adams Boston Brewery.

With each new batch of Utopias, the brewers at Sam Adams push for a complex flavor profile, and during this process have created brews with alcohol levels reaching over 30% ABV; this year’s beer is 28% ABV and is best enjoyed as a two ounce pour in a snifter glass at room temperature. While some of the barrels have reached over 30% alcohol, the brewers blend down because the goal is to craft complex flavors, not an extreme alcohol percentage.

For the 2015 Utopias, the Sam Adams brewers used a variety of malts for the brewing process and during fermentation used several strains of yeast, including one traditionally reserved for champagne. The beer was then blended with Utopias vintages from previous years including some that have been aging for more than 20 years in the Barrel Room. Aging the beer over a longer period of time accentuates the beer’s distinct vanilla notes and creates aromas of ginger and cinnamon. Some of this aged beer is over twenty years old, old enough to drink itself.

Utopias is brewed using traditional methods. The brewers begin with a blend of two-row Caramel and Munich malts that imparts a rich, deep amber color. Noble hops – Hallertau Mittelfrueh, Spalt Spalter and Tettnang Tettnanger – are also added to lend complexity and balance. During fermentation, several yeast strains are used, including one normally reserved for champagne which the brewers call a “ninja yeast.” This fresh beer is then blended with a variety of different barrel-aged beers and “finished” in a variety of barrels to impart additional complexity and flavor.

This release of Samuel Adams Utopias also uses a blend of beer finished in a variety of barrels. “Finishing” is a creative way for the brewers to impart additional flavor from a variety of barrels before the beer is bottled. This final step of finishing the beer lasts several months before the beer is bottled and imparts flavors ranging from fruit like cherry and raisin to chocolate, leather and oak. The multi-step and lengthy process results in flavors reminiscent of a rich vintage Port, fine Cognac, or aged Sherry, while feeling surprisingly light on the palate.

New this year, the brewers used White Carcavelos wine barrels to finish the beer, in addition to barrels that once housed cognac, Armagnac, ruby port, sweet Madeira, and Buffalo Trace Bourbon. White Carcavelos wine barrels help to amplify the dried fruit and oak flavors of this year’s Utopias. Carcavelos wines are blended and fortified like a port, are off dry and topaz colored with nutty aromas and flavors. Carcavelos comes from a small region of Portugal and the barrels are very rare, which made the Sam Adams brewers all the more excited to experiment with them as finishing barrels.

Whew!

With all that out of the way, let’s tuck into a glass of Utopias 2015. Notes of plum, Port-like raisin, and milk chocolate lead the way into as the beer starts to develop in the glass. This can quickly become overwhelming, so use caution as you sip your way through a small glass of the stuff, and watch for exotic mushroom notes, burnt coffee, and raspberry jam.

The finish is where things go a bit off the track, with Utopias 2015 showing slightly sour notes of cherry pits and rotten fruit, as if things have been pushed a bit too far and only dialed back via a last minute rescue. It doesn’t ruin the experience, but it does put a damper on what is initially a pretty glorious beverage.

Utopias isn’t something I drink every day, but it sure is a fun diversion from IPA and winter brews — and one hell of a conversation piece.

28% abv.

B+ / $199 / samueladams.com

Review: Ballantine Burton Ale 2015

Burton Ale BottleNot familiar with Ballantine? I wasn’t either, so draw near and listen to a story.

Ballantine Burton Ale is a legendary and storied beer that has been decidedly limited in availability. One source says he’s heard of $500 being paid for a single bottle.

Ballantine, founded in 1878, was a popular brew at the time, but it really hit its stride in the 1930s and 1940s, as P. Ballantine & Sons was one of the few brewers to survive Prohibition. Burton Ale was a bit of a celebratory bottling introduced after the Repeal, and it was something special, aged for years — up to 20, after a time — in oak barrels, through the solera process. Largely the beer was never actually sold but was rather gifted only to dignitaries and special friends — hence its cult status.

While Ballantine was huge as late as the 1960s, eventually tastes changed and business declined and Ballantine sold itself to Falstaff in 1971. That didn’t work out, and Pabst (yes, that Pabst) bought Falstaff in 1985. Ballantine as a brand was dormant until 2014, when the first Ballantine brew, Ballantine IPA, was relaunched.

Burton Ale is the second of the Ballantine brand to hit the scene, and while it isn’t aged for 20 years, it is a tribute of sorts that is designed to “replicate the original flavor… aged for several months in barrels lined with American oak. The slight oak essence, with notes of toasted vanilla, will make it the perfect holiday treat.”

And so it goes…

If you like big, syrupy holiday brews, Ballantine Burton Ale will be right up your alley. Loaded with notes of raisins, dates, vanilla sugar, and maple syrup, it drinks like a holiday dream straight out of Bethlehem. Sweet and sticky, it’s a bruiser (and a barleywine, technically) that pours on the malt before releasing you with gentle bitterness. A bit vegetal on the back end, I like it a bit less than similar beers like Deschutes Jubelale, but it offers festive fun that any fan of the season’s brews will enjoy.

11.3% abv.

B+ / $2 (355ml) / pabstbrewingco.com

Review: Bear Republic Racer X Double IPA (2015)

RacerX2015-bottle-fillFew seasonals get the kind of love that Bear Republic’s Racer X Double IPA receives — and even fewer actually deserve it.

Racer X is a rarity that has wholly earned the love it gets on those rare occasions when it adorns beer shops and tap handles. The big brother to Bear’s equally loveable Racer 5, Racer X pumps up everything that that year-round brew has to offer and pours on the hops — Cascade, Columbus, Centennial — pushing the beer up and over 100 IBUs but flooding the palate with flavor.

Things start with loads of sweet fruit — citrus, but also apples and pears and some green banana. Caramel notes take hold for a bit before intense and resinous, piney notes build, with touches of licorice, coffee bean, and dark chocolate floating in and out and reminding you that this is not your father’s (or your hipster son’s) IPA. The finish is highly bitter, but manageable, echoing some of the sweeter notes that come across earlier in the experience.

I love the way Racer X bounces back and forth between sweetness and intense bitterness, offering a respite from each sensation before either has a chance to wear out your palate.

I could go on, but as this is a seasonal release that is criminally underpriced, you’re better off heading to your local beermonger for all you can carry.

8.3% abv.

A / $8 per 22 oz. bottle / bearrepublic.com

Review: Guinness Nitro IPA

guinness nitro ipa

I can’t blame ’em for trying. The secret of Guinness’s success has long been the nitrogen that is pumped into the beer as it is poured, giving the brew a rich, creamy, and unmistakable body that is beloved the world over.

While Guinness has been innovating with other beer styles, it hasn’t done much with nitrogen — until now. The big idea: Why not nitrogenate a west-coast style IPA and see what happens? Sealed in cans with a nitro-ball widget the way canned Guinness Stout is, the result is Guinness Nitro IPA.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, quite a bit. This is somewhat off-putting at first… and at the end, for that matter. The nose doesn’t really scream IPA but rather lager, with more malt than hops influencing the aroma. The body is of course something altogether different, a creamy mouth-filling experience that recalls Dublin far more immediately than it does California. The flavor elements aren’t quite right, either. Rather than bracing hops and piney resins, there’s apples, strong cereal notes, and muddy mushroom notes that linger on the finish. Yes, some hops have been thrown in to add bitterness, but not much — or rather, not nearly enough.

Guinness has been doing some really neat stuff lately, but this experiment is really just a noble failure. I doubt that fans of either IPAs or Guinness proper will enjoy this much.

5.8% abv.

C- / $8 per six pack of 11.2 oz cans / guinness.com

Review: Warsteiner Winter Special Edition

WEIHNACHT_INT_USA_Winter_Special_EditionWarsteiner has never been my favorite brew, but with Winter Special Edition, I’ve found both a Warsteiner variety I can enjoy — and a “winter brew” release that actually works well.

This Munich Dunkel style lager offers ample malt up front but keeps things from turning overtly sweet and cloying. In lieu of that rock candy syrup character that can so often muck up the works, the beer offers notes of apples, caramel, and just a smattering of baking spice notes — restrained but present, and just festive enough, like when your boss dresses as Santa at the company Christmas party. The hops are quiet but show through enough to add a playful bitterness to the finish.

5.6% abv.

B+ / $8 per six-pack of 11.2-oz bottles / warsteiner.us

Review: Crispin “15 Men” Blended Hard Cider Rum Cask Aged

Crispin 15 Men BottleCrispin’s latest limited edition cider is made from Colfax apple wine, aged in dark rum casks, and finished with wildflower honey and “dark candi syrup” — a fancy type of caramel that’s usually used in beermaking. What does the name mean? It comes from Treasure Island, meant to evoke pirates and buried treasure — and rum, of course.

Stories aside, this is cider the way you always hope it will taste — a bit like an apple pie fermented and poured into a glass. The tart apple is tempered with honey and spice notes, layering in vanilla and light chocolate notes. Dusky notes of cloves and some floral notes add complexity and balance to the long and lightly sweet finish. All told, it’s easily one of the best ciders I’ve ever had.

6.9% abv.

A / $9 per 22 oz. bottle / crispincider.com

Review: Alaskan Brewing Company Heritage Coffee Brown and Smoked Porter 2015

alaskan-beer-hero-smoked-porter1

It’s cold outside! Don’t stop drinking beer. Drink winter beer.

Try these two from our friends up at Alaskan…

Alaskan Brewing Company Heritage Coffee Brown Ale – Brown ale brewed with coffee from Heritage Coffee Roasting Co. Part of the Alaskan Pilot Series. Less dense and enveloping than you’d think, this beer offers quite mild coffee notes folded into a lightly spicy brown ale. Notes of brown sugar and ample malt make up the bulk of the experience, with some gentle nutmeg notes coming up the rear. 7% abv. B+ / $9 (22 oz. bottle)

Alaskan Brewing Company Smoked Porter 2015 – Alaskan’s take on rauchbier, which is made with smoked malt to give the beer a distinctly smoky flavor. I first had rauchbier in Bamberg, Germany, crowded into a tiny room full of drunken locals. German rauchbier was far, far more alcohol-laden than this (a mere 6.5% abv) but that’s no matter; for a fun dive into a really wild and unique type of beer, give this one a spin: Intense wood smoke — somehow it comes across as evergreen smoke, not sure why — dominates, but underneath you’ll find chocolate malt notes, cocoa nibs, crumbly charcoal, and modest bitterness to help break up the finish. There’s a picture of caribou at sunset on the label of Alaskan Smoked Porter — but if you look away while sipping this beer, you can still see them. 6.5% abv. A- / $10 (22 oz. bottle)

alaskanbeer.com

Review: Samuel Adams Late 2015 Seasonals – Octoberfest, Hoppy Red, Rebel Grapefruit IPA, Winter Lager, and Pumpkin Batch

SAM_HopRed_12oz_Bottle (1)Nearly a half-dozen new offerings from Sam Adams, mostly winter/fall seasonals designed to make the most of the cold weather. Let’s bundle up and dig in!

Samuel Adams Octoberfest (2015) – Very old world, with plenty of spice and some citrus to be a companion to loads of caramel-soaked malt. The finish is on the sweet side, maybe a bit too far for my tastes. It only takes one whiff and an oompa band starts playing somewhere. 5.3% abv. B

Samuel Adams Hoppy Red – A red ale with added Australian hops, moderately malty but with a big slug of piney bitterness bringing up the rear. The up-front character is almost toffee-like in its sweetness, with a healthy dosing of walnuts, but the moderately hoppy back end provides near-immediate respite and balance. A nice diversion. 5.7% abv. B+

Samuel Adams Rebel Grapefruit IPA – An extension of the Rebel IPA line, this beer adds grapefruit (peel and juice) — grapefruit being the “it” additive in beermaking this year — to kick up the bitter/sour element. This is a fine IPA, but the one thing I don’t get… is grapefruit. Piney and resinous, it has a slightly sweet element to it — a bit fruity but also almost chocolaty at times, with overtones of spiced nuts. Not common flavors for either IPA or anything that’s been near a grapefruit, but pleasurable nonetheless. 6.3% abv. A-

Samuel Adams Winter Lager (2015) – A spiced wheat bock made with orange peel, cinnamon, and ginger. Mainly what you’re expecting, a winter warmer with a touch of spice. I find it more palatable this year than 2014’s release, though perhaps that’s just the suddenly cold weather talking. Though it can be a little strange, the spice isn’t overdone — and it pairs well with food, particularly sweets. I’m not a fanatic, but it’s more pleasant than I remembered. 5.6% abv. B

Samuel Adams Pumpkin Batch – Ale brewed with pumpkin and spices, of course. Lots of vegetal character here — nothing distinctly pumpkin (or pumpkin spice) — with a heavily malty body to keep pushing those flavors around. Eventually some cinnamon/nutmeg notes come to the forefront, but it’s cold comfort for a pumpkin brew that is pushed too far into the realm of wet earth and mushrooms for easy consumption. 5.6% abv. C-

each about $9 per six-pack / samueladams.com

Review: Deschutes Brewery Hop Trip (2015), Chasin’ Freshies (2015), and Black Butte XXVII

deschutes BBXXVII 22oz (2)Three classic seasonal releases from Deschutes — all highly anticipated fall/winter offerings — are here. Let’s dive in!

Deschutes Brewery Hop Trip Pale Ale (2015) – Juicy and quaffable, a nicely hoppy nuber with ample citrus backing it up. Piney notes here are more evocative of the forest rather than dense and resinous, with a light lemon/orange character growing stronger as the finish develops. Ends clean and crisp. One of the best Hop Trips in recent years — though watch that alcohol now creeping up over 6 percent. 6.1% abv. A- / $8 per six-pack

Deschutes Brewery Chasin’ Freshies (2015) – Each year this beer features a different hop variety, and for 2015 its lemondrop hops from Washington, a strain I’m not really familiar with. While the beer doesn’t offer a distinctly lemon character, it does pack lots of citrus into an IPA adding some candied notes — think fruity Chuckles? — to the mix. The bitterness is dialed back at first while the sugary stuff has its way with your palate. Only then, after you’re just about sick of it, do the bitter hops finally take over. Sweet relief. No pun intended. 7.4% abv. B / $6 per 22 oz. bottle

Deschutes Brewery Black Butte XXVII 27th Birthday Reserve – This always-experimental celebration beer, honoring 27 years in business, includes some real oddball ingredients: rosewater, apricot puree, pomegranate molasses, Chinese five spice, and cocoa nibs from Theo Chocolate. 50% is aged in barrels. Lots of this you can taste — the cinnamon/nutmeg-heavy spices, sweet molasses, and the cocoa nibs, but it’s all blended into this typically dark and unctuous core of a porter. Massive in its mouthfeel and loaded with tangy, syrupy malt overtones, it’s a powderkeg of figs and coffee. Super fun for a half a glass, then too much to keep pushing on. The finish lasts essentially forever, give or take. 11.6% abv. B / $17 per 22 oz. bottle

deschutesbrewery.com