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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 12/13/2010

Beer: A holiday nine-pack

By Greg Kitsock

INFINIUMwGlass_opt.jpgThe holidays tend to bring out the brat in us: the kid who sits amid a pile of tinsel and torn wrappings on Christmas morning and asks, "Is that all I got?"

Although the usual holiday beer offerings are out in abundance -- you can even find Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale at CVS stores nowadays -- we scan the aisles looking to see what’s new.

Let’s start with Infinium, the much-ballyhooed collaboration between Boston Beer Co. and Bavaria’s Weihenstephan Brewery, which should be hitting stores nationwide about now. Boston Beer chairman Jim Koch and his colleagues set out to fill an empty niche in Germany brewing: a high-alcohol beer that’s light and bubbly like a champagne, not thick and syrupy like a German doppelbock. American brewers might achieve this end by adding high-fructose corn syrup or artificial enzymes to the brew. The German Reinheitsgebot (“purity law”), however, restricts brewing ingredients to barley malt, hops, water and yeast.

To make a long story short: Koch and team devised a unique mashing regimen that takes place at unusually low temperatures and lasts over a week (normally, mashing — mixing the grain with hot water and heating — takes an hour or two). This allows the barley to generate plenty of its own natural enzymes, which break down complex carbohydrates into simpler molecules that the yeast can digest. Infinium also undergoes the methode champenoise, which involves provoking a secondary fermentation in the bottle, tilting the bottle to allow the yeast to settle in the neck, then removing the plug of yeast sediment.

The result is indeed spritzy and light on the palate for a 10 percent alcohol-by-volume beer. It’s got a subtle, sherbety fruitiness and a hint of spicy hop. “Imagine a space between a champagne and a good dessert wine crossed with a Samuel Adams Noble Pils,” is how Koch describes it. It’s not nearly as radical a departure from existing beers as Koch’s Utopias was, but it should make an interesting substitute for Champagne this New Year’s Eve. Suggested retail price is $20 for a 25-ounce corked bottle.

Also in Boston, the Harpoon Brewery has released its Harpoon Chocolate Stout, made with an abundance of chocolate malt (highly roasted barley malt that mimics the flavor of bittersweet chocolate) plus a little chocolate flavoring added post-fermentation. It’s got an almost fudgey aroma and a much drier dark chocolate flavor that segues into an espresso-like finish. Brewer Scott Shirley recommends it as an after-dinner drink, but concedes it might make a decent ice cream float with a scoop of vanilla plopped in.

Spiced ales are the fruitcakes of the beer world. If the brewer overdoes the condiments, particularly cinnamon and nutmeg, they’ll sit in your stomach like ballast. The key is to balance the flavor with enough hops while avoiding a clash of sweet and bitter flavors. The Schlafly Brewery in St. Louis hits the mark with its Schlafly Christmas Ale, a strong (8 percent alcohol) amber ale seasoned with orange peel, cardamom and clove, and dry-hopped with Chinook and Simcoe (the latter a particularly pungent hop variety that reeks of pine and grapefruit). The new Rustico in Ballston is planning to tap a keg as part of its Festivus celebration on Wednesday.

Speaking of Festivus, that’s the name of the winter spiced ale at Mad Fox Brewing Co. brewpub in Falls Church. The mahogany-colored brew is subtly seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, with English First Gold hops lending it a dry, herbal aftertaste.

Fireside Chat, packaged under license in Minnesota for the 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco, might be the first seasonal spiced ale to come in a 12-ounce can. When I popped the top, I got a piercing, sour-fruit aroma that was a little off-putting, but the key is to let the beer warm up until the dark specialty malts and cocoa nibs poke through. The beer wins hands down for the most original label: the cans depict a grinning FDR having a beer summit with an elf.

Smoked beers, once a rarity, are becoming more common. Baying Hound Aleworks, the new nanobrewery in Rockville, has released a smoked porter called Marmageddon after owner Paul Rinehart’s late pet bloodhound Marmelade. The beer, available in 22-ounce bottles, is fermented with oak coils soaked in Scotch, according to Rinehart. It’s unusually complex, with notes of roast, licorice, tannin and whiskey.

Even Hops Grill & Brewery in Alexandria, a brewpub that specializes in more mainstream styles, is muscling in. On Dec. 29, brewer Kristi Greiner plans to tap her Scottish Ale, brewed with a pinch of Weyermann smoked malt for a “peaty” aroma. In the meantime, Hops is offering its Winter Amber Ale, an English-style session beer with a toasty malt character and an earthy finish from East Kent Golding and Mount Hood hops.

Lastly, grab a six-pack of Snow Goose Winter Ale for auld lang syne. This hearty brown ale, with a rounded, buttery flavor from the distinctive Ringwood yeast strain used to ferment it, has been a favorite since the early 1990s. This will be the last batch ever. The current maker, Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, plans to retire the entire Wild Goose line after brewing a few more batches of Wild Goose IPA during the first quarter of 2011. “We’re at capacity with our Flying Dog brands and we have to make room,” explains marketing manager Erin Biles.

“What’s on the market is all we’re doing,” she says of Snow Goose.

Bah, humbug.

By Greg Kitsock  | December 13, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags:  Greg Kitsock, beer  
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According to the website, RFD currently has Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig on draft.

Posted by: CubsFan | December 13, 2010 3:31 PM | Report abuse

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