One of the good things about people knowing that you are a “beer hound” as I am is that your gifts tend to center around beer during the holidays. Seems logical right?
When someone comes from Colorado or Minneapolis they tend to bring me a few 22 ounce bottles of something I cannot get in Iowa or a trunk full of Surly Coffee Bender—thanks to my brother who really came through this past weekend with a nice delivery of Twin Cities-centric beers. However, what does someone local do who wants to bring a host gift to a little holiday season get together? The answer appears to be a Samuel Adams sampler pack:
Offhand I kind of scoffed at the idea of Sam Adams. Why? I have no idea, honestly. I put them in a category of craft brewers who have gotten so big that they have left behind some of the craft and adopted some of the macro. I think that this is an unfair characterization.
No, this is not a New Year’s resolution to be a kinder and gentler me. Rather, it is a realization that there is a lot of credit due to the vanguard of craft brewers who have ridden a wave of popularity to become quite large in the last few years. I usually think of New Belgium and Sierra Nevada because both of these breweries were at the forefront of my awakening in terms of beer—the transition from Pabst Blue Ribbon and Hamm’s to Fat Tire Amber Ale was a jarring life transition—but Sam Adams should be on that list as well.
Perhaps more than any other craft brewer, Sam Adams and the parent Boston Beer Company has done more to propagate improved beer throughout the United States. Furthermore, the vanguard of craft brewers has really opened up the minds of beer drinkers to different styles and ingredients in a way that would have been unimaginable without their efforts. Can you picture one of the macro giants pursuing a sour ale brewing regimen? Nope.
Let’s start with where it all began:
It is hard to imagine a beer world where Boston Lager is not part of the landscape. This beer has moved out of the purely craft domain and become something different. When you are an option on the menu at Red Lobster you have reached a certain critical mass.
The beer is good. It’s like a historical exhibit on where the craft beer movement started and you can understand how the movement evolved in one glass. Here is a beer that came out in the late 1980s that had a full, foamy head, a dark color, and a considerable—for the time—hop profile. At a time when people considered Michelob to be a premium beer, a pint of Boston Lager must have been a slap to the teeth.
Boston Lager stands up well to the times because it is well executed. The Winter Lager feels like an evolution of Boston Lager:
Utilizing a single variety of hops, Hallertau Mittelfrueh, Winter Lager has an easy drinking flavor that pairs well with the season. Unlike a lot of “winter seasonals” this beer lacks the overpowering spice aroma and flavors that brewers pile on to make a beer for the cold months. Dare I say that Winter Lager is a subtle brew? I think that I would.
Old Fezzwig Ale is like a cousin to many of the homebrewed ales that I make:
Using Hallertau Mittelfrueh and Tettnang Tettnanger, the same in Boston Lager, produces a beer with a hop profile similar to what I make in my basement. I mean that as a compliment, by the way, because I have an unabashed love of the beers I craft myself.
The inclusion of an ale is a nice counterpoint to a lager. What’s the difference? Ales and lagers represent the two families of beers whose primary difference is the type of yeast used for fermentation, which dictates the method of fermentation. The primary supposed difference is that lagers produce fewer yeast derived flavors as opposed to ales because of lower fermentation temperatures allowing for a better expression of malt and hop flavors. Considering that the variety of styles with the ale and lager families are so varied this distinction is becoming less important every day. Let it be known, however, that the Miller Lite you hosted at that tailgate was a lager.
Holiday Porter is another ale:
It’s a pretty well-executed porter. This style of beer is great during the cold months if the components are balanced. Too often, a brewer will use the dark base as a platform to showcase a lot of alcohol and a lot of bitterness. I have seen porters—and stouts for that matter—with IBUs above 100 and ABVs over 8%. That is a lot of beer.
In truth, I would have liked to see Holiday Porter with less alcohol—blasphemy says the peanut gallery. Hear me out. Beer makers are tripping over themselves to make stronger and stronger beers—witness Bud Light Platinum—without really considering if it something that people really want. I am not advocating for a hard cap on the alcohol in beer or anything, but brewers could learn that a little less alcohol can go a long way to providing a nice canvas to show some unique and subtle flavors that might get lost in a bigger beer.
Two of the beers included in the sampler pack were not so successful: Chocolate Bock and White Christmas. I’ll address them in a descending order of approval with the bock first:
This beer totally lacked any bitterness to counteract the sweetness that hits the tongue from the inclusion of cacao nibs. There is a fine line to be walked with very dark beers when it comes to the interplay between sweet and bitter. It is one of the reasons that I usually dislike milk stouts. The inclusion of a non-fermentable sugar gives the beer a sweet thickness that I find unappealing. This beer has many of those same characteristics.
The Chocolate Bock was a winner in comparison to White Christmas:
Sold as a white beer with spice notes for the holidays, White Christmas is one insipid liquid. First, at 5.8% ABV there needs to be some body and bitterness for balance. However, there is none. The beer is very light in body—as you can see by the color—and lacking completely in bitterness. So, there is a strong alcohol flavor and aftertaste that ruins everything from the first drink.
White ales are a hard beer to execute well, in my opinion, because the brewers instinct to go over the top is not rewarded as it might be with a stout or an IPA. What usually results is a beer that is less than the sum of its parts in a major way and ends up getting poured down the drain.