Sunday, December 16, 2012

12 Beers of Christmas: 6 and 7 -The Lumps of Coal

Every year, there's bound to be something you just didn't want, wrapped and waiting for you somewhere.

We've all been there - a giftcard to some obscure restaurant chain that is so totally not anywhere near you (oh thanks a burden), or some half-hearted appeal to a hobby they heard you might or might not have. You appreciate the idea but...ugh.

If you give me Bud Light for Christmas, Baby Jesus will cry.
Even worse than that though, is when a package, nicely wrapped and full of promise, reveals itself to be something far, far worse. Like that one Christmas where the package was obviously an N64 game and you so wanted it to be Mario Party (pleeeeease let it be Mario Party), and you told Santa you wanted it to be Mario Party, and you opened it and it turned out to be... Quest 64.

This game also probably made Baby Jesus cry. 
While I might be alone in that specific example, there's a theme here we can probably relate to year-round: when something fails to deliver on its promise, either based on expectation or reputation. Christmas Beer can be a great vestige of this concept, since pretty bottles and relished breweries abound. But things can go wrong, either in concept or execution. Which brings us to...

Yule Smith
Double Red Ale, 8.5 - 9.5% ABV
Ale Smith Brewery, San Diego CA

I find red ale (here an ode to its color, not really a style - it's certainly not a Flemish Sour Red) a somewhat odd choice for the seasonal selection. They tend to have at least some relation to your "standard' IPA, with a more aggressive hop flavor, and evoke a feeling of late summer, maybe early fall more than winter.

Yule Smith is another interesting concoction, since the nose is incredibly floral and hoppy, but the taste doesn't hit as hard as you'd expect. It's a loud flavor at first but simmers down as it goes along. It's got a bit of toasty, maltiness that puts it a bit more firmly into the season, but there's not much in terms of surprising flavor, or spice, or the unexpected. It's pretty content to be a "Winter IPA," if such a beast exists.

As I write this I'm sort of mad at myself for not adhering to my policy of drinking the beer while I write (I'm working from notes for a lot of these), but at I walked away with much of these beers with at least an impression. That's why Yule Smith is a lump of coal; it's not particularly bad, it just didn't do anything particularly special, either.


St. Bernardus Christmas Ale
Christmas Ale, 10% ABV
Brewery St. Bernardus, Belgium

It's no secret that I obsesses over Belgian beer - the flavors, the balance, the body, and yeah, of course, the elevated ABV - everything I treasure in a beer is exemplified by the old family brouwejis in Belgium. So, when they decide to make a beer dedicated to one of my other favorite things - Christmas - the combination makes me far happier than any consumable should.

But something went wrong.

All of the Christmas and winter flavors you'd want out of a Belgian Christmas ale are present and accounted - sweet, malty and creamy with some spice and vanilla, and a lighter body than you'd expect given its dark brown color and ABV. This is obviously not where the problem comes from. No, the issue comes with the inescapable flavor of banana-flavored candy. There was certainly no mention of a banana flavor on the labeling, especially one that tastes like the little yellow boomerang Runt candy (and, really, what says Christmas like fake banana flavor?). So, what happened?

"Come Children, time to observe the ancient Christmas tradition of filling our pockets with Runts in order to appease Santa"

It's just not what they intended, which makes it a different kind of of disappointment. St. Bernardus was bottle-conditioned. To over simplify it, bottle conditioning is a technique that allows the beer to mature and ferment within the bottle instead of before bottling, and is very common with beers of Belgian origin (and, really, any home kit you're going to use). This allows for all sorts of great flavor interaction, but at the same time it subjects the beer to all sorts of variables, especially temperature which is where this particular beer ran into a problem.

One particular type of beer yeast will thrown off, get this - banana flavors - if the yeast is allowed to ferment at too high a temperature. In other words, in its journey from Beglium to Southern California, the beer was allowed to get too hot, and tainted what would have been a fantastic beer with that weird candy vibe.

Again I offer the disclaimer here that St. Bernardus Christmas Ale isn't THAT bad - it's hardly undrinkable, but I don't believe the beer I had was the beer I was intended to consume. Which is what makes beer so fascinating, especially bottle conditioned ones; I had a bad St. Bernardus. Maybe the one in your store won't be. Maybe this year just didn't come together as well as they wanted, and next year will be a return to form. Like wines and their vintages, beer, especially winter seasonal ones, differ so much year to year that they're practically different beers each time you experience them.

So if you stumble upon a bottle of Christmas Ale, chance it if you'd like, it's certainly a fun experiment. But either way, don't dismiss the brewery for one hiccup that may or may not have been their fault. There are just better Christmas beers this year.

5 Days to Go!

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