Monday, December 22, 2008

A Sam Adams Christmas

Most liquor stores have yet to realize the true joy of the season that can be spread by putting together six spicy or malty holiday beers into one pack. And most brewers don't have the portfolio to make one of these mixed batches on their own.

It might be safe to say, in fact, that the only brewery in America that can meet at that curious intersection is the Boston Beer Company, the folks who reintroduced America to craft beer and then became a brewing giant themselves. A recent sipping of their winter 12-pack (two of each kind) was quite a ride through the different styles of the season (or at least kinda of the season) and, as my favorite liquor store clerk said to me, it is worth a shot. Here is what you will find and can expect.

Winter Lager

Most lagers aren't complex, and this wheat bock spiced with orange peel, ginger and cinnamon doesn't break out of that mold. But while it is easy drinking, it is also refreshing and cooling and presents a slightly minty backtaste (not like sucking on a peppermint but like that strangely enveloping and pleasing burst on the back of a menthol cigarette).

Once you've taken in all of the initial sensations, you're most left with a mouthfeel of caramel - not an overwhelming one, but a soothing one. While this may get lost in the greater beerography that Jim Koch has offered us, it's just easy and nice in the winter.

Boston Lager

Yes, I was thinking the same thing when I got the six pack: What is Sam Adams trying to pull by adding its oldest, distinctly non-winterized beer to this mix? Putting a little filler in, like those last three songs on the CD or the last 30 minutes of Saturday Night Live? There's nothing particularly Christmas-y about this.

Then I realized that as long as you're wrapping up your seasonal best for people to give as presents - some of which are new and may not please everyone - you might as well throw in something that's sure to make people happy. And that's what the Boston lager is. An eye-opener in the early 80s, it feels almost antiquated in today's double imperial IPA Belgian days. But it's hoppy and smooth, and if you let it linger long enough on the back of your tongue, you'll find that same hint of roasted malts that defines the rest of this 12-pack.

Cranberry Lambic

This six-pack reminds you that one of the reasons to admire Koch is that he's gotten to the top of the beer world and isn't resting on the three to four beers that got him there. Take this tart-nosed take-off on a classic Belgian style: No average beer drinker in America was clamoring for it. But here is the only beer you'll find that features cranberry so prominently, and here is how Sam Adams is still trying to create.

That said, the Cranberry Lambic drew decidedly mixed reviews from the Fearless Tasting Crew. Some liked its sweet consistency, though the general opinion was that you want just one rather than a night full of these. Others, including me, wondered whether the cranberry taste was misplaced here in a slightly sour and fruity concoction that leaned toward the classic Belgian lambic but didn't quite commit fully toward the style. Either way, you are unlikely to forget this addition to the pack.

Old Fezziwig Ale

Nor are you likely to forget this gem of a beer. But there was no mixed opinion on this.

The Old Fezziwig, a brownish-red ale brewed with cinnamon, orange and ginger, brags on the label that it gets its character from a large amount of specialty roasted caramel and chocolate malts. But what really makes it interesting is that it just feels like it was touched by some magical spice wand without being buried beneath said spices.

The malts stick around in your mouth here but mingle with the orange-chocolate aroma. By the time you're done sipping this, you will find that this is the most complete and complex surprise in the pack - and one that Boston beer should put out more often.

Cream Stout

Like the Boston Lager, this isn't really a holiday-style ale. But when it's 22 degrees outside (as it is now), you want warmth in a bottle. And that, the Cream Stout is.

Brewed with extra portions of roasted chocolate and caramel malts, roasted barley and English hops, the initial taste here is one of cloudy darkness. Eventually it morphs into a more subtle stout, with a slightly toasty overtone. But what surprises you is that this dark-as-night creation carries a medium body rather than a feel that is overly heavy.

Holiday Porter

Just look at the art here. You think 19th century. Maybe something Dickens drank. Hell, the label tells you it's modeled after the drink of London's Victorian-era luggage porter. (Now, there's a piece of trivia designed to impress someone at a party.)

And in this bottle is Boston Beer's most English creation yet. Yes, there's the hops that keep Britain hopping - English Fuggles, East Kent Goldings. But it is deep and dark too, one of those full spheres of blackness that wraps around your mouth and consumes all of your taste buds.

The porter is fuller than the stout, a malt-centered treat that is made for distance, rather than sprint, drinking. And it's good that you take it slow: the more it warms, the more you taste the roasted chocolate.

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I thoroughly enjoyed sampling one of these 12-packs of Sam Adams winter brews last year. But I must admit that the Cranberry Lambic just didn't do anything for me. It was one of the few beers that I chose not to finish. The cranberry just didn't make it for me. I guess my palate just wasn't ready for it.
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