Friday, December 31, 2010

Cheers to 2010's Great Holiday Beers

As the Christmas season winds down - and, as all of the liquor stores discount the holiday beers to make way for new arrivals - let us pause for a moment to honor those brews that have made this season special and just a bit warmer.

Last year I did a feature on the 12 beers of Christmas. And while I thought about that this year as well, I realized that much of the list would be a repeat. My number-one beer wouldn't have changed, and that just gets boring after a while.

So, this year, I just want to call out a few particularly special creations that lit me up like a Christmas tree. If I missed anything particularly special, please feel free to let me know. But without further ado:

* Santa's Little Helper from Port Brewing continues to be the standard-bearer for this season. So dark that it's like the winter solstice. So charged with underlying hop character that it's the imperial stout you wish you could find all year round. It's the perfect stocking stuffer that, in the Christmas spirit and for sobriety's sake, you'll want to share with family and friends.
* Left Hand's Fade to Black is like a Santa's Little Helper, but you can actually drink more than one glass in a setting. It's an especially thick foreign stout whose appeal grows more as you look less for the "special" Christmas-ale ingredients of cinnamon or nutmeg and more for a beer that just goes well with the cold weather.

*Moylan's White Christmas Spiced Lager is that beer that will bring smiles to anyone who waits all year long to taste certain ingredients. Though it features a light body, it asserts its spiciness with every sip, as the coriander and orange zest virtually pop off of your tongue.

*Mikkeller Santa's Little Helper 2010, meanwhile, is the combo of the dark and the spiced, a 10.9% ABV Belgian ale that creeps surprisingly easily across your tongue and meets the back of your throat with a hint of licorice and a zip of what can only be called "citrus pepper."

Good drinking to all on this New Year's Eve. And here's to a 2011 with even more challenging and interesting beers to come.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Our Australian Beer Adventure

The Beer Geekette and I recently returned from a three-week trip overseas (which only partially explains why I haven't written anything for three full months now). Included was one week in Thailand - great food, but no beer worth writing about - and two weeks in Australia.

And there we were quite surprised by two things in particular: How tasty emu is on pizza, and how much the Australian craft brewing and regional brewing scene is advancing beyond its reputation.

During our stay we hit six different breweries, everything from the ultra-local and recently opened to the mega-brewery sans the tour.

First among them was quaint 4 Pines Brewing Co. in the Manly Beach area of Sydney, a 2-year-old gem with a char-heavy Dry Irish Stout and a Pale Ale with a bit less of a citrus profile than its American brethren. The place wasn't rolling at 4 p.m. on a Monday, but it was a great first-day introduction to the local efforts happening there.

Then, friends introduced us to The Lord Nelson Brewery in Sydney's oldest hotel, which serves a wicked lamb burger and a varied selection of largely English-style beers. The 3 Sheets Australian Pale Ale was particularly compelling with a citrus splash accompanying a surprisingly heavy malt profile.

Rocks Brewing Co., in the historic Hart's Pub in Sydney is also a 2-year-old entrant to the scene, a fine place with its own beers and guest taps, cricket on the TV and kangaroo on the menu. Not to sound redundant in its stylings, but the Fearless Tasting Crew, Sydney chapter (all five of us), ordered several pints of the 1809 Pale Ale to enjoy its aggressive, nearly American-style citrus bite.

Hunter Beer Co., located in the Hunter Valley wine region, also had a pale ale that the bartender correctly labeled as hoppy enough to be American, but what the crew fell in love with was Liquid Bacon. A golden ale with a heavy mesquite smoke presence (that really did smell of bacon), it bordered on mouth-watering, leaving us vowing to come back to the small hotel brewery on some future trip.

Bluetongue Brewery, also in the Hunter Valley, tasted American in that what-the-rest-of-the-world-thinks-of-us-after-they-drink-an-Old-Milwaukee way, complete with a premium lager reminiscent of high school parties. It was no shock to learn that it was a joint venture of SABMiller and Coca-Cola Amatil.

By far the most interesting experience, however, was touring the Malt Shovel Brewery, maker of the ubiquitous James Squire ales and brainchild of Chuck Hahn, former Coors brewer extraordinaire. Chuck, who appeared to love the sound of American accents, was nice enough to show us around and explain how he'd started the microbrewery after leaving the U.S. and trying his hand at several other Austro-Kiwi breweries. James Squire - named for a convict who became Australia's first brewer - was found at most watering holes, and for good reason. From the sweetly malty amber ale to the orange- and licorice-tinged Abbey Ale, the beers were spot-on renditions of each style and very refreshing at that.

What we did not find anywhere we went was a Foster's, which apparently is spurned by Australians in favor of their locally made and distributed products. And after sampling those products for two weeks, it's understandable why. The country's microbrewery community doesn't seem to be into the cutting-edge experimentalism of Colorado's most notable brewers yet. But it's making a host of tasty beers in multiple styles that, hopefully, can make their way overseas one day.

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