From the Vault – Holiday Beer Tasting, Circa ’96
by Tony Forder firstname.lastname@example.org
So, what are you drinking this holiday season? And what were you drinking 23 years ago (mother’s milk doesn’t apply). Any of these?
It’s the Ale Street News Holiday Beer tasting from 1996, our 5th holiday in print. It was held at my local at the time, Andy’s Corner Bar in Bogota (it’s still my local bar).
The tasting wasn’t actually blind, but its assemblage was. We didn’t announce it, so it was just a collection of whoever was present at the time. Which was interesting because you had the Beer Geeks on one side and the Budheads on the other.
As for the Dec 96-Jan 97 issue of ASN it was a chunky 56 pages and chock full of ads – not a lot of color but there were 8 full page splashes, even a 4-page homebrew section (Ah, the halcyon days of print!). And we had our first website too. This was just prior to the first Great Craft Brew Shakeout in the latter ’90s. Our paper was riding high until, always reflecting the industry it represented, it would shrink around the turn of the century before growing again in the Great Craft Beer Expansion of the late Oughts and Teens.
Editorially, we covered such topics as a stock market shakeout of publicly traded breweries (a sign of things to come), Western brewers taking aim at Northeast markets, nuts and bolts of beer distribution, history of holiday beers, our Great American Beer festival tour and columns by the great Michael Jackson, Tim the Brew Chef Schafer, Ron Page and others. And yes, I was on the cover, bringing back a gold medal from the North American Guild of Beer Writers.
Some of these beers are still available; some are not. Here’s the full article:
Line ’em up George, tonight feels like Christmas.
Well, actually there was over a month to go, but us dedicated souls at ASN always try to taste as many of the holiday treats as we can before press time.
Where better to try them than at the corner bar – Andy’s that is in Bogota, NJ. In the interests of obtaining a true representation of the people for this democratic tasting we made no announcement of our little sampling session. Indeed, we even switched the night, in case rumor might have leaked.
Of course, certain individuals, we knew, would be there – like Skip, he’s always there. The guy even has a brass nameplate affixed to the bar, signifying his space – yeah you could say he’s a local.
The way things worked out, factions were more or less split on either side of the bar with a few mainstream Budheads leading the charge on one side and the Micro Beer Geeks on the other. Kind of like the Bud Bowl, I thought – that’s it, the Holiday Bowl.
First up, in an obvious attempt to placate the more vociferous multitudes, George poured Anheuser-Busch’s Holiday Ale. Naturally it scored well on the Bud side of the bar, and from Charlie in particular. That Charlie now – in one of the more creative tasting parameters I’ve heard, he described his tastebuds as Action Park. “They’re just here to have fun.” He kept a pint of Bud Light in front of him throughout the session, for palate rinsing purposes.
Next to him were John, whose palate seemed, shall we say, a little more developed, and Walter, who completed this lively threesome. They tallied their scores together, throwing out the high and low – very democratic. As time went on though, John prefaced every score with “I would like to disassociate myself from my associates.”
I also recorded an enthusiastic response to the Holiday Ale from Brian a little further down the bar. I later found out he was the Bud salesman. As you may have guessed, this was not a blind tasting, although judging from some of the comments some of the tasters seemed to be lacking anywhere from one to three of the usual senses.
The A-B Holiday Ale, it should be noted, drew cautious applause from the Geeks. “Good effort from a major brewer,” etc. It did seem to have some nice malt, but the Geeks were left wanting more. (They always want more!). The difference between this and Bud, it was agreed, was night and day.
Next up (probably a slight tactical error) was the Saxer Jack Frost. Very malty, a doublebock actually, surprisingly fruity for a lager, said the Geeks, but “not bad”.
“I wouldn’t throw it out,” said Alby, seated at my elbow. The concentration of flavor, not to mention the 8% abv was, of course, way too much for the delicate palate of Action Park.
Another new one, at least in New Jersey, was Weyerbacher Winter Ale. Almost thin after the doublebock, it passed muster with the Geeks as a good drinking holiday beer, with good fruit and malt notes . “Holiday session.” “I could drink a few of these,” said George. “I wouldn’t throw it out,” said Alby.
From the other side of the bar, it received guarded approval. “Not my style, but a nice beer,” said Skip. He actually has only one style or, more precisely, only one beer – his claim to fame (other than his nameplate) is as the state’s biggest Warsteiner drinker.
Catamount Christmas Ale was next along. Wow! They must’ve had some extra hops to get rid of when they brewed this. A Vermont brewery trying to out-hop the hopheads? Very nice balance though between the bitters and aromatics – almost floral. But it seemed to me the body was down a bit from previous years.
The hopping rates were not universally popular however. “Liquid detergent,” said Action Park. “I’d like to disassociate myself from that remark,” said John, and indeed Catamount did score quite well with the other mainstreamers. Brian the Bud salesman was unashamedly effusive in his praise.
What to follow this with? Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale of course. Again huge hops, but with more body than the Catamount. While I was not one who went into withdrawals when Celebration took a hiatus from the East Coast last year, I must say now nice it is to have it back. The Geeks mostly sat silently enjoying their various reunions while Action Park checked his vocabulary of descriptors and came up with “skunky”. Yep, Cascades can do that to a Budhead.
Snow Goose poured next and my goodness what did they do this year? As well as the rich biscuity malt of year’s past, there is a light fruitiness that has crept in for a wonderful balance.
Before he delivered his eulogy, George admitted to being biased. Alby said he liked it, which made it even more confusing as to why he was pouring it on his sleeve. There followed a discussion on the merits of said action, such as being able to taste it again later, on the way home for example.
The Goose even won over some mainstreamers, especially John, who was on the verge of disassociating himself in deed as well as word from his compatriots. Even Mr. Warsteiner said he would drink it.
Samuel Adams Winter Lager, one of the longer running holiday editions, was next out of the bottle. Now either my tastebuds were seriously awry by this stage or the recipe for this beer has changed. It seemed sweeter than the strong, clean, malty lager I remembered; I know the label changed from white to blue. While the Geeks were muttering about sugars, the Bud faction was actually quite enthusiastic about the flavor. The beer earned their highest marks of the night, although this might have been because Action Park was in the bathroom at the time.
Samuel Adams Part II followed – Old Fezziwig, Boston Beer Co.’s Christmas beer. Dark ale, slightly sweet with a deft blend of oranges, cinnamon and ginger, a favorite for our female panelist Rosemary who had this to say, “A good holiday beer to share with people who don’t drink beer all the time.” She gave high marks for the label too.
Journeying a little further into fruits and spices, Pete’s Wicked Winterbrew poured next, with its mixture of raspberry and nutmeg. Rather than sweet, the fruit is fermented a little dry. The brew, at less-than-holiday strength alcohol, offers a sometimes welcome relief from winter heavyweights. It found several pockets of approval around the bar.
A couple of members of Beers International, NJ’s premier beertasting club, wandered in just in time for their favorite beer, Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome – a great beer for drinking any time. Smooth and buttery, this one found universal acceptance from Geeks and Budheads alike.
With Harpoon Winter Warmer, it was back to spices with a vengeance. Tons of cinnamon, tons of nutmeg. Pumpkin pie said some, apple said others. No, mincemeat pies!
The Ruffian Christmas Ale gave us a lighter handling of spices – ginger and cinnamon. “At least you can tell this one is a beer,” said George.
Wintertime from North Coast Brewing describes itself as Belgian-style, and, indeed, there was a hint of sourness in the brown ale. The Geek consensus was that it needed to be a little more distinctive. The Budheads, well, this was definitely out of their province. Besides they had become pretty disorganized. John had by now completely disassociated himself, and Charlie’s tastebuds were AWOL somewhere in Action Park.
Oerbier from Belgian De Dolle brewers was a stand-in for not-yet arrived Stille Nacht. Several other Belgian beers were also eagerly awaited for the season – Corsendonk Christmas, Affligem Noel and Paters Vat, Scaldis Noel, Avec les Bons Voeux from Dupont and La Binchoise Noel. On the U.S. side, not yet available for this mid-November tasting (remember this was the ’90s when Holiday beers did not appear when the leaves were still on the trees): Anchor Christmas, Geary’s Hampshire Ale (available only when the weather sucks!), Saranac Holiday 12-pack and Pyramid Snowcap Ale.
The beers were limited to what was available in NJ at the time. Still, looking back there seems to be some obvious omissions. Can you think of any?