My wife likes to say I shouldn’t worry about things I can’t control. It’s a nice sentiment but never seemed very logical to me. I’ll just do something about the things I can control, so what else is there to worry about? Well….when you’re trapped firmly in the death grip of this motherf%@*er of a winter, one of the few things you can control is the seasonal beer you choose to consume. And that brings us to the next IndianaBeer group tasting. Hosting a tasting of “Winter Warmers” seemed like the perfect cure for my mid-January blues. Perfect until you get to the liquor store and face the question: “What exactly is a Winter Warmer anyway?” An Old Ale? An English Barleywine? A spiced holiday ale? To allow for some diversity (and avoid the dreaded style snob label), the rather loose definition of stronger winter seasonal, spiced or unspiced, will be applied here. The lineup ultimately selected featured beers from Dark Horse, Great Divide, Hinterland, Samuel Smith’s, and Southern Tier. Some were spiced and some lean toward English strong ale styles. A blind tasting was administered by our lovely hostess Poppi Rocketts (watch for the coveted Poppi’s pick in the results below) with an assist from Robin Walthery Allen. The beers were served in a random order to our tasting panel, and the identity of each was not revealed until after the panelists had finalized their individual rankings. Joining me on the panel were IndianaBeer reporter Dave Allen and guest panelists Bill Breuninger and Carl Nelson. Here is a summary of each beer sampled, with the brewery’s description followed by the panel’s tasting comments. Beer #1: Hinterland Winterland – Winterland is deep brown to black with amber highlights. The massive brown head deposits large sheets of lace right down to the very last sip. The dark malt and heavy dark chocolate aroma mixed with a slight juniper scent, give Winterland a sort of chocolate covered berry aroma. The rich roasted malt flavor makes it’s appearance first, followed by a dark bitter chocolate flavor. Winterland is reminiscent of a porter or stout with a surprising juniper berry finish. 7.5% ABV
|Bill: This beer started off with exciting promises with the aroma. A blast of nutmeg with just a hint of coffee notes. The medium high carbonation helped with a crisp dryness, but all of the promises of nutmeg and coffee in the aroma gave way and disappeared. What was left was just a faint taste of paper and winter green, not strong at that, but just faint. It was the most disappointing beer, because the aroma had such promise, but the taste seemed to betray that promise leaving me to not even finish this beer.
Bill’s Rank: 5th
|Carl: The wonderful upfront coffee roast aroma was ruined by a sour vinegar pungency. The aroma had a dustiness often found with dark roast beers. The overly roasted character was astringent, leading to a sharp, long-lingering, bitter aftertaste. High carbonation along with the roast created a dry chalky finish. The beer had a medium body but felt more full from the high carbonation. As the dark brown opaque beer warmed up, the fruitiness and alcohol started to make an appearance in the flavor. I was a bit disappointed as I have a particular fondness for any beer that resembles a stout. However with the excessive roast astringency and strange sourness, I ranked this beer 12th out of the five we tried.
Post mortem: As I write this review in the early morning, I became concerned that I misunderstood how juniper would affect the flavor of a beer. Recalling that juniper is a common, if almost mandatory, ingredient in gin, off to the liqueur cabinet I went to explore the gin, I mean juniper. After sampling all the gins listed with juniper, I am now concerned about finishing this write up before noon. The first beer did not have any the characteristics of juniper (or of gin either). This of course makes me wonder if we got a bad bottle or if the entire batch picked up some wild yeast. Do I hunt down another bottle? Better yet, you do it and let me know.
|Dave: For me, this beer placed last in the panel. Noting after the tasting that the label mentioned juniper barriers as an ingredient may lend some insight to some of the flavors I found in my glass. Keep in mind that these tastings are done blind and that we only find out the brewery/beer/411 after we’ve all scored them, noted them, and firmed up our rankings. Perhaps we got a bottle from a bad batch, or perhaps it had been mishandled somewhere along the supply chain. Whatever the case this beer just didn’t impress. On it’s own, outside the context of side-by-side comparisons, it may be great. But on this day it just couldn’t quite toe the line. To my palate there was a tannic/sour impression that was off-putting and seemed to compete with the malt profile. Not at all what I would label as Winter Warmer.
Would I Drink Another: As the saying goes: Never say Never… But I’d say the odds are pretty slim.
|Nathan: Attractive pour with a porter/smaller stout color and thick lasting tan head. The aroma is a promising combination of roasty, chocolate malts and a distinct spruce-like spicing. Unfortunately the flavor can’t match the promise of that aroma. The flavor characteristics of a big, roasty porter are present; but the whole thing is overwhelmed by a tart/acidic type of quality that really diminishes the drinkability. I’m not sure if this is a case of overdone spicing or some type of actual contamination. Given the lack of off notes in the aroma, I’m leaning toward the former but couldn’t guess what type of spicing would cause this.
Nathan’s Rank: 5th
Beer #2: Dark Horse 4 Elf Winter Warmer – A spiced Winter Warmer brewed with nutmeg, clove, allspice and other holiday flavors. 8.75% ABV
|Bill: What an amazing Beer! The dark brown color with amber highlights gives you the first clue how amazingly complex and enjoyable this beer is. The aromas were some of the strongest with a balance of nutmeg, cinnamon, and citrus peel. The flavors from the spice are front and center on the stage without stealing the show. The malts and roast help balance the performance of the spices and each one lasts throughout, from looks to smell, to taste, and even after taste, this is a well-balanced beer. I would buy more of this, and would have ranked it higher, but as the spice blend of this beer suggests a Winter Warmer (throughout the entire season), I found it to be more of a Christmas beer limiting it to just the first part of winter.
Bill’s Rank: 2nd
|Carl: Nutmeg initially dominated –– overwhelmed the aroma. As the beer warmed, the aroma revealed flashes and hints of cinnamon. The nutmeg carried through the malty flavor blending with the light roast character. Malt character was even and consistent with light fruitiness in the middle from the initial sip through the swallow and into the aftertaste. This dark brown medium body beer had clean, gentle flavors. Late light hop bitterness lingered slowly, drying out the finish and eventually giving way to a roasty aftertaste which continued to dry out the finish. This beer was my #2 pick. From the perspective of whether I would buy more of this beer or pour a second pint – no, I probably would not. However this beer is masterfully crafted. The even and consistent malt flavor is hard to do for most brewers, particularly with spices. In a competition, this beer would win over my #1 pick. This is a nice example of managing, blending and balancing the use of spices in a beer. Try this with pumpkin pie and let me know how that works.
Carl’s Rank: 2nd
|Dave: I ranked this beer in Second place overall. Surprise! I have a personal affinity for cleaner flavor profiles, and this beer certainly had an upfront spice character. In fact my tasting notes specifically say: “Hello Spice Rack!”. However, contrary to my aforementioned opinion regarding heavily spiced beers, this was a pleasant surprise. A very well crafted beer. The spice notes (think cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg) were obvious throughout (from aroma to flavor to finish) while not being so aggressive as to be off-putting or offensive. The balance regarding spice components in comparison to the things that we expect from beer, like malt and hops was really well done. Kudos to Dark Horse for taking what could easily be an over the top beer and exercising enough restraint and brewing expertise to pull it off nicely. Well done.
Would I Drink Another: You bet your socks I would. Preferably from a snifter in front of the fireplace next to my sweetheart… this is that kind of beer.
|Nathan: Dark brown color with a low head and fairly low carbonation. Very malty aroma: chestnuts, brown sugar, raisins, with some subtle nutmeg and cinnamon spicing. Well-rounded and full-bodied mouthfeel and flavor. Caramel and bready malts come through more in the flavor. Liquefy a gingerbread house, pour in some booze, and I imagine you’d get something close to this. Well-rounded flavor and full-bodied mouthfeel but doesn’t finish too sweet. Spicing is a very delicate practice for a brewer, but this is a great example of how to do it right. Nobody else voted this beer in 1st place……….but we all make mistakes.
Nathan’s Rank: 1st
Beer #3: Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome Ale – This seasonal beer is a limited edition brewed for the short days and long nights of winter. The full body resulting from fermentation in ‘stone Yorkshire squares’ and the luxurious malt character, which will appeal to a broad range of drinkers, is balanced against whole-dried Fuggle and Golding hops with nuances and complexities that should be contemplated before an open fire. 6% ABV
|Bill: This is a very clear Orange with a deeper amber glow. Aromas are very slight with a sweetness hiding behind hints of apple which yield to white grapes. The beer is labeled as an ale, but I imagined it in the blind tasting as a lager. The Crispness, with sweet tastes of white grape juice were pleasant. I got little to no warming effect from the alcohol, but I found this to be very drinkable. It’s alarming how easy this beer goes down. I don’t condone the use of any machinery and the consumption of beer, but I know a lot of guys who have a favorite “Lawn Mower Ale.” This beer is perfect for my new favorite “Snow Blower Ale.”
Bill’s Rank: 3rd
|Carl: The malty aroma was reminiscent of a Belgian trippel. The clean highly pilsner malt flavor, subtle alcohol heat in the swallow and light clear gold color continued down the trippel path. But alas, it did not have the spicy and fruity characters of a trippel. I had been tricked! This was not the delightful Belgian trippel I thought I was going to get. The malt character was singularly pilsner malt, very clean, very lager like. A low late hop bitterness restrained the malt focused finish and the lingering bitterness slowly dried out the malt in the aftertaste and left a hop flavor late in the aftertaste. The medium light body felt more full from the high carbonation. As the beer warmed, the alcohol presence increased. After getting over my disappointment of not getting a trippel, I ranked this beer as my #3 pick. This beer was a bit boring due to its clean pilsner flavor and lack of expected trippel spiciness. It reminded me more of a malt liquor but better. I could drink some quantity of this beer and would order a second pint but I probably won’t buy it in the store. Carl’s Rank: 3rd|
|Dave: The battle in my tasting notes was for third and fourth places. I scored Sammy Smiths’ Winter Welcome in Third place. Not that I had any mentionable issue with the beer itself. It was well crafted and clean. But it just didn’t really distinguish itself from the other beers in the panel. Pouring a mid-golden with diminishing white foam. I found the aroma to hold a pilsner malt quality along with a dry cracker/toast note. Hop character was somewhat floral and readily apparent. My overall impression was of a large(ish) gravity lager. Think Imperial Helles Bock. This beer would be delightful on it’s own. Especially as we gain ground toward warmer weather. But in comparison to some of the darker more aggressive beers in the panel it didn’t really hold up.|
|Nathan: The color is surprisingly light – almost golden in color. The aroma is not aggressive, but does feature an inviting mix of soft nutty and caramel notes. The flavor features a nice touch of caramel malts backed by a bready, nutty base malt character. Low hop bitterness – but there is a touch of spicy hop flavor in the aftertaste. Good carbonation but a bit thin in the body. Tough beer to rank – it’s very enjoyable, balanced, and clean; but struggles to keep up with the bigger beers in this lineup. Dare we call it the session beer of Winter Warmers? I may have just thrown up a little in my mouth.
One comment after learning this beer’s identity: It’s a good beer that I would definitely drink again, but the label is pretty misleading (at least for “Imperialized” American craft drinkers). This beer will not give you many “nuances and complexities that should be contemplated before an open fire.” In fact, it seems better suited as a beer to celebrate the transition to spring weather.
Beer #4: Great Divide Hibernation Ale – HIBERNATION ALE has been our celebrated winter tradition since 1995. This robust, dry-hopped ale has a malty richness balanced with a complex hop profile and hearty, warming character. 8.7% ABV
|Bill: A dark Brown color with amber hints peeking through. The aroma is an upfront coffee with an organic earthiness which makes you want to immediately start sipping instead of peeling back these complex aromas. The first sips peel back the coffee and give way to a brown sugar turned caramel like toffee or Belgian candy sugary hints as it helps accentuate the malt profile. The hint of spices seem to come from hops instead of spice additions which are again, well balanced and not over powering. So someone who does not like “Hoppy” beers, would most likely still find this enjoyable. It finishes with an awesome warming effect from the alcohol but not so much to call “Hot,” but just perfect to make a very drinkable beer throughout the entire winter not just Christmas time.
Bill’s Rank: 1st
|Carl: Beer #4 had a dry, dusty roast, chocolate aroma with coffee which smelled similar to pouring coffee into the beer. The creamy texture immediately stood out. The flavor was malty and roast showed up in the middle, quickly followed by hop bitterness. Coffee flavors did not show up until the beer warmed up. The overall flavor was of a milky chocolate sweetness which carried over to the aftertaste. The semi-sweet finish was dried out by lingering roast and eventually by hop bitterness. Low alcohol warmth came in late and became more hot as it warmed up. The dark brown / ruby highlighted body was thinner than expected but the texture created a fuller mouthfeel experience. This beer struck me as a milk coffee imperial stout. This was my #1 pick even with the higher alcohols showing up. The roast, chocolate flavors were particular to my liking and I would order a second or third pint. Carl’s Rank: 1st|
|Dave: For me this beer was the clear winner. Easily taking top honors in our panel. Pouring a dark reddish/amber and clear. Aromas of chocolate, roast and coffee. This one was boozy and big. Not in an offensive way, but complimentary to the complex malt character. This is the beer I would point to when asked what I think a Winter Warmer is. Complex, big, clean profile (no spice) and delicious. Great Divide have really crafted a nice beer here. This beer was a bit sweeter than the others in the panel, but with enough hop bitterness in the finish as to not be cloying. The alcohol was –literally- warming. Meaning you can feel that warmth in your throat and on your palate after finishing the sample. Just the sort of thing for sub-zero temps and day dreaming of summer.
Would I Drink Another: I did… asking for a little top-up of this one after our discussion and scoring. In fact, I’m headed over to my local bottleshop shortly to spy out a sixer of this one. You should too.
|Nathan: Medium brown color with a malty nose complemented by floral hops and an interesting bubble gum aroma. The higher alcohol level was very apparent in the first sip and distracted from the other flavors. As the sample warms a bit, there are some great complexities coming through: caramel, brown sugar, chocolate, raisin, biscuit, etc. Some hop aroma, flavor, and bitterness are perceptible, but the balance heavily favors the complex malt flavors. This one had to grow on me for a little while. The alcohol initially seemed too harsh and distracting, but seemed to fade into the background the more I came back for another sip. It ended up being a very enjoyable beer.
Nathan’s Rank: 2nd
Beer #5: Southern Tier Old Man Winter – Our winter offering is here to quell your shivers and get you through the coldest of nights. A rich marriage of hops and barley to cast light upon the evening and melt your mind out of the snowdrifts. Old Man Winter’s earthy hue and thickness lace around the glass, inviting you to linger in its warmth and share the spirits of the season with your friends and family. 7% ABV
And the results are in……. To determine the overall results, we used a model where the lowest number of points would win (a 1st place vote = 1 point, a 2nd place vote = 2 points, etc). After tallying up the scores, our collective rankings determined the final order:
And while it doesn’t count in the official rankings, our hostess “reveals” her favorite…… Poppi’s Pick: Great Divide Hibernation Ale Here’s a short video of the panel breaking down our results:
So it does appear the panel engaged in a bit of groupthink this episode, but the lineup largely dictated this as we had two excellent beers for the style, one that was clearly a notch below, one that just didn’t really fit with the others, and one that just wasn’t well executed. Winterland is the first beer I’ve tried from the Green Bay, WI Hinterland Brewery and it wasn’t a great start. We always consider price points when wrapping up these reviews, but the retail price of $3.99 for a 16 ounce bottle did not make Winterland a good value pick either. Old Man Winter was perhaps the most surprising underperformer in the lineup as Southern Tier makes some outstanding beers. But retailing for around $11-12 per six pack, Old Man was the cheapest beer in this lineup and warrants a “worth a try” recommendation based on the combination of price and flavor. And it does show some promise if you have the patience to let some mature in the cellar for a while. Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome on the other hand, was a good beer, but not a great value pick based on the retail price of over $5 for an 18 ounce bottle, making it the most expensive beer per ounce in our lineup. The two clear standouts in our lineup were Dark Horse 4 Elf Winter Warmer and Great Divide Hibernation Ale. We found them retailed at $13.49/6 pack for the Hibernation and $8.99/4 pack for the 4 Elf, which makes them roughly equivalent in price per ounce. While this is a slight premium over what you might expect from a core lineup craft offering, our results suggest an extra buck or two is easily justified. One could argue the 4 Elf performance in our ranking was the most surprising given the admitted preferences of our panelists. Carl’s writeup noted “I have a fondness for roast. I do not have a fondness for spices.” Dave observes “I lean closer to the big-beer side of the equation and really don’t have much affinity for overly spiced beers.” You’ll generally find me conspicuously absent on this site from discussions of things like Pumpkin or Christmas beers, because I just don’t drink that many of them. So it’s a high compliment to Dark Horse that a spiced beer scored so well with this group. But throw in Poppi’s pick, and the big winner of the day is still Great Divide’s Hibernation Ale. This English Style Old Ale is only available during the winter season, so grab a six pack while you can. You’re going to need something to look forward to during your next 2-hour commute home from work. Cheers, Nathan