Friday, August 01, 2008

The Session #18 - ...but once a year

Almost the definition of advertising cliché, "Christmas in July" is a post-Independence Day marketing assault that's inevitably leaked into the brewing communityin recent years. Chances are, alongside the car sales and outdoor furniture expos and everything! must! go! riding-mower clearances, there's invariably a booze dispensary near you pulling some leftover holiday wares out of their hopefully temperature-controlled back rooms and offering up a chance to indulge in some Bizarro World intoxication while they crank the AC and Bing to seasonally appropriate levels.
But for those of us who like to indulge in the creation of special, strong, spiced ales with that oh so holiday flair, there's no shame involved, since July is the perfect time to get the kettle out and start reminding ourselves what flavors go best with Contessas, as any good strong beer worth its gypsum salt is gonna need the next six months to shape up. For this month's Session, since we're talking about anniversary releases - once a year specialties that you'd otherwise only pop open for occasions of merit - we decided that it coincided quite fortuitously with the annual formulation of our holiday ale recipe, which we brew each year in early August . Along with formulating a recipe, of course, one must also do some tasting. And so we did. With glassware befitting the occasion, naturally.

(It's important to note that we're cheating a little bit here, pretending to ignore one of the subtler instructions for this month's Session: "a limited release anniversary beer from your favorite brewer homebrew stash.")

For a few years now, we've given out corked 750mL bottles of spiced Belgian ale to our worthy friends and family, and each year, thanks to some electronic goof or another, I artfully manage to misplace the recipe for the previous year's batch. So, I pour back over my notes, my shopping history, my dog-eared pages in Brew Like a Monk, and try to locate a old bottle of the stuff to sample in hopes it'll jog my memory. This time, we decided to go back two years, pulling the last of our 2006 bottles (of which I know there are some still floating out there, so if you're reading this, heed the warning below) and our second-to-last 2007 bottle. After dimming the lights, cleansing our palates, and getting Rock Band warmed up in lieu of the fireplace, we got down to work like it was the night before Christmas.

The '06 and '07 batches, while sharing identical ingredients in subtly altered proportions, turned out to be wildly different from each other when placed side-by-side. The '06 literally exploded as soon as the wire had been untied from the cork, yet stayed put in the bottle until it was ready to be poured. The '07, on the other hand, opened with a neatly clean pop, but devilishly tried to climb from the bottle in a steady cascade of foam once I'd set it aside to get the glasses ready. They were both similarly hued, with equally fluffy heads and generously effervescent, creamy mouthfeels, but that's where the similarities ended. I picked up on piles of black liquorice in the '06, whereas Des latched on to its grapey, coffee-ish qualities, ones we hadn't noticed when it was a younger bottle, while likening it to a less alcoholic Samichlaus. The '07, on the other hand, was more dubbel in character, reminding me initially of Ommegang, with strong, yeasty esters, and a brown sugar flavor that wrapped around the figgy maltiness that typically accompanies the style. Interestingly, any hints of the original spice additions would be nearly impossible to single out by name, which, as far as I'm concerned, is exactly the way it should be: The nearly imperceptible hops are replaced by a certain "spiciness" that offsets the malt, but it's an ambiguous enough effect that it lends to some fun guessing.
Just kidding about those boots.

They are, in the end, beers that so strongly reflect the sentiments of the holidays they're like liquid fruitcakes, which makes tasting them while your legs are still sore from waterskiing a bit of a contradictory experience. But, alas, these are the dilemmas we homebrewing beer blogger types must confront. So, without futher ado, here's the plucky little phoenix that arose from the tasting notes we gathered last night: a hastily drawn and perilously unchecked recipe for our 2008 holiday ale. Enjoy.

The Session is a blog carnival originated by Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer. This month's party is being hosted by The Barley Blog. For a summary of the Sessions thus far, check out Brookston's handy guide.

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