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Notes from my tasting room

Winter beers

Anchor "Our Special" Ale
Famously, a different winter ale, usually spiced, is released every year by the Anchor Steam Brewery, of San Francisco. This year's, at 5.5 per cent alcohol by volume, has a purply, plum-pudding, colour, and tastes like heavy, moist, vanilla-ish, fruitcake, with notes of cinnamon and an orange-peel bitterness in the finish.

Alaskan Winter Ale
When the explorer Captain Cook made landfall in various parts of the world, he brewed beer, using local materials. His diaries mentioned the use of spruce tips. Cook traveled to Alaska, and the state's best-known brewery has now made its own ale using the tips of Sitka spruce, along with Saaz hops and six malts (pale, Munich, wheat and three types of crystal). This ale, at 6.4 per cent, has an orange color; a sweetly floral bouquet; long, extraordinarily perfumy, flavors; and a cedary dryness in the finish. Brewery founder Geoff Larsen finds it "beguiling"; a good description.

Carlsberg Criollo Stout
The newest of the experimental limited editions from Carlsberg, of Denmark. Not strictly a winter beer, but it fits the bill. Flavoured with chocolate made from Criollo Stoutthe Criollo variety of cocoa bean. This is regarded as the world's finest cocoa. It accounts for less than ten per cent of the world's crop, and is grown in Central and South America. Licorice is also used in this beer, which is brewed from five types of malt, including rye. It has an alcohol content of 6.5 per cent; a purply-black color, with a rocky, coffee-colored, head; a spicy, perfumy, chocolate, aroma; a clingingly creamy body; and a teasingly bittersweet flavor. At first, it seems as sweet as demerara sugar, then the rooty, juicy, licorice adds a tangy bitterness. A wonderfully complex brew.

PUP Joulo Olut
From the Finnish town of Nokia, which gave its name to a make of mobile phone. I have in the past written about Nokia's micro-brewery PUP (the name is an acronym relating to the region), but this was my first tasting of its Joulo ("Yule") Olut (the word is related to "Ale" but means simply beer). This year's example, at 5.2 per cent, has a dark brown color; a thinnish but smooth body; some chocolatey sweetness in the middle; and a toasty dryness in the finish. Different in style from the maltier, more copper or bronze, Vienna-style, brews I have come to expect from the Nordic countries in winter.

Koff Velvet
The English word is used on the label of this appropriately smooth brew recently introduced by the Sinebrychoff ("Koff") brewery, of Kerava, near Helsinki, Finland. This mahogany-to-black brew is light-bodied but textured, very dry and roasty, with a late balance of oily softness. It is top-fermenting, and has 4.7 per cent alcohol. Broadly in the style of an English Old Ale.

Traquair House 1,000th Brew
A commemorative edition from the famous castle brewery in Scotland, at 10.0 per cent, rather than the usual 7.2. The typical earthy, walnut and chocolate notes, but much maltier and richer, with some residual sweetness. The usual warming finish is notably bigger. A classic Scottish ale, both delicious and sustaining.

O'Hanlon's Original Port Stout
Not strictly a winter brew, though it warms the blood on a cold day. The addition of a drop of port to this beer is said to have been inspired by a "corpse reviver" - a hangover cure - dispensed by Dublin barmen. Irishman John O'Hanlon should know, though I have never encountered the practice despite long acquaintance with the fair city. This ebony brew, at 4.8 per cent, is "enriched" with port. The beer starts very roasty and dry, becoming silky smooth, then revealing a sweetish, fruity hint of port. The back-label suggests the beer as an ingredient in a beef stew. I have enjoyed it with Stilton cheese. That combination is pretty seasonal. The brewery is now in Devon, in the west of England, though it was founded to serve O'Hanlon's pub, in London.

Young's Winter WarmerYoung's Winter Warmer
The original Winter Warmer seems especially sweet in its draft form this year, though the bottled version has an oilier body and more of a toasted-nut dryness in the finish. Some cedary, perfumy, hoppiness, too. Once around 6.0 per cent by volume, Winter Warmer has over the years slipped to 5.0. It is still a very distinctive brew. See also Christmas in London.

Fuller's Old Winter Ale
The brewer renowned for its London Pride and Extra Special Bitter offers a malty Winter Ale, at 5.3 per cent. It has a dark orange colour and Fuller's typical interplay of appetising flavours: in this case, fruity yeastiness; earthy, herbal hoppiness; and a big, firm, nutty, sweetness that suggests crystal malt. Slips down with perilous ease. My choice to welcome this new year, at my local pub. This has the Fuller's range on draft, cask-conditioned and beautifully kept. The pub, which I shall not identify, is in a west London neighborhood less than a mile from the brewery. Fuller's bottled-conditioned Vintage Ale, at 8.5 per cent, is yet fruitier, with a grapefruit-like note reminiscent of American hops; astonishingly lively, slightly winey, flavours; and a creamy maltiness.

St Peter's Winter Ale
A seasonal delight from the barley-growing and malting county of Suffolk, in rural eastern England. This lively micro is at St Peter's Hall, near Bungay. Its Winter St. Peter'sAle is dark brown, with a big, malty, aroma. The flavors are quite exotic: reminiscent of Cuban sweet coffee, with condensed milk, and bitter chocolate. It packs a hefty 6.5 per cent. At the same strength, there is also a dark brown, dryish, Spiced Ale with cinnamon and apple. The spice and fruit are restrained, and the flavors more reminiscent of maple syrup. In its Christmas sampler the brewery also sent me Cream Stout, again at 6.5, with licorice-toffee flavors. It is on dry side for the style, and quite distinctive.

Shepherd Neame Christmas Ale
In the heart of England's East Kent hop country, the nation's oldest brewing company could have been more generous with the magic flower in this year's winter special. The brew, at 6.7 per cent, has an attractive amber color; a huge bouquet (cedary hop and citrussy fruit); an oily body; and a peachy, earthy, palate; but its finish, despite an orange-skin dryness, lacks a hoppy memory.

Erdinger Schneeweisse
"Snow white" is a clever name for a winter wheat beer. This entrant from the sizable wheat-beer brewery in Erding, near Munich, Germany, is a Hefe-Weissbier (ie yeastily hazy) at a slightly higher alcohol content (5.6 per cent) than the year-round version. It is golden to bronze in color. Like the other Erdinger beers, it is very restrained indeed in the typical clovey spiciness of the style. There is a hint of dessert apples, a touch of citrus, perhaps just a little banana, and a creamy graininess.

See, also, recent notes on Harviestoun Old Engine Oil and Cain's Christmas Ale.

Published: DEC 31, 2000
In: Beer Hunter Online

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