Halloween Beer – A Land Beyond Pumpkin

NightmareWhile I am certainly a fan of some pumpkin beers, notably Dogfish Head’s Punkin Ale, there’s a wider variety of Halloween-appropriate craft beers worth seeking out.  No doubt Rogue sees an uptick in sales of their Dead Guy and Double Dead Guy Ales, and both are fine beers indeed (although I’m partial to the DDG), but I usually prefer something a little more subtle for Samhain.  With that in mind, there are some fine British beers I like to seek out at this time of year – and many of them are very sessionable indeed, so it’s a good excuse to sample a few.

One of my favorites is Nightmare from Nick Stafford’s Hambleton Ales, an independent brewery in North Yorkshire – the beer is smooth, malty goodness, perfect for an autumn evening.  Moving over to Lancashire, another north of England brewery with regular US exports is Moorhouse’s – and they have a number of perfectly-named beers for the holiday: Black Cat, one of the best milds available anyway (yes, it’s only 3.4%, but it’s full of flavor) and Pendle Witches Brew, a slightly heftier beer with sweet malt notes.  Both brews commemorate the ‘Pendle Witches‘ – a group of women tried for witchcraft in 1612 (most of whom were imprisoned and subsequently hanged at Lancaster Castle – which was still a prison when I lived there in the 1990s).   Perhaps because the history is more well-known in the local area, their labels have never generated the sort of controversy currently engulfing Lost Abbey’s Witch’s Wit – but more on that later.

Heading south, Oxfordshire’s Wychwood Brewery famously exports its Hobgoblin around the world; their Scarecrow can also be worth seeking out if you prefer something a little less malty (but really, shouldn’t most fall beers be malty?), though it still has some nice biscuity flavors. One word of caution with Wychwood beers (and perhaps this problem arises because some stores stock up on them) – they are all outstanding when they’ve been properly looked after, but I’ve had more than one bottle of Hobgoblin that had clearly been sitting around a while – make sure you get it reasonably fresh from a good distributor or beer store so you know you’re getting the real flavor of the beer.  Even better, try one of them on cask near the brewery – they are lovely that way.

Of course, there are plenty of quality beers made in the US that are Halloween-ready. Colorado’s Avery Brewing produces a Demons of Ale series: Mephistopheles Stout is not brewed until December, but  Beast, a Belgian Grand Cru should be ready just about now – although it’s definitely not something you’re going to have many of at one sitting – ditto for the other in the series, Samael’s, an oak-aged ale hovering rather close to the 15% ABV mark.  For something a little more low-key, Gritty McDuff’s makes a Halloween Ale that makes its way out of Maine every year, and if you’re in more of a lager mood, there’s always Dixie Blackened Voodoo, originally from New Orleans (though still brewed elsewhere, post-Katrina).

Heading to the Midwest, Great Lakes Nosferatu also fits the bill (though I cannot comment on it specifically yet – it’s sitting in my fridge, waiting), Founders contributes their Devil Dancer, a Triple IPA and Bell’s Hell Hath No Fury…Ale is always tasty.

Out on the West coast, the aforementioned brouhaha over the label for Lost Abbey Witch’s Wit has certainly given the beer some publicity, if nothing else (although it seems to have also knocked the brewery offline) – while I’d have to agree I’d prefer to see something more along the lines of the Pendle Witches Brew approach, the beer itself is tasty indeed.  Moving up the coast to Seattle, Black Raven Brewing has a full lineup of potential Halloween beers – Morrighan Stout is just one that sounds thematically-appropriate, and ideal for a chilly night.

Of course, you can still enjoy a pumpkin beer for Halloween – but why not save that for Thanksgiving?  In any event, happy Halloween!

Beer Review: Victory Pursuit Pale Ale

Victory Pursuit Pale AleI enjoyed this on cask at the brewpub recently, and it was very tasty indeed – eminently drinkable, but with plenty of representation from both the hop and malt components.  There was plenty of hop aroma (it’s a limited-time single-hop offering from the Downingtown brewery) and a thick, creamy white head over a deep straw-colored beer.  I would be curious to compare a ‘normal’ version to the cask version, as the cask version is so deliciously smooth. There’s a great bready or biscuity malt character, but the hops are ever-present – although more in a floral, gently spicy way as opposed to a citrusy bitter manner.

This actually reminded me quite a bit of Manny’s Pale Ale, and that’s no bad thing by any means; it’s one of my favorite American pale ales.  One wonders if, perhaps, the Pacific Northwest character that is so evident in Yakima Twilight Glory was also something of an inspiration here.  That’s not to suggest the beer is identical to Manny’s Pale Ale, but they both fit quite comfortably (and rather high up) in the same section of the beer firmament.

I’d love to see this as a year-round offering – it would be a nice complement to Yards Brawler as a great beer to always have on hand, although it’s most welcome as an occasional treat as well.

Dogfish Head Chicha

Dogfish Head ChichaLast year, Dogfish Head’s Chicha proved to be much more difficult to produce than anticipated; the brewing of this year’s installment of the latest ‘new/old’ beer apparently went a little more smoothly, thanks to a bit more experience and research.  However, it’s still not easy to make this beer in any sort of quantity, since the production method goes well beyond ‘hand-crafted’  – there are many mandibles involved.  But fear not the saliva exchange – the chewing and spitting happens pre-boil, so the resulting drink won’t give everyone mono, and you have to like a beer that comes with its own beautifully-designed handout.

As someone with too many degrees in archaeology, I have great admiration for all of Dogfish Head’s historical recreations (or, if you prefer, reinterpretations) – Sah’Tea and Theobroma are some of my favorite beers, and I love a little Chateau Jiahu from time to time. Each one combines solid research with an experimental sense of adventure – it has been suggested elsewhere that historical beer styles are becoming a trend throughout the craft beer continuum; I would certainly be in favor of that – but I digress.

And so back to the tasting of Chicha 2010 – while it’s quite light in body and low in alcohol, something about it makes it seem like an ideal sipping drink.  The spearmint creates an interesting contrast with the overall grainy character, imparting an almost cooling sensation.  There are some notes similar to clove oil or banana that might appear in a hefeweizen, but the mouthfeel (I know, I know) is so different that it never suggests that direction.  Perhaps as some sort of psychological counterpoint to its production, it comes across as extraordinarily ‘clean-drinking’ – it’s refreshing and leaves an absolutely unique overall impression.

Beer Review: The Bruery Autumn Maple

The Bruery Autumn MapleI’m quite a fan of The Bruery; the Belgian-flavored California brewery just seems to get things right, and often from unexpected corners.  My only complaint is that on most occasions, their beers are only available in enormous bottles.  There’s good reason for that – everything they make is bottle-conditioned, and bottling lines are expensive – it’s not surprising that they opt to minimize costs by sticking with a single size.  But it can be difficult to find an occasion for 22 oz of a 10% beer; it’s a lot to split between two adults (especially when one of those adults has charitably been called ‘fun-sized’ on more than one occasion).  So, it was rather pleasing to find Autumn Maple available by the glass – it was a perfect amount for after-dinner sipping.

The initial impression is one of spices – the aroma is almost closer to mulled cider in some ways, and the allspice is very much in evidence.  The many flavors are almost layered; the sweeter vanilla and molasses start things off, but the nutmeg adds a kick to the end.  Rather than relying on pumpkin in this fall seasonal, as many breweries do, yams have been employed – many, many yams.  But they are never the primary taste – they become more obvious as you go along, but they never overpower things.  Cinnamon flits in and out and adds another nice counterpoint to the malty sweetness.  For me, the maple was actually one of the more subtle flavors in this beer – but it’s a minor point.  All told, it’s an ideal beer for a chilly evening; it would go remarkably well with a bonfire.