Advent of Beer, Third Six Pack

This six pack may have been my favorite. I was able to enjoy every beer and managed to photograph and journal each. The six pack was a mix of classics and great flavors. My own contribution was included this week, sharing some local pride. I even improved the staging for the photos of most of the beers. This should have occurred to me sooner. I am learning and getting back into practice of sharing and doing so well. Another thing I've enjoyed about the experience and will look forward to for next year.

A Santa statuette on top of a kegerator, next to the chrome draft tower. Santa is a brewer, holding a disproportionately large flip top bottle filled with white string lights with a label reading Bew Master's Special Reserve.

I have had a kegerator for a few years. I have two, actually, one in our dining room and the other, minus the draft tower, down in the brewery. Before I got one, I had to bottle my beer with enough live yeast and additional sugar to carbonate. I had pretty good success for years with this approach. Kegging and forcing carbonating is simply so much easier. Even though I never installed the draft lines in the second one, I use it all the time, to condition beer without tying up a line and for cold storage of ingredients like yeast.

A few years ago my mom gave me the fellow in that picture there. The statuette is maybe just shy of two feet. Santa's apparel is some interesting cross between an old world brewer, or at least a beer fest goer, and the modern, commercial interpretation. He usually hangs out in my brewery, among my bulk malt supplies. Every year around this time, I bring him up to the upstairs kegerator to add his lights to the festive cheer throughout the rest of the house.

I usually journal and take pictures of beers for myself, as an aid to memory or a reference. I often go through my tasting journal when working on a new recipe or thinking about flavors I want to try to create or re-create. I usually don't invest much in staging the beers, placing them on our kitchen table or one of the side tables near habitual spot in our living room. I wanted to be more intentional since the calendar included a social media group and many members are active on a social beer check-in site.

I was not really happy with the first handful of photos I took to share. I had been struggling to find a spot that didn't distract from the beers. On the second beer out of this set of six, I realized my kegerator, especially with Santa perched on it for the season, was the perfect spot. Sadly, in most of the photos, Santa is cropped out. I thought a full length picture would help fill in what's missing.

Competing with Classics

A bottle of Bell's Bright White next to a tulip glass filled with the bottle's contents, a light copper, hazy beer with a fluffy white head

The first beer was the second from Bell's, their Belgian wheat beer, Bright White. I felt like this beer was designed to compare favorable to Allagash White or even Hoegaarden, a traditional white that hasn't been the same since a brewery fire years ago then an acquisition.

I thought the beer was well executed but fell a bit short of the better known beers of this style. The appearance was right, with a decent amount of haze from the wheat. The spiciness, owing to phenolic flavor components specific to some Belgian yeast strains, was very present, almost too much so. I expected some residual sweetness from the wheat and struggled to find it. The beer was enjoyable, I likely would have found it more so if there had been more to temper the phenols. If you aren't very familiar, phenols are what make your cosmetics feel bracing or cooling. They often impart a distinctive menthol, spicy, or herbal character.

An Original Classic

A bottle of Troegs Mad Elf next to a tulip glass filled with the bottle's contents, a dark, clear beer the color of mahogany with a think tan head

I have been drinking beer long enough to remember when getting any Troegs beer was a rare treat. Mad Elf was an old school whale, or much sought after and often hard to find beer. I am thrilled that independently made beer in Maryland is so much easier to find these days. In addition to many excellent home grown breweries, many more beers from neighboring states are often stocked on corner beer and wine store shelves.

I live in a controlled county which means alcohol sales outside of the county controlled stores are limited. Most grocery chains cannot carry beer in Maryland, outside of a single store each. We do have beer and wine stores pretty much everywhere. Many of them have embraced craft beer meaning I am less and less surprised to find whatever I might be in the mood for at the one five minutes from our house.

At all events, I was thrilled to see Mad Elf, their Belgian strong ale, in this six pack. A beer like this is a classic for a reason, in my opinion. Boozy and chewy, it drank to me more like an English barleywine. Not surprising as I believe Belgian brewing, historically, grew out of importing British techniques. Add to that honey, which mostly boosts the alcohol, and cherries, which are a common flavor in barleywines though usual from the malt. Whatever style you consider this beer, it is a perfect warmer for the cold, dark part of the year. We haven't had a very white winter. We only get real snow fall with accumulation every few years. We were not due and the next time we are, I would love to sip on this beer by the fire while watching the snow fall.

This was the first beer I photographed with Santa, on my kegerator. You can see one of his boots, a bit of his coat, and the cord for the string lights in his big bottle. The metal bit to the side is a gas fitting. As a brewer, I have extra fittings and attachments on everything. They are useful for purging kegs and a variety of tasks, large and small, when I am tapping or working on a beer.

Strong and Funky

A bottle of Silver Branch Gnome for the Holidays next to a tulip glass filled with the bottle's contents, a hazy, copper colored beer with a substantial, off white head

The next beer was another Belgian style, a saison, from a local favorite in downtown Silver Spring, Silver Branch. The head brewer there has rightly won several awards and is incredibly skilled. He has a thing about gnomes, hence the name. You can also find gnome figures hidden throughout their taproom

Gnome for the Holidays is a stronger variation of their usual saison. Saison's rely on yeast to achieve a characteristic flavor best described as funky, like fresh hay or even a horse blanket. Like Bright White, these flavors are driven by the yeast, in particular ones that produces the same kind of phenols I described earlier. Saisons are often described as rustic, historically being brewed as part of working farms. Depending on the brewer, that may mean adjuncts like oats, wheat, or even spelt, and sometimes may involve more traditional or historical processes, like a turbid mash. People who enjoy the style often have strong feelings about what can sometimes be an acquired taste. I happen to enjoy them.

This particular beer had very little funk to it and had the sweetness I was hoping to find in Bright White. I was surprised by a slight tartness. I didn't perceive that as a defect, meaning I thought it was likely intentional. There was a little haze when I poured the beer. I keep my kegerators as cold as they will go to help keep all of my beer fresh. Sometimes that comes with a risk of chill haze, temperature sensitive compounds that form and can stay in suspension when the beer is very cold. The haze cleared nicely on warming, yielding a beer that looked as good as it tasted.

Local Pride

A bottle of Saints Row Harvest next to a tulip glass filled with the bottle's contents, a garnet colored, clear beer with a near white head

Saints Row Harvest was my contribution to the case. I live five minutes from the brewery and consider many of the staff, especially the owners, very good friends. I am there almost weekly, a habit that suffered throughout the pandemic, but one I am glad to be able to maintain. Everyone there, on both sides of the bar, has been super conscientious.

I rarely buy cases of beer. One of the down sides to brewing my own is I have so much of my own beer, I can rarely justify buying much additional packaged beer. Especially early on in the pandemic, I felt bad because to go sales were all breweries had. So many local breweries struggled, almost all of them thus far survived. Some have even managed to grow in the midst of changing public health guidance and uncertainty, especially in the wake of each variant of concern.

During those months, I ordered a bit more beer than I could easily consume on my own. I was grateful we have a deck and a yard. Many of those beers were shared while socially distancing and even more were given away to good friends.

Long way of saying I was ecstatic to order an entire case (plus a six pack just for me) of this beer for the calendar. Tony, the brewer and co-owner, at Saints Row is both a skilled technical brewer and one of the most creative brewers I know. This beer shares some DNA with a larger Maryland brewery near Baltimore, Union, where Tony started his career before ultimately opening Saints Row closer to home. I love Foxy, the red IPA Union makes seasonally, and share that love with both this beer and another related beer Tony has brewed a few times, Autumnaton.

I enjoy old school American and even English IPAs. The first IPA I brewed was in the English style, a recipe I still brew every Summer. I enjoy the hops and even more when they have some play mates in the recipe. Red IPAs elevate those elements, bringing so many wonderful malt derived flavors that layer in with the hops. Harvest is a bigger beer, so a lot of the malt comes across as substantial, even chewy. I enjoy sipping this one in colder weather, especially by a fire.

First Taste

A bottle of Vanish Ghost Fleet next to a tulip glass filled with the bottle's contents, a hazy, dark gold beer with a thick white head

I have been hearing great reviews of Vanish's beer since they opened. I struggle to get to all of the breweries in my home county on a regular basis. As close as Leesburg is, I hadn't had the chance to swing by and hadn't seen their beer at my corner store yet. I was super grateful for the chance to try my first beer from Vanish through the calendar. Another example of why I think this group of folks is pretty great, that I am not the only one thinking about the experience of everyone else when picking their beer.

I was a little concerned that Ghost Fleet was a hazy IPA at first. My first impressions set that to rest. This beer reminded me of Heady Topper, arguably the original progenitor of the still. The story as I have it was the brewer at The Alchemist was pushing for as much hop flavor as he could get. He crafted that beer at a time when a crystal clear beer was a mark of quality. Brewers since have left their imprint on the style, experimenting with adjuncts and water chemistry to enhance the soft, fruity character of their beers. Ghost Fleet felt like a little bit of a missing link to me.

The hop character was distinctly old school, more resin and citrus than tropical or stone fruit. Aside from its appearance, markedly more hazy than Heady Topper, I did appreciate some work to soften the mouth feel. The carbonation came across as lower, as well, enhancing that softness. I did get a surprising earthy note, yet another old school flavor, long in the finish. A little malt came forward after warming but nowhere near the sweetness I expect from the style. I think if someone was curious to try a West coast or older style American IPA but only ever had a New England or hazy take on the style, this beer could be a delicious stepping stone.

Old Dog, New Trick

A bottle of Sierra Nevada Hazy Little Thing next to a tulip glass filled with the bottle's contents, a hazy, light copper beer with a thick white head

Hazy Little Thing is a testament to the appeal of the New England or hazy IPA. Among brewers, Sierra Nevada is known for a strong dedication to quality. They take beer stability seriously, publishing in industry technical journals a lot of what they've learned to benefit all brewers. Hazies have notoriously short shelf lives, which many thought would prevent Sierra Nevada from attempting one. Their other beers often literally can be had around the world. Their focus on quality ensures that every Sierra Nevada you try is likely to be in the best condition possible, whether it is a day old or a month old.

This beer is a credible entry into the style. From what I've read, Sierra Nevada managed to make this beer surprising stable as well. Maybe not as much as their pale ale but enough for them to ship throughout their distribution footprint. I am probably not the best judge of this style. I don't find enough differences among the crowded category to spend much time with them. Even so, this one seemed to check some of the key boxes--haze of course, softer mouth feel, and a bit of fruit. I did find the fruit was overpowered by classic hop bitterness, a bitterness that lasted long into the finish. I was surprised to find the body a little thin despite the gentler carbonation and a likely addition of haze positive adjuncts. I may have been struggling after enjoying Ghost Fleet the night before, which I thought was slightly more enjoyable than this beer.

I have one more six pack to share, another with a few lactose beers in it, so likely a short post. This six pack was the first one where I journaled every beer I drank. I've spared you the full notes, instead distilling out a few thoughts for each along with some personal experience or context. If you would like to see any detailed tasting notes on this site, drop me a line and let me know.

Tags: tasting exploring advent-of-beer
Posted by Thomas Gideon on 2021-12-26 17:04