It’s totally dark, except for the fluorescent glow of a camping lantern. The fireplace is ablaze and a heavy snow falls from the night sky as the winds of a nor’easter howl rattle the house my. Power is out in my Long Island neighborhood as I write on a chilly Nov. 7.
This was the perfect setting to sample some of the first of the winter seasonal beers, which arrived this week at the shelves of retailers on Long Island. But this was early November and both the snow and the beers seemed to have arrived inordinately early for the season.
Just days earlier, I had found Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale 2012 at Shoreline Beverage, a retailer in Huntington, and Anchor Brewing’s 2012 Our Special Ale at a local Trader Joe’s.
Celebration Ale, the venerable fresh hop IPA that was among the first holiday season craft beers to be produced in the America—the first was produced as a winter seasonal in 1981. It features Chinook, Cascade and Centennial hopes and two-row pale and English caramel malts and weighs in at 6.8 percent ABV and 65 IBUs.
The other, Anchor Brewing Co.’s Our Special Ale, a dark beer that has brewed by the San Francisco craft brewer since 1975 with a secret recipe that has changed annually. Each year, the label also changes, but always featuring a tree. This year’s label was adorned by a Norfolk Island pine, a scrawny fir tree native to the South Pacific and planted in California since 1850.
First up was the Celebration Ale, a fresh hop IPA that when craft brewing burst on the New York scene was impossible to obtain in the East. I’d forgotten what a beautiful beer it is. It has a brilliant copper color with a dense, long-lasting tan head. The citrusy nose of Cascade hops teases your tongue of what is to follow: a beautifully balanced, interwoven mélange of tangy citrus, caramel and juicy malt. It finishes bittersweet and dry. It calls out for another sip and then another.
Now, on to the Anchor, which is a deep brown brew with a mocha-colored, rocky head. The aromas of spices waft up from the glass, even while it sits on the table. Closer to the nasal passages, the aromas announce themselves: ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cloves. There’s an initial sweetness as it touches the palate
and the spices dance on the tongue along with a Mars Bar-like caramel nougat character. I’ve never been a huge fan of spiced beers, but I was beginning to enjoy the interplay of the juicy malt and spices in this one. Alas, the head faded rather quickly, the body seemed a tad thin and the finish was rather short. It causes one to wonder if Anchor’s new owners have tamed the brew.
In the days and weeks to come beer retailer shelves and beer bars will be filled with holiday/Christmas/winter beers. What was once considered an old brewer’s tradition has to some become a brewing industry marketing ploy. One thing is certain, it’s a tell tale sign that it’s time to finish up those pumpkin beers, which have been around since August.