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Three seasonal beers worth earning
By Derrick Peterman
California beer lovers rejoice in the numerous winter offerings from West Coast breweries. The dark, rich malts and the spices many brewers use in their winter releases create deep, complex flavors. Here are three notable winter beers and a few words from the brewmasters behind them.
Gordon Biersch: WinterBock
Winter beers are often associated with the modern craft brewing revolution, but they actually originated centuries ago. Gordon Biersch WinterBock was inspired by the monastery breweries in Munich that developed the beer in the 11th century as a way to stay “happy” during lent. Dan Gordon, Brewmaster at Gordon Biersch discovered this style in 1980 when he was an exchange student in Germany. A few years later, he returned to Germany to spend four years at the Technical University of Munich’s brewing program learning traditional German brewing techniques he would bring back to the United State to co-found the Gordon Biersch brewpub in Palo Alto in 1988.
“We first brewed WinterBock at the Palo Alto brewpub in 1992,” recalls Gordon. “It was a style we were required to master when studying brewing engineering in Munich.” WinterBock is a dark, strong bock beer with Munich malt, pilsner malt, dark roasted caramel malt, and black malt with very little hop presence. “This is a rich malty beer,” explains Gordon. “The sign of a great brewed double bock is a big rich malty flavor without any burnt or stringent aftertaste. It is very difficult to get this flavor and black color using dark roasted malts and not have a burnt or coffee aftertaste. A great double bock should have a white creamy head, never brown and never a burnt taste to it.”
Despite the rich malty smoothness, WinterBock registers 7.5% alcohol by volume, which Gordon warns “sneaks up on you.”
21st Amendment: Fireside Chat
Back in the 1930’s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt would issue his “Fireside Chats” on the radio to rally the country during the Depression. They quickly became popular since it was the first time the President spoke directly to the people. In a similar fashion, Fireside Chat is 21st Amendment’s twist on the traditional winter beer.
“Like all of our beer, it originated out of our brewpub in San Francisco in 2002,” describes 21st Amendment’s Co-Founder and Brewmaster Shaun O’Sullivan. “Our brewpub is like a laboratory for all of our beers. Back in the day, we brewed an English style warmer and called it Holiday Spiced Ale. I would go the nearby Rainbow Grocery, to find spices to add to the beer.” 21st Amendment renamed the beer Fireside Chat and packaged it in cans with quirky artwork showing FDR cheerfully chatting away with a holiday elf.
As for the beer itself, Fireside Chat changes each year with O’ Sullivan tweaking the recipe with different malt and spice additions. “I don’t like to use too much nutmeg. It can easily overpower the beer,” explains O’ Sullivan of the process. “One thing we use every year is Ghanaian cocoa nibbs from San Francisco’s Tcho Chocolate.” In this year’s version, the dark roasted malts and spice combine to give the brew a savory character, with a noticeable bitter chocolate finish from the Ghanaian cocoa nibs. As for what spices are in this year’s version, that’s a secret, but O’ Sullivan was willing to give a hint. “If you smell it, you’ll detect cinnamon and nutmeg and a few other spices.”
Ninkasi Brewing: Sleigh’r
An homage to the thrash metal band Slayer, known for songs about pain, death, and carnage, is an unlikely inspiration for a Christmas themed-ale, but that’s the way Ninkasi does things. “We have always loved beer and music and named beers after music references,” says Ninkasi co-founder and Brewmaster Jamie Floyd. “Troy Potter, one of our oldest employees came up with the name but we changed it to reflect the Sleigh part and we love Santa sporting the devil horns.”
In 2007, Ninkasi released Believer Double Red as its Winter Seasonal and it became so popular they kept it flowing year-round. The same thing happened the next year in 2008 when they released Oatis Oatmeal Stout as their Winter Seasonal and, due to its popularity, also moved it into their yearly line-up. “In 2009, we decided we wanted a Winter Seasonal that remained a seasonal,” recalls Floyd. “We wanted to do a really malty, rich beer with the crisp fermentation from an Alt style yeast, and Sleigh’r was born.”
With Sleigh’r, Ninkasi Brewmaster Jamie Floyd took a traditional German Alt and “Imperialized” it with extra malt additions. An Alt is a dark ale fermented in colder temperatures to give it crisp lager-like flavor than traditional dark ales. “The motivation for creating Sleigh’r was to make a beer that was different than other Northwest winter beers that feature big hop profiles and rich caramel flavor,” explains Jamie Floyd. “This beer has rich toasted malt flavor with hints of vanilla, roast and toffee with a creamy mouth feel that finishes with lager-like crispness from the cooler fermentation of an Alt yeast.”
Have a favorite winter beer besides these three? Email us at email@example.com for consideration for future beer editorial.