This year for Christmas we flew home and got socks, undershirts, and a fridge full of gift-beers from around the country.
We thought we'd share a few, in case you want to pull one of those after-Christmas "from [self] to [self]" deals.
The best offering we sampled was a 2007 bottle-conditioned Vintage Ale from Fuller's, the British brewer most famous for its ESB (Extra Special Bitter). In general, bottle conditioning involves leaving (or removing, then re-adding) some of the brew's raw ingredients, normally yeast, into each bottle to allow the beer to evolve until it's consumed.
Contrast this with Budweiser's born-on dating, then chuckle softly to yourself, shaking your head.
Frankly, we'd never had an 8.5 percent-alcohol beer feel this smooth. The brew was also curiously backward, in a good way. Normally, a beer will reveal its sweet flavors first, then shift to its bitter layers when swallowed. This variety started crisp, with plenty of hops, then melted into a mild maltiness and finished with little aftertaste. If you look past the extra alcohol, it stills tastes like a Fuller's, like a British beer, and that's welcome. Though we love Belgians, we sometimes get overwhelmed trying to appreciate all of the flavors each style brings. This is a very pure, very simple - very good -- beer.
Next we sampled Heavy Seas, a holiday Belgian-style tripel (with corresponding 10 percent alcohol) from Clipper City Brewing Co. of Baltimore. We saw what the brewers were going for with this one, but we're not sure they succeeded. The beer falls closer to a pear cider than a Belgian tripel in our mind. If you know someone who likes cider and has wanted to try beer, this might act as a good bridge. It's not a bad drink, it's just a bit out-of-balance; the hops simply didn't show up.
Last, we sampled Yule Smith, a holiday ale from Alesmith Brewing Co. of San Diego. Though the idea of a holiday pale ale is a bit of an oxymoron (winter tends to invite dark, rich, spicy beers, not hoppy ones), we welcomed the effort.
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The aroma was robust, full of hops and grains, like standing in a silo. The text on the bottle suggests chilling the brew into the 40s before serving, but we'd caution against that. This offering started fine but improved as it warmed. Rather than hops alone, the spices made a welcome appearance, then some malt. Throughout, the hops were strong enough to completely hide the beer's 8.5 percent alcohol content. Like the Fuller's, this offering is bottle-conditioned, but the Yule Smith came with loads of sediment. The chunks won't hurt you, but if they make you squeamish, take care when pouring.
A clerk at Spec's said it offers the Fuller's but not the other two, and a Whole Foods staffer said the store doesn't carry any of the three. Has anyone out there seen offerings from Clipper City or Alesmith in Houston? Let us know in the comments.