Buying Beer, Part 3: Seasonal and Limited Beers [UPDATED]
Karbach's Bourbon Barrel-Aged Hellfighter (BBH for short) from Houston and Brooklyn Black Ops from New York are two seasonal beers worth seeking.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
We’ve covered readily available beer, both that which should be consumed immediately (Part 1) and those that are good candidates for cellaring (Part 2). Now we’re going to start getting into beers that aren’t quite as easy to find. That said, the seasonal beers in this list tend to be overlooked because beer drinkers aren’t as familiar with them as they perhaps should be.
Kevin Floyd, proprietor of The Hay Merchant, gets really excited about seasonal and limited beers and rattled off an entire list of them in less than ten minutes. “The seasonal and limited section is really the heart of a beer collection,” says Floyd. “There’s not a lot of hype around the ones I’m recommending. These aren’t necessarily cheap, but they’re easy to find.” All beers listed below are his recommendations.
Abbaye Bon Chien, 11 ABV, No IBUs
Floyd says this beer is kind of expensive and it tends not to sell out quickly because people don’t know what they’re looking at. (People who read this beer series will, so it will be our little shared secret.) It’s a Bière de Garde type brewed by BFM (Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes) in Saignelégier, Switzerland, and the character changes from year to year. The base beer stays the same, but the barrel changes. One year the brewery might obtain several sherry barrels and then the next, the barrels may have been previously used for red wine in Bordeaux. Over the past three years, Abbaye Bon Chien has also released a grand cru because it had a limited number of special barrels of a different type — Champagne barrels, for example. Floyd says that in the 2013 release that used these, the label said the beer had been aged in “Frenchie” barrels because the brewery couldn’t technically say what used to be in them. The 2014 grand cru used rum barrels.
Ducato Luna Rossa, 8 ABV, No IBUs
Hardly anyone picks up this Italian sour, and it’s just sitting on the shelves over at Spec’s downtown. It’s from a very small producer in Italy. Italian beers are always expensive because of how they’re taxed. The brewer does a very limited bottling run — like, maybe, 2,000 bottles — and we get a good number of those in Texas because we sell a lot on draft. The bottles are numbered. Most of the beer goes into kegs because bottling in Italy is also very expensive.
(Author’s note: I tried this at The Hay Merchant after meeting with Floyd about this beer series. It is extremely tart. Only hardcore sour lovers need apply.)
Floyd wtih a bottle of Ducato Luna Rossa, an Italian sour beer. Only about 2,000 bottles are made annually. Fortunately, many of those end up in Houston.
Photo by Phaedra Cook
Avery Brewing Company “The Czar,” 10.1 ABV, 55 IBUs
The Czar is one of three beers in Avery Brewing Company’s “Dictator Series,” which also includes The Maharajah and The Kaiser. It’s released in November or December every year, and is brewed with spicy, floral Hallertau hops. Flavor profile notes include English toffee, mocha, molasses, candied currants and anise. This is another beer ripe for aging.
Stone Brewing Company Imperial Russian Stout, 10.6 ABV, 65 IBUs
There are two different types of this beer: the classic, and a flavored variant that is part of Stone’s “Odd Beers For Odd Years” series. (The 2015 “odd beer” was chai-spiced.) The “odd” version of Stone Imperial Russian Stout (or IRS for short) should not be aged, but the classic is perfect for sticking in the cellar. Stone Brewing president and co-founder Steve Wagner first created the beer in 2010, and the classic recipe hasn’t changed much since. It’s released every spring and is full of bittersweet chocolate and coffee notes with an undertone of dark fruit and anise. Stone Brewing Company’s website has more information and even food pairing suggestions.
Brooklyn Brewing Company Black Ops, 11.3 ABV, 50 IBUs
Black Ops is another beer with deep notes of chocolate and coffee. Four months of barrel-aging lends bourbon and vanilla notes. The beer is then bottle-conditioned after the addition of Champagne yeast, bottled flat and re-fermented with Champagne yeast. Paring suggestions include strong cheeses and ice cream. This isn’t a beer to pass up if you happen to see it on a shelf.
Boulevard Brewing Company Rye-On-Rye, 12 ABV, 47 IBUs
It’s unusual to use malted rye instead of barley for beer. Generally, rye is used in whiskey. However, when a company is able to procure used charred oak barrels previously employed to age Templeton Rye, a rye beer suddenly makes a whole lot of sense. Boulevard uses two different types of rye as well as Citra and Ahtanum hops. The end result is a dry beer with a lingering, whiskey-like aftertaste.
Chimay Grande Reserve Oak Aged, 10 ABV, 30 IBUs
Chimay released 15,000 bottles of its “Blue” (or Grande Reserve) that had been aged in new oak barrels for the first time in 2015. To distinguish the bottle from the regular Grande Reserve, it’s capped with a cork and cage. It’s an unaged, unpasteurized beer that is fermented three times. The final time happens in the bottle. The aroma is rife with esters reminiscent of banana and stone fruits. The telltale vanilla notes of the barrel are obvious on the palate.
Sierra Nevada Narwhal, 10.2 ABV, 60 IBUs
Narwhal is another seasonal beer that will improve with age. It’s malty but grounded with strong notes of cocoa, espresso and a slight smokiness. It normally shows up on store shelves in October.
J.W. Lee’s Vintage Harvest Ale, 11.5 ABV, N/A IBUs
Floyd says he’s not a huge fan of aging barleywines but will make an exception for this one. It is modeled after the original recipe for the first barleywine. According to the website, older releases are so coveted that beer collectors pay as much as $60 for a single bottle. So, obviously this is another good seasonal beer to cellar. The malty brew has undertones of toffee and sherry. Floyd thinks it would last under optimal conditions for up to 30 years — and also bets that it is still sitting on store shelves because people don’t know about it.
Updated, 2/3/2016, 10:40 a.m.: Kevin Floyd adds that a very limited number of J.W. Lee Vintage Harvest Ale cases dating back to 2002 have just arrived in Houston. He says, "These are amazingly rare and should not be missed!"
Karbach Bourbon Barrel Aged Hellfighter, 10 ABV, 85 IBUs (varies by release)
Karbach’s barrel-aged series is made right here in Houston. It’s released roughly twice a year, once in December or January and again in late summer. The difference in the releases is that the Hellfighter has been aged in different barrels. For example, the August 2015 release had Madagascar and Mexican vanilla beans added and it was aged in Four Roses and Makers Mark whiskey barrels. The December 2015 release had no additions but was aged mostly in Heaven Hill whiskey barrels, with a little blended in that had sat in Four Roses barrels.
Join us next week for Part 4: Beers Worth Standing in Line For. The answers might surprise you.
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