Festivus may have come and gone, but I’ve got a lot of problems with you people, and now you’re gonna hear about it!
Well, not all of you. Just those who have bastardized my once craft beer sanctuary that I lovingly refer to as Winter Beer Season. So as we sit here exactly halfway through winter, it’s time to reflect on what is taking place.
See, when the weather gets colder, my craft beer heart starts to go pitter-patter. That’s because not only are we leaving the scorching heat of summer behind, but I know the sweet taste of malty adult beverages is in the near future.
Beers served during the cooler months – think Marzens, Oktoberfests, Pumpkin Ales, Dunkels, Winter and Christmas Ales – all have a slightly sweeter character than the warm weather beers because of extra malt. And what’s even better is that these beers are often lower in alcohol, allowing you to enjoy an extra one here and there.
What makes these particular styles feel more malty, as opposed to their hoppy cousins like the Pale Ale and the ubiquitous IPA?
Mostly because the grains are roasted longer, leading to their darker coloring. But this also makes it harder for the yeast to turn the malt (e.g. roasted barley) into alcohol. So the unfermented material stays in the beer, giving it a thick, rich feel in your mouth as you imbibe. And because the yeast can’t process as much, you end up with lower alcohol content.
About 15-20 years ago, things changed. I believe it started with Sierra Nevada and its 65-IBU offering Celebration Ale. According to the brewery, it is an American-style IPA and “one of the few hop-forward holiday beers.” Well, it used to be.
New Belgium followed suit with its 2 Below Ale that has, they say, a deliberate “hoppy palate.” Soon other breweries were soon copying these big brothers of microbreweries.
For some reason – actually, I think I know the reason – brewers of craft beer have started infusing their Winter and Christmas beers with more and more hops. Rather than the thicker mouthfeel of malty sweetness, the Winter Beer Season is inundated with an unwelcomed hoppy takeover.
Now it seems there are more uber-hopped beers at Wintertime than malty concoctions. They’re everywhere. Here are just a few examples:
- Elysian Brewing Co.’s Bitfrost Winter Ale is really just a Pale Ale
- Hopworks Urban Brewery makes the Abominable Winter Ale that checks in at 70 IBUs
- Widmer Brothers Brewing makes a seasonal amber ale called the Brrr Hoppy Red
- New Belgium offers a second hoppy Winter beer, with its Snow Day Winter Ale a “backbone of hoppy bitterness”
- Big Sky Brewing Co. offers up the Powder Hound Winter Ale with its “generous dose of hops”
Then, I saw the one that made my once pitter-pattering heart lock up faster than my wife’s transmission when she fails to change the oil after nine years. This “style” of the beer is enough to ring the bell of death for the hope that Winter will ever be malty again. I give you … the Winter IPA.
Is that even possible?
Yes, because that’s what Highlander did when it produced the Frozen Hill Winter IPA with, according to its website, has “loads of piney North West hops.” The brewers go on to proclaim that the “hoppy nature of this beer will make it a holiday favorite.” Well, at least they didn’t call it a “traditional” favorite, because there’s nothing traditional about an IPA in the Winter.
Where are the Winter Warmers, the Christmas Ales, the Jubelales, and the Hanukkah Porters? Oh sure, you can still find a few here and there. But the majority of beers this Winter season are hopped up more than a pro wrestler on steroids.
Given that the IPA craze has taken over, it’s doubtful that Winter will ever be the malty world of joy that I once loved. If it does, it might take a Festivus miracle.
Winter Beer Season.
— Eric Van Steenburg
Big Sky Resort in Montana is a well-known vacation destination — both summer and winter.
Big Sky Brewing Co. is a well-known brewer of craft beer — both malty and hoppy.
But Big Sky Brewing is not in Big Sky. Who knew? Not me … until last weekend.
However, should you ever find yourself in Big Sky, the resort, and are in despirate need of craft beer (i.e. me last Sunday), you have a couple of options that should satisfy just about any quality beer-loving palate.
Lone Peak Brewery was the first craft brewery in Big Sky when it opened in 2007, and remained the lone brewery until just this year. Over that time the brewery has grown from just a few barrels to a full-fledged brew pub, featuring 14 different beers on tap and a menu so tempting you’ll order something even if you’re not hungry.
But first … how’s the beer, you ask.
I enjoyed a sampler, delivered in a snow ski, of five malty beverages that included the Class V Amber, the Steep N’ Deep Winter Ale, a brown ale called the Dark Shine of the Moon, the ubiquitious Hipy Highway Oatmeal Stout, and Willie’s Bourbon Barrel Stout.
My favorite? the Steep N’ Deep Winter Ale, even if they left off the first apostrophie in front of the N. This brew is listed as a “winter warmer scotch ale” and tastes just like that, with a ton of crystal malts to give it a slightly sweet taste, and enough hops to make sure it doesn’t become a desert. This extremely dark beer checks in at 8.1% ABV, so proceed with caution.
Likewise, the Bourbon Barrel Stout should be treated with kid gloves. On second thought, keep the kids far away from this one. Thought it’s listed at just 6.5% ABV, the bourbon aroma hits your nose like a Mike Tyson overhand punch. If you’re the type who likes barrel aged beers, this one’s a winner because of its strong bourbon flavor and relatively low ABV.
The Oatmeal Stout is also a favorite, and is available year-round at my local Ale House, which makes it a go-to beer for me in the depths of summer when most craft breweries kill their darker varities to cater the growing demand for IPAs. This is Lone Peak Brewery’s darkest beer, so don’t use it to try to read a book. It won’t work. But if you like your stouts with lots of oats and English malts, this winner will meet all your needs. And at 5.5% to 6.5% ABV, depending on whether you read the menu or the website, you could easily enjoy a couple three of these before you hit the slopes or the bike trails, depending on the season.
Of course, my IPA slurping friend had plenty to choose from at Lone Peak Brewery as well. The five in her sampler snow ski included a classic Pilsner, the XPA Xtra Pale Ale, the Lone Peak IPA, an Imperial IPA on nitro, and the Winter Ale. Of the five, her favorite was, surprisingly, the XPA, which, according to the brewery, is a highly hopped pale ale. That would explain her fondness for the beer, despite its listing of just 45 IBUs. And at only 5.5% ABV, I see plenty of XPA in her future. Who knows, she might even become my XPA slurping friend.
As a side note, if you like the Imperial IPA, I recommend Lone Peak’s. Another place where my IPA chugging friend and I diverge on the hoppy road is on the overly hopped, overly malted IPA known as the Imperial. As I once wrote, I find Imperial IPAs to be the Paris Hilton of beers. You know how Paris is so skanky she comes full circle back around to almost being hot. Well, the Imperial IPAs are so hoppy they come back around to something I can drink. However, the extra malt needed to balance all those hops send my IPA friend into face contortions that clearly indicate disapproval. Bottom line, when it comes to Lone Peak Brewey’s Imperial IPA, Joe Bob says “check it out.”
From Lone Peak we headed a mile down the road to Big Sky, the resort’s, newest brewery, Beehive Basin.
Opening just this summer, Beehive Basin Brewery had a noticeably different feel than the brew pub we’d just left. First, there was no food. Good thing we’d chowed on an order of what we call “chips all three” — tortilla chips with salas, guacamole, and queso — before leaving Lone Peak. But Beehive Basin was shiney and new. The furniture hardly looked sat in. And the bar hardly spilled on. Well, we can fix that.
Unfortuntely for me, the two beers I’d wanted to sample were tapped out. That’s the challenge of a brand new brewery with just a seven barrel system. However, that’s also an indication that the beer must be pretty good. The two that will have to wait for next time, then, are The Big Baltic Porter and the 50 cal. Coffee Porter.
That left the tasting to my IPA drinking companion, though I did my part by sampling and sumarily disapproving of each one. The Green Bridge IPA was easily her favorite, with the Li’Beer’ty American Pale Ale not hitting the right hoppy notes for her dandylion palate. The Dunkelweisen was exactly what it sounds like — a combination dunkel and wheat beer. I can always drink a good dunkel, but not one with this much wheat. Neither could the IPAer sitting next to me.
Still, the Green Bridge was a winner. And hopefuly, I’ll be able to weigh in on the two porters soon. When I do, I’ll definitely let you know.
So the next time you plan a ski vacation, or want to escape your summer heat, head to Big Sky, Montana knowing two things: 1) Big Sky Brewing isn’t there; and 2) there are two extremely capable craft breweries at the resort that give everyone another reason to hit this place any season.
— Eric Van Steenburg
The new checklist for a summer beer festival:
- Wool socks
- Long johns
That should prepare you to comfortably enjoy any beer fest in July.
OK, perhaps I won’t wear all that cold weather gear to the next beer tasting extravaganza in the middle of summer. But it would have come in handy at the last one.
The temperature in Big Sky, Montana, was in the upper 60s when I arrived on site last weekend with my IPA chugging companion. Not bad. It felt like a early spring day.
But three hours later, as we drove away, Mini told us the temperature was 49. I would have guessed even lower.
Blame it on the front that blew through that afternoon. Or blame the high altitude of Big Sky, which is perched at about 7,500 feet. Or blame the thunderstorms that dropped buckets of rain on the place. A quick thanks to P.T. Barnum for inventing the giant tent. Or was it Bailey?.
Well, whomever came up with the idea to hold the Big Sky Brewfest in a couple of large event tents was brilliant. It might not have kept the attendees, volunteers, and brewery reps warm, but it did keep them dry, for the most part.
And for the most part, the beer was pretty good. We focused our attention on the tent with the Montana beers rather than the tent featuring beers from around the United States because we’d tried almost all the national craft beer brands before. And besides, the Montana beer tent was warmer.
One look around, though, and you could tell this was a summer beer festival … not a single porter or stout to be found. Oh wait, there was one. Thanks to the folks at Bridger Brewing Co. for bringing the Ghost Town Coffee Stout or I would have been on an island surrounded by hostile IPA waters. It is one of the best stouts I’ve tasted so far from the Big Sky state.
Despite the lack of my favorites, there were still plenty of malty beverages available. In fact, Scotch Ales easily outnumbered the IPAs. I think Montanans like their Scotch ales. At least in the “summer.” So we split the tasting chores into two camps — IPAs for her and Scotch ales for me. Here are our choices for best of the fest:
India Pale Ales
- Gold — Double Haul IPA from KettleHouse Brewing Co. A nitro IPA that will knock your wool socks off. Smooth and easy drinking, this became my IPA slurping companion’s go-to beer all afternoon. Enough hop bite at 65 IBUs to meet the needs of almost any IPAer, it also checks in at a modest 6.5% ABV. Why not have more than one? In addition to winning Gold from Beer-and-Burgers.com, this beer also captured gold medal at the 2008 North American Brewers Association, which is almost as prestigious.
- Silver — The Juice Double IPA from Madison River Brewing Co. This golden beer has a malty taste at the start that is quickly overtaken by a strong hop bite in the middle and end. No wonder. The brewers use three types of hops and four types of malts to create this delicious concoction that checks in at 9.0% ABV and a whopping 101 IBUs.
- Bronze — Soul Shine IPA from The Front Brewing Co. My IPA chugging friend could only say it was outstanding. Then again, everything we’ve tried from TFBC has been so far. And Joel and Josh from TFBC were great to chat with. Must visit the brewery in Great Falls, MT, sometime.
- Honorable Mention — A tie between Lone Peak Brewery‘s Imperial IPA and their Idiosyncratic IPA. According to the official IPA taster, both were “delicious.”
Scotch Ales/Scottish Ales
- Gold — Mountain Man Scotch Ale by TFBC. This is a delicious blend of caramel, chocolate, smoke (which usually I don’t like), coffee and toffee. A beautiful mahogany color with malty goodness throughout.
- Silver — Big Sky Brewing Co.’s Heavy Horse Scottish Ale. The brewery known nationally for Moose Drool brown ale delivered in a big way with this limited release version of a wee heavy Scotch ale. It is a deep red color with lots ofcreaminess. At 6.7% ABV, you can afford to have a couple.
- Bronze — Among the four beers that Katabatic Brewing Co. had on hand was their Scotch Ale, which tasted exactly the way a Scotch ale should, light and malty. (The others being poured were a Hefeweizen, an American Pale Ale, and Summer Ale, obviously in the wrong place.) By the way, Katabatic is the name for the heavy winds experienced regularly in Livingston, MT. So the front that blew through the beer fest that made me think the tent would come crashing down any minute was nothing to them. In fact, they said “this is a breeze.” To which I replied “Literally.”
- Honorable Mention — Lewis & Clark Back Country Scottish Ale. The beer won a silver medal at Great America Beer Festival in 2014, so it didn’t need another medal from Beer-and-Burgers to validate its goodness. I found it to be crisp without much maltiness. Good for a hot summer day.
Which this was not, by the way. As the thunder and lighting raged above the mountains in the distance, the rain fell in buckets — seriously, the organizers placed buckets around the tents to catch some of the run-off in hope that the place wouldn’t turn into a muddy mess. And, of course, the temperature dropped.
We’d brought jackets. Unfortunately, neither was down lined because, well, who thought one would need a ski jacket in the summer? So when it became too cold for us transplanted Texans, we bailed to the nearby tavern for a plate of nachos to soak up the day’s tastings.
By the time we got to the car and hour later, the temperature was below 50. I knew those seat warmers in the Mini would come in handy in Montana. I just didn’t think it would be in July.
— Eric Van Steenburg