Hibernation Ale is big and bold without being overpowering, First Draft columnist Michael Paull says.
Let's end the year on a frosty note.
During the colder months, it is easy for a beer lover of the northern climates to hover over a fresh pint and think back to the public houses of Great Britain, where so many of our favorite ale brewing traditions were started. So many of today's ales from pales to porters, milds to bitters started out as 19th century brewery refinements of ale blends served for generations in those public houses. (They were, by the way, places for much celebration, not a bad tie-in the week of New Year's Eve.)
In many cases, these traditional ales have been the raw ingredients for the exciting experimentation and innovation we have all benefited from during this modern era of craft beer, but it is still possible to grab a wonderful example of brewing traditions as old as any.
One of the best traditional old ales you can get is Hibernation Ale, brewed seasonally by the Great Divide Brewing Co. of Denver, Colo., since 1995, and available in Central Ohio in six packs at well stocked beer stores. True to the style, Hibernation pours a lovely mahogany with a thick, dirty blond head that lingers. The beer (8.1 percent alcohol by volume) is apparent in the aroma, but it rides in with a sweet toffee smell that makes it pleasant and enticing right from the first encounter.
One thoroughly enjoyable style of beer where you can enjoy both is the big, bold winter warmer, a fairly modern adaptation of the very traditional old ale.
Old ale is a brown ale that was brewed with more grain to give it a higher alcohol content and more flavor than the mild ales available in the pubs of the 1800s. It was aged into the cold months so the flavors would mellow and blend into a sweet, alcohol hot draft with notes of toast and cookies, and then it was combined with fresher milds to make for a more robust drink.
Today's winter warmers are often big, dark-brown ales, closely enough related to barley wines as to be mistaken for them, though they are not as potent or bitter. Many are spiced with holiday spices to add a festive twist along with some additional heat, and these are often balanced with darker malts, lower alcohol and even less hop flavor than you find in a malt-forward style.
What makes Hibernation a gem is that it is a big, flavorful beer with notes of toffee, sugar cookies and tree fruit that packs a ton of mouthfeel and remains refreshing and inviting to the bottom of the glass. The hops are subtle and mostly serve to clean up the aftertaste, turning down all the toasty sweetness right before it becomes cloying. Big and hot enough to warm you on the coldest days, it's complex and sweet enough to stand out at a holiday meal. This beer is big and bold without being overpowering.
Let's hope we can say the same thing about 2010.
Michael Paull, a web developer for dynamIt Technologies, lives in the University District.