Considering the weather as of late, it seems that one of the few signs that autumn’s end is around the corner is the slew of winter seasonal beers showing up on the shelves. And it’s about time. In terms of the craft brew calendar, this is one of my favorite times of the year. So to kick the season off, I’ve got three easy-to-find American winter seasonals worthy of your glass: Magic Hat’s Ravell, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, and Stone’s Double Bastard.
As the lightest of the three beers, Magic Hat Brewing Co.’s Ravell, a vanilla porter, seems the appropriate place to begin. Magic Hat, from Burlington, VT, is most commonly known for their flagship ale, #9—an American pale ale brewed with apricot. Before writing this, #9 was one of the few samplings I had tried from this brewery, and to be frank, I wasn’t really that impressed. The last time I had one— maybe two or three years ago— tasted like soap, and I’ve tended to leave their beer on the shelf since. That being said, I was given a bottle of Ravell this week, and— being free and all— decided to give it a shot. And I’m pretty damn glad I did.
Magic Hat’s write-up on Ravell reads,
The Vermont brewer is pleased to bring back its most melodious, superbly smooth porter, Ravell. Whole, hand-husked vanilla beans are added to each batch of Ravell during fermentation to give the craft beer drinker the delicious and amazing aromatics of the past. Brewed with Pale, Chocolate and Crysal 80L malts and Apollo hops, this supreme performance of porter presents 28 IBUs and a 5.8% ABV. Audiences are encourage to listen to its malty monologue and its sweet soliloquy as it warms the palate and the soul.
Poured in a shaker pint glass, Ravell looks far more like a stout than a porter— opaque, motor oil-like blackness with a dark, chunky head.
Bringing the glass to my nose, there’s strong dark chocolate and espresso aromas mingling with hints of sweet cherry and vanilla. There’s definitely some degree of complexity here, and it’s pretty great.
The flavor offers vanilla notes right-off-the-bat that quickly fade to bitter dark chocolate and coffee. As Ravell passes over the back of the tongue, its bitterness is replaced by a light, slightly medicinal sweetness that lingers after swallowing. A superbly balanced beer, indeed. The body on this thing is just about perfect, and it simply glides across the tongue.
To date, Ravell is by far the best offering from Magic Hat I’ve had the pleasure of trying, and it’s a strong contender for my favorite American porter. It’s available in Magic Hat’s Winterland Variety 12 pack, and will hopefully show up on tap in a few of the local watering holes.
Next up is Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale. Man, I love this beer. Sierra Nevada’s one of the pioneering craft breweries from Chico, CA, that’s been around since 1979. Founders Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi, along with the rest of the S.N. guys and gals, have been extremely influential in getting the craft beer revolution up and running over the past decade or so. They’re now the second largest craft brewery in the U.S. at over 720,000 barrels brewed a year.
Typically released in November every year, this fresh-hopped beauty of a beer finally arrived in Memphis this week. Weighing in at 6.8% ABV and 65 IBUs, Celebration is brewed with Two-Row and English Caramel malts and Chinook, Cascade, and Centennial hops.
From Sierra Nevada’s website:
The long, cold nights of winter are a little brighter with Celebration Ale. Wonderfully robust and rich, Celebration Ale is dry-hopped for a lively, intense aroma. Brewed especially for the holidays, it is perfect for a festive gathering or for a quiet evening at home.
Poured in a Duvel tulip glass, Celebration takes a burnt amber-ish shade and, even with a conservative pour, creates an aggressive billowy head that eventually subsides to gentle lacing which coats the edge of the glass.
Ah, one of my favorite smells in the world: there’s a spicy citrus presence from all the hops that went into making this. Grapefruit, lemon, oranges, cinnamon, nutmeg, and sweet maltiness all make an appearance— absolutely perfect for the comforts of a warm evening by the fire.
Flavor-wise, there’s an immediate sweetness. Half a second later, though, a grapefruity bitterness sweeps in to balance it all out, with a touch of heat from the alcohol and chai-like flavors (nutmeg and cinnamon) on the side. Just delightful, if you ask me.
And to top it off, you can’t really ask for a better mouthfeel: semi-thick, creamy, and warming. Perfect.
This one’s available in six-packs and single 24 oz. bottles, and because it’s over 6.4% ABV, it’s only sold in liquor stores.
Last up is Double Bastard, an American Strong Ale at 10.5%, by Stone Brewing Co. out of Escondido, CA. Like Sierra Nevada, Stone has been another big player in the craft beer scene. Opened in 1996 by founders Greg Koch and Steve Wagner, Stone is known for their unabashedly aggressive beers like Arrogant Bastard (probably their most well know of their beers and the baby brother of Double Bastard) as wells as Ruination IPA.
While not technically considered a “winter beer,” it’s only released once a year in either October or November, and like Celebration Ale, the Bastard finally showed up in Memphis liquor stores this week. And like most of Stone’s line up, this isn’t a beer for the faint of heart.
The screen-printed bottle reads:
This is one lacerative muther of an ale. It is unequivocally certain that your feeble palate is grossly inadequate and thus undeserving of this liquid glory...and those around you would have little desire to listen to your resultant whimpering. Instead, you slackjawed gaping gobemouche, slink away to that pedestrian product that lures agog the great unwashed with the shiny happy imagery of its silly broadcast propaganda. You know, the one that offers no challenge, yet works very, very hard to imbue the foolhardy with the absurd notion that they are exercising ‘independent’ thought, or attempts to convey the perception it is in some way ‘authentic’ or ‘original.’ It’s that one that makes you feel safe and delectates you into basking in the warm, fuzzy, and befuddled glow of your own nescience. Why so many allow themselves to be led by the nose lacks plausible explanation. Perhaps you have been so lulled by the siren song of ignorance that you don’t even notice your white-knuckle grip on it. You feel bold and unique, but alas are nothing but sheep, willingly being herded to and fro. If you think you are being piqued in this text, it is nothing when compared to the insults we are all asked to swallow streaming forth from our televisions and computers. Truth be told, you are being coddled into believing you are special or unique by ethically challenged “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” marketers who layer (upon layer) imagined attributes specifically engineered to lead you by the nose. Should you decide to abdicate your ability to make decisions for yourself, then you are perhaps deserving of the pabulum they serve. Double Bastard Ale calls out the garrulous caitiffs who perpetrate the aforementioned atrocities and demands retribution for their outrageously conniving, intentionally misleading, blatantly masturbatory and fallacious ad campaigns. We demand the unmitigated, transparent truth. We demand forthright honesty. We want justice! Call ‘em out and line ‘em up against the wall... NOW.
Served in a tulip glass, Double Bastard pours a deep brownish amber with a massively aggressive head.
The aroma is a mix of sweet and spicy hoppiness that touches on grassy pine. Weirdly enough (and I’ve never experienced this before in a beer—including previous batches of Double Bastard) there’s a hint of funky cheese— not a bad smell...just weird. As it warms, the aroma takes on new, hard to pin down, layers, making for a delightfully complex smelling beer.
The flavor is certainly malt heavy with candyish cereal notes. From past experience, I was expecting to write things like “boozy as hell” and “kick-in-the-teeth levels of bitterness,” but that’s not really the case with this year’s batch. Maybe my palate’s changed over the last year...who knows? Though there’s s enough heat from the high ABV to warm the soul on a cold winter’s day, 2011 Double Bastard is surprisingly balanced, and I love it.
The mouthfeel is definitely a bit heavier than the last two beers, and there’s a nice creamy silkiness to it. Very enjoyable.
Finally, a quick reminder about Saturday's Learn to Homebrew class, starting 10 a.m. in the parking lot of Le Chardonney. This free class is hosted by the Bluff City Brewers in honor of National Learn to Homebrew Day.
Welp, that’s all I’ve got this week. Cheers!