Marketing the winter brew

November 30, 1997|By Rob Kasper

IT IS TIME to say goodbye to the "Christmas" beer-drinking season, and say hello to the "winter" sipping season. I came to this realization recently after reading the labels on the seasonal beers that show up in liquor stores at this time of year. These beers used to be called "Christmas" beers. Then they were called "holiday" beers. Now most are called "winter" beers. These year-end beers are a traditional way that brewers say thanks to their customers.

Perhaps the brewing industry made the name change to appeal to folks who don't celebrate Christmas. Maybe somebody in marketing realized that even Druids drink beer. I suspect the main reason the name has changed has more to do with selling beer than with honoring religious diversity. It is hard to sell a beer called "Christmas" after the first week in January. But if you call it "winter" it can be sold all the way up to the vernal equinox, the beginning of spring.

Normally the arrival of these year-end beers puts me in a joyful mood. But this year as I faced an imposing stand of 17 bottles of different winter beers, I felt troubled about the increasing specialization of beer. For years, one of the primary attractions of beer has been its simplicity. I think of it as the beverage that unites the workers of the world. Lately, American beers have become more complex. Some winter beers, for instance, have spice, chocolate and more types of hops than McCormick has peppers. Overall, this quest for better beer is a noble cause. But with it comes the danger of snobbery dividing the ranks of loyal beer drinkers. For instance, folks who don't recognize or care that they are tasting Fuggles hops in the finish should not be treated as second-class citizens. Analyzing the aroma, body and aftertaste of a beer can be pleasant work, but it is not required behavior to consider yourself a member of the brotherhood of beer drinkers. The unexamined beer, in other words, is still worth drinking.

I gave myself this pep talk as I sat down with a panel of tasters at the Clipper City Brewery on Hollins Ferry Road to sip 17 bottled winter brews that are available in Maryland liquor stores this year. My fellow tasters were beer makers Jack Callahan of Sisson's restaurant, Hugh Sisson of Clipper City Brewery, Greg Santori, the former head brewer of the Brewer's Art, and beer connoisseur Dave Butcher of Rotunda Wine and Spirits, who organized the event.

Many of these winter beers had big, bold flavors. Not all were pleasing to my taste. But, as my mother used to say when I gave her a Christmas present she didn't want, it was the thought -- a brewer offering a beery gift -- that mattered most.

At the end of the tasting, each taster announced his five favorite winter beers. When the tally was taken, the clear favorites of the panel were Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout and Clipper City Winter. The Brooklyn beer, selling at $6 a six-pack, was as dark as a winter's night and had dominant coffee and chocolate flavors. The Clipper City, at $6 a six-pack, was a pleasing mixture of five hops and four malts. It had a bitter finish that made us pucker. Puckering was considered a plus.

We on the panel also liked the "hot finish," (a sign, I was told, of Fuggles hops at work) in the Pyramid Snow Cap brew, and the rich, almost creamy notes of the Snow Goose winter beer. The Pyramid sells for $6, and Snow Goose sells for $7 a six-pack.

The only beer in the tasting that had the word "Christmas" on its label was the one from Catamount Brewing Co. One of its fans described this winter brew as "sleek." Also garnering votes of approval were the Grant's Winter, with its chicory flavor ($7 a six-pack), and the balanced flavors and Cascade hops, I guessed, in the Widmer Winternacht, at $6 a six-pack.

I liked the cocoa notes in Saranac's Season Best ($6 a six-pack). One panelist voted for the knock-your-(winter)-socks-off style of Baltimore's Brimstone's Big Strong Ale ($12 a six-pack).

That finished the official listings. Unofficially, I rated Snowball's Chance from Maryland's Frederick Brewing Co. ($6 a six-pack) as the most-improved winter offering. This year's brew had much better color and deeper flavor than the Snowball I tasted last year.

The winter offerings from the bigger breweries -- a malty and slightly spiced Coors Winterfest ($6 a six-pack) and the wheat bock, Sam Adams Winter Lager ($6 a six-pack) -- were richer and more indulgent than the breweries' everyday offerings. The Winterhook, a winter beer made by Redhook, a brewery partially owned by Anheuser-Busch, seemed thin.

The best-smelling beer, in my judgment, was Harpoon Winter, $6 a six-pack. Its aroma reminded me of spiced cookies. Another aromatic notable was Pete's Winter Brew ($6), described by one panel member as smelling like "Grandma's scented soap."

Sam Smith's Winter Welcome, smooth if expensive ($8 for a four-pack), came to us all the way from England. The residents of England, I am told, celebrate Christmas, then drink beer all winter long.

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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