Each morning we wake to more and more frost covering our car windows and an increasingly icy blast hitting our faces when we open a door to the outside. It begins to become apparent that yes, we go to school in Maine, and yes, it is getting very, very cold. Long gone are the days when an ice-cold Natural Light was everything we needed after a hard day of classes, a rigorous workout, or a Saturday afternoon at the library. Instead, we are left with the desire for something just as refreshing but with an added warmth, a fuller, spicier and more complex body.
Enter the winter ale and its frequent companion the even more specific Christmas or Holiday ale. Passing over the lighter adjunct grains used in beers more suited for summer, these beers make use of various roasted grains for a fuller, darker body and a more complex malt character. Accompanying this malt is a careful use of hops, and often the addition of spices and fruits such as orange or raspberry to round out the flavor and give it a festive edge.
Although previous reviews have looked to beers from all over New England, I thought it fit to focus on two winter ales brewed in Maine; who could better understand our winter beer needs than brewers working only a short drive down I-295 in Portland? Both Shipyard and Geary's are well-known, well-liked Maine breweries, and it is interesting to see how differently they have approached their winter offerings.
Shipyard Prelude Holiday Special Ale ($7.99 six-pack, Hannaford)
Available in 24-ounce special edition bottles in addition to the traditional six-pack, the Shipyard Prelude makes no effort to hide what holiday this ale is aimed at. The green, gold and red label portrays a large, decorated Christmas tree set in front of a snow-covered farmhouse. It is inviting, and hints at the flavors that await inside.
The Prelude pours a dark reddish-amber with a dense brown head and moderate carbonation. The nose, although malty and somewhat spicy, shows a surprising amount of hop character; resinous and slightly piney.
The initial taste presents a unique and complex malt best described as having a fruity sweetness with some drier caramel aspects. This malt gradually fades to a smooth, slightly hoppy taste ending with a warming and pleasant finish, leaving a great lingering flavor.
Fellow reviewers Michael Giordano '08 and Max Key '08 were very impressed with the Prelude ale, describing the flavor to be "like Christmas."
Overall, the Prelude was slightly different than what I had expected, more medium bodied, flavorful and crisp, but it still excelled as a winter ale. Blending what seem to be the best aspects of other beers, this ale brings a great malt together with a smooth medium body and good hop and spice character. The Prelude Holiday Special Ale is indeed just what the name advertises, a specially crafted beer perfect for the holiday season.
Geary's Winter Ale ($7.99 six-pack, Hannaford)
Adopting a more modern style, the Geary's label uses icy gray-and-blue graphics to assert its winter style. The Geary's exhibits a much different coloring than the Shipyard, a crystal clear goldenrod with a bright white head, which is surprising for a winter ale. The nose is far less distinct than the Shipyard with a muted, grainy malt character and possible hints of hops.
Opening up with an overwhelmingly sharp and immediate burst of malt flavor and high carbonation, this beer takes the drinker by surprise. The malt rapidly succumbs to another burst of hop flavor, which also quickly subsides, leaving the drinker with a subdued and almost characterless aftertaste, mere seconds into the sip. Andrew Sinnenberg '08 described his experience as "good when it hits the lips," yet both he and Giordano were underwhelmed with the aftertaste, which they aptly summed up as "tough." Interestingly, this is not necessarily a bad beer, yet it seems to crowd all of the elements of flavor into the first moment of taste, reaching an immediate crescendo of intense flavor that contrasts the much more subtle aftertaste. The entire sensation can best be described as sharp, accented by a liberal amount of carbonation, mimicking the sometimes sharp spices used in other winter ales.
Overall, the Geary's did not fare as well with tasters, most likely due to its overly intense flavor as compared to the more refined and balanced Prelude.