Malt and spice and everything nice | VailDaily.com

Malt and spice and everything nice

Cassie Pence

Flashy beer labels embellished with Christmas trees, snowboarding dogs or holly wreaths aren’t intended just to tickle that soft spot among beer drinkers around the holidays.Hidden inside the festive bottles are bits of full-flavor beer history. Before refrigeration, brewers were at the mercy of the weather. The Germans would store their Boch beer in high-country caves over the summer during fermentation, which is highly affected by temperature.”Basically they would store it over the summer and then start cracking into it in October. Hence Oktoberfest,” said Jeremy Pluck, Gore Range Brewery’s brewmaster. “They would pull out their darkest, strongest stuff – which they wanted to store a little bit longer – in the wintertime.”

This is why the commercial specialty winter beers of today are fuller in body, richer in malt and produce a warming sensation, most likely due to the beer’s higher level of alcohol content. It’s a beer-making tradition, but I bet marketers are rejoicing in the outstanding timing.”These winter brews have been around for hundreds of years,” said John Carlson, executive director of Colorado Brewers Guild. In the old days, England was producing these beers before hops were used predominately. Hops are the cone-like flowers that provide beer with bitterness and floral aroma. Belgians have a long tradition of producing Christmas beers, their origin revolving around the religious holiday.

“For Belgian brewers in particular, it’s a chance for them to show their stuff. The beer might be a little bit bigger in body, it might have more alcohol and it’s definitely more pronounced in its taste or flavor profiles,” Carlson said. “So these are definitely not your ordinary, everyday beers. It’s something special. It’s a brewer’s beer.” Beer “geeks” rejoice in these flavors and will drink them all year round. But as far as mass consumption, the heavier, fuller beers fare better between November and February.”My stout, which is my darkest beer, very recently almost doubled in sales. People’s palates tend to gravitate toward that end more so when the weather is cooler,” said Pluck, whose stout is the Gore Range Biker Stout.

The British added spices to their holiday beers, a gesture intended to complement the food they were serving at the time.”You get a lot of pumpkin pie this time of year, and you’ll also get pumpkin beers,” said Bill Lodge, owner of High Point Brewery, a beer distribution company in Eagle. “People make spicy beers to go with the food. Nutmeg is used, coriander, cinnamon – ingredients you associate with the holidays.”

On a refrigerator shelf near youSan Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company has been making its Christmas beer for 30 years, and the brew is probably the most famous of the specialty beers. Each year they offer a new recipe that celebrates the season, but it’s almost always a spicy beer.Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing Company created Frambozen, a raspberry brown ale, complete with a label adorned with a wreath.

Flying Dog, another state brewery, offers its K9 Cruiser Altitude Ale for the winter season. Its heavy malty characteristics exemplify traditional holiday beer-making at its best.Odell, yet another Colorado brewing company, presents its Isolation Ale, which is actually a winter warmer. Its label, illustrated with a snowy log cabin in the woods, looks more like a souvenir postcard you might buy in Vail Village than a beer bottle, but the beverage’s qualities are similar to the warmers traditionally produce out of England. A British winter warmer is one you might have a snifter of while sitting around the fireplace reading a book. It tends to warm the spirit, said Carlson.”But the best place in the country to taste these beers is at Bill Lodge’s festival,” Carlson added.

Lodge is the founding father of the fifth annual Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival, which takes place Jan. 7-8, 2005 at the Marriott Mountain Lodge in Lionshead.”Due to the nature of the beers we were pouring, we moved it from March to January,” said Lodge.Attendees will be able to taste all types of specialty beers from late winter brews to early spring barleywines.

“We want to push people’s palates in new directions,” said Lodge.So when sipping on a special ale with a hint of cinnamon or an alcohol content of 6 percent or more, remember the first brewers who discovered cave fermentation or the Belgian brewers whose egos played out in the form of a cherished golden beverage around Christmas time.

Arts and Entertainment Editor Cassie Pence can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 618, or cpence@vaildaily.comVail, Colorado