There have been times when I’ve been dying for a cold beer. But I never imagined dying of cold for a beer. Okay, I wasn’t exactly “dying,” but I was definitely underdressed and quite thoroughly chilled, out on the patio of Toronto’s Mill Street Brewhouse on a frigid night in November. The occasion? The tapping of the first of the company’s “12 Casks of Christmas” specialty beers.
Adam Stiles, meteorologist for CityNews television, was given final pointers on the delicate art of spigot ramming by Bridgid Young, brewer at Mill Street Brewery, before winding up and having at it.
Half expecting to be showered with freezing, pear-infused Tankhouse Ale (a partridge in a pear tree in keeping with the theme, right?), I strategically stationed myself behind the CityNews cameraman. His being bigger than me ensured adequate protection in the event of a cask-plosion. Also, being behind the camera guaranteed I wouldn’t actually be caught on it, protecting my identity from those seeking to do harm (CRA, OPP, CSIS, North Korea, wine producers whose wares I’ve scored less than 85, etc). Turns out Stiles was actually a rather gifted “tappist,” and the gaggle of media types gathered around each wound up with a glass full, rather than a face full, of the subtly fruity, definitely hoppy brew.
Over the next couple weeks, 11 more “themed” casks would be tapped at Mill Street, including the likes of Calling Birds (a cask-conditioned Chai Porter), Pipers Piping (a peppermint-infused, cask-conditioned number) and the Maids A-Milking Chocolate Milk Stout.
Since beer, unlike wine, can be crafted throughout the year, brewmasters have the luxury of creating them when they choose as opposed to when nature necessarily dictates. And because brewmasters seem to love experimenting, they are free (or as free as corporate dictates and consumer palates decry) to indulge in some rather creative interpretations of your standard suds. Welcome to the frothy world of “seasonal” and “specialty” beers.
Before getting into the nuts and bolts of these brews, it’s probably not a bad idea to define exactly what we are talking about. Most breweries have their core lineup that is more or less always available. Seasonals and specialties obviously fall outside this range. But what differentiates one from the other? Isn’t a seasonal simply a specialty brewed at different times of the year?
“A specialty beer is one that doesn’t fit a specific category — most of the time using unusual brewing techniques or unusual ingredients,” explains Jerry Vietz, brewmaster at Quebec’s respected Unibroue craft brewery. “A seasonal beer is one offered for a limited time during a specific time of year.”
Okay, so seasonal beer could be a specialty beer as well?
“It depends on the brewer,” suggests Young. “We brew the same seasonals every year and release them at the same time. We also brew specialty beers. I don’t want to say these are ‘one-offs,’ because some, like our Barley Wine, are brewed every year at the same time, which makes them almost ‘seasonal specialties.’”
Vietz concludes that a seasonal beer could fit into the specialty classification as well, so long as it doesn’t fit into a specific category, and if it is intended to be brewed only for a limited time.
No matter how they’re defined, it’s pretty clear that both seasonals and specialties are unique offerings that differ, usually fairly substantially, from a brewery’s everyday stock. That being said, sometimes a seasonal or specialty turns out to be so successful that it merits a place on the standard roster.
“This happened once,” informs Dougal Sharp, CEO of Scottish crafter brewer Innis & Gunn. “We first brewed and released Innis & Gunn Rum Cask in 2008 and it flew off the shelves, proving to be a huge success. From then, we fielded so may enquires … that we decided to brew it again in response.”
The Innis & Gun Rum Cask was released as part of both the 2009 and 2010 gift packs. As of 2011 it became a core brand with a name change to Rum Finish to reflect the use of the company’s ingenious Oakerators to mature the final product, as opposed to aging in actual rum casks.
Vietz recalls a similar situation where one of his one-offs became a yearly staple, in this case, the Unibroue 17.
“The original batch bottled in 2007 was awarded an international platinum medal three years in a row and the prestigious title ‘World’s Best Dark Ale’ and ‘Best Strong Dark Ale’ at the World Beer Awards,” Vietz recounts. “The overwhelming success of this specialty brew made it obvious that we could not let such a great ale slip into the anonymity of retirement. So in 2011, we proudly brought back 17 with the ‘Grande Réserve’ appellation as a fitting endorsement of its exceptional quality for aging.”
Vietz has a particular soft spot for the hugely successful 17. He notes that back in 2007, the practice of maturing beer in oak casks was a growing trend and Unibroue fans were suggesting he try his hand at it. Vietz did, but with a bit of a twist. Craft beers were (and are) often matured in ex-spirit barrels (whisky, rum, etc). But following this (or any other) trend was not Unibroue’s thing.
“As a pioneer and a leader in the world of craft brewing, we do not want to follow a trend,” Vietz admits. “Against the popular trend, I decided to use new French oak rather than barrels in which another product had been aged. The goal was to come out with a beer where the oaky character would not take over the other flavours and aromas, but just confer a pleasant, clean, oaky finish with subtle vanilla undertones.”
Vietz’s instinct proved spot-on. To date, this yearly brew has racked up 14 international medals.
Of course, as much as the freedom to experiment appeals to creative brewers, not every whimsical stroke of alchemy results in award-winning ambrosia.
“There have been a few flops,” Young concedes, yet adds that some that miss the mark, as far as she and brewmaster Joel Manning are concerned, may still end up doing rather well commercially. “We still get emails requesting the return of beers we knew we’d never do again, which leaves us kind of scratching our heads. I mean, as brewers, we know that it didn’t turn out as intended, but our customers aren’t privy to that behind-the-scenes conversation and can approach it in a completely unbiased way.”
It’s a good point. Wine lovers may recall the story of white Zinfandel. It was an experiment that, in the winemaker’s eyes, went totally off the rails, but it ended up spawning a wildly profitable new category … for better or worse.
Unlike winemakers, brewers have a rather wide palette of flavour enhancers at their disposal. But how do they decide what to use? Do seasonal beers follow any specific flavour patterns and where does the inspiration for specialty brews come from?
“Our team usually comes up with a number of ideas for our seasonal releases,” says Sharp. “In fact, everyone in the company is encouraged to make suggestions. We [also] take into account what style of beer people prefer to drink at specific times of the year and try to time our releases accordingly. Summer releases could be more refreshing, lighter and/or fruitier. Fall for many companies would be pumpkin or spiced, although we tend to look to something with a medium body and stay away from those types of flavour profiles. For winter, we look for a more robust styles, such as a porter or stout.”
Most brewers I spoke to follow a more or less similar approach, with the crisper/fruitier beers of spring and summer leading to richer/spicier brews in the fall, which, in turn, usher in the Winter Ales and Barley Wines. Inspiration, however, is a bit more individual.
Customer comments and demands certainly play a role in helping a brewer decide what to try next, but the final call is often more personal.
“I really enjoy cooking as well as brewing,” Vietz reveals. “Therefore, in the brewhouse, as in the kitchen, the secret of success lies in balancing multiple flavours. My goal is always to create a flavourful beer. That’s why when I create a beer I do not use only the typical ingredients normally used for beer, but also … spices, herbs, flowers, fruits, et cetera. The choice and dosage of ingredients is crucial to achieve the harmony that leads to a perfectly balanced and flavourful product.”
If a little experimentation can be a good thing, can too much experimentation take things over the top? There’s been a fair amount of chatter in beer geek circles about brewers who have been judged to have taken it all too far. The result, they claim, is the creation of potions that are hardly even recognizable as beer. Young puts a more positive spin on it all.
“I don’t want to say things have gone too far,” she cautions. “At the end of the day, the nice thing about the craft beer movement is that, as a consumer, your options continue to get greater and greater every single year. So if you’re a puritan, then you can be happy because every year there will be more and more brewers adhering to those traditional styles, digging back into historic recipes to find ways of leaving their own, subtle mark on the tried and true.
If you swing way over to the other side and are interested in experimental things no one has tried before, you have that option as well. It comes down to a balance between the brewmaster’s creative philosophy and what, in the end, the consumer wants. I’d never say there’s something wrong with having all the choices. It’s great for everyone.”
Cheers to that!
Unibroue La Résolution 10% ABV, Quebec ($9)
A limited edition, spiced, dark ale based on a recipe brewmaster Jerry Vietz concocted for his friends. “I wanted to offer my guests a spicy ale with fine bubbles, a rich, persistent head and a full flavourful taste experience,” he says. And by all accounts, he succeeded. Almost black in colour, with forward, fruity/gingery notes supported by toffee and caramel. On the palate, gingersnap (with the 10% ABV adding snap to the snap), fruitcake, and caramel. A touch of sweetness. Perfect balance.
Innis & Gunn Malt Whisky Trail 7.4% ABV, Scotland ($3/330 ml)
The base for this cask-matured beer is a ninety-shilling ale — also known as a “wee heavy.” It was matured in casks sourced from 5 distilleries representing the main distilling regions of Scotland for 30 days prior to blending. Cereal grains, malt, dried fruit, oatmeal, and maple aromas segue into a rich, layered palate that conjures flavours of carrot cake, brown butter, treacle, and toffee. Finishes long and smooth.
Innis & Gunn Canadian Cherrywood Finish 7.4% ABV, Scotland ($3/330 ml)
Both this and the Malt Whisky Trail are personal favourites of Innis & Gunn CEO Dougal Sharp. “Canadian Cherrywood was a challenge to match a really complex malt grist with black Cherrywood and maple syrup in the maturation,” he admits, adding, “The end result was really delicious.” No argument here. Aromas lean toward peachy fruit, buckwheat honey, raisin and maple; flavours suggest liquorice, sultana, maple syrup, caramel, and toasty malt.
Mill St Brewery Dammerung Dunkel 5% ABV, Ontario ($3/330 ml)
Sold as part of Mill Street’s 2014/15 Seasonal Sampler six-pack, this German-style dark lager incorporates 4 types of malt and aromatic German hops. Rich, roasted malt top notes, with dark chocolate and coffee following though. The palate is rich, with smoky/malty nuances, a whisper of bitter chocolate, and toasted dark bread notes. Finishes crisp and dry.
Mill St Brewery A Winter’s Ale 7% ABV, Ontario ($3/330 ml)
Another selection from Mill Street’s 2014/15 Seasonal Sampler six-pack. A traditional English-style “Old Ale” flavoured with honey and spices. Ginger, buckwheat honey, and caramelized brown sugar aromas lead in to a medium-to-full-bodied brew with flavours of baking spice, gingerbread, and honeyed malt. A touch of sweetness can be detected, though the finish is long and dry.
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