Wednesday, December 7, 2011

FoodTrek: Holiday Cheers to Winter Beers

The sunny days of summer are long past, replaced with a distinct chill in the air. We're all looking for ways to get cozy and seek out the rich flavors that seem to call out with a rebel yell in the wintery season. We start to think of hot mugs of steaming coffee, bittersweet nibbles of chocolate, and... beer?! Well of course. It's Seattle, after all! Raise a glass and toast the holiday season with a brewski or twoski, as we did at this year's Winter BeerFest.

And lo, unto you I bring you tidings of comfort, joy and delicious beer - Photo by Wasabi Prime

As in previous years, Winter BeerFest was held in the Ballard neighborhood, over at Hale's Palladium, a large event space adjacent to Hale's Ales Brewery. Fitting, no? This festival is especially tuned-in to the Seattle/Northwest vibe, as along with beer, there's a booth set up by Caffe Vita, slinging espresso shots of pure comfort, joy and caffeine to offset the mellowing buzz of beer. There was also a large table full of samples from Theo Chocolate, another local Seattle favorite. They're of the only organic, fair trade chocolatiers in the country, whose sweets are as good as their intentions. They had recommended beer and chocolate pairings, which if you're looking for a unique gift for chocolate and beer lovers, a few bars of Theo chocolate packaged up with some wintery Scotch Ales or smoky Porters would make a really fantastic holiday treat for someone special. This year they had something extra fantastic to add to the mix -- Taylor Shellfish Farms had a table set up, offering freshly shucked Virginica, Shigoku and Olympia oysters, all raised locally, and marvelously good with some of the more crisp hop-heavy beers.

Holiday cheers to Washington beermakers! - Photos by Wasabi Prime

The main event is, of course, the beer itself. Much like how Oktoberfest yields seasonal harvest beers rich in aromatic spices and flush with grains and hops fresh from the fields, winter seasonal beers reflect a style of beer that uses more developed flavors, like malted (partially sprouted) barley, grains that are roasted to get that charred coffee-like flavor, and deep-flavored sugars like molasses. You could say they reflect the flavors that yield from a warming fire on a cold day. It's not to say there is no ubiquitous hoppy IPAs at the festival, there are a few for the hop-head die hards. Most of the beers that are showcased at Winter BeerFest tend to be darker -- you'll find your lion's share of Stouts, Porters and specialty smoked beers. There are holiday-themed beers where they're spiced with things like cinnamon, coriander, ginger and other flavors you'd normally expect to see in a mulled wine. This year had several barrel-aged beers, where they sit in an old whiskey or bourbon barrel, with the beer absorbing some of that added flavor, making a really incredible tasting experience.

Palladium of brewskis - an early moment of calm before the place got totally packed - Photo by Wasabi Prime

I went with the usual Brew Crew, which is to say Mr. Wasabi and several friends who either do their own home brewing, work in the beer industry, or are just super beer nerds who take advantage of any opportunity to fully immerse themselves in yet another beer-tasting adventure. Everyone has their own personal tastes when it comes to beer, which makes for a good way to navigate the many tastings. You won't get through every table, that's just the plain and simple truth. And even if you did, your palate would be completely hosed a third of the way through, as there were many beers with fairly high alcohol by volume numbers, which as the math would have it, leaves one flat-on-their-face drunk. When there's a group of friends who all have personal favorites when it comes to styles, you have tasters who will be attuned to finding the best-in-show samples of winter beers. Mr. Wasabi prefers Doppelbock style beers, which is a malty, rich style of beer developed in Germany by Paulaner Monks in Munich, designed to be drunk during fasts, when they weren't allowed to eat solid food; it's oftend called "liquid bread" or Lent beer. For winter, it's just a good, hearty beer that's stick-to-your-ribs good. One of his notables was the SnowBockalypse by Icicle Brewing Company, from Leavenworth. We had one friend who managed to track down anything close to an IPA or with a generous use of hops, like Wingman Brewers' Ace IPA or 7 Seas Brewing's most LOL-named beer, the Ballz Deep Double IPA. Given our friend's mantra when it comes to beer is for the hops to punch him in the face, he was more than happy to go ballz deep at the festival, so hey, he's got that going for him.

Brewer-designed holiday cheer - Photos by Wasabi Prime 

As for me, I stuck with my winter beer guns -- I prefer the rich, smoky coffee-chocolate notes in Stouts and Porters. One of my favorites was Fremont Brewing Company's Bourbon Abominable Ale, aka the "Bbomb." Which makes me think of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and their punk band Sex Bob-Omb, and that of course makes me smile. Their ale most totally Bbomb-diggity, with a strong wood and vanilla flavor from the aging in 20 year old bourbon barrels, along with a nice chocolate-coffee bitterness. It's not a shy beer, to be sure, and went really nicely with the Theo chcocolates. I also enjoyed Snipes Mountain Brewing's No-Bake-Stout, a nicely well-rounded chocolate oatmeal stout that wasn't gimmicky or fussy, just very well made. I also made a beeline for Black Raven Brewing's Gunpowder Plot Bourbon Nitro Porter, one of the only nitro-poured beers at the festival (at least that I saw), which aside from the really lovely flavors from the bourbon barrel, the pour ensures  the porter has a velvety, creamy texture.

We wish you a Merry-Beer-mas and a Happy Brew Year! - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Overall, the best part of enjoying all these winter beers was the decoration of tables and general sense of holiday cheer. Breweries pulled out all the stops, wearing costumes, creating big holiday displays. They keep a kid-like sense of fun for a grown-up beverage, making this one of the most festive beer events you'll ever have the pleasure of attending.

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