I spent last Friday under unexpectedly clear skies drinking beer at the Holiday Ale Fest. As usual, breweries outdid themselves to spend special beers--big, barrel-aged, spiced, blended. I was there with a group of eight people, which meant we did a pretty good job, collectively, of tasting most beers. Looking back through the list, I see we missed a few, but we did all right. Of all the beers we tried, two were group faves and also my personal faves: Terminal Gravity Festivale and Fort George's Three Wisemen.
Terminal Gravity held back a vintage 2008, so in one way this was special beer. But it wasn't the age that made it special; indeed, while there may have been a very subtle melding of malt flavor, the beer tasted quite fresh. The hops were crisp and sharp. Fort George's imperial stout was also a bit special--it was aged in bourbon, tequila, and rum barrels. But they weren't the reason that beer was so tasty, either. It was just a really fine stout.
There were success all around. Firestone Walker's Wild Merkin was an excellent beer just kissed with tart; Bayern's eisbock was delicious and not at all cloying; Golden Valley's Black Panther, though I had it late in the day, seemed quite deep and resonant; Coalition's Lost Glove, a no-tricks strong ale, is a tongue-pleaser. Oh, and the Hair of the Dog Jims they were serving ('08 and '09) were an absolute steal at two tickets.
But at the end of the day, as my mouth grew tired from spice (which was largely way overdone across the board), sugar, and fruit, I longed for the simple, clarion delights of beer. There is something very elegant and wholly complete about malt, hop, water, and yeast that, when mixed in just the right proportions, require no further adornment to be fully realized.
Update. In comments, Betty reasonably asks: "So, which beers sucked? I heard there were some real clunkers. Would like to hear about the bad as well as the good." A fair question. Bear Republic took the Big Raspberry with Prepare to be Boarded, a beer so saturated in cinnamon and nutmeg you felt violated. From the aroma alone. Crux's Snow Cave seemed to have been brewed with Bavarian weizen yeast--anyway there was lots of indistinct fruitiness that seemed isoamylish. It had a slightly fetid aroma. I have no idea what was going on there. (Crux and Bear Republic are breweries I admire a great deal, too.) Gigantic's offering was not bad, but I was already reeling from spice shock. Same with Speakeasy's spiced porter. Oh, actually, Santa's Little Homo, from Walking Man, was also a catastrophe. Black IPAs clash enough as it is without subjecting them to the further horrors of winter spice.