Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Part 1: A few random Saturnalia notes and observations.

Thanks to all those readers who’ve come by to taste this year’s winter solstice slate of special beers. Opening weekend was slower than expected, and since then, it’s been gratifying, indeed. Empties are piling up in the corridors.

As I’ve mentioned to many, it’s been a frustrating ordering cycle – rather like a yo-yo, with selections available, then unavailable, then back again.

Cases in point: Anchor Christmas Ale (“Merry Christmas & Happy New Year”) and Oaked Arrogant Bastard.

It appeared that none of Anchor's annual spicy, herbal holiday nectar, which is a longtime personal favorite, would be entering Indiana. However, the staff at World Class Beverages beat the bushes and found two kegs. One is on tap now, and another will follow it.

As for the Oaked Arrogant, I’d scratched it entirely and added an unexpected bonus second keg of Stone Double Bastard to the list, but after an e-mail exchange with Stone’s founder and mastermind, Greg Koch, a precious Oaked Arrogant barrel arrived. Sincere thanks to Greg for being the King, and in a benevolent way, and look for the seal to be broken by Friday, December 29.

Some listed selections won’t be coming, and others have reinforcements on the way. It’s crazy, and I hope to have an update by the weekend.

When I was selecting Saturnalia beers, it surprised me to see Hambleton Nightmare Yorkshire Porter available in regular keg form, as opposed to the cask-conditioned variety that we’ve poured at least twice previously since the cask cabinet first came on the Public House scene.

British-brewed ales inevitably, and in my view wrongly, suffer in comparison to American microbrews, especially when the judge is well-disposed toward extreme indigenous stylistic examples.

Consequently, several customers who’ve tried the Hambleton have expressed relative disappointment. They say it’s too light, too mild in alcohol content, too under-carbonated and too delicately flavored … and yes, all these qualities of a good cask Porter are certainly there, just not in sufficient volume to match a fondness for “robust” interpretations stateside.

All right, I know that for $6.75 a pint, perhaps there should be “more” to the beer. Rest assured that I didn’t arrive at the price without a measure of soul searching, but in the end, it represents the customary mark-up based on the wholesale price I must pay. Verily, these beers aren't getting any cheaper.

Staying in the UK, we’ve tasted two Ridgeway ales so far, Lump of Coal (on tap now) and Seriously Bad Elf (first keg gone), and both have been not only good, but considerably better than I remember from previous appearances.

Note that Ridgeway's Santa’s Butt, presumably exhausted after legal challenges and a full evening’s work three nights ago, awaits his turn at bat, and all three have second 6-gallon kegs coming in mid-January.

My last draft Lump of Coal perhaps two years back was a dry Stout that was oddly arid to the point of asphyxiation, and Seriously Bad Elf, from the ever escalating “damned bad elf and getting worse” series, admittedly was good in its last incarnation, but not brilliant. Both had flaws, were a tad cloudy, and seemed perhaps slightly mishandled in transit.

Happily, this year’s versions of both merit high acclaim. They’re bright (i.e., clear) and very fresh tasting. Seeing as the Ridgeway recipes call for heightened versions of traditional English styles, both deliver the flavor one would expect with the added bonus of greater heft. Seriously Bad Elf in particular takes the “winter warmer” formula into Double IPA territory, but without sacrificing the quintessential character (fruity, biscuity malt and classic English hops) of far milder ESB’s and bitter ales.

Think of Samuel Smith Winter Welcome -- with balls.

Coming Thursday: More Saturnalia thoughts.

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