- Ron Bechtol
Partial to pale pink rosé in winter? Go for it. Find yourself jonesing for bruiser-big cabernets in July? Bottoms up! Feel free, for that matter, to ignore seasons altogether — with the possible exception of tasteless tomatoes in December; next-day global shipping, for all its problematic carbon footprint, has made it possible for us to have what we want whenever we want it.
But there are also times when seasonality is to be celebrated — those first strawberries of spring, for example. Fall pumpkins apart (please), brewers have long conformed to seasonal strictures. According to craftbeer.com, “Prior to the advent of electricity, necessity dictated that brewing be relegated to certain times of the year. Access to ingredients and the need for nature to provide adequate brewing and lagering temperatures demanded that brewing was done in either the spring — where beers could be aged, or lagered [for release Oat Oktoberfest and beyond], often in caves allowing for temperature control despite the weather above ground — or fall, when the cooling weather and the end of the harvest brought ample ingredients and time to brew.” For a time, brewers in Germany were expressly forbidden to make beer in summer due in part to the unpredictability of hot-weather fermentation.
What does this all mean to the beer-curious of today? With the rise of small-batch craft brewers able to move more flexibly between styles, the appearance of fall and winter beers, specific to the brisker days, can once again be anticipated. Roaring fire not required.
Alamo Brewing made its mark with Golden Ale, and even its designated seasonal offerings are on the lighter side — not that the TricenteniALE, with its “rich English malts” couldn’t work on a crisp fall’s day in SA. The Holiday IPA gave me mostly hops, however. But if you want to experience Alamo at its deepest darkest, and wintriest, head instead to The Basement Series and Horchata Porter. The name suggests rice and cinnamon, and there are certainly whiffs of both cinnamon bark spiciness and pine wreath on the nose. On the palate, chocolate stands off against floral notes, among them lavender, that are likely a result of the East Kent golden hops. This is a beer with definite attitude; there’s no denying it wasn’t going for Christmas in the Caribbean. 202 Lamar St., (210) 872-5589, alamobeer.com.
The ‘tender at Blue Star Brewing, the city’s longest-operating craft brewery, suggested I try Spire Stout, Doppelbock and Wheathead. I managed two out of three. The Spire is a nitro-delivered stout, and the creaminess that results doesn’t quite get to eggnog consistency, but does suggest celebration. Otherwise, the deep color might lead you to expect a denser beer than this is; it’s toasty but far from heavy and the final impression is of a lingering bitterness. The Doppelbock is a bit of a bludgeon, though a gentlemanly one, in comparison. (At 7.5 percent, it’s also more aggressive in alcohol.) The malts are big and boast of molasses, there’s a slightly sour component, and the mouthfeel is dense and almost chewy. The whole thing suggests peaty fires, damp dogs and cashmere throws all in one. 1414 S. Alamo St., Suite 105, (210) 212-5506, bluestarbrewing.com.
Dorcol Distilling + Brewing Co.’s HighWheel beer line, available at the distillery/brewery and at outlets such as The Hoppy Monk, Still Golden and 1919, is currently being fleshed out to 10 selections in anticipation of the distillery’s fifth anniversary on December 15. Brewer Randy Ward has produced some seasonal suds from the get-go, however. Though his deep mahogany porter is balanced enough between malts and hops to drink year ‘round, it does speak of tailgates, touchdowns and freshly cracked walnuts. Roasting chestnuts are more the thing with the chewy, malty Irish Red that offers up molasses, raisins, toast and a hint of coffee bean.
Ward’s Dunkelweizen is a Bavarian wheat ale, dark on the density scale and perfumed with prune, gingerbread and blackstrap molasses — what pumpkin spice wants to be but never achieves. His Black Kolsch plays sexy Veronica to the blonde Betty, the company’s first, and still most popular, beer. It somehow manages to be both dark and bright. And the barrel-aged oatmeal stout, being released on that fifth anniversary, has spent three months in five year-old sherry barrels from Cruz de Comal that subsequently housed Kinsman rakia for two years. The barrels fortify an already complex flavor profile, including chocolate and coffee that was only amplified with an additional nine months cellaring after leaving the barrel. Ward says the added oatmeal contributes to enhanced mouthfeel, and indeed it does. 1902 S. Flores St., (210) 229-0607, dorcolspirits.com.
- Ron Bechtol
At Freetail Brewing Co.’s S. Presa location, the on-tap count is an impressive 13 offerings, many of which fall neatly into the seasonal slot. My server suggested a flight of four. Wanting the darker two selections to warm up a bit over tap temp, I started with, and lingered over, the Inbox Zero Is A Myth That Makes You A Prisoner To Your Desk: the name is more complex than the beer — which doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. It gets multiple dosings of hops at different stages, including dry-hopping, shows some of that influence on the nose, along with citrus peel, and comes across slightly bitter on the tongue with a little floral influence. I could see this with sage-scented turkey dressing. The Texicali Brown Ale had just been released the first week of November, and a little warming didn’t hurt it either, only emphasizing a malty nose with chocolate, coffee and toffee. Good with, and in, chili, claimed said server.
If seriously, sensationally big beers are your thing, do not pass up both this year’s La Muerta and last year’s (2017) matured in whiskey and port barrels. They both suggest pairing with roast beef, peppery sausages and deeply glazed ham — or just contemplating their similarities and differences with a good cigar. The 2018 Muerta, an Imperial Stout, boasts 8.5 ABV (alcohol by volume), and though it’s more of a boxing glove than a hammer, it flaunts bigness in everything but bitterness — though there is some of that to balance out the pomegranate molasses. Death is only improved by aging; the 2017 may be higher in alcohol at 9.9 ABV, but the sweetness of the port and the slight vanilla of the whiskey barrels combine to offer a more complex brew. Think fruitcake (no, really), chocolate mousse, dried figs and Dickens. 2000 S. Presa St., (210) 395-4974, freetailbrewing.com.
Oktoberfest is the classic release time for both inhibitions and German fall beers, and it’s only logical that it should have been celebrated in style at Künstler Brewing, one of the city’s newer craft operations. Vera Deckard, brewer and co-owner, has German roots but is hardly a stickler when it comes to the famous 1516 German beer purity law (only water, barley hops and later, yeast, were allowed to be used): she flouts it at every turn. She suggested four of her beers to taste with the season in mind. Saint Chapelle, a Belgian Triple with both wheat and oats, conjured the kicking-through-dry-leaves spice of a bright fall day. Candy apple tastes appeared, but the finish was dry.
I wasn’t initially a fan of the Dieter Dunkel; it looked way more intense than it showed. But a little warming allowed bread, pumpkin pie spice and a whiff of mocha to emerge. The actual Mokka, a milk stout, revealed its hand of coffee and cacao right upfront. Toss a little leafy tobacco into the mix, and you have a brew to keep winter winds at bay. I didn’t expect to be impressed by the farmhouse ale that is Deckard’s The Northman, but it had me at aromas of citrus peel, yeast and hops. The body, too, was more voluptuous than the hazy golden straw color implied. This one would carry you through an entire turkey dinner — up to, but maybe not including, dessert. Deckard says she’ll have a barleywine (despite the name, it’s actually a beer, one that’s typically thick, intense and alcoholic) ready for Christmas. This one should be worth returning for. 302 E. Lachapelle St., (210) 688-4519, kuenstlerbrewing.com.
Ranger Creek’s TJ Miller took some time out to take me through a trio of his seasonals before hosting a group tour of the brewstillery on a blustery Saturday afternoon, the weather a perfect showcase for his just-released Sunday Morning Coming Down. Based on a British brown ale, Sunday Morning “took six months to R&D,” according to Miller. Its subtle coffee notes come from remarkably small amounts of cold-brewed coffee added toward the end of the production process, a touch of dried lactose adds “creamy” components, and the result is the best expression of a coffee brew currently on tap (and in cans) locally. It will be around until mid-February. Have one now for breakfast, “one more for dessert” and thank Kris and Johnny for the inspiration.
Ranger Creek’s Imperial Red will appear sometime after Thanksgiving. Part of the barrel-aged series, and based on their Red Headed Stranger, no longer in retail distribution, it sees three months mostly in RC’s own bourbon barrels. The initial hit is of sweet and roasty caramel with molasses coming along for the ride later. There’s a certain appealing “thickness” to the mouthfeel, but at 11.9 percent even Miller says, “I might drink one glass.” Maybe before moving on to the only slightly less lethal Russian Imperial Stout, another brew betraying its time in bourbon barrels with aromas of toasty wood, vanilla and raisin. It weighs in at a regal 10.64 percent, is almost dauntingly opaque, and yet it’s far from heavy seeming, maybe due to a nicely balanced hoppiness. Yes, let both of these warm up before chugging down. “At least 10 minutes out of the fridge,” says Miller. Even more doesn’t hurt. 4834 Whirlwind Drive, (210) 339-2282, drinkrangercreek.com.
Not only is Roadmap Brewing Co. the newest game in town, but its brewer and part owner is likely the youngest. “I’m the only brewer who still gets carded,” has said 27 year-old (and 17-looking) Dustin Baker — this according to a usually reliable source. Baker isn’t doing any releases specifically for the season, though he does rotate taps regularly because, as he admitted, “I get bored.” But there’s more than enough in the 12-beer lineup to fit falling temperatures, and apparently patrons agree: the promising Ja-Lop-Ah-No jalapeño milk stout was sold out the early November evening I appeared. Nothing to do but start with the Smucker’s Night Out Raspberry Saison. And, in the Belgian tradition of brewing strongly fruit-flavored beers in early fall, it’s a mouthful. Fans of smothering toast (or biscuits — this is the south) in jam will appreciate the full-bore fruit flavor; maybe think of it as, not with, dessert. Blackberry is up next.
Roadmap’s Wake Up Call coffee milk stout is equally uncompromising. Baker says he’d serve it with Sunday brunch if that were legal. There’s a little toasty malt in this one, but coffee otherwise dominates. The Craven Cottage English Pub ale gets its coffee and chocolate notes more naturally from the malts, I’d venture. It’s a pretty toffee color suggestive of fall foliage — if we had that sort of thing hereabouts, and it finishes with just the merest touch of bitterness to send you out into the nippiness of November. 723 N. Alamo St., (210) 254-9962, roadmapbrewing.com.
- Ron Bechtol
Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery’s brewing apparatus is the most atmospheric of Suds City’s setups — arguably steampunk in style, but certainly high design no matter what you call it. Brewmaster Les Locke presides over an impressive battery of taps with evocative names and equally expressive profiles. The bar’s brewtender picked four for me to sample on another of those nippy nights. First up was the lament for a lost cause, the Beeto 4 TX. Yes, there were beets — actual purée, I was told.
And, perhaps like Texas, the color was faintly purple. There was a touch of understandable bitterness at the finish. But in between, it was a bright, bracing, upbeat brew — moderately hopped up and with a touch of minerality. Locke’s Fresh to Death Marzen was enveloping in the manner of a fur throw (faux fur, of course): warming, malt-forward without being chocolatey, and exhibiting a hint of wildflower honey with time. Et Tu Brut, in contrast, was almost Champagne-like in style as the brut, in this case, refers to the beer’s “complete attenuation,” or brewing until all sugars have been converted to alcohol for a creamy dry finish. A whisper of grapefruit peel sealed the deal.
Oso Bay Oyster Stout, I was surprised to learn, does contain actual oysters — or at least the shells. This makes total sense at Southerleigh, especially with the opening of the new oyster bar. And it works in the beer — not that any oyster brininess actually makes its way into the final product.
As a parting shot, let me mention this mantra one more time: let your dark beers warm a little to get the full picture. In Oso’s case, chocolate and coffee get more cortado-like with time, without losing that essential cacao-nib bite. The beer is now warming you, a great case of give a little, get a lot. 136 E. Grayson St., (210) 455-5701, southerleigh.com.
Weathered Souls Fans of wild card brews should pay attention to Marcus Baskerville's creations at WS. A recent visit welcomed a variety of limited releases including the I'm In Love with the Coco, a barrel-aged imperial stout that packed a punch of flavors and the season appropriate Sweet Ginger Brown, an imperial oatmeal stout laden with allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, molasses, and vanilla beans. Make it your beer of choice when building that gingerbread house this season. 606 Embassy Oaks, Suite 500, (210) 313-8796, weatheredsouls.beer.
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