Tuesday, December 21, 2010

beer review: guest post from EDW!

EDW here with another booze post.

Christmastime means many things, and for beer drinkers in Western North Carolina, it's a time for seasonal offerings from local breweries. King of the land is Cold Mountain Winter Ale from Highland Brewing Company. Back in the day (early 2000s), it was the stuff of legend, sliding into Asheville in late November and disappearing seemingly within days. Highland's regular beers were available year round in grocery stores and restaurants throughout the area, but unless you were willing to descend on the city for a taste of the limited edition brew, you were out of luck. I wasn't of legal drinking age at the time, but I could dream.

The first time I had a pint was in December '06 at Jason's Main St. Grill in Brevard. Various Brevard High alumni had organized a holiday get-together and a good number of us wound up staying until last call. At the bar for my first drink of the evening, I was shocked to see Cold Mountain on tap. How did it get out of Asheville? Did the brewery know of the renegade keg? I made my order and was not disappointed. It was Christmas in a cup, as Sarah has come to call it. It was dark, but not too dark; hoppy, but not in an overpowering IPA way. I tasted hints of cinnamon, chocolate, and the culinary equivalent of a holiday air freshener. (I promise you that's a good thing.)

All of that was when Highland was still primarily a small time outfit, operating under Barley's Taproom on Biltmore Ave. Two or three years ago, they moved into a larger building and their production likewise expanded. Need proof? 22oz-ers made it out to the Daily Grind & Wine in Andrews, NC, in '08 (and were promptly purchased by this gobsmacked writer) and a sufficient supply of 12-packs hit the Murphy Ingles the next year. I stocked up the last two years and served chilled bottles for guests and on special occasions. Each batch is slightly different, but I couldn't taste much of a difference. It was still that chocolatey, cinnamony, hoppy, nutmeggy(?) flavor that I loved.

In November, Highland had a pouring party at their HQ to celebrate the debut of the 2010 variety. Sarah knows my affinity for the brew (she's also a fan), and agreed to go check it out. We each got a glass and tipped 'em back. I frowned. It tasted hoppy but watery, barely reminiscent of previous incarnations and what flavor there was faded quickly. Maybe it was the location: was it as cold as it would be at a bar? (The frigid name is important to me, even if it's in reference to the landmass.) Maybe it was the tap itself: I'd had exclusively bottles for the past two years, and the freshness of a keg could make a big difference. The taste improved slightly in the middle third (had it settled?), but still felt weak. Sarah said my expectations for Cold Mountain might be too high and that if my current beverage had another name, I might like it. I wasn't convinced, but was far from giving up.
I tried it again a few weeks later at Barley's and two pints couldn't change my mind. It was time for the bottles.
With the help of a 12oz-er from my dad, I set up a comparison of this year's batch with last year's, thanks to one of a few remaining bottles from last year. As with the Yuengling Light commercial, an instant difference is evident. 2010 looks like a light amber beer while 2009 is significantly darker and cloudier. And the taste? No contest. 2009 has everything I love about Cold Mountain and has remained flavorful even if it probably should have been consumed months ago.
It makes sense that Highland wants to make each year's Cold Mountain unique and that many beer drinkers look forward to guessing the new tweaks implemented by the brewers. I guess I'm not one of those consumers. I like Cold Mountain to be fairly consistent from batch to batch and to deliver the Christmasy flavor that I've come to expect. If it's going to be this watered down business, I'll stick with Highland's Black Mocha Stout or Samuel Adams' Chocolate Bock.

Better luck next year.

***Sarah's comments: I like both years (the shot glass portions were mine in the taste test), but I can definitely taste a difference. 2009's is a stand alone beer to me-- you want to drink it by itself, and really enjoy it. 2010's is a better beer for a meal, since the flavors are more subtle. If you can find some Cold Mountain where you live, I still say go ahead and try it. While you're at it, grab a bottle of this year's Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau, Edy's special edition egg nog and Edy's special edition peppermint ice creams. You can make like the Arnaudins and savor the specialties of the season. I hope you like it. He made it.***

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