December 29, 2011

What Ales You: Uncork a great beer to toast in the new year

By TOM ATWELL

It's traditional to pop a cork of Champagne -- the real stuff, from the Champagne district of France -- or other good sparkling wine at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve. 

Allagash Curieux, with 11 percent alcohol, is aged in bourbon barrels.

Courtesy photo

But real Champagne begins at about $20 -- if you find a bargain -- and you are well into three figures if you want Veuve Clicquot's Grand Dame, Perrier Jouet's Fleur de Champagne or Dom Perignon.

The Great Recession may be officially over, but the climb from its depths has been slow. So it's time to drink beer instead of Champagne.

Not any beer, though. It has to be a special beer, a great beer.

And to keep up with the New Year's Eve tradition, I am going to recommend only beers with cork stoppers similar to the ones on Champagne. The most expensive 750-milliliter beers seldom cost more than $20, and for that $20, you get some of the best beer in the world.

Being in Portland, the beer that most fits the category is Allagash. Almost all of the Allagash beers except for Allagash White are found in 750-milliliter bottles stopped with a real cork.

Curieux, an ale with 11 percent alcohol aged in bourbon barrels, is the first Allagash that comes to mind. It's available year-round, it's won all sorts of awards, and Allagash sells as much of it as it can make. The cloudy, golden color would be nice for a midnight toast.

But if you want to stay a bit closer to the wine tradition, drink either Victoria or Victor, both at 9 percent alcohol. Victoria includes chardonnay grapes in the mix, and part of the proceeds benefit Victoria Mansion, while Victor has cabernet franc grapes, with part of the proceeds benefiting St. Lawrence Performing Arts Center.

My personal favorite is Allagash Black, a wonderful Belgian stout at 7.5 percent alcohol, but I have yet to try the entire Allagash line. Most of the top-line Maine beer stores have an Allagash display, so all you have to do is read the descriptions and pick the one that sounds best to you.

At Oak Hill Beverage in Scarborough, Allagash prices ranged from $7.50 for Dubbel and $8.30 for Black to $21 for Interlude.

I saw Infinium, Boston Beer Co.'s collaboration with the Bavarian brewer Weihenstephan, on the shelves at Le Roux Kitchen a couple of weeks ago, and it would be another good choice for New Year's Eve.

While the ale, at 10.3 percent alcohol, meets the German purity laws for beer, it looks and pours very much like a Champagne, and pours best into Champagne flutes. This is a nice, slightly sweet beer that I liked quite a bit last year, but I have yet to have any of this year's batch.

I recently talked with Phil Gaven at the Honey Exchange on Stevens Avenue in Portland about beers with honey in them (this will be the subject of a future column when I have time to do some tasting), and while talking with him, I saw two beers that fit the New Year's category.

Old Danish Braggot, brewed with honey and ginger from a recipe dating to 1700, comes in at 10.1 percent alcohol and costs $16. Brooklyn Brewery's Local 2, at $8.50 and with 9 percent alcohol, has raw wildflower honey and Belgian dark sugar.

Oak Hill had two other beers from Brooklyn -- Local 1 at $7.30 and Black Ops, which was priced closer to $20. I have really liked the Brooklyn beers, but have not had any of these.

All of the Ommegang beers that I wrote about in November fit the category, and Oak Hill had those available for $6 to $8. They also had Ommegang's Biere de Mars, which I had never heard of, so I bought it. It costs $11, and is brewed with Brettanomyces Bruxellensis yeast, a wild Belgian yeast that adds a tartness/sourness to ale that you either love or hate. I will taste it sometime over the New Year's weekend and give you a report.

Touring Oak Hill Beverage to research this column, I was surprised by how many beers have Champagne-style corks. 

Beers from Unibroue are about $7, Sierra Nevada's Ovila line of Saison and Abbey ales were $11, and the Samuel Adams Barrel Room Collection were about $10.

It's amazing how many of these beers I have never tasted. It is going to be a busy new year.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

tomatwell@me.com

 

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