Friday Froth: Winter Sky

James Gribbon

We're going to look backwards and forwards this week. We're going to borrow something from November and give thanks for how good we have it, and boost our spirits as we look forward to spring. Our Yankee ancestors made it through bleak winters with barely any fresh food, and in an agrarian economy there wasn't even work to divert their cabin fever. Breaks from the desperate monotony came in the forms of weekly hymns or the occasional cholera outbreak. Well, that may not be strictly true, there was also smallpox, but in addition to smallpox, and considerably more preferable, there was beer. A little brewer ingenuity gave rise to bigger ales with deeper colors and increased potency to hold the cold and dark at bay and transform the winter months from merely bearable to enjoyable. That same tactic works to this day, and this can be found for the next month or so wherever you can find Smuttynose

If the ocean was red instead of green, it would look like Smuttynose Winter Ale somewhere towards the bottom of the light's reach. There are caramel and berries in the all-malt aroma, thanks to the Trappist yeasts used in this special brew. A smokey flavor of toasted malts dominates at first, with mild hops on the back end. I wish I could carry this beer around with me all the time, so that when some southerner or Singaporean expat inquires with ill-hidden disdain however we could make it through all that cold (Gracious!) I could simply hand them the bottle. It's truly a benchmark winter ale, and it's accomplished without the use of spice, which I find to be one of its most likeable traits. It's hearty, you can taste the quality ingredients, it's boozy and satisfyingly quaffable. Look for the bottle with the adorable picture of a 50's-era housewife out in the snow holding what appears to be either boxes of donuts or cartons of cigarettes. It could have gone either way 60 years ago. 

Life is not lived by dark beer alone, though, and a nice hefeweizen is always seasonally appropriate. I recently had one from Widmer which had a mild and unremarkable aroma, but whose light malt flavor immediately sprung to life with orange and grapefruit essences. These profiles are built right into the beer, making a wheel of fruit on the rim optional. This is a very refreshing change of pace from the heavyweight winter ales and barleywines of the season. A very small bitterness comes through as the beer warms and your palate adjusts, like the hops are shouting to you from far away. The color is cloudy and golden, like honey starting to crystallize, and if you squint hard enough with the right kind of eyes, you can almost see spring coming. 

West of Allegany State Park and south of Lake Erie sits Lakewood, NY and Southern Tier Brewery. People in the northeastern U.S. can gaze skyward at night and see the constellation Gemini for a significant portion of the year. The twins Castor and Pollux were the inspiration for the constellation in the western world, and the constellation gave its name to the second generation of human spaceflight in America, the Gemini Program. Gemini replaced the one-man Mercury missions with a pair of astronauts sitting side by side, and developed the technology and techniques which would later land Americans on the Moon during the famous Apollo Program. Twinning can lead to great things, as was the case when Southern Tier brewers decided to mix their Unearthly Imperial IPA and their Hoppe Imperial Extra Pale Ale to create a blended, unfiltered ale they called Gemini. I'll admit: I bought this because I'm a hopeless space nut, and I couldn't resist the floating astronaut on the label (extra-vehicular activity was a Gemini first), but I've been back for more and more since that first time.

Gemini pours a reddish amber with surprising clarity at first, before the suspended yeasts in the bottom half of the 22oz. bottle are disturbed. It leaves a lasting, sticking head, owing to the two kinds of malts and two kinds of wheat in its recipe that start Gemini off with 22º Plato on way to its eventual 10.5% ABV. The aroma is a fog of malt sweetness and Amarillo hop funk. The flavor is complex: barley malts are buried down deep in the mix, with the brighter wheat profile lending an Earthy tone to the beer, coupled with pungent Cascade, Colombia and Chinook hops, three of the six different hop varieties included in the blend. It's a remarkable work from skilled brewers, and I'd suggest looking for some Gemini soon: it had a limited release this January, and I'm personally buying all of it I can find. I started fiending for some in the midst of writing this piece, noticed it was already after 8:30 at night, and left Marty McFly-style flaming tracks on my way to the store whereupon I bought the last bottle. I am not kidding. I'm making my serious face and everything. 

From huddling in cold log cabins under candle light to floating in space amongst starlight, we've come a long way. So step outside on a clear night with a cold glass of brew in your hand and look to the left of Orion, hoist a toast to those twin stars, and give thanks to those who walked this Earth before us: we couldn't have walked off it without them.