The weather in IL is a bit odd for this time of year. Granted, the weather in the midwest is always odd, giving rise to the expression, “You don’t like midwest weather? Wait 5 minutes,” but we generally have an expected pattern. This pattern is being mocked by Mother Nature and she has been giving us 50-degree days throughout January. However, tonight is supposed to give rise to a less-than-punctual Old Man Winter and we might even get some snow. It’s just the type of thing to put me in the mood for more winter/Christmas seasonal beers. Today’s review will be Mikkeller’s Santa’s Little Helper. It’s a Belgian ale whose 10.9% ABV should help me land on the naughty list next year. Let’s pour!
Aroma 12/12: At first it smells as a mild Belgian yeast strain should smell, but even that is behind a lemon citrus. As it sits in the glass, all sort of interesting flavors rise to the surface. Before I describe those any further, let me say that this beer surprised the hell out of me by pouring like a stout! I was expecting some lighter, maybe amber, frou-frou holiday ale that has all the usual starring roles filled by cinnamon, nutmeg, etc, etc. This beer flowed dark from the bottle and even evoked a “What the..?!” from this reviewer. It was not at all what I was expecting, but I digress… back to the aroma. While starting off with the lemon zest and Belgian yeast, two things I definitely didn’t expect to smell in a beer this dark, it quickly turns to its dark roast for the majority of the aroma. The roast is rich and dark, but has an aroma that accompanies it so closely I can’t be sure if it’s part of the roast or not. There is a sweetness to the roast like a rye, but it sometimes mingles with the lemony notes that I can’t put my finger on it whether it IS a rye or just the dark roast mixing with the lemon and perhaps grassy & piney hop characteristics. There is only a hint of alcohol warmth and it is found only during the deepest of inhales. In case you couldn’t tell by the length of this paragraph, this smell’s complexity is only eclipsed by its unique nature. Full marks. I’ve never smelled anything like it.
Appearance 3/3: OK, seriously. How come nobody ever mentioned that this beer is this dark? It genuinely surprised me! This is darker than most recent stouts I’ve had. It’s black to its core and shows only bits a pieces of a coffee brown at the very top of the class. The brown head is giant, light as if it has been whipped, and very creamy. It left tons of ornate lacing. This beer looks dark and amazing.
Flavor 20/20: Oh. My. Dad. It starts a little creamy from some body-enhancing malts and allows one to still catch a glimmer of the Belgian yeast, but crescendos perfectly into an absolute mountain of chocolate malt (the beer ingredient, not the frozen treat). The chocolate isn’t 100% cacao dark -it still allows a creamier milk chocolate texture- but it blends marvelously with the roasted notes and the present-but-not-subtle warmth. The finish is more “roasted chocolate” (roast + chocolate), but with a new, distinct, resinous hop bitter and a brief wash of dark fruit. The mouth is initially left a bit sticky, but as the alcohol and hops have their way, the tongue is left rather dry in the aftertaste and with a slight tingle of warmth. Oh so good!
Mouthfeel 5/5: This beer is ridiculously creamy, but without weighing down the drinker with a huge, thick, heavy body. The carbonation doesn’t foam a lot, just enough to lend a more silky texture to the beer. I should also mention that the carbonation is plentiful, but doesn’t effect the over all composition of the beer. Normally, stouts or other dark beers shy away from higher levels of carbonation to achieve a better beer as a whole. This beer doesn’t shy away from carbonation. It instead embraces it and uses it as a tool to make the beer better. The warmth is used in much the same way and adds a dimension to this beer instead of distracting from it.
Overall Impression 10/10: This beer is right up my alley. Unique taste, aroma is interesting, body and mouthfeel are perfect, and it breaks convention with the norm. This is not your average Belgian Strong Dark Ale! It keeps all the things you love and brings even more to the table. Even more, I love how far it strays from the typical Christmas/winter offerings available from most brewers. It shows creativity, independence, and some damn high quality brewing.
Total 50/50: In case I didn’t gush enough praise earlier, here’s my chance to really heap it on. However, I will do so with one caveat. I checked BeerAdvocate after I finished my review to see if others thought this beer as excellent as I do. They don’t. Thus the subjectivity of taste comes into play. For me this beer has everything I want, roast, chocolate, smokey, sweet, warmth, Belgian hints, dark fruit, great carbonation, and the list goes on…. To be honest, I’m not sure how folks have ranked it so lowly on BeerAdvocate.
I’ve gone through my scores and tried to see if there is a portion where I could remove some points. Perhaps I missed something where this beer could have done better, right? Not for me and my palate. This beer is complex, well-made, tasty as can be, boozy, and with a great mouthfeel. I couldn’t ask for anything more. Now I know what I need to ask for for next Christmas!
Joel R. Kolander is the Cheif Blogger for Sud Savant, a beer-savoring blog for the rest of us. We’re not here to get plowed. We’re not here because we are world-famous beer critics. We’re here because we enjoy savoring a great beer with even better friends. Sharing great beer is just as amazing as finding it in the first place. Lets share!