Sud Savant: Homebrew Submission #1 – Winter Dark Ale

Hey everybody! Today’s review will not be the first homebrew that I’ve ever reviewed, but it will be the first one submitted to me for just such a purpose. I could get used to this. There’s no “brewery” name nor even a name for the beer, but it has been enthusiastically made by someone that enjoys beer enough to brew it themselves and that says something about one’s initiation, their dedication to the craft, and also to the finer things. Thanks to my buddy Jim for ponying up 12 oz. of something he put his elbow grease into. The only information that I have on this beer is that it is a “dark winter ale.” Shall we see what homebrewing prowess awaits us? Let’s pour!

Aroma 9/12: True to style and nicely so. This is a dark, malt-centered beer that has a healthy amount of dark fruit aromas. Raisins and fig are easy to discern and are often a welcome addition to a nice dark beer. Spices are next and, thankfully, avoid the pitfall of overwhelming everything in their path. This is lightly spiced with nutmeg and a distant clove note. An additional sweetness also comes through that cannot be attributed to the dark fruit flavors. The nearest I can come to describing it is Belgian candi sugar.

Reviewer Confesstion: All the previous sentences in the “Aroma” category were written while the beer was still relatively chilled. Upon warming, the beer opens up and releases what I will at this time describe as a banana aroma. Normally, I would associate this with Belgian yeast, but that would be a bit unusual for the style. I question myself. “Maybe it’s the ripening bananas in the next room? Naw, your nose isn’t that sensitive. Maybe it’s that your nose is a little stuffy? I don’t think so. That’s never caused ‘aroma hallucinations’ before.” I can’t deny what I find, but right now this seems to be shaping up to be a Belgian Strong and less like a traditional winter ale. Not that I’m complaining mind you… The latecomer aroma steals the show, but still lets the previous aromas maintain a supporting role. Even later still this aroma disappears completely.

Appearance 3/3: This poured much darker than I anticipated, especially for the style. Most winter warmers and seasonals are a nice chestnut or maduro brown. This brew, on the other hand, pours almost black. When held to light only a brave few magenta glints show through the darkness. It’s not as black as say some top end stouts, but definitely more than a winter ale requires. A nice surprise! The head was the only weak part of the appearance. It rose to less than a finger in height and then settled quickly as a almond colored ring around the circumference.

Flavor 16/20: The brew had set some pretty high expectations with the prior two categories, but doesn’t quite match them in the flavor. Far from saying that this is a bad brew, but it doesn’t capture all the exciting nuances of the aroma. After smelling, I would’ve expected lots of dark fruits, maybe a faint hint of warmth, perhaps some Belgian yeasty goodness, and all the sweetness that these things bring. The beer instead introduces itself with darkly roasted malts, a light bitterness that one would associate with that, and a very distant hint of the dark fruits detected in the aroma. The fruit flavors consist mostly of the flavor without the often associated sweetness. None of the spice from the aroma is to be found. The small amount of sweetness that does exist is nutlike behind the roast/bitter combo, but gives the idea of what this beer is trying to achieve. The finish is a continuation of the nutty bitter, but eventually settles into combination of dark roasted malt and an appropriate bitter.

Mouthfeel 4/5: This has a very light mouthfeel in general and especially after considering the style. Either the style listed (winter dark ale) or the style alluded to by the aroma would require a more substantial body. Going by the style given, it would require a full-bodied, richer brew that also might not be afraid to be a little boozy. Instead, this drinks like a nut brown ale in its body. If the carbonation were a bit higher, it would be easy to confuse the two. The bubbles of this beer would be perfect for a big, ol’ winter ale by offering only the slightest of textures toward the end of the glass. This is a unexpected find of light, mouth-watering, refreshing brown ale, in what would normally be a more sturdy beer. For those who like winter ale flavors, but not a big, heavy body (or booze) this would be ideal.

Overall Impression 7/10: This is a hard beer to score! It misses some major marks of its intended style, but picks up another style in the process. If I were guessing based solely on flavor, I’d say a nut brown ale with some subtle complexities. If I were taking a blind guess at this beer based on the aroma, I’d tell you a lighter version of a Belgian strong. Another guess on mouthfeel would point me again toward a smooth brown ale. On top of all this the beer remains remarkably drinkable. I’d be more at home downing a few of these after raking some leaves in the fall than quaffing one with company in front of a winter-time fire.

Total 39/50: Does either one of the seasonal activities I mentioned in the previous sentence sound bad? No. Neither is this beer. Just because I gripe on and on about how it misses its style, it still turned into a beer that I’d drink anytime. In fact, with more carbonation this would easily be an above-average nut brown ale. Note: This may be the only time I’ve mentioned a home brew being under carbonated. If I am to consider this a nut brown ale, then I must give extra credit for having an aroma that far exceeds that style. Also, this batch is pretty early in this particular brewer’s career number of batches. It’s encouraging to see this early effort nailing some things that more experienced home brewers miss regularly. Cheers to you, sir, and thanks for the bottle! You’re brewing better beer than I am.

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!