To the delight of Bellingham beer enthusiasts and oenophiles alike, Elizabeth Station opened in March 2012. This combination bottle shop, wine specialty store, convenience store, and soup/sandwich/cereal bar has something for everyone. A welcoming atmosphere, convenient location, and huge selection of beers, ciders and wines—sourced from near and far—made Elizabeth Station a hit from day one.
On a crisp December evening—appropriately, Prohibition Repeal Day—I had the good fortune to attend Elizabeth Station’s winter/holiday beer tasting. Our group of about a dozen eager students was guided through a selection of regional and international beers by two well-known local brewers and certified beer judges, Dave Morales and Chris McClanahan. We learned some excellent beer tasting tips, which of course I’ll share with you!
Our fearless leaders reminded us to not be shy about sharing what we might smell or taste in the beers we were about to try. From malt to hops, citrus to spice, dried fruit to clover, each taster will find something different in the layers of flavors.
The objective was to help us determine what our palates are telling us, which is easier in a group setting (especially one led by experts). As Dave said, “We don’t always taste something until someone else points it out. That’s how we build our palates.”
On to the tasting:
First up was Shiner Holiday Cheer, from Spotezl Brewery in Shiner, Texas. This old world dunkelweizen (dark wheat) ale is flavored with peaches and roasted pecans, at 5.4% alcohol by volume (ABV). We first took a big whiff, which (as advertised) was quite peachy on the nose. And yes, a few of us picked up a subtle pecan taste after a sip or two. For a winter beer, the Shiner Holiday Cheer was quite light. In fact, the group agreed it would make a nice holiday patio beer, if we were in Houston’s heat, instead of Bellingham’s winter chill.
Next we tasted Green Flash Brewing Company’s (San Diego) Barleywine style ale. My first sniff yielded plenty of hops, along with orange peel and tangerine. This American-style barleywine is a true “hop bomb.” Neutral yeast allows the hops to come through on the nose and on the palate, without overshadowing the malt. With my first sip, caramel came through, while others tasted butterscotch and even a little grapefruit. Chris explained that the buttery caramel flavor comes from a four-hour boil, compared to the typical hour and a half boil for most brews. At 10.9% ABV, Green Flash Brewing’s is an ideal barleywine to lay down for a few years. A little patience can yield a whole new experience, as the flavors develop over time.
For contrast, we next tasted a barleywine brewed in the English style: Old Ruffian, by Great Divide Brewing Co. out of Denver. Compared to the hop-forward American style, this 10.2% ABV barleywine promised an earthier flavor, with softer hops to keep the bitterness down and English yeast to accentuate the malt. Indeed, we all detected more malt than hops on the nose, and upon tasting, discovered some lovely dried fig and date notes, reminiscent of port. Old Ruffian is one smooth, delicious barleywine that had me wishing for a fireplace and a good book. And to go with it? “I’d add a nice Stilton or dark chocolate,” said Chris.
Tasting tip: Try a vertical tasting. When you find a favorite big (high gravity) beer, buy two: one to drink now, and one to put away. Do this over a number of years, and when you have three, four or more, open each and taste how the flavor deepens and develops over the years. Hoppiness gives way to mellow smoothness, while complexity builds and sweetness is revealed.
Next up was Santa’s Little Helper, an Imperial Stout from Port Brewing Co. in San Marcos, Calif. “Imperial” denotes a stronger, richer and more robust ale—with a higher alcohol content. Back in the early 18th century, these elements helped the Russian czar’s favorite stout make the long journey from England to Russia without spoiling. So, like all Imperial Stouts, Santa’s Little Helper is deliberately hop intense, with dark roasted malts; it poured almost like motor oil. Among the group, first aromas ranged from cherry to bacon. As we tasted, hints of chocolate, espresso, peppermint and spearmint came up. It’s definitely a complex brew! But be warned: at 10.5% ABV, some refer to this one as “Santa’s Little Hangover.” Chris and Dave recommend enjoying it (in moderation, of course) with dark chocolate, cheesecake or mixed into chocolate cake batter.
Finally, since Belgian is the favorite style of our two beer gurus, we had to taste at least one. They chose St. Bernardus Christmas Ale—dark, strong and a little bit exotic, from the Flanders region of Belgium. As the name indicates, it’s brewed just once a year. We found it to be rich and complex, with layers of flavor. Aromas ranged from oatmeal and brown sugar to marshmallow and bubble gum, which Chris said is “a classic byproduct of Belgian yeast.” My first taste provided a creamy mouth feel and rich caramel flavor. Others tasted cherry, ripe banana, raisin and fig. The more I tasted, the more I liked it. Each sip grew on the previous one, and I imagined that a 750 ml. bottle could quickly disappear. We all agreed St. Bernardus Christmas Ale would easily warm a cold winter night, and go well with everything from banana bread to pulled pork.
5 Beer Tasting Tips
from the Elizabeth Station winter beer tasting:
- Beer pairs with food just as well as wine does. (Maybe even better!)
- The more beer you taste, the more you’ll develop your palate.
- Tasting is better in a group, so invite your friends!
- Winter beers are strong. Designate a driver, call a cab or walk home.
- You can find everything we tasted—and so much more—at Elizabeth Station.
Some folks associate beer with summer, baseball and barbecues. But if you’re a fan of craft brews, you should consider expanding your horizons and curling up with a few of these amazing, warming winter ales. After all, here in Whatcom County, we have plenty of dark, chilly evenings ahead!
1400 W. Holly St., Bellingham, WA 98225
360-733-8982 Hours: 9:00 a.m. – midnight every day