Alicia Fuhrman’s Local Libations: Flight of fancy

  • Will Brock, who is the manager of McLadden's in Northampton, pours a cold weather beer flight Nov. 30. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • This winter beer flight at McLadden's in Northampton includes, from left, Jack's Abby Smoke and Dagger, Unibrau 'A Tout le Monde, Cascade Sang Noir and Founder's Backwoods Bastard. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • McLadden's manager Will Brock pours a cold-weather beer flight. Gazette Staff/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A winter beer flight at McLadden's in Northampton includes, from left, Founder's Backwoods Bastard, Cascade Sang Noir, Unibrau 'A Tout le Monde and Jack's Abby Smoke and Dagger. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Will Brock, who is the manager of McLadden's in Northampton, pours a cold weather beer flight Nov. 30. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Published: 12/1/2016 3:41:23 PM

What makes a December drink? Spice, heat, fruit, chocolate … all of that, sure, but I doubt you were thinking beer.

Thing is, beer can, and does, hit those notes if you simply look past its ballpark reputation.

Brewing remains on an upswing of expansion right now, with countless versions of traditional, experimental and mash-up styles; one-of-a-kind releases; and the genesis of new crops, hops and methods. To call it an exclusive taste, seasonally or otherwise, is simply inaccurate. At least that’s my argument.

But I find that even loyal beer drinkers, those who’d take a craft brew over wine without hesitation, have a consistent winter beer choice: milk stouts and porters, the roasty dark brews that go down like cocoa. Fine enough, but for me, a malt-forward IPA with more toasted grain and a sweetish, crackery finish is just as good (i.e. 21st Amendment Brewery Toaster Pastry) — like campfire s’mores, or maybe gingerbread.

And I got to thinking that preferences here are almost entirely based on association. That if some new associations were made, maybe some overlooked cold-weather beer equivalents could be brought to light. So I headed to the only bar I know in the area with enough variety to give my theory a go: McLadden’s in Northampton, where manager Will Brock helped me narrow 105 taps down to four essential pours. Results as follows:

Unibroue À Tout le Monde. A Belgian-style saison, or farmhouse beer — yeasty, delicate and created as the name suggests, as refreshment for the rural working class. Mild spices (cloves, nutmeg, a little cinnamon?) and a touch of citrus rind form a clean, complex sip that shifts intensity given time and temperature, though never at the cost of that Wonder Bread backbone and light, herbal after-kick. Think of this one like toast and tea.

Artifact May We Have Your Attention, Please. A close-to-home (Springfield) hard cider, remarkable not only for its local devotion (only New England apples!) but in this case especially, its wild swings. Spontaneous fermentation, which lets naturally occurring yeast and bacteria thrive (rather than brewer’s controlled in-house strands) creates a unique kind of dusty sweetness, while a blackcurrant infusion prolongs the juicy sip to a bright, tangy close. Above and beyond any grocery-store gallon.

Founders Backwoods Bastard. This one’s big — a seven-malt Scotch ale kept in bourbon barrels for a year … and what does that aging mean? A double digit ABV (alcohol by volume) for one, plus a flavor experience closer to tasting whiskey: deeply oaked and almost harsh before turning butterysmooth, and lingering like smoke on clothes. Calling it a beer doesn’t seem right, but wasn’t that the point? Drink this next time a hot toddy’s on your mind. Or whenever you’re looking for something new to warm you up.

Cascade Sang Noir. Out of all these, the most singular … a sour, spiced red ale, steeped with wild ripe cherries and aged for two years over red wine oak barrels. Punchy sweetness upfront turns intensely tart at first (more fresh-picked fruit than jam), before balancing somehow into a vinegary finish with a hint of caramelized sugar. Call it mulled wine, or spiked lemonade, or Glögg — call it what you will, as long as you try it.

Note that each of these can be found by the bottle, should you want to sample one outside a complete flight, or perhaps gift a killer four-pack to the craft-beer lover in your life.

Alicia Fuhrman is a writer and bartender, born on the West Coast and raised on the East, living and working in Northampton, for now.

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