Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Left Hand Snowbound Winter Ale review

Left Hand Snowbound Winter AleTime for one last Winter ale. I saw this bottle looking lonely in the cooler and thought that it shouldn't go to waste so I picked it up. I like the brews from Left Hand Brewing Company and felt inclined to try one of their holiday beers. While it might not exactly be a holiday, it is on the edge of my Spring Break vacation and it's expected to snow a bit tomorrow so why not. Today's brew is the Snowbound Winter Ale.

Even before opening this 22 oz bomber bottle I know that I'm going to be in for a feast of spices in this brew. The label states it's ingredients right up front: Honey, Orange Zest, Ginger, Cinnamon, Cloves and Cardamom, not to mention the usual malts, water, hops and yeast. This was going to be a big beer as well as it comes in at 8.6% ABV.

I knew up front this was going to be a combination of taste sensations with a kick. I opened the bottle and immediately was hit with a big spicy aroma. Woah. Now there was some spices I had never encountered together before. I've had winter ales in the past but nothing like this.

I wondered what exactly Cardamom spice was. I looked it up on an internet spice store. It's used primarily in India and is the dried, unripened fruit of a plant that is known to be slightly pungent. Pungent is probably the right word here. Another spice, cloves, is made from aromatic dried flower buds. It seems that Left Hand wanted to give your nose a present with this holiday ale. Combined with all of the other spices, it smells like a holiday kitchen coming to life. You can smell a bit of hops, but at just 16 IBU, you knew that it wasn't the hops that were going to dominate this sampling. It had a slightly sweet aroma as well from the honey and crystal and chocolate malts that were added.

The brew pours a medium brown or darkish amber with a small tan head. The head doesn't last long and quickly dissolves into a tiny but lasting bead. There was a decent amount of carbonation going on but not overly so. It was hard to imagine from the aroma just what kind of taste you were going to get. The first taste hit the tip of my tongue sharply with spiciness. Woah. This is a garden load of spice here, in fact almost overwhelmingly so. It almost reminds me of rubbing sage brush between my hands and smelling it on my palms. The malts don't stand out at first but rather hit you much later in the sampling. You can detect a bit of caramel malt but most noticeably are the spices. Being a high alcohol beer, you do notice a bit of an alcohol bite going down as well. It tends to warm your throat and chest as it goes down.

This beer also has a dry floral / herbal finish. You can't hide the big dose of spices in this beer. Quite unique to put it mildly. The bitterness of this beer comes from the spices, not the hops. It almost reminds me of the nutmeg smell you get just before drinking a spiked egg nog. This is definitely a cold weather beer. I doubt anyone would want to drink this beer in warm weather as it just doesn't seem like a thirst quencher by no means. Wow. It's intense as a spiced beer can get. I don't believe I'd be able to drink more than one glass of this. A 22 oz bomber seems a bit much to want to finish.

I think it would have been funny to take a picture of me tasting this beer for the first time. My face tended to pucker up a bit due to the powerful spicy hit. In order to taste the malts more, you need to hold your nose to avoid the huge aroma this beer give off. My oh my Left Hand, you must have really been in a good holiday mood when you brewed this beer. Strangely enough, this beer used to be called XXXmas Ale prior to 2006. The recipe has slightly changed since then as the alcohol level is a bit higher and the hop combo has changed from Northern Brewer over to Magnum and Czech Saaz.

The beer rating sites seemed to like this brew well enough. Ratebeer gave it a 72nd percentile and a 3.32 / 5 rating, while BeerAdvocate gave it a solid "B". Me, I'm slightly mixed on my review. While Left Hand certainly did a heck of a job getting a brew to mix well with so many spices, it almost leaves me wishing I could scoop out half of them just so I could taste the malt a bit more. Compared to a Sam Adam's holiday beer, this one is much more intense and higher in alcohol.

Save this beer for just before you go outside for a sleigh ride. It's good but a bit overwhelming on the spices. I couldn't drink two of these and I'd probably not buy it again. So unfortunately, I'm going to give this a 2.8 out of 5 rating and give you a caution sign on this one. If you like spiced beer, you'll love all the range of flavors this gives but be prepared to be hit hard.

Update: As of 2009, Left Hand is no longer brewing Snowbound. Instead, they have come out with their new Fade to Black, a big foreign/export stout.

Read on: The sinfully delicious list of Colorado winter seasonals.

Related articles:
- Breweries of Longmont Part II - Left Hand Brewing.
- Left Hand Deep Cover Brown Ale review.
- Left Hand Sawtooth Ale review.

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