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Published: Saturday, 12/24/2011

A toast to gifts at the last minute

BY JUSTIN GRANT
ST. PETERSBURG TIMES

Last-minute gift shoppers: I have a remedy for your procrastination-induced anxiety. Beer makes a great gift for just about anyone, and there are some special brews on the shelves this year.

For toasting, one candidate comes immediately to mind -- DeuS Brut des Flandres, a beer that stands in quite nicely for champagne on New Year's Eve. This beer is the result of a complex brewing and conditioning starting in Belgium and ending in the city of Champagne itself.

DeuS starts as a light golden ale before being shipped to France, where it undergoes a nine-month-long conditioning mirroring that of a fine champagne. The result -- a highly effervescent, dry and complex ale -- is a spectacular feat of brewing, making this beer a fine choice of gift for loved ones. Be prepared for champagne prices, though -- this one is available at Shep's in St. Pete for more than $30 a bottle.

Sam Adams might have been thinking of DeuS when they teamed up with Weihenstephaner, the world's oldest continually operating brewery, for last year's release of Infinium. For this beer, the American micro-giant worked with the 1,000-year-old German brewer to create a new style under the Reinheitsgebot, Germany's 16th century purity law that restricts the production of beer to only four ingredients: water, malted barley, hops, and yeast.

The result was a strong ale with champagne-like characteristics. According to Sam Adams, it's the first new style of beer to be developed under the Reinheitsgebot in more than 100 years. Last year, the hype for this beer hurt it more than anything, with critics complaining about the price tag, unrealistically high expectations, and resulting in an underwhelming experience.

I grabbed a bottle for $20 (limit of two per customer) and tried it with an open mind. This year's batch was dry-hopped with Hersbrucker Noble Hops and fermented with a Belgian yeast strain. True to Sam Adams' claim, this beer was unlike any other I've ever tried. It was sweet, rich, very complex, and nicely hopped. Despite the criticism, I think this is actually a very good beer, and one your beer-geek friends will surely be interested in trying.

If there's a lesson to be learned from too much hype, North Coast Brewing has already learned it. Their Old Stock Ale, a traditional English-style old ale, has no extensive marketing campaign, but it's a consistently highly rated beer, with a new vintage released each year. This year marks the release of the Old Stock Ale 2009 Cellar Reserve, a barrel-aged masterpiece available in a beautiful ceramic bottle, making it a perfect gift for the serious beer connoisseur. This beer, aged 18 months in an oak bourbon barrel, is both strong and very complex, making it an exceptional candidate for aging.

Speaking of barrel-aged beers, Widmer has released this year's Brrrbon 11, the inaugural beer in the company's Alchemy Project, a line of beer vintages intended for cellaring. As with last year's release, this is a bourbon barrel-aged version of the seasonal Brrr winter ale. It's a big beer, with a strong whiskey characteristic, and it can be found for under $15. If you really want to splurge, pick up another big one from the Widmer folks; their Lemongrass Wheat Ale is a big, flavorful wheat wine that would go great with a holiday feast.

You can also find Schmalz's He'Brew Holiday Gift Pack. A bargain at $27, this box contains the last seven annual releases of He'Brew's fantastic Jewbelation Ale (from 2004 to 2010), a special rye barrel-aged Vertical Jewbelation, a custom glass, and candles, along with instructions on building your own beer bottle-based menorah.



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