Dispatches From The South Cellar Review: Sweetwater Festive Ale Vertical ’06-’08-’10

In Cellared Beer Reviews by The Guys

Sweetwater says:

“Winter Coat Season – a strong ale brewed with generous amounts of rich malt, coupled with a taint of cinnamon and mace to keep you warm and toasted all winter long. We double dog dare you.”

Sweetwater Festive Ale
Winter Warmer, 8.6% ABV

Karl: When one normally considers a vertical tasting, the years are successive. This years, last years, two years ago and so on. Ryan reached way back into the cellar to break this vertical out, which is a bit of a “leapfrog vertical” if you will – we sampled a 2010 Festive, a 2008 Festive and went all the way back to a 2006 bottle. It’s like time travel, almost. As in, “Here’s what people smarter than me were drinking way back when I was still discovering Hoegaarden.”

When we last cracked into a fresh Festive (not reviewed by me, sadly) I noted that while it didn’t strike me as being a textbook Christmas ale, it was definitely spiced pleasingly with nice notes of cinnamon and nutmeg and really summed up the season of winter, without being overwhelmingly Xmas-y, if that even makes sense at all.

The differentiation between these three cellared ales are surprisingly slim, and the underlying (and underlined) takeaway as I wrote in my notes was that “All of these beers…are good.” The degree of good-ness varies somewhat, but I don’t think any of us could really pick a specific winner.

Rather than dance back and forth between the beers, here’s my yearly breakdown:

  • 2010: Certainly the heftiest in body of all the beers, which wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was its similarity to this year’s Anchor Christmas ale in spice and complexity, with a bonus note of some bitter chocolate. However, being “heftiest” doesn’t equate to actual body – the 2010 was definitely somewhat watery while still retaining many of the characteristics of a fresh winter beer.
  • 2008: Here’s where the beer’s body really drops off significantly. The taste, however, survives. Other than the density of this beer, the ‘08 stands up very well to the ‘10, with me even potentially giving this the nod to the best version of the evening…although that’s a tough call.
  • 2006: In comparison to other long-term aged beers – I don’t think there’s usually much to gain from spending more than about 5 years in the cellar except for certain extreme circumstances – the ‘06 has a surprising amount of flavor. Many of the higher notes stood the test of time, while allowing a red grape flavor to gently emerge. That said, this was the wateriest of the bunch, and I don’t think any of us spent much time on this beer. It was good, but good as an experiment, not good in a way that would be replicated.
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Ryan: Thank goodness SOMEONE reads this site. When we first sampled our fresh Festive Ale a year or so ago I closed out my review by saying:

“Maybe Josh should send us some more so we can cellar it (hint, hint).”

And he DID. So props to Andrew’s friend Josh for (a) reading our first review and (b) shipping some more Festive Ale our way.

As for the beer itself, well, much like Karl, I’ll break these down by year. But overall, they were all generally good. Although, not quite as good as I remember my first Festive Ale.

  • 2010: This version carried the most depth, in my opinion. The body had plenty of heft and the flavors were sharp with cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice playing prevalent roles. And I’ll agree with Karl in that it was very reminiscent of the 2011 incarnation of Anchor’s Christmas Ale. This was about as good as I remembered a fresh bottle being.
  • 2008: This one fell off for me. Big time. The appearance reminded me of one of my favorite winter warmers, Dark Horse’s 4 Elf, but the comparisons stop there. All the big, bold flavors of the 2010 seemed muted and the body was diminished to a creamy version of its former self.This also happened to be the largest bottle of the three, so it became a little tough to choke down.
  • 2006: With the 2008 rinsed off my palate I was expecting the worst with the 2006. Thankfully, the beer did not continue it’s decline. The Festive continues! Nutmeg, ginger and allspice scream for attention, conjuring up visions of sugar cookies. The body is a bit thin, but not too watery.This was the most pleasant surprise of the three; the flavors weren’t super-sharp but they sure were tasty and Christmas-y.
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Karl’s right, this was a good experiment, but I don’t know if I need to sit down with varying ages of the Festive Ale again. I certainly wouldn’t turn down a fresh bottle, though.

Andrew: Karl and Ryan covered most things, so I’ll just start by saying, “Thanks, Josh!” and I’ll go ahead and put my reviews in order of favorite to least favorite…

  • 2010: Obviously the most aggressive of the three on the spice front, loads of cinnamon and everything else you’d expect in a winter warmer. This is exactly what I remember having last year. I loved it the first time and I loved it this time, too.
  • 2006: This one shocked me – nothing was overly aggressive here and the beer lost a bit of body, but it was really good. Reminded me of this year’s Anchor Christmas, which is definitely a good thing.
  • 2008: Not sure what was up with this, but it was just, OK. Tons of malts, some winter warmer spices but honestly it dropped off big time from the 2010. Now, I’m no chemist, but maybe it had something to do with how freakin’ huge this bottle was…and maybe it was just an off-year.
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Anyway, doesn’t matter. Fun little experiment and I still love the Festive Ale as one of my favorite winter warmers out there.

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Written by many, compiled by one, this is a collaborative post with contributions from at least two writers at Guys Drinking Beer.

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