When barleywines make an appearance on the Great Dane beer menu, you can be sure first major snow isn't far off. That's because the Dane intentionally releases this seasonal big beer around the time of the first big storm. Brewmaster Rob LoBreglio might not want the credit nor blame that goes with forecasting the weather, but his newest offering, a bomber bottle named Fire Pit, will help you cope with the onset of winter.
What is it? Fire Pit Winter Warmer Ale from the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company of Madison, Wisconsin.
Style: Fire Pit falls into the "winter warmer" category, a general description for beers with lots of big malt flavor and enough alcohol to chase away the chill. Winter warmers are often accented with herbs, spices and fruits.
Fire Pit is actually a barleywine. These brews have complex flavor associated with a blend of malts and hops; those heavy on the malts develop a sherry-like aroma and flavor. Barleywines have wine-like strength and can be quite high in alcohol, exceeding 10% ABV.
Background: Fire Pit Winter Warmer Ale is the latest in the Great Dane's Unleashed series of bottled beers. The Dane offers only a handful of such 22-ounce bottled beers over the year, and all are limited, often one-off releases. LoBreglio, who is more involved in the day-to-day coordination of the brewpub's five locations, doesn't get a chance to stand over the brew kettle as often as he would like. However, he personally brewed Fire Pit at the Great Dane's Wausau location.
"I really wanted this beer to be about lush malt flavor, in particular a showcase for a specific malt, Special B," says LoBreglio. He certainly achieved the richness he was hoping for from Special B, which imparts heavy caramel flavors that become spicy and complex, while contributing to the beer's dark color. The malt also provides a hint of fruit sweetness.
Fire Pit is on the lighter side of barleywines in body. Yet it still has plenty of strength and alcohol-warmth at 9% ABV. "It's a beer you like to have in a snifter, to better appreciate the aroma; as it warms, it really opens up the flavor," says LoBreglio. The beer doesn't have much bitterness -- just a light amount of Millennium hops for some balance. Fire Pit should age nicely, Lo Breglio says: "This is definitely something that could be left in the cellar for a long time."
The inspiration for Fire Pit came from LoBreglio's appreciation of beers like Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome and Anchor Brewing Christmas Ale. Winter Welcome is known for its own rich English malt flavor, while Anchor's Christmas Ale has a changing recipe featuring different combinations of spices every year.
Just over 2,100 bottles of Fire Pit are being released in 2013. It's available at the Great Dane brewpubs and in select beer stores for around $9-$11/bottle.
The Great Dane celebrates its 4,000th brew this month. To mark the occasion, the downtown brewpub is brewing a special Amber Doppelbock that will served on a nitrogen tap. It's made with all German imported malts and is expected to be released in late January.
- Aroma: Light maltiness and firm aromatics.
- Appearance: Hazy (unfiltered), deep brown and bronze color; a soft and bubbly tan head.
- Texture: Medium-bodied, round and soft.
- Taste: The caramel maltiness is up front. As it warms, the spicy and sweet complexity is more evident in the background. Hints of dark fruit (grape, raisin and plum) add some smooth sweetness as it warms.
- Finish/Aftertaste: The maltiness and alcoholic warmth are a big part of the finish.
Glassware: Take your time with Fire Pit; drink it slowly from a brandy snifter glass, allowing it to warm up. It's at its best in the high 40 degrees range. Store the bottle in the refrigerator, but pull it out a half-hour before serving. Don't be afraid to open the bottle to let the beer breathe, letting some of the carbonation dissipate. The warmth and relative flatness will bring out the smooth caramel maltiness.
Pairs well with: This is a wonderful after-dinner beer and one well suited for enjoying outside around a fire pit. It's even better when there's a gentle snowfall.
Rating: Three Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: This Fire Pit puts out some heat. It you like malt-focused winter warmers, this is a beer to taste. It makes a great holiday party favor, or a thoughtful gift for the beer person on your holiday shopping list.
Great Dane Fire Pit has an assertive maltiness that remains smooth and sweet. It is not a huge alcoholic burn like a spirit, but there's a light astringency within the spicy warmth. It's still young for a barley wine, having been brewed in mid-October and released the first week of December. Aging should make this beer even better by melding the caramel and raisin sweetness, while mellowing the heat of the alcohol.
Don't tuck it all away, though. Cut a bit of wood and enjoy some Fire Pit alongside a crackling fire -- this beer is ideal for winter, so let it snow.