'Tis the season for those who like holiday beers. Brewpubs, which can make small batches of unique flavorful brews, are at the forefront this time of year for using spicy, minty, nutty and chocolate accents in their beers. The Grumpy Troll brewpub in Mount Horeb just tapped a little holiday cheer with its Jingle Bells holiday ale, an altbier made with wild rice.
What is it? Jingle Bells from the Grumpy Troll Restaurant and Brewery of Mount Horeb, Wisconsin.
Style: Wild rice is not a typical ingredient in beer, and wild rice brews are not a style on their own, as the rice is a fermentable grain, much as malt is. For most recipes, it supplements other main ingredients like barley. When wild rice is used, it is usually by smaller craft beer makers looking for local natural ingredients. For most commercial brewers, it's difficult to get in the quantities needed to keep the price within the range their customers are willing to pay. When done well, wild rice offers a nutty sweetness that complements the caramel tones of malted barley.
While wild rice beers are not common, a handful can be found around the upper Midwest where wild rice is available. Last spring, for instance, Capital Brewery in Middleton made a wild rice doppelbock.
Background: The base beer behind Jingle Bells is a German Altbier, a style known for its deep bronze color, hoppy enough for some balance, and just a hint of fruitiness. But the wild rice that brewmaster Mark Knoebl adds distinguishes it.
Northern Wisconsin-grown wild rice makes up about 10% of the total grist bill in the recipe for Jingle Bells. Because the rice needs to be cooked before it's added to the mash in the lauter tun, it is prepared the day before the actual brewing starts. Knoebl doesn't have a cereal cooker in his brewhaus, so he prepares the rice in the brewpub's kitchen using a 10-gallon stockpot similar to what many homebrewers use.
Once it is cooked to a pregelatinized state, the wild rice is combined with Canadian-grown Pilsner, some German Munich and a small amount of caramel malts. The hops include Northern Brewer and Spalt. Knoebl uses a Düsseldorf Alt yeast and ferments the beer at a warm 62 F. Jingle Bells takes about three weeks to make, and finishes at 6% ABV. The beer sells for $4.50/pint in the brewpub, or $12/growler (refill) for take home.
Jingle Bells is expected to be on tap at the brewpub through the end of the year. Knoebl also just unveiled a new year-round beer, Hop Farm Pale Ale, made with all Wisconsin-grown hops.
- Aroma: A light maltiness with a hint of spicy complexity.
- Appearance: Hazy bronze color with a thin, bubbly, off-white head.
- Texture: Medium and round mouthfeel
- Taste: A mild, but firm maltiness with a faint fruitiness. But it's the earthy and nutty background that makes it distinctive.
- Finish/Aftertaste: Spicy with a medium, dry bitterness.
Glassware: The Grumpy Troll serves Jingle Bells in the standard bar pint. If you bring home a growler, a footed pilsner glass or the Willy Becher, with inward taper near the lip, will focus the nose, hold the head and show off the beer's bronze color.
Pairs well with: The light, sweet, nutty tones and the natural image of wild rice make this beer a nice match for sweet meat entrées and side dishes. The brewpub's beer cheese soup is very good with Jingle Bells. Or try it with an order of the Grumpy Troll's sweet potato tots.
Rating: Two Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: Jingle Bells is a nice seasonal treat. It's medium-bodied and bears a holiday-themed name that seems just right for December. I liked the depth of the malty tones amid the nutty and earthy sweetness of the wild rice. However, I just didn't get too excited about this beer. Christmas beers are a tough sell for my palate, and although there's a hint of spice in the finish, I didn't come away with the "Oh wow, I hear sleigh bells ringing" feeling.