Around this time of year, when the Christmas decorations return from their boxed, basement hibernation and carols play and the kids excitedly create their wishlists, I’m reminded of a passage of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:
“... but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and the sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of the holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am a part of that.”
A wistful Nick Carraway, the narrator, provides these lines after a somber conversation with Mr. Gatz, the father of the now-deceased title character. The section has always moved me and reminds me of my own experiences around the holidays: A season filled with familiar faces; of the embrace of warmth when entering, after a walk through crunchy snow and an below-freezing sure temperatures, the home of a loved one; Of being aware, through the lens of a frost-coated window pane, of the blessings of life.
The passage is one I read annually, a four-paragraph aside that is likely dismissed and overlooked in most high school English classes. It reminds me of those years in the past and reinforces what I want going forward with my own family: To fill a season that they’ll remember well and pass along to future generations.
It’s not a unique tradition to unpack the decorations while Michael Bublé and Bing Crosby-heavy playlists fill the air. Nor is the ceremonial beer that kicks off the holiday season, that bigger, darker option. We often look for the perfect moment to drink a special beer, not realizing that the beer itself can be the occasion. Grabbing this year's Hardywood Bourbon Barrel Gingerbread Stout out of a short slumber was the best of both ideals.
GBS, for short, is one of the more celebrated beers in Virginia’s Hardywood Park Craft Brewery’s lineup. It’s highly-rated, it generates a specific sort of buzz around the craft beer circles, and has a wide variety of variants. There’s the straight-up version, but there’s also barrel-aged offerings from rum to apple brandy. We opted to crack a bourbon barrel-aged GBS as the holiday season turned from gluttony and thanks to, well, even more gluttony and thanks. Christmas, gingerbread, stouts? They all go together.
This beer is big on the notes of ginger and honey sweetness, very much like a well-made gingerbread cookie.”
Bourbon barrel-aged beer excites me because it seems like each brewery with an option of that variety varies in skill. Maybe it’s the preference of the brewer who likes a beer with a more dominant flavor of booze; Maybe the brewer likes a more subtle bourbon burn; Or, perhaps (and we’ve all experienced this), the brewer doesn’t know what the hell he or she is doing and it’s a bad beer they hoped to salvage through charred oak.
This beer pours an ink-black with a sandy brown head, full of light foam. At 10.2% alcohol by volume, it’s more of a bigger sweet or milk stout than an imperial stout. It’s more defined by its sweetness than its big, roasted bitter notes.
On the nose, the bourbon characteristics are there, but they’re more subdued than prevalent. It’s sugary with a slight oakiness. The body is lighter than an higher ABV beer would suggest. This beer is big on the notes of ginger and honey sweetness, very much like a well-made gingerbread cookie. The only bourbon notes – the oak, vanilla – are slight, and give an accent to a really easy finish. There’s zero alcohol burn. This is a spectacular beer.
The best traditions persist naturally, gratefully continued without being forced. If there’s a way to keep BBGBS as part of my annual Christmas season kickoff, I’m all ears.