Drink This Now: Begyle Brewing’s Christmas Ale

Drink This Now: Begyle Brewing’s Christmas Ale

I’ve heard a lot of brewers say that their brewing philosophy is “______ with a twist.” But Begyle is one of the few breweries who have demonstrated that twist with quiet consistency. Their first beer was a pale ale, but with added wheat. Instead of angry, demonic names (Malevolence, Dark Lord, Darkness, Wake Up Dead), their stouts were cuddly little Flannel Pajamas and oh-hey-nice-to-see-you Neighborly. Their summer beer was released days before September. Christmas ales are often spiced with nutmeg, clove, allspice and ginger—theirs uses bay leaves and sassafras instead. You see a pattern forming. Begyle’s beers are just different enough to take notice, but not crazy enough to, well… to be Pipeworks.

The Christmas Ale is one of the first few batches on their new, expanded 10bbl system—one that Begyle’s Kevin Cary tells me is “a little oversized for us at the moment”—that’s been operating since November. While brewing on their new toys and waiting for a few final T’s to be crossed with the build-out and licensing of their retail space, Begyle opened reservations for their much-discussed Community Supported Brewery program.

Which is another Begyle twist. Even though it was one of the main things that earned the nascent brewery—first named Argyle—a good amount of attention in the first place and was the main focus of an early Kickstarter campaign, it took dozens of batches of beer and a bottling line to reach the point where they were ready to launch the community brewing program, essentially a beer subscription service or CSA. (“So we’re only 12 months behind,” Cary explained to DNA Info.)

Just one year, three months and 16 days after the brewery poured its first beers, the subscriptions were open, and if you waited, you’re already out of luck. The 200 spots sold out in exactly one week and one hour (in fact, they ran out during the course of my conversation with Cary). A waiting list is available and new spots will open in mid-2014.

Christmas Ale is not the brewery’s first spiced ale. Their Belgian Strong, Beta, and an English Strong Ale called Anglicus Vetus DCCC both featured spices from Dave Odd at Odd Produce. Odd also supplies foraged goods to restaurants like Blackbird and Alinea, as well as former Allium chef Kevin Hickey, who has collaborated with Begyle on beers since almost the start of brewing.

“[Brewer] Matt [Ritchey] picked the spices for this one. [Odd] came by and showed us a plethora of items,” explained Cary. “We’d never worked with sassafras before, but it seemed to work well with the other spices. We’re kind of stepping outside of our comfort zone with that one.” In addition to the unique spices, Vienna and Munich malts help balance the beer and add extra heft and warmth.

The beer is a hazy brown-crimson color with a wisp of cream-colored foam around the rim of the glass, and it’s mid-bodied and crisp on the palate, with no lingering candy stickiness. The aroma is lightly savory with cinnamon and toffee blending with vegetal and dark pepper notes.

Flavorwise, neither cinnamon, nor sassafras, nor bay leaf comes out and spice-smacks you in the face like other poorly balanced Christmas ales (too much ginger or clove is often the culprit). Instead, it’s a mellow mélange of delicate flavor, a relaxed and groovy brown ale that occasionally tingles with the zap of Sichuan peppercorn. It’s fun, it’s different, it’s a little complex, but you could pour it for your dad.

In other words, it’s a Christmas ale that’s just a bit twisted.

Christmas Ale is available at select retailers around Chicago and the suburbs with more on the way, as well as on draft around North Center (in general, if you want a new or one-off beer from Begyle, Fountainhead and the Grafton are your best bets). Once it opens, the retail space will have 8-10 beers available for growler pours including year-round brews like Crash Landed and Farmer’s Hand; a one-time-only DIPA called Quagmire made with Mosaic and Galaxy hops is expected to greet subscription holders as well.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)