One of the many signs of the season is the evergreen. The vivid, deep emerald needles against a backdrop of pure white snow offer a distinctive starkness, not unlike some holiday drinks that are just being released. While brewers use many different spices this time of year, few do what juniper does for beer. And, after nearly seven years' absence, Green Bay's Hinterland brings back a little bit of that wonder with its Winterland, an ale brewed with juniper berries.
What is it? Winterland from Hinterland (Green Bay Brewing Company) of Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Style: Winterland is a porter. The style originated in England as the popular preference of the porters who worked in the shipyards and is commonly dated to the mid- to early 1700s. Porters are ales, and can range from brown to deep black, a result of the chocolate or smoked brown malts that are used in brewing. Hints of roastedness can be found, but hoppiness is moderate. Porters range from 4.5% to 6.6% ABV.
Background: Brewery owner Bill Tressler calls this a West Coast porter because it has a firm bitter presence from Columbus and Centennial hops accented by the cedar and piney tones of juniper. This was actually the brewery's first winter seasonal when it was established in 1995. The recipe changed annually until Tressler and Hinterland brewer Joe Karls decided on a porter as the base brew. This year, Karls tweaked the porter recipe a bit by adding more of just about everything. Karls says that he wanted to do something even bigger with malt and hops, so he pushed the style toward a "Winter Warmer."
Juniper is an evergreen; while these conifers produce berries, most are too bitter to eat. Juniper has been used to give gin its flavor since the 17th century. Its origins in beer-like beverages go back much further, to Egypt circa 1500 B.C., where it was treated as a spice and believed to function as a preservative, as hops do in modern beers.
Hinterland obtains its juniper berries in a moist but dehydrated form, in five-pound bags from a Green Bay produce supplier. Karls places the juniper in large bags and steeps them in the boiling brew kettle like tea bags during the later stages of brewing. The beer gets made with about one pound of juniper berries for each barrel of beer.
Hinterland's Winterland hasn't been available in Madison since 2003, and in fact, the brewery's products have largely been absent from Madison shelves for the past seven years. This past summer, though, Tressler decided it was time to re-establish ties with distributors serving southern Wisconsin. When he sat down with Frank Beer representatives to talk about what he could offer Madison, Winterland was one of the most asked-about of his beers. The next Hinterland seasonal brew to watch for in Madison is the brewery's Maple Bock, made with maple syrup harvested from Tressler's family farm. It's expected to be available in mid-January.
Winterland finishes around 7.2% ABV. Hinterland released about 90 barrels of the beer this year; it sells in four-packs of 16-ounce bottles for around $9.
- Aroma: Firm, piney evergreen-like nose from the juniper.
- Appearance: Dark black with a thick bubbly brown head.
- Texture: Medium- to full-bodied and round mouthfeel.
- Taste: There is a strong roasted and slightly burnt maltiness amid the piney juniper tones.
- Finish/Aftertaste: Roasted chocolate malt with a lingering dry, piney ending.
Glassware: The tulip glass will focus Winterland's juniper nose and encourage sipping.
Pairs well with: This is a beer that is very good on its own, the better to appreciate the combination of roasted chocolate malt and hints of evergreen. For a special treat, allow the beer to warm slightly into the mid-40 degrees to bring out more of those roasted malt and piney tones, making it a nice companion to chocolate cakes and desserts.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four).
The Verdict: Hinterland Winterland is a robust brew that matches the season well, a wonderful evening beer to be enjoyed while retreating from the cold. It offers bold malty and roasted qualities, along with the assertive bitterness of the Columbus and Centennial hops, which combine incredibly well with piney hints of juniper. The porter is ideally suited for juniper flavors because the roasted chocolate malts blend with the citrus tone of pine, which seems to lift up the dryness on the palate.
Winterland is not a beer for everyone, and I admit I'm more excited about it because it's a fun beer for the holiday season. There's a light dryness, with somewhat astringent qualities that are similar to how chocolate and mint go together. This beer is well suited for snowstorms, a roaring fire and the evergreen tree that graces many homes this time of the year.