New Glarus' Snowshoe red ale is out on the market. So, today we'll learn how to decipher a label because there is lots of great information on the label of the Snowshoe. Like reading a wine label, if you can read a beer label you can often learn quite a bit about the beer. If you are reading this without the benefit of a bottle of Snowshoe Ale in front of you, you can follow along on the New Glarus website.
So, let's start at the top and we'll make some points that you can learn by gathering information that is not on the label. First, it is called "Snowshoe ale." Because it is an ale, we know one thing already: it is made with a top-fermenting yeast, fermented at room temperatures (between 60 and 70 degrees or thereabouts). We can also make some assumptions: it probably will not be high-alcohol, it probably will not be full-bodied, it probably will not be highly hopped. Why can we make assumptions? Because of the conspicuous lack of information on the label. First, the label just says "ale", it does not say "barley wine ale", or "wine-style ale" that would indicate a barley-wine, one of the few high-alcohol styles that does not typically carry the prefix "imperial." Thus, for that matter, we can assume that it will not be very highly hopped; the term "imperial" is typically used in two instances: styles that contain a lot more hops that is typical for the style, or styles that are much higher in alcohol than is typical for the style. Because "imperial" is nowhere to be seen on this label, we can assume that it is not high-alcohol, and we can assume that it will not be very highly hopped (it may still have some hops, but it shouldn't be extraordinarily bitter). We can also assume that this is not a full-bodied ale. We can assume this because it is not a "stout" or "porter", two styles of ales are associated with being full-bodied; few other ales are full-bodied.
So, what do we know just by reading "ale"? We can safely assume that the alcohol will be between 3% and 7% alcohol, that it will be light or medium-bodied, and that it will not be overly bitter. One word down, and we haven't even started reading the fine print yet.
As we start on the side of the bottle, in the fine print, we first learn that we should "settle in" with this beer. This seems a little counter to our assumptions. We typically "settle in" with heavier beers, or beers with higher alcohol. Yet, we have already made some assumptions that run counter to this, so, we can take note of it, but frankly write it off to marketing hyperbole.
The next sentence tells us that there are American and German malts. This is not really surprising, this mixture of malts. Given the fact that we are in America, and not Germany, breweries here typically use American base malts. However, Germany makes some base malts and specialty malts that are unique to their beers such as Vienna (technically, Austrian) and Munich malts. Unlike 2-row and 6-row malts, typical American base malts that provide the generally malty flavors of beer, Vienna malts provide a stronger malty flavor and very slight "biscuity" (bright and bread-like) flavor. Munich malts are similar to Vienna, but forego the bicuit flavors in favor of a deeper coloring and an even stronger malty flavor. Both Vienna and Munich malts are typically used in German-style lagers (such as marzens, Vienna lagers, and bocks), but neither are foreign to amber-style ales. While it is possible that an American ale would use a German Pilsner malt, this is not likely without a little more fanfare as it would be unusual enough to make special note of. So, we now know that this beer likely contains some American 6-row or 2-row malts (both light malts, 6-row, having more grains is a little grainier, while 2-row is a little cleaner) and some German Vienna or Munich malts. Based on that knowledge, we can now assume that this will be a red or amber ale.
The next sentence, about a "complicated decoction mash process" requires a little knowledge about how beer is made. The first step of the brewing process is called "the mash." During the mash, malted grains and other specialty grains or adjuncts (if used) are basically steeped in hot water. This steeping process releases proteins and enzymes and sugars that are used by the yeast (added later) to ferment the beer. There are few types of ways to release these proteins and sugars: infusion, adding hot water directly to the grains, then re-adding more water to either raise or lower the temperatures as needed; or, decoction, where the grains are added to warm water, then some of the liquid is removed, brought to a boil, then added back to the liquid. Because of the boiling, "decoction mashing produces a richer malt profile with complex caramelized flavors that are the hallmarks of most continental European beer styles, particularly Pilsner, Marzen, Bock, and especially Dopplebock." [cite] So, now, after three sentences, we can start to get an idea of what we will be drinking: a richly malty beer that is much like a lager, but made with ale yeasts and a warm fermentation to add a bright flavor to it. We can legitimately think we might be drinking an alt-bier.
We are also told that this beer is made with "Yakima Golding" and "Bavarian Hellertau" hops. We know that the Yakima Valley is in Washington State, and that Bavaria is in Germany. Interestingly, both of these hops are traditionally aroma hops; thus, we can guess that this will be a lightly bittered beer, with a complex aroma profile. Goldings are stereotypical hoppy aromas, mild and slightly grassy, with some spiciness; Hellertau are also mild, with more emphasis on the spiciness and a subtle floweriness.
Of course, we could have just read the second paragraph and be told all of this. "Expect this beer to be a beautiful copper-red, with a fruity ale body and a spiced hop finish."
New Glarus Snowshoe Ale
Appearance: Poured into a willi becher pint, a large, thick two-finger bright white head forms on top of a crystal-clear deep golden-amber body; lacing is extensive and the head holds very well
Aroma: a spiciness is immediately obvious, with some strong malt aromas, and subtle earthiness, all on top of hints of freshly baked pepper and rosemary bread
Flavor: tastes exactly like its aroma, where the spiciness comes through, followed by deep malts and a light breadiness; a lingering dry earthy bitterness holds the finish, almost a cracked-pepper flavor; as the beer warms up the ale fruitiness comes through more accentuating the hoppy bitterness
Body: very soft body, that pleasantly coats and lends a thickness and mouthful without adding fullness of body
Drinkability: a great beer for winter football action, it is light enough to drink in moderation, but firm enough to provide sustenance
Summary: it would be nice to see this beer offered around town on tap at local bars, it is a good slightly different competitor to Capital's Winter Skal and provides something lighter with greater repeat drinkability than Lake Louie's porter and the stouts that are typical for the winter