Saturday, December 25, 2010

12 Beers of Christmas: Great Lakes Christmas Ale

Ohio beer lovers (especially Clevelanders) always get giddy when November rolls around because that means it's Christmas Ale season. It's kinda ridiculous how much hype this beer gets in the Buckeye State, and this year was no exception. However, to throw a wrinkle in this annual tradition, Great Lakes Brewing Company sent a larger than normal percentage of their seasonal Christmas Ale out of state, leaving a smaller supply here in Ohio.

As I mentioned when I first started this series, I had to check several places before I finally found a shop that had any in stock, and even then sales were limited to 1 per customer. When my review copy was inadvertently consumed by a certain very occasional poster to this blog, I temporarily freaked out, knowing that more Christmas Ale would be hard to come by. My ladyfriend and I were at our local Giant Eagle grocery store when we saw a patron exiting the premises with a sixer of Christmas Ale. We immediately made haste for the beer aisle, only to find out that he had bought the last one. We momentarily considered heading back outside and jumping the poor bastard for his beer. Figured we should probably take his shoes too while we're at it, since there's precedent.

We headed back to the Pace-High carryout, the site of my initial score. Unfortunately, there was no Christmas Ale in the cooler. Dejected but not defeated, I asked the guys there if they were going to get any more in. One of them answered "I can probably spare you a six pack," and headed for the stock room. Our eyes lit up. Upon his return he told us "We're just trying to keep it fair. People are actually selling this stuff on Craigslist."

Whoa. Further research would prove this claim to be true.

So I guess the over-arching goal of the 12 Beers of Christmas is to see if Great Lakes Christmas Ale is really the king of the holiday beers, or if it's just Cleveland pride run amok. After 11 beers of varying strengths and weaknesses, it was finally time to put Great Lakes to the test.

The pour is a coppery amber and crystal clear. The off-white head is thick and persistent. Not only did it have the longest duration of any of the beers I sampled, but it also laced to the glass quite nicely.

The beer gives off a strong aroma of honey and ginger, the latter I'd expect from a winter warmer, but not the former. It's not playing coy: this beer wants you to smell it, and you don't have to try very hard to pinpoint the rich ingredients.

My first sip delivers on the honey and spices, but with a more robust malt character. I get a very nice base of sweet toffee beneath the strong ginger and honey flavors. This is medium bodied with average carbonation. The finish is a really nice caramel sweetness around the malt.

This is an astounding tasting beer that will leave you craving more. You'll have to be careful drinking more than one of these, as the high gravity 7.5% ABV can get you shit-cranked in a hurry. That's what a winter warmer should do, but it does bear precaution.

Overall, I have to say that Great Lakes Christmas Ale is worthy of the hyperbolic accolades bestowed upon it by proud Clevelanders. Several of the beers in this feature have rated very highly (Columbus Winter Warmer, Shiner Holiday Cheer, and Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale in particular), but the Great Lakes edges all of them out. This is one beer truly worth searching for.

Beer Advocate readers: B+
Justin: A

12 Beers of Christmas: Shiner Holiday Cheer and Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale

Texas governor Rick Perry recently said that he'd support his state's secession from the Union and turn Texas back into an independent republic. While this treasonous outlook is cast off as little more than political rhetoric, the idea that some of the Lone Star State's finest products would only be available as "imports" frightens the hell out of me. For one thing, I don't want to have to show a passport just to be able to eat some of the world's best BBQ brisket. For another, if my access to Shiner Bock is cut off, I'll have to drink Michelob Amber Bock, which gives me nasty nightmares and hellacious hangovers.

I'm a big fan of the Spoetzl Brewery, makers of Shiner beers. When choosing my 12 Beers of Christmas, this was a no-brainer. I've never been disappointed by any Shiner product, not even their Smokehaus lager (though it may have been the single strangest beer I've ever tasted). The only disappointing part of this beer, to me, was that I had to wait so long to finally review it.

Shiner Holiday Cheer is based on the Dunkelweizen style - literally a "dark wheat" - but has its own special character. The pour reveals a clear beer with a deep mahogany color, the "dunkel" in "dunkelweizen." It has a tan frothy head with minimal lacing.

One of the first thing that strikes me about this beer is the strong aroma of peaches that it puts off. There are also traces of brown sugar and lightly toasted pecans, but the fruit is the major player here.

The taste follows the aroma as expected with something unique like this. The peach and pecan flavors are dominant, with some Belgian-like wheat notes filling out the body. The sweetness and nuttiness play off each other perfectly, and while there are no obvious hop tastes to speak of, the other flavors are very well balanced.

Holiday Cheer is a crisp drink, medium thin body, with a very pleasant toasted nut finish. I was already craving another one of these before I even finished the first one. At 5.4%, it's not going to kill you to knock a few of these back. I'm sure since it's fruity and without a prevalent hops flavor, a lot of of beer purists are going to knock this. Too bad for them: orthodoxy often leads to killing your enjoyment of anything new. I'll bet Rick Perry still eats hot dogs with ketchup and PBJ sandwiches with the crusts cut off.

Beer Advocate readers: B
Justin: A-

I feel the need to come out and say that I am not a hop-head, not even a little bit. I generally avoid pale ales and IPAs like the plague; I just don't dig on all that bitterness. Don't get me wrong, I've had some wonderful hop-heavy brews, but it's not my cup of tea, er, beer.

That said, I've never really been a huge fan of the Sierra Nevada offerings. Their pale ale is almost a standard in the style and is so popular that you can find it at even the least reputable watering holes. I realize that it is a really good beer, but it's never my first choice, probably not even in my top 50. So when I read the label and it said that Celebration Ale's primary job is to show off the first batch of hops from the growing season, I figured I was in for a tongue punisher.

Celebration Ale pours a coppery amber, and it's cloudy, probably because of it's hop concentration. It's got a thick off-white head that laces to the glass and doesn't let go.

Not surprisingly, the aroma is primarily hops. I get a lot of grapefruit and a little bit of pine. I don't necessarily associate grapefruit with a winter beer, but I'm keeping an open mind on this one.

The taste is a surprise. Yes, it's very hoppy, as an American IPA should be, but it's luscious. Strong hop bitterness, but rounded out by a citrus sweetness complimented by earthiness and florals. It's got a medium body with crisp effervescence. The finish is hoppy dryness, another IPA trademark.

Even with my general avoidance of hoppy beers, the Celebration Ale really impressed me. It's well-rounded character was a pleasant surprise after the aroma led me to believe this was going to bruise my taste buds. This beer is getting high praise and it definitely deserves it.

Beer Advocate readers: A-
Justin: A-

Thursday, December 23, 2010

12BoC: Goose Island Mild Winter, Harpoon Winter Warmer & Magic Hat Howl

Hey, it's Christmas time; a guy's gotta do his shopping sometime, right? Sorry to have left you sans beer reviews. Here's a tripleheader to get us caught up.

I used to have a bunch of friends in Chicago, since the stylish thing to do after college was to move to the Windy City. Most of them have given up on Chicago, but I've inherited quite a few new friends due to my impending nuptials. My old friends and my new friends are quite disparate groups, but they all have one thing in common: they like drinkin', and Goose Island is a pretty impressive Chicago brewery.

I've been known to knock back their 312 wheat ale, the Summertime kölsch, and even their IPA when I'm feeling masochistic. I have to admit, though, that the Mild Winter was not in my original review queue. I only picked it up after the project started, but I was pretty impressed by this and I was tired of writing bad reviews of beers, so I bumped a beer which shall not be named and never looked back.

Goose Island classifies the Mild Winter as an American Mild Ale, but it could just as easily be called a Rye Beer. It pours out a deep rich brown with a frothy, bubbly, off-white head that laces itself to the glass. It doesn't have a very strong aroma, some caramel malts and a slight whiff of dark fruit. On the surface, not altogether impressive, but looks (and smells) can be deceiving.

Upon first sip, I thought maybe I was drinking a coffee stout. Coffee and roasted malts dominate here, with a healthy amount of rye and cinnamon, though not overpowering. It's got a very pleasant sweetness to it, and at times a little bit of candied apple poke through. Really nice, unique balance of flavors: rye has a tendency to want to dominate a drink, which makes this even more impressive.

The aftertaste is primarily malty sweetness, but not too intense. This is very drinkable, and at 5.6% ABV, not likely to put you on your ass without a concerted effort. Like I mentioned from the outset, this was a really good brew that wormed its way into the 12 Beers through sheer merit. Kudos to Goose Island and here's to wishing a Mild Winter upon my Chicago pals.

Beer Advocate readers: B+
Justin: B+

A couple of days ago while reviewing the Flying Dog K-9 Cruiser, I wished to Santa Claus that some of these Christmas beers would either be objectively exceptional, or at the very least flame out trying to do something unique. Harpoon answered my call, putting forward a polarizing Winter Warmer that would make grading this beer very difficult.

I have to admit, I have never had a single beer from the Harpoon Brewery, a Boston institution since 1986. This being my first, I'm interested to try their other varieties because if they go all out with those like they do with the Winter Warmer, I'd imagine they're worth a shot.

Pouring this out, you get this beautiful reddish copper color. It's crystal clear with some visible effervescence, and the creamy off-white head is just icing on the cake. Or should I say pie?

You can't miss the aroma of this beer, as it assaults your olfactory nerves with an onslaught of spice - cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger - it really does smell like a pumpkin pie, minus the pumpkin, of course.

The first sip surprised the hell out of me. I knew I was going to get a fair amount of spice, but this beer tastes like it was stirred with a candy cane. Very sweet with a blast of cinnamon and nutmeg. It's very crisp despite its sweetness, thanks in part to the juniper-esque hops used to balance the malts and spice. The slight hoppy finish is enticement enough to find the bottom of the glass and then refill it.

This beer is not for everyone. It is a textbook winter warmer: heavily spiced, though a little on the light side at 5.8% ABV. A lot of people are going to be turned off by this as it doesn't have much of a hop or malt character. I, on the other hand, really enjoyed this and wouldn't hesitate to pick up another sixer to get me through the rest of this holiday season.

Beer Advocate readers: C+
Justin: B+

On Monday night, instead of reviewing Christmas beers, I was getting soused on Magic Hat #9 with my ex-bandmates, The Kyle Sowashes. Ever since Columbus Brewing Company discontinued their Apricot Ale, #9 has been my go to when I get a hankering for apricot beer.

Aside: this peculiar palette demand was opened up by drinking Rolling Rock when I was in college. My dad always swore that Rolling Rock was about a step and a half below piss, and while I acknowledge that it's not a high-class affair, I'll defend my consumption on the grounds that it was what I could routinely get for free or cheap that wasn't Natty Light. Also, my dad drinks Milwaukee's Best Light. 'Nuff said.

Anyway, I'm generally amenable to Magic Hat brews - their summer Wacko was a big hit for me - so I figured this beer would do OK by me. The Howl, marketed as a "black-as-night winter lager," started off by at least living up to its description. It is incredibly dark, though not as dense and opaque as the Anchor offering, which was virtually impenetrable to light. The bubbly beige head has a little bit of lacing against the glass.

Now, this is a lager, so I wasn't expecting a knockout aroma, but I also wasn't expecting it to be as subdued as it is. I have to strain to get the faintest whiff of smoky malt and maybe a hint of black licorice. Weird, but acceptable from a brewery that regularly churns out "Odd Notion" beers.

Howl is another very roasty brew, kinda like the Goose Island above, but not as well balanced. The roasted malts play with the bitter hops to produce some unholy amalgamation of toffee and charcoal. It's a pretty thin beer, as lagers generally are, and it drinks more carbonated than it looks.

Here's the real downer: the I get that black licorice back in the aftertaste, but it's laden with ash and rancidity. I've pretty much got to force this one down, and I am not compelled to drink another one. In fact, I pretty much just want to wash my mouth out. This beer might be appealing to somebody (judging by the BeerAdvocate ratings, more than I can imagine), but I will never put this in my taste hole ever again. I'll keep it out of the "avoid" range if only for the fact that it's still better than Beast Light.

Beer Advocate readers: B
Justin: C-

Monday, December 20, 2010

12 Beers of Christmas: Flying Dog K-9 Cruiser Winter Ale

OK, I'm kinda getting sick of these Christmas beers. Really, who's great idea was this anyway? The reviews almost write themselves at this point: "malty, spiced, strong, 'B.'" I'd really like more of these beers to excel (like the Columbus offering) or at least flame out spectacularly trying to do something different (like the Anchor).

I had some hopes for the Flying Dog entry in to the holiday fray: a strong English ale called "K-9 Cruiser." A brewery that has built its marketing around being "out there" - they're big fans of Hunter S. Thompson - should be able to make this a remarkable beer.

Think again.

I could probably cut and paste the review for the Columbus Winter Warmer, then take out everything that I enjoyed about it and have an adequate review of the K-9 Cruiser. Starting with the pour, we get a rich reddish-amber with no cloudiness. The head is impressive, a light creamy color that leaves very good lacing despite its quick dissipation.

The aroma doesn't jump out at you. It's a repressed mixture of malt, cinnamon and copper that doesn't really make me want to drink it. It certainly doesn't make me want to smell it.

Like the Columbus beer, the hops are the star of the show here, but not in a pleasurable way. You get the blast of piney hops with a little bit of light roasted malt and some well hidden spice notes that are blasted away by the hops. Don't get me wrong, we're not talking IPA-level bitterness here, but it's turning me off as far as winter beers are concerned.

It feels a tad thicker than previous offerings and isn't heavily carbonated. Still at a strong 7.4% and with this much bitterness, it's not the most drinkable beer I've tasted in this experiment, which leaves me wondering if it has any real redeeming qualities. I guess if I were a bigger hops fan and this didn't advertise itself as a winter ale, I might like it. However, as is I've gotta put this K-9 to sleep.

Beer Advocate readers: B-
Justin: C

Saturday, December 18, 2010

12 Beers of Christmas: Columbus Winter Warmer

As much as people around these parts clamor for the Great Lakes Christmas Ale, you'd think nobody in this town brewed anything worthwhile. Enter the Columbus Brewing Company. I've been a fan of most everything this brewery produces, but especially the Scottish Ale (formerly known as the 90 Schilling Ale), the Summerteeth seasonal, and the recently discontinued Apricot Ale. So, when I got a chance to pick up their Winter Warmer, I jumped at the opportunity.

This one would not disappoint, and after my experience with two of the beers in this project (the Bell's and Brooklyn offerings), I needed something to come through and wow me. This is a true winter warmer, clocking in at a heavy 6.8% ABV.

The pour is nothing special: a reddish-amber color with some slight cloudiness. The thin, white head was somewhat disappointing, but would prove to be the only real low point of this beer.

The preliminary smell test reveals a robust aroma of pine, ginger, cinnamon, and lighter notes of berries and caramel malt. Definitely smells like a winter warmer should.

The initial sip gives me a hoppy hit, the first of these beers to do so. Most of these winter seasonals have been all about the malt, but the Columbus Winter Warmer gives a great first impression with hops reminiscent of juniper mingling with the heavy presence of ginger and cinnamon. There's a really pleasurable caramel malt body here that serves as a base for the spice and hops, rather than overpowering you with sweetness. Really nicely done.

It's got a pretty thin texture, not heavily carbonated but still feels crisp. Since the hops are the main player here, I'm not surprised that I get a slight dry, hoppy finish. This is one that I could knock back a few pints of on a cold, Columbus night. Matter of fact, I think I may already have accomplished that particular mission.

CBC really hits a home run with their Winter Warmer, and I'm not just saying that as hometowner. This is more than worth a try and gives the highly vaunted Great Lakes varietal a serious run for its money.

Beer Advocate readers: B+
Justin: A-

12 Beers of Christmas: Brooklyn Winter Ale

There aren't many things in Brooklyn that are genuine (obvious link to Look At This Fucking Hipster here), but the Brooklyn Brewery is one of them. From the heart of Williamsburg comes an unpretentious brewery that got to where it is through hard work and offering something of substance. Weird, right?

Brooklyn Winter Ale - much like the Bell's Christmas Ale - eschews the trappings of the Christmas/Winter beer varietal. No additional spices, fruits, etc.: this beer is a traditional Scottish ale, envisioned to be a tasty companion to a long winter. I guess I just don't understand this trend of creating something and pretending it's something else. Then again, I'm not from Brooklyn.

The Winter Ale is a deep reddish amber, clear but with heavy visible carbonation. The light beige head is very thin and dissipates quickly.

It doesn't do much for the nose: some caramel malt aroma with a slight undertone of pine from the Willamette hops.

The taste follows the aroma with caramel malts being the key player. Very strong and complex malt character, just like a Scottish should. There is one flavor note in this that cuts through the malts: iron. Like blood. Gross.

It's got a smooth body and the initial effervescence dies down after a sits a minute (as evidenced by the rapid dissipation of the head) which makes it quite drinkable. The aftertaste, thankfully, is slight, made up mostly of sugary malt sweetness.

It's really too bad that the one metallic note ruins this whole beer because I really enjoyed most everything else about it. But, like Brooklyn itself, it only takes one bad element to tarnish the entire beer's reputation.

Beer Advocate readers: B
Justin: C

Thursday, December 16, 2010

12 Beers of Christmas: Bell's and Breckenridge Christmas Ales

Sorry I missed you guys yesterday. As it turns out, committing to do something every day requires, um, commitment. I'm making up for it today with a double dose of holiday hops.

Ah, Bell's. Creator of the famous Two-Hearted Ale, the highly demanded Hopslam seasonal, and the Oberon wheat ale (one of my summer favorites.) The brewer's reputation is beyond reproach, so was I ever surprised when I tasted this bland, boring, run-of-the-mill "Christmas Ale." In quotes, you see, because this is not really a Christmas ale or winter warmer at all: it's essentially an amber ale, which is strange since Bell's already has an Amber Ale.

According to the brewer's statement, Bell's set out to create a beer that "would stand apart from the array of spiced winter warmers that are typically introduced this time of year." No spices, no outlandish flavors, just Michigan-grown barley and hops. Am I the only person who thinks that it's a cop-out to call this a Christmas ale? If I had known what Bell's was shooting for, I would've left this one on the shelf.

As you can see in the photo, this beer is a rich amber color and a little cloudy. The head is off-white and medium thick. You can see the effervescent build-up on the side of the glass. The appearance of this beer would turn out to be the high point.

Holding the glass up to my nose, I get... nothing. OK, maybe not nothing, but not what I would expect from a Bell's product. Very slight hop aroma and a little bit of copper. Metallic. Mmm, totally makes my mouth water.

Now that I'm all warmed up to this, let's take a sip. Part of the mission here was to make this drinkable (a "session" beer), and at least that part was accomplished. At 5.5% ABV, I could probably take down quite a few of these. It drinks easily: subtle flavors of hops, citrus peel, and a hint of granny smith apple make it palatable, but the intense carbonation distracts, even detracts, from the taste.

Not much of an aftertaste - hops and a touch of leather - nothing that would cut into this beer's precious drinkability. It's too bad that all I'll remember about Bell's Christmas Ale is how many of them I'll drink in a row. Or not.

Beer Advocate readers: B
Justin: C

Two years ago I spent a week in Denver for the Democratic Convention. I don't remember many details from that week, primarily because a great percentage of Colorado breweries are phenomenal. New Belgium, Left Hand, Great Divide, Boulder Beer Company, Avery: these are no lightweights. Beer is a big, big deal in this state. As if to prove it, the governor-elect John Hickenlooper is the founder of Wynkoop Brewing Company, Colorado's first brewpub.

Breckenridge may not have the national profile or the celebrity factor, but they make some fine brews. I remember downing some of their Avalanche Ale during my time in Denver, a nice cold amber ale that washed away those hot August days. Yes, I was drinking in the daytime.

The Christmas Ale is Breckenridge's only winter seasonal, available in November and December. The brewers call it an "American strong ale" and it is strong at 7.4% ABV. Despite their self-classification, this is a pretty traditional winter warmer and not a bad one at that.

The pour reveals a beautiful, deep mahogany color. This beer is as clear as the mountain stream water used to brew it. What, they just use Denver tap water? Um, ok. The head was a complementary beige and somewhat thin. Just a gorgeous looking beer.

The malty nose was fainter than I expected, with hints of blackberries and mild spice. The taste followed the aroma, but with more robust caramel malts and spiciness, maybe even a little bit of red licorice. Its relatively thin mouthfeel and light carbonation make this an easy one to drink. Just remember this one's packing a punch, cowboy.

It leaves a very slight sugary aftertaste, and I really wish that this aftertaste is what I had gotten from the Anchor Christmas Ale I reviewed on Day 1. If that beer had this aftertaste, it would've been an "A-," maybe even an "A." Of course, if the Breckenridge had anywhere near the flavor profile of the Anchor, it would rate higher. And those guys at Breckenridge would be rich and up to their butts in medals.

Overall, this is a pretty good entry, but lacks a real standout flavor to carry it up to the next level.

Beer Advocate readers: B-
Justin: B

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The 12 Beers of Christmas: Anchor Christmas Ale

My ladyfriend had been jonesing for the 2010 version of Great Lakes Brewing's Christmas Ale, and as any good man should, I scoured the city in search of this 4-time gold medal winner. I had heard that it was in high demand and short supply this year, but I didn't believe it until I struck out a handful of times trying to find it. I finally descended upon one of my favorite Columbus specialty booze retailers, Pace-High Carryout, where the victorious glow of Great Lakes Christmas Ale was eclipsed by a hand-scrawled note on the cooler door: "One 6-pack per customer." Since I couldn't stock up, I took advantage of Pace-High's charming "build-your-own-six-pack" cooler and cobbled together a variety of Christmas beers, winter warmers, and other year-end brews.


I will review one holiday beer every day through Christmas Day, starting with this venerable tradition from the Anchor Brewing Company.

Anchor's Christmas Ale (formerly known as "Our Special Ale") is a standard-bearer of the Christmas beer variety. 2010 marks the 36th brewing of Christmas Ale, with the recipe changing annually. Anchor changes the tree that adorns the label every year as well; according to this brew's marketing materials "Since ancient times, trees have symbolized the winter solstice when the earth, with its seasons, appears born anew." This year's tree is the ginkgo biloba, which may be fitting: this beer comes highly touted, but its merits are questionable when compared to the hype.

As you can see from the photo above, this beer is dark, something similar to an American brown ale as far as color, body and malt complexities go. Held to light, it doesn't appear very cloudy, but it's so damn dark that it's hard to tell. The head is a light tan and relatively thin: it dissipated while I was grabbing my notebook to jot down my observations.

This beer emits a strong aroma of dark fruits - especially cranberries and tart cherries - that dance within roasted malts and nutmeg. This just smells like a Christmas beer should, and it seems like it would be a perfect compliment to a well-brined roasted turkey or goose.

I take my first sip and it hits me like a tannin-rich red wine: sweet and bold, but with a sharp nuttiness. The fruit flavors take the lead, complemented by roasted malt undertones.

Seeing a beer this dark, I expected it to have a porter-like texture, but it's thinner and more delicate. Still, very smooth with little carbonation, almost velvety if it weren't so thin.

Unfortunately, after the bold, fruity body, you're left with a dry, bitter, almost medicinal aftertaste of roasted malt and citrus peel. A real disappointment since I was so impressed with this beer until the very end.

Beer Advocate readers give this an "A-" based on 163 reviews.
Justin gives Anchor Christmas Ale a solid "B."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The C^6 or: ConstantCommentChocolateChocolateChipCookies

A coworker recently suggested that we have a holiday cookie exchange at work this week. Always game for some baking I said I'd participate, but what to bring? I flipped through some recipes I had saved on my computer, but nothings sounded that amazing. I mean they're all good picks, but I'd made them all before and I try my best to not repeat a performance in the kitchen, regardless of the projects success of failure. There are just to damn many recipes in the world to shackle myself to one or two for all of eternity. So I was thinking about flavors and Googling random combinations of words when it hit me.

I suddenly recalled a few weeks prior when I'd been snacking on some chocolates and a cup of Earl Grey tea. While certainly no stranger to the delightful combination of citrus and chocolate I was struck by how exceptionally delicious this particular mixture was. For the rest of the day and maybe the day after I pondered further applications of these flavors. Earl Grey Hot Coco? Earl Grey Chocolate Cake? But was ultimately stymied in pursuing these ventures by my lack of Bergamont oil, the cornerstone of Earl Grey subtle yet sumptuous flavor. Not yet foiled I began to consider other similar combinations. Didn't Constant Comment also feature a bold citrus note? Did it not also feature a melange of spices that sang alto and tenor to the orange-y high soprano? And wouldn't a rich, booming, chocolaty bass note round out this gastronomic barbershop quartet?

With the idea in place I began to piece together the puzzle of this recipe. It would be a chocolate chocolate-chip cookie for sure, light on the chips, with the spicy, orange zing of Constant Comment hidden within. The cookie part was easy, a simple variation on basic cookie recipes, but unlocking the secrets to the spices would prove to be harder.

Consulting the side of the box and the Bigelow website was about as helpful as asking the Colonel for help in decoding the secret to chicken seasoning, or Mr. A-Cola for the secret to his coke recipe. "Black tea, orange, spices" were all the help they were going to give. I started to scour the Internet for hints or ideas as to what spices should be employed and more importantly in what proportions.

Any drinker of Constant Comment will note that the spices, while bold and assertive, never dominate the flavor of orange and tea, it's a very delicate balance that has been struck but the Bigelows are traipsing that tight rope with ease. My concern was both over and under spicing the cookies. Too much and the cookies would be ruined. Too little and, well, what was the point of digging through the spice cabinet?

Eventually I'd found a few recipes in which people had attempted to channel the flavor of Constant Comment into assorted pastries, primarily cakes. While the amounts and formulations for a cake batter and cookie dough would surely be different, the consensus amongst internet bakers and tea aficionados was that cinnamon and clove where the important flavors in CC, but how much was an entirely different story. Checking the recipes for a number of spice cookie recipes I soon noticed a trend in spice ratios. Specifically checking the cinnamon-to-clove rates it seemed that for every teaspoon of cinnamon being used there was usually about a quarter teaspoon of clove for a comparably sized recipe--that is to say 3 cups flour, 2 sticks butter, and sugars in a pair, tree. The only other component to quantify was the orange. What was the best way to get orange flavor into a cookie? My first thought was liquid orange extract with a boost from real orange zest. My shopping excursion failed to yield any such elixir, but from various web recipes I was able to determine that truly orange-y cookies required an orange's worth of zest or so. But the big, bad bass in these cookies was going to be brash and robust so timid little orange was going to need help making its voice heard along with all the other voices. I invited a friend along for the ride.

With all the players in place I set out to create my cookies, but would they turn out? Were this going to sing with the angels on high or would the be, "kinda pitchy, dawg"? I would soon see.

When I finally hit the kitchen, iPod ready to rock, this is the recipe I was packing:

• 2¼ cup flour
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• ½ cup unsweetened cocoa
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon
• ¼ teaspoon cloves
• 2 sticks butter, softened
• 1 cup granulated sugar
• 1 cup brown sugar, packed
• 2 large eggs
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• Zest of 2 medium/large oranges
• ½ bag dark chocolate chips

• Preheat oven to 375
• Sift together flour, salt, baking soda, cocoa, and spices
• In the work bowl of a blender cream together granulated sugar and butter until light an fluffy
• Add brown sugar and continue to cream
• Once butter and sugars are well combined add the eggs one at a time followed by the vanilla
• Add orange zest and mix
• Gradually mix the flour mixture into the butter/sugar mix
• Once all ingredients are thoroughly combined stir in chocolate chips
• Drop by the tablespoonful onto parchment lined sheets
• Bake on center rack of oven for 10-12 minutes or until edges are slightly darkened and just set
• Allow to rest on pan for a minute before transferring to wire cooling racks

If the smell of the dough and the baking cookies were reasonable indicators, as so often they are, then I felt for sure I was on to something. And when the first sheet emerged from the oven and had cooled enough for consumption I was more than pleased with what I had wrought. One of the most interesting things that occurred during the prep, cooking, and eating of these beauties, though, was the dominance of the spices in the dough and the emergence of the orange in the finished product. Smelling and sampling some uncooked dough I was pleased by the spiciness. Cinnamon's tenor and clove's alto were harmonizing beautifully while chocolate did it's best Barry White, but sweet little orange, while on stage and belting its lungs out, seemed to have a bum mic. However, following an intermission in the oven and a second act on the cooling rack orange found its voice, dueling with chocolate for vocal supremacy while relegating the spice twins to the status of the Pips, Vandellas, or Miracles. No less important, just less recognizable

In closing I offer these variations for future applications of this recipe. Enjoy!

• Try using orange extract in lieu of vanilla for a stronger orange flavor
• Try using 1½ teaspoon of cinnamon and ½ teaspoon of clove for a more intense spiciness
• Try cocoa nibs instead of dark chocolate chips for a more bitter/sweet taste, 4-6oz should do

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