By Dakota “Smoky” Waddell
Bison Brewing Company, based in Berkeley, California, is an up-and-coming microbrewery known for brewing their entire line of beers organically. Unlike many brewing companies I have seen that produce one or two organic beers, Bison’s small staff believes in supplying the world with a sustainable product that supports small farmers and produces good quality beer at very high standards.
I had learned about Bison Brewing on a whim, purchasing my first Bison product based on its marketing appeal. I was at my local Earthfare grocery store last year, searching for a new and interesting beer to tickle the palate. The time of year was mid-December, and like many drinkers of fine alcoholic beverages, I prefer something dark, thick and malty to assuage the frosty winds of winter. Bison had created an offering called the Chocolate Stout that piqued my interest. There is nothing like a good heavy stout with bold chocolate and coffee characteristics to accompany its smooth velveteen mouthfeel and creamy head of foam. Thus, I made my way to the checkout with high expectations and a feeling of accomplishment, based solely on Bison’s marketing and appeal at the outset. This beautifully crafted and award-winning brew would soon become one of my favorite stouts.
This year around Christmas time, my girlfriend and I were in the exact same place, and with a very similar mission: to discover a beer that was new and creative, and a beer we could enjoy in the dark winter months. I espied a small four pack of beer sitting right next to Bison’s Chocolate Stout in a silver package emblazoned with gingerbread men and cinnamon sticks. Much like many other brewing companies, Bison Brewing’s seasonal brew utilized holiday themes in their marketing scheme, evoking warm Christmas spirits with their Gingerbread Ale. My fair lady is an adventurous drinker, willing to try most beers at least once. But, considering that my choice of beer was between a beer with gingerbread men on the package and another stout emblazoned with a portrait of Rasputin, the choice became clear given the circumstances (and besides, who would turn down a Christmas-y beer during Yuletide?).
I had very high expectations for Bison’s Gingerbread Ale based solely on the fact that I thoroughly enjoy their Chocolate Stout. Unfortunately, this time I was let down. In fact, I was let down so badly that I actually emailed the company to tell them. It’s not that the beer was bad; the beer itself was a high quality brew all around. Again, my issue here was with the marketing. I expected a beer that tasted as marketed, and Bison had billed and advertised this selection as a taste of gingerbread. Yes, there was a subtle aftertaste of holiday spice, but Bison would have better represented the beer by describing it as a winter ale. When I visited Bison’s website to see how they described the beer there, I found a company review stating that “our holiday porter…would surely smooth out that dinner with the in-laws.” So, is it a porter or an ale? The packaging says ale, the color of the beer and the website say porter!
Hopefully, you can see my confusion here. As I said, I emailed the brewery to supply my critique. I was surprised to see that owner/head brewer Daniel Del Grande took the time to email me less than 24 hours later. His explanation made perfect sense, coming from a microbrewer: quality and quantity of supplies, experimental status of beer, stating that next year the beer may be dry-hopped. All of these were valid and pertinent reasons for my disappointment, and in hindsight, though Del Grande may have appreciated my constructive criticism, I also think I may have lost sight of the simple fact that, as a microbrewer, a brand new beer just won’t always be perfect.
In the end, I must say that the Bison Brewing Gingerbread Ale is a great quality beer that is worth drinking. I must warn the experienced beer connoisseur not to be fooled by the label. If you want a strong holiday spiced lager or ale, steer clear of this offering. If you are looking for a subtly spiced porter, this would please the palate thoroughly. Tall glasses to Bison Brewing, and especially to owner/brewer Daniel Del Grande for his attention to this matter of taste and time… let’s see what they’ll brew for us next year.