Happy Brew Year

New Year’s Eve isn’t just for Champagne anymore.

Just days remain in 2012, and there is no end to the list of options for New Year’s festivities. One thing tends to be consistent among them all, however: the Champagne toast at midnight.

While this tradition is well-entrenched, and there is something about the sparkling drink that evokes a sense of celebration, I — and I’m sure I’m not alone in this — do not particularly care for Champagne or sparkling wine.

So what’s a craft beer drinker to do?

Luckily, there are plenty of excellent (and equally festive) alternatives on tap and in the stores.

The folks at Dunedin’s newest brewery, 7venth Sun, know their farmhouse beers, and they like to play. And put things in barrels. And get downright funky. The Brett Saison Extreme is a barrel-aged version of their Saison Extreme, a high-gravity French Saison. It is finished with Brettanomyces bruxellensis (yeast from the Senne valley near Brussels).

The newest release in bottles has been aged longer in the barrels, making it more forward on the oak and pineapple, and with less spirit character than the earlier version. This one has lots of pineapple aroma with hints of spiciness and pepper, earthy funk with a vanilla finish. Bottles are available at the brewery and will go fast.

The Lectio Divina is my favorite from Bob Sylvester’s Saint Somewhere Tarpon Springs brewery, and I would pick this over Champagne any day. The Lectio Divina (“Divine Reading”) pours a beautiful red-amber color with a quickly dissipating off-white head. Carbonation is high in this beer; it nearly pushed the cork out on its own when I took the wire cage off. The aroma is caramel, citrus and spice with a touch of the yeast funk that you’d expect from a saison. The flavor is rich with Belgian candied sugar, yeast and orange spice. Carbonation is pretty high and masks the 8 percent alcohol level well, and the overall feel is smooth with a dry finish.

Bosteels Brewery’s DeuS (Brut Des Flandres) is truly the “Champagne of Beers.” Brewed in Belgium, it is fermented over a month with two yeasts, re-fermented near Épernay in Champagne, France. It’s then bottled, left in a cellar for nine months and rotated for a week, and then the yeast is removed. The process of the second fermentation and storage is also referred to as the Methode Champagnoise or Methode Traditionelle.

The result is extraordinary. Light and crisp, DeuS pours just like Champagne. The color is a dark gold with a great balance of bubbles and a large head. The nose is soft yeast with a hint of sweetness. The taste is that of a semi-sweet Champagne, but with a clear hop character. The wood-aged flavor is noticeable as well. This is on the pricey side, running upwards of $30 per 750mL bottle.

For a decade, Sam Adams has been producing the un-carbonated, high-alcohol Utopias. The first batches in 2002 came in at a whopping 24 percent, the strongest naturally fermented beer ever. The 2012 batches clock in at 29 percent. This is technically still beer, but it drinks more like a fine port or a cognac, made for sipping and savoring. It’s ruby black in color, with sweet flavors of honey, toffee, caramel, cocoa and vanilla balanced by distinct notes of molasses, raisins, plums and berries, imparted from aging batches in a variety of barrels over the years. This is a very limited release, and you will not get away cheaply. Bottles run around $190.

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