In this Paste Drink series, we take a step back from the craft beer hype cycle to offer our enduring endearments to some of our favorite beers that have stood the test of time. These beers should be considered paragons of their respective styles, and just because they’re available year round (in most cases), that never makes us any less excited to crack one open. These are the Beers We Love, and they’ve earned our respect.
What impressions or feelings does a term like “winter beer” conjure up for you? Higher gravities, perhaps? A greater abundance of maltiness in general? Warming spices, in many cases? All of those interpretations are equally common and valid.
For me, though? It’s a beer in the mold of Avery Brewing Co.’s Old Jubilation Ale.
There was a time when “seasonal” releases of this nature were a defining aspect of the craft beer experience—something that set this experience apart from the year-long monotony of being told by Anheuser Busch, Miller or Coors that light macro adjunct lager was the perfect beer for each and every occasion, so shut up and drink it. It’s difficult to describe to someone who only became interested in craft beer within the last few years, but the concept of a “winter seasonal” or “summer seasonal” were ingrained in brewery culture and anticipated by consumers in a way that was significantly more palpable. Almost every regional brewery had well-established seasonal brands that could reliably be expected to return each and every year.
And then gradually, the strength of “seasonals” as a concept seemed to ebb. Perhaps it was the sheer number of breweries continuing to open, or the constant flow of new and short-lived releases, but the idea of immutable “seasonals” quickly became passé. Many were replaced by the more nebulous concept of occasional, “limited” releases, but still, some of the true seasonals have continued bearing that standard. Old Jubilation is one of those offerings—a beer so perfectly suited to the winter season that it’s hard to imagine it in another context. Cold, crisp winter nights fit it like a perfectly worn glove.
So let’s talk about what makes Old Jubilation so lovely.
At first glance, Old Jubilation probably seems like it would be a pretty familiar sort of beer to those who grew up on the winter seasonals of yore. At 8.3% ABV, it’s a bit stronger than the generic “Christmas ales” that every regional brewery seemed to once possess, but it packs the same ruddy amber hue and malty overtones. Look a bit deeper, though, and this really isn’t the same sort of beer at all. For one thing, it completely eschews the Christmas cookie spicing so prominent in most of the beers labeled as Christmas ales or winter warmers—no cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger or allspice to be found. Rather, it supplants these notes with a more subtle melange of fruit and spice notes that are predominantly derived via ester-laden English yeast. This is no coincidence, as it was the rich, complex “old ales” of the U.K. that first inspired Avery Brewing co-founder Adam Avery.
“The beer that most inspired it was called Old Peculier,” says Avery, in a wistful tone. “It’s basically an English old ale, although not as strong as we think of them here. I was drinking a lot of it in the mid-‘90s, and I thought it was a really great beer. And I did own a brewery, so I was like ‘why don’t we try making something like this?’ I wasn’t necessarily trying to copy it, but the idea behind it was that it was all about the malt. I mean rich, highly textured malt flavors. They were definitely flavors I’d never tasted in a beer before. It had a unique kind of berry fruitiness to it, but was super malt driven, with just a touch of hops. We’d already been using a London yeast as a house strain since day one, so it just made sense.”
That was 1997, which means Old Jubilation just became old enough to buy a pint of itself, celebrating a 21st anniversary. In the years that followed it became a beloved seasonal release for Avery—unique from the rest of the lineup and simultaneously familiar enough and distinct enough from the other holiday ales on the market that it always found a way to stand apart. In particular, the lack of overt spice additions is something that made it stand out.
“The funny thing is, I actually love pumpkin beers, so honestly it’s not that I dislike spice beers,” Avery said. “People might think we made Old Jubilation to take some kind of stand against spice beers, but that’s not true. It was really all about being enamored by the malt and the yeast in this particular style.”
These days, “Old Jub” comes canned.
On the nose, Old Jubilation is awash in dark fruit and toasted malt, with hints of estery spice. Prune, raisin, fig and black cherry are some of the things you might note, along with toasted bread crust and a bit of peppery spice. Only slightly present is the ethanol, which contributes a slightly viniferous or sherried touch. Between the malt, fruitiness and clear presence of an estery yeast strain, you might almost mistake it for a milder take on Belgian dark strong ale.
On the palate, meanwhile, what stands out is the perfect balance between dark fruit (plum, fig) and tasteful molasses/caramel character. There’s a certain roasted nuttiness present, and enough spice notes (clove, ginger) to make you think it might be a spiced beer, despite knowing it’s not. It’s rich without being particularly sweet in terms of residual sugar, and estery without pushing into the realm of Belgian quad. And as on the nose, it’s really the subtlety of this beer’s ABV that pulls everything together into a cohesive whole. It’s a masterful use of the alcohol itself, and shows a deep understanding of how ethanol amplifies fruity/spicy notes.
“As I get older, I’m personally seeking out and enjoying more lower ABV beers, but Old Jubilation just wouldn’t be the same beer at 6 or 6.5%,” says Avery, discussing that particular point. “It needs the weight of the alcohol to round it out and enhance the fruit flavors. I keep saying ‘English strong ale,’ but I’m equally happy when people call it a winter warmer as well, because it does have that warming aspect—although maybe a bit more subtle than some.”
As with so many of the beers we feature in these Beers We Love essays, what stands out is balance and composition. These are “big flavors,” technically, but they’re not necessarily showy ones. Compared to some of the monstrous, 15% ABV or more barrel-aged stouts that Avery produces, a beer like Old Jubilation can seem almost pedestrian. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, this is beer worthy of contemplation.
Avery Brewing Co. has seen a lot of seasonal releases come and go, over the years. One of those beers, White Rascal, eventually became a year-rounder and a foundational part of the company’s business. The only other one that’s remained ever since its introduction? Old Jubilation, outlasting every other fad that has come and gone.
“You know, I never really thought about it before, but it does my heart good to know that we’ve been making it steady for a couple of decades,” Avery mused. “When we first put it out in 1997, Dad and I weren’t doing so well. Honestly, most of our beers didn’t do great back then. But this one did do pretty well in Boulder, and it’s had staying power. It was really one of the beers that helped teach me the value of differentiating your brewery from what most other people were making at the time.”
Back when I first sampled it, Old Jubilation looked more like this.
As for why Old Jubilation has managed to hang around far longer than most seasonals, Avery credits yearly planning that is careful not to produce more beer than the company can sell—typically, the majority of Old Jubilation is gone from shelves in Colorado before Christmas arrives, which is exactly what the company intends. Even with a possible decline of interest in “seasonality” in terms of consumer drinking decisions, it remains one of the company’s most dependable sellers, whether or not Avery Brewing Co. refers to it as a “seasonal” or “limited” release at any given time. The official terminology surrounding that aspect of the beer has changed multiple times—but the beer remains the same, either way.
“We may be past the point where seasonality makes sense, because there are so many breweries and people are simply looking for whatever is new and exciting at any given time, but it feels like this style of beer will always be there in some fashion,” Avery said. “Those who are looking for a rich beer that goes well with desserts and the decadence of the holidays, while still being drinkable—they know to seek out Old Jubilation.”
Just be careful, if you arrive at a holiday party with a six-pack of Old Jubilation in hand. This is the kind of beer that can bring you from “festive” to “flat on your back” before the night is over.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.