Inspired by ponche, the traditional Mexican Christmas punch, the great minds at 5 Rabbit have come up with a monster of a barleywine (11.5 percent alcohol), brewed with muscat and Concord grapes, apple juice, orange peel, Mexican cinnamon, cassia buds, date syrup, and cloves. Ponche was released just before Christmas, but I picked up a bottle a couple of weeks ago at Trader Joe’s, and it still appears to be widely available.
In addition to the ingredients, I was intrigued by the fact that the label suggests serving it either cold (at about 50 degrees) or warm, with a stick of cinnamon and a dollop of whipped cream. I’ve read about winter ales that were historically meant to be consumed warm, making the “winter warmer” category a bit more literal. Ponche isn’t labeled as a winter or Christmas beer, but as I’ve discussed before, that’s a very broad category, and winter beers seem to be differentiated from nonwinter beers mainly by their labels. It certainly fits the Oxford Companion to Beer’s description of Christmas ale: “a catch-all descriptive phrase given to special beers made for Christmas and New Year celebrations, often with a high alcohol content 5.5%-14% ABV and marked by the inclusion of dark flavored malts, spices, herbs, and fruits in the recipe.”
I tried the beer cold first. Fruity and sweet, with a thick, velvety texture and not-quite-bitter finish, this tastes like a typical—but excellent—barleywine. I got some banana from it, as well as perfumey, floral notes; the grapes and orange peel come through, but I didn’t taste the apple, and the spices are so restrained they’re barely there. As it warmed up to room temperature I tasted caramel and brown sugar on the finish, and some toastiness that reminded me of roasted marshmallows.
Then I put a few ounces in a mug and heated it in the microwave. Heating the beer to just past lukewarm wakes up the carbonation, and the sip I had before deciding it should be hotter made my tongue tingle with tiny bubbles. I wish I’d left it at that temperature, because by the time it was hot (not boiling, but foaming up on top) it had lost all its carbonation and turned into a very odd drink.
The heat made it taste sweeter, more citrusy and grapey, and heavier than the cold version, with more vanilla, milk chocolate, dates, and prunes. But at the same time that heating the beer intensified the flavors, it muddled them, making them difficult to pick out; maybe it was just the novelty of drinking hot beer, but I couldn’t quite figure out what to make of it. It’s a little like mulled wine with less intense spices, and while it’s an interesting experiment, I was relieved to go back to the cold version. I’d like to pick up another bottle and try heating it more gently, though, this time with the suggested cinnamon stick and whipped cream (which I skipped because I didn’t want anything to interfere with the taste of the beer).
Julia Thiel writes about booze on Thursdays.