Sunday, March 4, 2012

Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales: Collababeire Special Holiday Ale – Powerful and innovative, all around

Collababeire Special Holiday Ale is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful and innovative ales to come across my palate in the past few months (for others, see for example my reviews of Mikkeller Stella 2, Xbeeriment Black Force One, LostAbbey 10 Commandments). Brewed by Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, which is located in Dexter, Michigan, Collababeire Special Holiday Ale is a collaborative brew crafted by Jolly Pumpkin and two other first-class breweries: Stone Brewing Company, from Escondido, California, and Nøgne Ø, from Grimstad, Norway. Collababeire Special Holiday Ale is the finale to a three-part series of this ale, each of which included the same ingredients, but varying aging practices were used in each version. Each version was also brewed and bottled by one of the three collaborators – the first by Stone, the second by Nøgne Ø, and the third by Jolly Pumpkin. While I’ve sampled a wide variety of brews crafted by the first two breweries, this is my first encounter with Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, who brews five year-round products and ten seasonal varieties. And based on Collababeire’s excellence, I will certainly be looking to sample more of Jolly Pumpkin’s craftsmanship.

While classified by Ratebeer as a spice, herb, or vegetable beer, Collababeire Special Holiday Ale is also a wild ale of sorts, where the brewer deliberately introduces a Brettanomyces yeast to impart a rather funky, sour taste, which in most ales would be seen as an undesirable quality produced by an undesirable and pesky (and potentially costly) contaminant. For those of you familiar with different beer brands and styles, but less familiar with yeast strains, Brettanomyces, or “Brett” as it is sometimes called, is commonly found in Lambics, and features in other tasty treats like Orval, Liefmans Brown Ale, and Rodenbach Grand Cru. Aside from the rather unique qualities imparted by Brett, Collababeire is aged in oak barrels for two years and brewed with chestnuts, juniper, sage, and caraway – all the makings for a delightful beer experience.

While the label’s drab, dark-gray background makes it easy to overlook when sitting on the store’s shelf alongside other, more colorful labels, once the bottle is picked up for closer inspection, one is instantly captivated by the creative amalgamation of the various symbols adopted by each of the three breweries. The red and green bat-like wings reference Stone’s devil-like winged creature, while the pumpkin head that sits upon the wings and looks to be blowing out a candle clearly references the symbol adopted by Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales. What’s most interesting is the placement of Nøgne’s tell-tale “Ø”, which is sits on the face of the candle; hence it is dead center on the label, just like the positioning of the bolder “Ø” on all of Nøgne Ø’s beer labels. My hats off to the label’s artist!

Moving on to the beer itself, popping off the cap comes with a crisp hiss, followed by a light gush of foam, and an aroma that is quite eager to greet the olfactory system. When poured into a goblet, Collababeire Special Holiday Ale presents itself as a dark reddish-brown ale and culminates in a one-finger high, beige head that quickly recedes to a thin film of densely-pack bubbles. The lacing is sparse, but is completely consistent with a beer of this style. Being easy to detect even at 20 cm away, the nose is immensely powerful to say the least. In fact, the Orval goblet I used to sample Collababeire was left unrinsed overnight in the kitchen, and the smell throughout the entire kitchen the next morning was a vivid reminder of my Collababeire experience the night before. 

Indeed, on the first whiff, the nose sort of comes off as a cross between a grand reserve and a lambic. Generous smells of raisins, plums, and oak are obvious, as well as a sort of grape note that comes off as sour when mixed with the undeniable Brett funkiness. At the same, the aromas from the other additives are, at the very least, not plainly evident. The juniper note, for example, is only detectable after some effort. The same can be said about the caraway, while I still failed to find the chestnut and sage aromas.
Taking a mouth full reveals a medium body and a modest amount of carbonation. Initially dominated by Brett’s sour delivery and references to dark fruits, the taste closely resembles the aroma: It sort of reminds me of a cross between a grand reserve and a lambic. The spiciness is obvious, but without knowing the ingredients, I would have never guessed sage and caraway. The juniper and oak notes are evident, but only after some effort and determination to find them. The finish comes with a dry and bitter punch, and the alcohol warming is a perfect match to that punch.

Overall, Collababeire Special Holiday Ale is unbelievably aromatic, tasty, and complex – a testament to the outstanding craftsmanship of all three collaborators. Objectively speaking, it’s well balanced and well blended, especially in the way the alcohol gently warms the finish. To this I must add two minor caveats – one about the beer’s ability to match its aspirations and one about the beer’s match with my personal preferences. In terms of the former, I was a bit disappointed that some of the additives – most notably the sage – were not as forthcoming in my sample, although I see other reviewers found these flavors quite easily. In terms of the latter, I was ever so slightly disappointed that the sourness in some sense seemed to steal the show, thus giving Collababeire a rather rough feel all around. Yes, I know this is a sour ale; but unlike some of the other sour ales (see my Mikkeller, Stella 2 rating, for example), the drama that unfolded in Collababeire felt more like a lambic, where the sourness took center stage or defined the broader context rather than emerging as one particular “actor” or “event” within a play about the matrix of all the wonderful additives that constitutes Collababeire. Of course, this reflects my preference, and is no reason passing negative judgment. In fact, the sourness completely and harmoniously engaged with the other flavors, especially the fruit flavors, to produce an enjoyable cidery feel. Indeed, if you truly like the funky side of sour ales, or if you’re a lambic enthusiast, then Collababeire is certainly an excellent choice, and one that I have no regrets on making.


Collababeire Special Holiday Ale on

Collababeire Special Holiday Ale on BeerAdvocate

Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales

Stone Brewing Company

Nøgne Ø 

Image credits

Cardinal Pub & Bar


  1. Dang! Never hear of this one before! That's one heck of a collaboration. Sounds like a tasty one as well. Great review!

    1. I'm not sure how widely distributed this was. It showed up here, but I never came across the first two editions. And yes, it was very good and very potent!


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