Beer Scout: Cold Mountain turns 20, Ninjabread Man returns

HOLIDAY BREWS: Highland Brewing Co.'s Cold Mountain Winter Ale and, this year, its new Imperial Cold Mountain Winter Ale join Asheville Brewing Co.'s Ninjabread Man in ringing in the holiday season in Western North Carolina. Images courtesy of Highland Brewing Co. and Asheville Brewing Co.

The messages start arriving in June or July and keep making their way to Highland Brewing Co. staff through February: “When does Cold Mountain come out?” “Do you have any Cold Mountain left?” “Where can I get Cold Mountain?”

The answer this year is Thursday, Nov. 10, at 4 p.m. with allotments available for purchase the following two days at the brewery. In-store arrival begins Monday, Nov. 14, in many markets where Highland is sold.

The brainchild of Highland co-founders Oscar Wong and John McDermott, the beer debuted in 1996 as Holiday Ale. The brewers, inspired by mulled wine with its festive mix of spices, aimed to evoke seasonal sensations in those who drink the beer. The results were popular from the start and packaged from the beginning in 22-ounce bottles. But Highland realized fairly quickly that the name Holiday Ale limited the amount of time the beer was relevant and changed it to Winter Ale.

Then in 1997, Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain was published. Wong loved the book, and seeing as all Highland seasonal brews are named after a local land feature, he reworked the name one last time to Cold Mountain Winter Ale.

Fans of the beer love to speculate on each forthcoming edition’s unique flavor palate, which Highland marketing coordinator Molly McQuillan says was always intended to change slightly from year to year. Back in May, she and her colleagues got together on a Sunday morning with instructions not to eat breakfast or drink coffee and ideally abstain from brushing their teeth prior to arrival. Under the guidance of brewmaster Hollie Stephenson and sensory scientist Anna Sauls, the staff’s clean palates were presented with a series of tastings, each of which simulated different varieties of spice additions. Based on the feedback, Stephenson and Sauls crafted the beer’s ultimate profile.

Cold Mountain fans also love to debate which year’s batch is superior. McQuillan’s favorite is 2010, but she thinks this year’s creation might be even better and is especially impressed by the new imperial version. Brewed in honor of its 5.9 percent ABV sibling’s 20th anniversary, the 8 percent ABV newcomer is slightly chocolate-forward with hints of fruits and nuts. It will be released in 1-liter and 22-ounce bottles exclusively at the brewery for a limited time as well as on draft in the Highland taproom and in select retail locations.

Another enticing aspect of attending the release party is the Cold Mountain casks, which are only available at the brewery. Each brewer generally does one flavor, and this year’s offerings include vanilla, coffee and cocoa, figs and currants, kiwi and papaya and bourbon-soaked oak and cherries.

However, special as the casks are, another factor makes the event even more meaningful for the Highland crew. “Truly, the festivity of the party comes from the people that are so excited to be there, and we’re just as excited, so the whole brewery just has this great vibe about it,” McQuillan says. “It’s Asheville’s oldest seasonal, and I think they’re proud of it, and they love it.”

Run, run, run, fast as you can

Among those looking forward to 2016 Cold Mountain is Asheville Brewing Co. head brewer Pete Langheinrich. “It would probably be the first beer that I tried in Asheville that had that kind of waiting list feel to it, that kind of, like, ‘Line up at the door,’” he says. “It’s one of those beers you sip, and the brain is immediately in the holiday, cold-weather feeling — it evokes that season. I think they nail it with that beer, and I like how they change it, too. I think that’s pretty cool to take a beer that’s so popular and then go, ‘All right, let’s do it a little bit different this year.’”

Langheinrich cites Cold Mountain as the primary local inspiration for Asheville Brewing’s own holiday beer, Ninjabread Man Porter — not in terms of a desire to emulate or copy it, but to put the brewery’s own spin on the winter warmer style. Released on Oct. 14, Ninjabread Man is now in its third year of major production. The infusion of gingerbread cookie flavor to Asheville Brewing’s flagship Ninja Porter started as a small-batch beer and has experienced an organic growth from its cask origins to last year’s 30-barrel batch with bottling and distribution.

The brewers made the initial syrup for Ninjabread Man from scratch using cinnamon, ginger, raisins and fresh vanilla. (“As long as I have the final say in Asheville Brewing, that beer will never touch any extract of any kind,” Langheinrich says.) But considering the ingredients and the baked goods outcome for which they were striving, he met with the brewpub’s then-head chef and asked what he thought about their process.

“He definitely took us to the next level. He caramelized the ginger, he dialed in our toasting, the cinnamon process — and it was a blast. The staff was really excited about the beer and having a hand in the brewery,” Langheinrich says. “If it wasn’t for that internal collaboration, I don’t think the syrup would have the legs that it does.”

Small quantities of Ninjabread Man have been aged in bourbon and cabernet sauvignon barrels to wide acclaim, including one that sold out quickly in 90-degree heat at the most recent Beer City Festival. But while the concoction is more readily available than Cold Mountain and doesn’t yet have the kind of following where a shipment is likely to sell out in an afternoon, Langheinrich loves the small-batch feel it’s maintained and, for now, would prefer to keep its access modest.

“It’s truly a gritty, labor-intensive beer. It’s not something [where] you call a local farm and order the Ninjabread syrup. It doesn’t work like that at all, so to ramp it up in production, we’d have to scale up not just how much beer we brew, but how we brew it,” he says. “It’s definitely a small-batch beer at its core and it’s kind of fun to have a limited local offering like that, too.”

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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