In the midst of a heat wave, my wife and I had a refreshing break last week. We somehow made the list to sit on the panel that determines the taste profile for this fall’s batch of Highland Brewing Company’s iconic Cold Mountain Winter Ale. It was quite an honor.

I know we’re skipping ahead a couple seasons, and yes — you knew all-along that somehow this would be about beer.

But Cold Mountain Winter Ale is no ordinary beer — It’s Highland Brewing’s oldest, and most sought-after seasonal — drawing a huge crowd every November, with fans waiting in line for hours to purchase their personal allotment.

I have waited in that line for many years, in heavy rains and bitter cold, with Highland fans turned friends. 

This November will be Cold Mountain’s 23rd season, and it’s, “all hands on deck,” for the Highland crew, with brewers, servers, warehouse and marketing staff and family owners working on the winter cheer.

Cold Mountain is flavored with a slightly different blend of fruits, nuts and spices every year, and long-term Highland enthusiasts are quick to tell you their favorite year. At this season’s tasting session, the year 2014 was bandied about — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

There were 24 of us sitting around the tasting table, each with three small snifters of Cold Mountain prototypes in front of us, along with a pitcher of water and a rating sheet.

Highland’s quality manager, Anna Sauls, began the blind tasting with an explanation of the recommended tasting procedure: (1) Swirl the beer around the glass, lift to your nose and ‘taste the beer with your nose,’ (80 percent of your taste is determined by your sense of smell); (2) Swirl again, cover the glass, trapping the aroma and lift for a second sniff; (3) Taste the beer with a big enough sip to cover your tongue; (4) Repeat with smaller sips, taking note of the different taste profiles; (5) Finish the beer (or not) your choice.

Through the years, the spice backbone of Cold Mountain Ale has always been cinnamon and vanilla. Other ingredients have been added to give each annual batch of Cold Mountain its own personality.

The 2019 options were flavored with a variety of fruits, berries, nuts and spices — that’s all we will reveal. 

“There’s so much that goes into making this beer,” Sauls said.

The tasting concluded with a show-of-hands vote of the tasting panel, with Cold Mountain sample #2 the clear the winner, with Cold Mountain sample #3, a close-enough second place to consider a mix of the two.

After the tasting, Highland Brewing — always a class act — brought in pizza for the tasters.

All-in-all, it was an honor and a privilege to be included in the tasting, and though we have a hint of the 2019 Cold Mountain Winter Ale, it will still be a pleasant surprise — as always.

Look for Cold Mountain Winter Ale in stores and on tap after the Nov. 14-16 release.

Get it while you can. You won’t be disappointed.

Paul Viau is an award-winning creative director, with a 30-year career in advertising and marketing. Originally from Denver, Colorado, he met his wife, Carol, when they worked for rival advertising agencies in Miami, Florida. They became permanent residents of Haywood County in 2008 and reside in Waynesville. 

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