Pros: easy to avoid...
Cons: unless you buy the winter sampler.
I don't want anyone to think I'm unaware, so...
Aren't You Just "Piling On"?
From its inception oh, maybe a decade or so ago by now, Samuel Adams' Cranberry Lambic has been a love-it-or-hate-it beer. Very rarely is a beer so divisive as this beer has been.
On the one hand, is it truly a lambic? Not originally, as the yeast was nothing like the wild yeasts of that region of Belgium where true lambics are created, and naturally the process -- open tanks which would allow just about anything to fall in and change the beer as it fermented -- was not really something one could mimic in Boston or Cincinnati.
In more recent years, however, Jim Koch and company have gone to a Belgian yeast strain, to try and provide a more lambicky experience for the consumer. Did he succeed? Read on, mon frere, read on.
Samuel Adams Brewing Company
There's no point in going into great detail about the brewery (SABC). At least partly responsible for pushing many Americans toward craft beer, SABC now makes about twenty styles of beer, some as seasonals (like this one), some year-round, at their breweries in Boston and Cincinnati.
Most of the style choices and brewing decisions hit nothing but net. The flagship Boston Lager was probably the first craft-brewed beer for a large percentage of this country's beer drinkers, for good reason: it had flavor, it had hops, and it did not have adjuncts. It was and still is everything an amber lager ought to be. The porter, which pops up occasionally, the Boston Ale, even the Sam Adams Light are very good beers in their styles.
Only rarely does SABC clank one off the rim, over the backboard and out of bounds. In my personal to-avoid list will forever remain the Cherry Wheat, and, after tries in successive years, alas, the Cranberry Lambic. Like I said, it's love at first sight/taste for some, run-away-screaming for others.
On To the Details
At its heart, as explained on this beer's label, lambic is really a top-fermenting wheat beer. That's pretty redundant, but it does explain what you might find: an estery beer, with some slight pangs of sourness and perhaps even a grassy character. Throw in a typical Belgian yeast strain and you can expect a little 'funkiness', perhaps.
Plus, there are few actual honest-to-god cranberry lambics available for purchase. I've had the sum total of two in my lifetime: one was a homebrewed entry into a competition in which I was a judge (it scored very well), and one was/is Cantillon Spuyten Duyvil, a cranberry lambic made especially for the Spuyten Duyvil bar in Brooklyn. So I've got just that going for me.
So popping the top on this here cranberry lambic, the underside of the cap notes an award it has received (as do most Sam Adams bottlecaps). This beer won a gold medal in 2004. In Los Angeles. Hm. Wasn't aware of any major beer judgings in Los Angeles, but there you have it.
So the Sam Adams Cranberry Lambic pours a hazy reddish-orange color, with a very sparse head. That's okay, as lambics don't necessarily generate a towering mountain of foam. It helps with aroma retention, certainly, but this beer really doesn't need any of that. The aroma is dominated by sweet cranberry candy, with a little apple thrown in for good measure. It promises a little tartness by way of some prickly notes, despite the sweetish smell. And, lo and behold, there's a little funkiness in there too! I'm as surprised as you are.
The taste is a mixed bag, though. On the one hand, it's a very mellow, smooth beer, which, while not the sour "true" lambic nor the sodalike Lindemans fruit lambic sweetness, isn't really lambicky either. I suppose that's just fine. There's a little hay flavor, and a somewhat sweet cranberry component. That might happen as a result of adding maple syrup to the beer, which I simply do not understand in any way, shape or form; but there it is, right on the label.
My real troubles begin and end with the slight vegetal taste that pops up here and there. It isn't as defined as a vegetal defect in the beer, which tends to be caused by infection, old ingredients, or poor sanitation. The beer's just a little... off, and not in the way a traditional lambic is a little off and funky and weird and sometimes horseblankety-goaty-barnyardy. It comes and goes in the beer, and as it warms, this gives way to a buttered-popcorn sensation, not in a diacetyl way (which tends to taste a little more like butterscotch or rancid butter) but in a somewhat more pleasant way.
The finish is a slight amount of funk mixed with a heavier dose of sweet cranberry sauce. Nothing out of the ordinary there.
Let's make one thing clear: this is at best a mediocre imitation of the more commercial fruit lambics of Belgium. Think Chapeau (but block any thoughts of the banana lambic they "brew"). As a beer, it just doesn't meet my criteria for decent, drinkable beer. There's too much weirdness going on for this to be recommended. It's not sour, but it's not wholly sweet. It's a little funky, but not enough to give the beer any character. It's sometimes tart, but not in a sustained manner.
Fortunately, it only appears on my store shelves in the winter, in the Sam Adams sampler pack. I've been holding off drinking this one now for three months, letting it idle in the back of the fridge until I got up the nerve. Alas, disappointing.
I'll probably rethink a winter sampler purchase next year unless the price is hard to beat for a 10-pack. I can't be bothered with leaving two full bottles on the curb for an opportunistic passerby to attempt to enjoy. I know some of you really, truly like this beer, and you're welcome to it, but it just does nothing for me. I'm firmly in the "Avoid" camp.