Saturday, December 22, 2012

The 12 Beers of Christmas (part 2)

A Christmas Beer Buying Guide

With this being the second post titled "The Twelve Beers of Christmas," I suppose this is more accurately "The Twenty-Four Beers of Christmas." But after twelve Christmas beers, who's counting anyway?

Without much preamble, I'm going to launch right into the next twelve. Just as in part one, I've included a price guide (based upon a 12oz. beer):
$ = No more than $5
$$ = $6 - $10
$$$ = $10 and up
And while it probably goes without saying, these prices are based upon New England market price.

Mikkeller: Santa's Little Helper 2012 ($$$)

In an effort for symmetry, I decided to start this edition with another of Mikkeller's Christmas offerings. Santa's Little Helper is a Belgian Dark Strong Ale. Some sources list it as 9.1%, while others I've seen list it a 10%. Either way, it's a strong beer. (As I had this on tap, I wasn't privy to the bottle. If anyone has had it and can confirm the ABV, I'd be grateful!). The beer was boozy and warming, with robust flavors of chocolate, molasses, buttered rum, and fruitcake. A lovely beer that requires gentle sips.

Brauwerij St. Bernardus: Christmas Ale 2011 ($$)

This has long been one of my favorite Christmas beers. It was also one of the first I had ever had, several years ago. With flavors of rich fruitcake, cherries, almond, molasses, and minerals, it really is the perfect Christmas beer.

To drift into the land of pure subjectivity, in my opinion, I recommend reaching for the bottled version as opposed to the one on tap. While on tap, the beer can be a bit syrupy and sweet with a strong candied cherry flavor. In contrast, when in the bottle, the flavors balance, the sweetness subsides, and the rich darker flavors come to the fore. And if you have a place to cellar the beer, I strongly encourage aging a bottle for a year or two. It really does make a world's worth of difference (just be careful when you pour; this is a highly carbonated beer... as my picture shows!)

Brasserie Dubuisson: Bush de Noël (Scaldis Noël) ($$)

Depending where you are in the world, this beer has two different names. In the United States, it's labeled as "Scaldis Noël," whereas in most of Europe it is "Bush de Noël." There is also a "Premium" version, though I think the only difference is that it is packaged in a larger bottle with a much higher price tag. If anyone has evidence to the contrary, though, please let me know!

Scaldis Noël is a full bodied Belgian Dark Strong Ale (and it's strong, clocking in at 12%), with flavors of browned butter, fruits, dark sugars, and a warm booziness that reminds me of a hot buttered rum. This is a lovely beer to come back to after a night of caroling or tromping through the snow. It should mature very nicely with a few years of age.

Anchorage Brewing Company: Whiteout Wit Beer ($$$)

This beer is amazing, and one of my favorite beers this season. Completely unlike every other Christmas beer I've ever had, it is a wheat beer with brett, lending a bit of funkiness. Super high levels of carbonation, it is an effervescent drink that feels like champagne in the mouth. Lemon curd and tapioca flavors are present. If you can find this gem, splurge and buy one.

Southern Tier Brewing Company: 2XMAS ($)

Brewed in the spirit of a Swedish Glögg, this beer does suggest a mulled wine. Pouring a warm red, there are strong aromas of candied apple and cinnamon, with flavors of cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and mace. If you're looking for an unusual beer that borrows heavily from "Christmas flavors," this could be the beer for you.

Smuttynose Brewing Company: Winter Ale ($)

When I first began getting into craft beer, this was one of my favorite winter ales. For starters, it's very affordable and available at Trader Joes. A Belgian-style Dubbel, it has a richness that hides a relatively low ABV for the style (5.8%). Lots of banana up front with cloves, chocolate nibs, and a slight tartness in the mouth.

Penn Brewery: St. Nikolaus Doppelbock ($$)

Despite the fact that most of the Christmas-beer market is dominated by Belgian-style ales, I have a true soft spot for German-style Christmas beers. This particular doppelbock is surprisingly drinkable with a very light mouthfeel and mild, subdued flavors of chocolate and plums. It really hides the 9% ABV well.

Sierra Nevada: Celebration Ale 2012 ($)

This beer is truly an American classic. Unlike most other Christmas/Winter Ales, Celebration is a full bodied IPA. Notes of pine with a long, dry finish, this is a fresh-hopped ale that is thoroughly delightful. I have found myself reaching for this beer often as a hoppy alternative to the more common rich and malty Christmas beers.

Breckenridge Brewery: Christmas Ale ($)

I was surprised with the strong coffee aroma I got from Breckenridge's Christmas Ale. But those coffee scents were nicely blended with fragrances of orange peel. This 7.4% Winter Warmer has a silken mouth feel with lots of fruitcake flavors, leaving behind a lingering grassy hop finish. Not overly rich, it is pleasantly warming on the way down. A nice Christmas offering, especially considering the price point.

Watch City Brewing: Winter Ale ($$)

Tired of all the rich flavors, but you're still looking for the general flavors of a Christmas beer? Reach for Watch City's Winter Ale. It's smooth and drinkable with no in-your-face profile. Light flavors of clove, cinnamon, and candied fruits make up the body of the beer.

Baxter Brewing Company: Phantom Punch Winter Stout ($)

I'm not sure if Baxter really considers this a "Christmas beer," (the beer is named after a famous – and highly controversial – boxing match. Though ironically the character on the can also resembles the old "Phantom" cartoon strip), but the flavor and style certainly fits. And it's a winter seasonal that I tasted while compiling this list. And I loved it. Strong flavors of coffee grounds, cocoa nibs, and bourbon, with a complimenting vanilla flavor in the background, this 6.8% Foreign Extra Stout comes highly recommended!

Shipyard Brewing Company: Prelude Special Ale ($)
OK, in an effort for full disclosure, I have to admit that I wasn't super crazy about this beer, but it's not really the fault of the brewer. Shipyard brews with Ringwood yeast, which is a particular English yeast strain I am not terribly partial to (although I did brew Churchyard's Thanksgiving Ale with this yeast strain). It is a very polarizing yeast strain; some love it, others don't. Love it or hate it, this beer really displays the Ringwood well with strong flavors of overripe fruit and musky dirt. If you are a fan of Shipyard's beer, or you know that you like the flavor profile of the Ringwood strain, I can assure you that you will like this beer.



Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The 12 Beers of Christmas (part 1)

A Christmas Beer Buying Guide

I love Christmas. I love the trees, the cookies, the music, the caroling. I love seeing family and friends and exchanging gifts. And I particularly love the beer.

I have to admit, I am sort of a sucker for Christmas beers. Smack a Santa Claus or a snowflake on your bottle, and I will be tempted to buy it. I probably spend way too much money, but I can't help it! Each year I am tempted to try every new Christmas beer I can find, not to mention revisit my old favorites. And they are so good!!

I often get asked just what exactly constitutes a Christmas beer, and it's the fact that there is no real answer to that question that makes them so exciting. There's no official characteristics that a Christmas beer must have; it's really just what the brewer deems most fitting to accompany the season.

Generally a Christmas beer is higher in alcohol, full flavored, and spiced with warming spices. Often they are darker colored. Popular base styles include Belgian Dark Ales, Belgian Quadruples, and Winter Warmers. Yet a brewer could reasonably decide to make a light colored, lower ABV wheat beer and call it "Christmas" (which is exactly what Sam Adams decided to do).

What follows are some of the Christmas beers I have enjoyed this holiday season. I currently live in Boston, so my list is generally limited to those beers I can find here in the city. I have also included a general price point for each 12 oz. beer:
$ = No more than $5
$$ = $6 - $10
$$$ = $10 and up 
And please! Leave your comments! Do you have a favorite Christmas beer? Let us know!

Mikkeller: Ris a la M'ale ($$$)

I decided to start the list with what might be my new favorite beer for the season. At 8% ABV, the beer is strong but drinkable, and without a hint of the alcohol, it goes down much too easily! Brewed with cherries and almonds, the cherry flavor takes center stage, but the almond flavor is there and compliments the cherry nicely. It's a little sour and tart, but not overly so. If you can get your hands on one, I would say that this beer is well worth the price.

Corsendonk: Christmas Ale ($$)

One of my favorite Christmas Ales, Corsendonk's offering is a Belgian Dark Strong Ale (8.5%) with flavors of mild chocolates, dried fruits, rum, and cherry cola. It is perfectly balanced and can be enjoyed all night.

De Dolle: Stille Nacht ($$)

This year was my first experience tasting this Belgian Golden Ale, and boy it packs a punch! The 12% ABV is felt right away, and it warms your insides the whole way down. With aromas of tropical fruit and cloves, there are flavors of rich brown sugar, toffee, allspice, banana, and cinnamon. This is a powerful and very full flavored beer; enjoyable, but sip it slowly. I could see this one responding nicely to some time in the cellar.

Avery: Old Jubilation ($)

Speaking of time in the cellar, I tasted a three year old "Old Jubilation" from my cellar this year. What a lovely beer it is, and time was really on its side. An 8.3% Winter Warmer, there are rich flavors of coffee and ripe fruit, with a faint tartness to it. The age helped to blend the flavors, but it didn't eliminate the booziness: unlike "Ris a la M'ale," this beer shows you every inch of it's 8.3%!

Southern Oregon Brewing (SOB): Old Humbug ($$)

I picked up this bottle in the fall of 2011 and pulled it out this year. Though described as an 8.2% Winter Warmer, it seemed to more closely resemble a mild barleywine. A fantastic nose of chocolate, wet dirt, raisins, and cherries gave way to a surprisingly thin mouth without a hint of a finish. A tad disappointing  especially after such an incredible nose.

Anchor: 2012 Our Special Christmas Ale ($)

Surprisingly low ABV for a Christmas beer, Anchor's 2012 Christmas offering is a 5.5% Winter Warmer. What it lacks in alcohol, though, it more than makes up in flavor and body. A huge up front candied cherry aroma mixes with scents of wintergreen and bubblegum. Almost tart in the mouth with an ashen finish, there are hints of pine resin and a dry-hopped earthiness. Their recipe for this beer changes every year, and I really found this year's version quite special.

Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams): White Christmas ($)

Probably one of the more unusual Christmas offerings I've had, "White Christmas" is a 5.8% witbier. A little imbalanced and heavily spiced, there are lots of up front spicy cinnamon and clove flavors that blend with a distinct wheat and banana yeast character. By no means a bad beer, though probably not among my favorite recipes for the season.

Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams): Merry Mischief ($$)

Another Sam's Christmas beer, this could hardly be more different from "White Christmas." Labeled as a "Gingerbread Stout," this 9% beer is intense with a ginger and molasses nose, and flavors of pecans, ginger, and blackstrap molasses. Nutty and sweet, the beer is over the top, but really fantastic. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, but I was very, very pleasantly surprised. I don't know how long they are going to brew this beer, so if you can get your hands on it, give it a try.

21st Amendment: Fireside Chat ($)

A 7.9% Winter Warmer, "Fireside Chat" features rich malts, brown sugar, molasses, and a long hop finish that blends with a slight earthiness. A pleasant beer and very warming.

Anderson Valley: Winter Solstice ($)

My friends with whom I was drinking this 6.9% Winter Warmer really loved this beer, but I found it a tad too artificial for my own tastes. I honestly felt as though I was sipping a Yankee Candle. Candy cinnamon (like an Atomic Fire Bomb without the fire), strawberry, and kool aid fruit punch were the dominant flavors. Not my cup of tea.

Affligem Brauwerij: Affligem Noël (Christmas Ale) ($$$)

This 9% Belgian Strong Dark Ale was lovely from start to finish. Aromas of black pepper mixed with tons of bubblegum. The beer pours crazy clear with a mouth as smooth as silk. Flavors of cloves, fresh bread, and cinnamon round out this perfectly balanced beer.

Churchyard Brewery: Nativity Ale ($)

My first attempt at brewing a Christmas Ale, "Nativity Ale" is a 6.5% Belgian Pale Ale spiced with orange zest, cinnamon sticks, and cloves. The yeast took center stage with this beer, and I tasted dry biscuit and mild fruits. Very little orange aromas, unfortunately, though that might be my only real complaint. Quite drinkable, and one I shall continue to enjoy throughout this holiday season!

Next week: we continue the holiday guide with another set of twelve beers. Until then...