Tasting holiday beers is one seasonal ritual that I look forward to. I enjoy sampling the fatter beers that brewers roll out for their customers in December.
I've heard several stories of how the holiday practice of making bigger beers got started. One was that brewers used to put extra ingredients in their special year-end batches as a way of saying thanks to their customers. Another was that the extra ingredients got in Bock beer, a German seasonal brew, because once a year a brewer scraped off the sides of his brewing kettles. This version of the story was passed along to me by Theo de Groen, owner of Baltimore Brewing Company, who added that it would have been true only during the old days of brewing beer. Nowadays the stainless tanks are too slick and the cleaning is too rigorous for ingredients to linger.
Fritz Maytag, president of Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco, linked the December celebration back to when ancient villagers worried that the sun would sink from the winter sky. Then, after the December day that later was called the winter solstice, the days started getting longer. The villagers rejoiced that the sun wasn't going to fall. And some celebrated with beer.
I listened to Maytag's remarks, via telephone, on a dark windy December evening. It was the kind of weather that ordinarily made me want to crawl into a cave. If I had been a villager, I would have been one of the worriers. But Maytag's words inspired me. Instead of holing up in my urban cave, I ventured out to try holiday brews.
In all I tasted 11 special seasonal brews from America and Europe. Nine came in bottles and two locals were on tap. In general my feelings toward these brews were "Bless 'em all, the long, the short and the tall." I did, however, think some were more blessed than others.
My favorite bottled holiday brew was Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome, followed closely by the brews of Anchor's Special Ale, Young's Winter Warmer, Samuel Adams Winter Lager, Coors Winterfest,Hacker-Pschorr Fest Beer, Moretti's La Rossa, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, and Samichlaus Dark.
As for the winter beers that flowed from the tap, it was a virtual toss-up between Sisson's Christmas Ale and the Baltimore Brewing Company's Christmas Bock beer. If pressed I would nod toward Sisson's, which tasted slightly fruitier to me than the Christmas Bock, a lager.
So with my prejudices in mind, here, in alphabetical order, is a rundown of the holiday beers I was able to get my hands on. Since these beers come in limited quantities and all liquor stores don't carry them, the name and phone number of the local distributor is included. Curious customers may call the distributor who will refer them to a nearby source of special suds.
Bottled brews: Aass Winter, Aass Brewery, Dammen Norway (about $9 a six-pack, Bestway Distributing Co. 732-9100). The traditional brew in the beautiful bottle. Very hoppy andone bottle is enough to make you very happy.
Samuel Adams Winter Lager, Boston Brewing Co., Boston, (about $6 a six-pack, Bond Distributing Co. 945-5600). Malty, a double dip of the regular Sam Adams. An after-snow-shoveling beer.
Anchor 1990 Special Ale, Anchor Brewing Company, San Francisco, (about $17 for a 12 pack, Quality Brands 787-5666). As always, this year's Anchor brew is a masterful blend of many flavors. I found it kinder and gingerier than last year's holiday brew, which I tasted side by side with the 1990.
Coors Winterfest, Adolph Coors Brewing Co., Golden, Colo. (about $5 a six-pack, Bond Distributing Co. 945-5600). The biggest selling of all the holiday beers, it is also the least expensive. It tastes like a heavier Coors, which, in this company, makes it a light-heavy weight.
Hacker-Pschorr Fest Beer, Hacker-Pschorr Munich, Germany, (about $7 a six-pack, Bestway, 732-9100.) Tangy bordering on bitter, yet zesty.
Moretti La Rossa, Birra Moretti, Udine, Italy, (about $6 a six-pack F. P. Winner Ltd. 646-5500). A newcomer from Italy with very strong fruit flavor and nutty finish.
Samichlaus 1990 Dark, Hurlimann Brewery, Zurich, Switzerland, (about $16 a six-pack, Quality Brands 787-5666). The name means Santa Claus and the beer is brewed on the feast day of St. Nicholas. It is known for its 14-15 percent alcohol. This year the alcohol is down and the flavor is up, yet it is still the stuff that long winter's naps are made of.
Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome, Samuel Smith Brewing, Yorkshire, England, (about $4 for a pint bottle, Quality Brands, 787-5666). The label carries images of a priest, a turkey, a mom, a dad, a grandma and grandpa as well as a quote from Shakespeare: "Blessings on your heart, you brew good ale." Somehow all these elements work together. The same is true of the ale's taste, many fruity flavors all singing in harmony.
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico,Calif., (about $7 a six-pack, Wines Ltd. Beltsville, 301-317-0000). The same scenic label showing a snow-covered cabin. Similarly this year's ale continues in the tradition of big-flavor with bitter finish. People who like the ale say it's a classic. I say I like the bottle.
Young's Winter Ale, Young and Co. Brewery, London, (about $8 a six-pack, Bestway, 732-9100). It smells wonderful, delightfully malty. Its flavors match its aroma, roasted almost like a porter.
Baltimore Brewing Company's Christmas Bock, 104 Albemarle St. ($3.85 a mug) This beer is rich, almost red, with excellent body and a crisp finish. A fitting way to celebrate this establishment's first Christmas.
Sisson's 1990 Ale. Sisson's Restaurant, 36 E. Cross St. ($2.75 a pint). This is such a high-gravity brew -- lots of ingredients -- it took seven days longer than normal to emerge from the tanks. Full yet flowery.