Ordinarily I don't do much holiday shopping until the week before Christmas. Frantic buying adds to the drama of the season.
But this year I bought my first holiday beers way back in November. It was Saturday afternoon and I was in between dropping a kid off at a birthday party at some indoor sporting arena and picking the same, if somewhat sweatier, kid up a few hours later.
During those few hours between drop-off and pickup I felt an urge to "get something done." So I went to a liquor store, and bought some Christmas beers. I would like to say I picked this liquor store, Calvert Discount Liquors in Cockeysville, because of its wide selections of beers, or because its proprietor, Geoffrey W. Connor, is a fellow who reads novels and therefore has something to say to customers other than "three for a dollar." But the main reason I walked in the door was that it was right across York Road from the place where I deposited my kid.
Later that night I began sipping in the holidays. It was a pattern of behavior that was to continue for several weeks, as I tracked down and sampled the richer, heavier beers that, in keeping with the brewing tradition, appear around the winter solstice.
Starting with bottled brews and moving on to the drafts, here is the rundown of holiday brews, complete with price and phone number of the local distributor. The distributor can direct you to a store near you or your child's birthday party.
Anchor 1991 Special Ale, Anchor Brewing Company, San Francisco. Calif. About $19 for a 12 pack. Quality Brands, (410) 787-5656. A spiced, dry-hopped ale with a rounder, less extreme flavor than in previous years.
Owner Fritz Maytag said the harmony in this year's ale comes from the addition of a new ingredient that "hugged the other ingredients and brought them all together." But in a phone conversation from his San Francisco brewery, Maytag said he wanted to keep the ingredient a secret for the same reason his mother would never tell him, as a child, what was for supper: "For the fun of it."
Coors Winterfest, Adolph Coors Brewing Co., Golden, Colo. About $5 a six-pack. Bond Distributing Co., (410) 945-5600. The lightest of all the holiday beers I tasted, this has the aroma of a regular Coors but finishes stronger.
Samichlaus Bier 1991 Dark, Hurlimann Brewery, Zurich, Switzerland. About $18 a four-pack. Quality Brands, (410) 787-5656. One beer drinker I know calls this dark, high-alcohol brew the "port" of beers. I think it is more like the cognac, an end-of-the-meal libation, or maybe a meal in itself. This year's Samichlaus does not pack the wallop of previous years, but it is still a mouthful.
Samuel Adams Winter Lager, Boston Beer Company, Boston, Mass. About $6.50 a six-pack. Bond Distributing, (410) 945-5600. The makers of the premier boutique beer of the East Coast have come up with a special brew for the winter and have done a good job. The lager is a beer-bottle brown that starts with a hearty flavor then finishes with a surprising yet pleasant bite.
Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome, Sam Smith Brewing, Yorkshire, England. About $4.50 for an 18.7-ounce bottle. Quality Brands, (410) 787-5656. A beer with a striking purple label and a steep price. Smooth but lacking in bells and whistles that other holiday beers offer.
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico, Calif. About $7.50 a six-pack. Wines Ltd., Beltsville, (301) 317-0000. The hoppiest of holiday ales, this is traditionally the one that other brewers are in awe of.
Fans of this brew marvel at the wondrous display of dry hop flavors. I usually wonder if I want to drink more than one bottle. In previous years I didn't, this year I drank six. Who changed? I say the Sierras came to me.
Baltimore Brewing Company's Christmas Double Bock, 104 Albemarle St., (410) 837-5000. $2.85 a glass, $10 a growler refill. What a beer! Rich, malty, indulgent, yet with an edge. It's everything I want to be. A lager as classy as the wreath of hops that hangs over the bar.
Santa Class, British Brewing Co., Linthicum, (410) 789-0003. About $2 a glass at selective pubs, among them Sisson's in South Baltimore and the Wharf Rat Pub in Fells Point. Somewhat lean in the body, but with a surprising tongue tingle. I suspect hops.
Sisson's Christmas Ale, Sisson's South Baltimore Brewing Co., 36 E. Cross St., (410) 539-2093. $2 a glass, $7 a growler refill.
I tried three different times to get a glass of this holiday beer, but persistence paid a handsome reward. This nut-brown ale has pleasing flavors. A natural sweetness, a flash of chocolate and hoppy finish. A glass of comfort and joy.