'Tis the season to drink special suds. Holiday beers, the special blends that brewmasters traditionally make around the winter solstice, are here.
This year the thirst for holiday beers seems strong. Snow Goose, for example, the first winter beer brewed by Wild Goose brewery of Cambridge, was gone almost as soon as it landed in Baltimore. Similarly, a spokesman at Bond Distributing Co. said the only way Baltimore-area beer drinkers could get bottles of Samuel Adams Winter Lager would be to buy a 12-pack containing a variety of the Boston brewer's beers.
I limited my tasting of holiday brews from foreign lands to Samuel Smith's from England and Samichlaus from Switzerland.
Here is a summary, starting with bottled beers and moving on to the drafts. The name and phone number of a local distributor who can direct interested imbibers to a nearby store is also listed.
* Anchor 1992 Special Ale, Anchor Brewing Co., San Francisco. About $9 for a six-pack. Quality Brands, 787-5656.
Owner Fritz Maytag described last year's holiday beer as the best beer he ever made. This year's, he said, was "pretty much the same as last year's, with one major difference." He wasn't saying what that was, but the difference I tasted was that this year's had a much spicier finish than last year's classic.
* Catamount Christmas Ale, Catamount Brewing Co., White River Junction, Vt. $8 a six-pack. Wines Ltd., Beltsville, 301-210-4000. A clean-tasting, welcome addition from Vermont. It delivers its holiday message with a snappy finish rather than a load of spices.
* Coors Winterfest, Adolph Coors Brewing Co., Golden., Colo. About $6 a six-pack. Bond Distributing Co., 945-5600. Bolder than a normal Coors, with much more aroma. Bordering on indulgent for the Silver Bullet set. The recession must be over.
* Geary's Hampshire Special Ale, Geary Brewing Co., Portland, Maine. About $8 a six-pack. Bacchus, 633-0400. Exceptionally smooth ale from the north country. Similar to hard-to-find Snow Goose.
* Samichlaus Bier 1992, Hurlimann Brewery, Zurich, Switzerland. About $18 a four-pack. Quality Brands, 787-5656. The annual heavyweight of holiday beers, this year's entry has the big, at times overpowering flavors. This year, along with its ever-present high alcohol, I thought I tasted some cherries.
* Samuel Smith's 1993 Winter Welcome, Samuel Smith Brewing, Yorkshire, England. About $4.50 for an 18.7-ounce bottle. Quality Brands, 787-5656. Another arty label, but the flavor, rich with no sharps or flats, is the same as last year's.
* Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico, Calif. Wines Ltd., Beltsville, 301-210-4000. About $7.50 a six-pack. My favorite of the bottled holiday beers. Magnificent round, full of flavor. No harsh notes. This holiday beer has such powers that after drinking one I almost enjoyed putting up the family Christmas tree.
* Snow Goose Winter Ale, Wild Goose Brewing Co., Cambridge. About $7 a six-pack. Best Way Distributing Co., 732-9100. A little darker and heavier than Wild Goose, this scarce holiday brew goes down very easily.
* Winter Anniversary, New Amsterdam Brewery, Utica, N.Y. About $6 a six-pack. Quality Brands, 787-5656. A new brew from New York that has almost as many things going on in it as the New York street scene, "Dance of The Battery." on its label. Its aroma jumps out, its color is dark and it has a zingy finish.
* Baltimore Brewing Co.'s Christmas Double Bock, 104 Albemarle St. 837-5000. $2.50 a glass, $9 a growler refill. Once again, Theo de Groen has made a remarkable holiday brew. A full lager with terrific top-of-the-mouth finish. Better even than last year's, which was my favorite holiday beer of all time.
* Santa Class, British Brewing Co., Linthicum. 789-0003. About $1.75 a glass at area pubs, among them Racer's Cafe at Harford Road and Taylor Avenue, a refurbished pub with five holiday beers on tap. More tingle than the usual Oxford class, and a hoppy finish.
* Sisson's Prancer's Pride Christmas Ale, Sisson's South Baltimore Brewing Co., 36 E. Cross St. 539-2093. $2 a glass, $8 a growler refill. A nut-brown ale with hint of sweetness, and a serious spice finish. Sippers can play an enjoyble game of "name that spice." This, I think, is the best spiced holiday ale Hugh Sisson has brewed.