SOMETIMES traditions fade, but the practice of brewing a beer to honor the winter holidays seems to be growing in popularity. I say this because earlier this month, when a panel of seven sippers assembled at Clipper City Brewing for our annual holiday beer tasting, 22 different bottles of beer were there to greet us. Ten years ago, only 10 beers showed up for a similar tasting,
It seems to me that one reason for the increase in winter beers is the big jump in the number of holidays that such brews are said to honor. Not so long ago, a brew that appeared late in December was viewed as a Christmas thank-you, a beer loaded with extra malt, select hops and spices, a present from the brewer to his loyal patrons. But beer makers began looking for ways to lengthen their selling season past the end of December. Now a seasonal brew is advertised as a drink to mark the beginning of winter (the winter solstice is Dec. 21), to celebrate Hanukkah (sundown on Dec. 21), and to ring in the New Year.
It has even been linked to Festivus, the holiday made up by the characters on the TV comedy "Seinfeld" and recently resurrected by the Ravens when ordered not to say "playoffs."
As a winter beer, Festivus is one fine Belgian-style ale. It was one of the panel's favorites. It had a dynamite opening aroma of fruit and ginger, a substantial, malty body, and an impressive hop finish. The beer had been brought to the tasting by Chris Cashell and Volker Stewart, who had pulled a sample, on draft, from the barrels at their Brewer's Art on North Charles Street.
Since you can't buy it in a bottle, I think Festivus is an ideal "pub-crawler beer." This refers to the tradition of visiting local pubs for the winter beer they have on tap. If I were conducting such a downtown tour of hand-tapped holiday suds, I would stop at Brewer's Art for Festivus, at Capital City Brewing in the Inner Harbor for Fuel, its chocolate-espresso stout; at Baltimore Brewing Co. on Albemarle Street for its prize-winning Doppelbock, and at the Wharf Rat on Pratt Street for its English-style Oliver's Christmas Ale.
Meanwhile, back among the bottled beers, each panelist looked at the 22 bottles, then took one down, passed it around and rated it on aroma, body, taste and finish. Besides Cashell and Stewart, the panel consisted of Hugh Sisson of Clipper City Brewery; Tim Hillman, Dave Butcher and Dan Zetlmeisl of Rotunda Wine & Spirits, who organized the event; and myself.
One of our favorites turned out to be Clipper City Winter at $7 a six-pack. It had its usual fine nose, coupled with a well-structured malty body. The hops, unlike previous years, were well behaved. The Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, $7 for six, was also a top finisher, mainly because it lived up to its name. This is a beer for folks who like their suds, their chocolate and their coffee. Another big chocolate hello was delivered by Old Dominion, a brew that marries the best of beer and cocoa. It sells for $6.50 a six-pack. Pyramid Snow Cap, at $6.50 a six-pack, also appealed to our dark side. From England there was Youngs Winter Warmer, $3 for a 16-ounce bottle, an old smoothie.
Among the spiced ales, the favorite was Anchor Christmas, $10 a six-pack, from Anchor Brewing in San Francisco. This is one of the breweries that got holiday beer started in this country, many solstices ago. This year's brew tastes of nuts and caramels with hints of pine and lemon spice. This is a hearty beer, one to drink when the sun goes down and the temperature drops.
Finally, Delirium Noel rounded out our favorite winter beers. Besides having a name that captures the mood of the season, Delirium, $8 for a 750-milliliter bottle, had a sweet, faintly citrus flavor. It also had a big, pink elephant on the label. It is hard not to like a pink elephant, especially when you are overcome with the spirit of Festivus.