Holiday beers: flavors worth celebrating

December 10, 2003|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,SUN STAFF

IF THE CHRISTMAS lights are glowing, then holiday beers must be flowing.

Traditionally, these richer and sometimes spicier beers appear at the end of the year and are a brewer's way of thanking customers for 12 months of patronage. Recently, winter brews have become part of a brewery's stable of "seasonals," beers with exceptional ingredients and slightly higher price tags that are rolled out during the dark months to keep the sipping scene interesting.

As is my habit, I sat down with a collection of professional beer drinkers - folks who earn their paychecks working in the beverage business - and popped the tops on a crop of bottled holiday brews. They were divided into domestic and foreign categories, and the panel of eight tasters picked favorites.

On the domestic front, Avery's Old Jubilation and Pyramid Snow Cap, both from Colorado; Clipper City's Winter Storm from Maryland; Dominion Winter from Virginia; and the traditional twosome from California - Sierra Nevada Celebration and Anchor Christmas - were the panel's top picks. The flavors of these brews were not shy; they were aimed at people ready to live large.

Old Jubilation and Snow Cap were hearty English-style ales, with the kind of deep mahogany hues usually seen only in wood-paneled offices of top-dollar law firms. The Old Jubilation, about $8 a six-pack and 8 percent alcohol by volume, had pleasing nutty and mocha flavors. The Snow Cap, about $7 a six-pack and 7 percent alcohol, had delightful chocolate notes.

Dominion Winter, a 5.8 alcohol brew by Old Dominion Brewery in Asburn, Va., and selling for about $7 a six-pack, was dark, crisp and marvelously malty. The beer is called a "Polish porter," a moniker I first thought was a bad ethnic joke. But the description actually means this porter uses lager yeast popular in the Baltic, rather than the traditional English ale yeast. It worked.

The Winter Storm, a 7.5 alcohol brew that sells for $7.50 a six-pack, probably had an unfair advantage because we tasted it at its birthplace, Clipper City Brewery in Baltimore County. But we liked this muscular, fragrant, India Pale Ale-style brew anyway.

Last year the tasting panel did not care for the Sierra Nevada and Anchor holiday beers. But this year the Californians, following the lead of their newly elected governor, vowed to "be back."

Fritz Maytag, owner of the Anchor Brewery and a founding father of the American craft-beer movement, often addresses broad themes on the labels of his Christmas beer. The neck label on this year's Anchor pays tribute to the explorations of Lewis and Clark and shows a drawing of a spruce pine cone sketched some 200 years ago by Meriwether Lewis.

This year Anchor Christmas, at $9 a six-pack, is an exotic mix of malt and spices that might inspire guys to do a Lewis-and-Clark and trek across the country to visit the headwaters of this beer, the brewery in San Francisco. The hop heads on our tasting panel loved the Sierra Nevada, which sells for $9 a six-pack. I was not as bowled over as the hop heads, but I had to admit this was a gorgeous beer.

Speaking of looks, the Rogue Santa, at about $4.50 for a 22-ounce bottle, not only pleased our palates, but the image on the label of Santa's giving a power-to-the-people salute captured my fancy.

The imports we favored - the English trio of George Gale Christmas Ale, Ale Mary and Harvey's Christmas Ale, plus the Belgian twosome of Corsendonk Christmas and Delirium Noel - delivered complex, melded flavors.

George Gale, a newcomer at $4 for a 9-ounce bottle, was the panel's overall favorite, getting more votes than the Ale Mary, which was last year's winner and sells for $3 for a 16-ounce bottle, and the Harvey's, which is $3 for 9 ounces. All these British brews are fireplace beers, hearty beverages best enjoyed while in front of a roaring fire.

The Corsendonk Christmas, $7 for a 750-milliliter bottle, is an abbey ale from Belgium. It had tastes of chocolate and raisins and, believe it or not, candy. Somehow the Belgians pull this mixture off. Another interesting Belgian was the Delirium Noel. From the pink elephants on its label to its mixture of malt and sweetness, this brew is exceptional. At $8 for a 750-milliliter bottle, it should be. At 10 percent alcohol, however, you should sip only when you are ready to take a long winter's nap.

Other members of the panel were Dan Zetlmeisl, Ian Stalfort and Mary Zajac, staffers of the Wine Source in Hampden, the liquor store that organized the tasting. Also on the panel were Kevin Gardner, who is married to Zajac; Dave Butcher, an Italian wine specialist for Country Vintner importers; Tom Cizauskas, a brewer who is a salesman at beer wholesaler Legends Limited; and Hugh Sisson, head of Clipper City Brewing and co-host along with Al Spoler of the public radio show Cellar Notes.

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