EVEN BEFORE the last piece of pumpkin pie falls, the Christmas season begins. Late this week, malls will be clogged with holiday shoppers. Neighbors will electrify their lawns. Christmas-tree operations will sprout in parking lots.
Instead of fighting such goings-on as premature celebrations, I plan to go with the flow, to dive into the holiday activities that I enjoy. Chief among them is sampling holiday beers.
I say it's the season for beer. Some serious sippers might disagree with this declaration, arguing that beer is never out of season. They believe that beer is an appropriate beverage for every major moment in life, from baptisms to wakes to Thanksgiving, an occasion that until recent years has been an uncontested turf of wine.
I am not yet a believer in the omnipresence of beer. But during recent Thanksgiving gatherings of my clan, beer has been showing its foamy head.
Cold ales are always consumed after the annual old coots versus young whippersnappers basketball game. Last year, I even sipped a glass of Marzen, during the early courses of the feast, before eventually yielding to the pleasures of pinot noir and cabernet.
Tomorrow, I am planning to serve an after-dinner beer, the Samuel Adams Chocolate Bock, during that "pat your stomach" period of the Thanksgiving gathering when sated souls sit in thick chairs, replaying the delights of the table and talking about the coming holidays.
Whether they are called Christmas beers, holiday brews or winter warmers, the brews of the season traditionally have been viewed as end-of-the-year gifts from the brewer to its customers. They are richer, sometimes sweeter and usually pack more alcoholic wallop than the beers brought forth in the lighter, sunnier months of the year. They are, in effect, a beer drinker's Christmas bonus, even though we beer drinkers have to pay a premium price to get them. Welcome to the new economy.
Holiday beers also have gone global, with seasonal offerings from Belgium, England and Italy often appearing in your neighborhood American dispensary.
This year, a favorite of our holiday beer tasting panel was a beer called "He' Brew The Chosen Beer's Jewbilation." This ruby-colored beer is made with eight malts, and according to Jeremy Cowan, the founder of the Shmaltz Brewing Co. in San Francisco, grew out of his 1996 experiment to make a beer that celebrates the eight days of Hanukkah.
As is the custom, members of our holiday beer-tasting panel -- a group of 10 who make their livelihood either by brewing beer, selling it or appreciating it -- gathered at Clipper City Brewing. We sipped this year a crop of 31 bottled holiday beers, and scribbled down notes and voted for our picks in two broad categories. One consisted of our favorites from America and England. The other comprised the holiday brews from Belgium and beyond.
In the American/English group, the top vote-getter was Old Dominion Winter Brew ($6.99 a six-pack) brewed in Ashburn, Va. This dark chocolate beer, which according to the label is an imperial stout, was the yule crowd pleaser. "It has a little bit of everything, but not too much of anything ... a very drinkable winter beer," summed up the views of one taster, John Pollack of the Old Vine Shop on Falls Road.
Another taster, Mary Zagac of the Wine Source, the Hampden liquor store that organized the tasting, praised its "brown-sugar candy" notes and long-lingering finish.
Finishing right behind it was the Clipper City Winter Storm ($7.99 a six-pack), a beer that panel member Volker Stewart, proprietor of the Brewer's Art brewery and restaurant on Charles Street, put at the top of his list of American winter ales. "I think it is much more subtly done than some of the hop bombs produced by other American micros," Stewart said.
Next came Jewbilation ($4.99 for a 22-ounce bottle). "One of the surprises of the session," said Tom Cizauskas, a brewer and beer salesman. Who knew, the panel agreed, that Hanukkah had such a balanced beer?
A perennial holiday favorite, Pyramid Snow Cap Ale ($6.99 a six-pack), once again impressed the panel. "It is crisp, with ginger notes; tastes likes it was just made yesterday," said Zagac. Victory Hop Wallop ($10 for a six-pack) certainly lived up to its name. "Wowsers!" said Cizauskas. Pollack praised its "citrus" and "grapefruit" flavors. Tim Hillman, another panel member from the Wine Source, liked its balance.
Four beers, each drawing four votes each, finished in a tie. There was the Snow Goose ($6.99 a six-pack), a brew Hillman described as "slightly spicy."