Spreading glad tidings: There's a lot to enjoy in this year's Christmas beers

IN MY GLASS

In My Glass

November 30, 2005|By ROB KASPER

Good things come out of brightly wrapped beer bottles. That is true this time of year as Christmas beers, or as they now are called, winter seasonals, are poured into my glass.

Traditionally these richer, higher-alcohol and sometimes spiced beers have been a way brewers thanked customers for a year of loyal quaffing. It sure beats Christmas cards.

There is still some sentiment remaining in the holiday suds rollout, but there is also a dash of marketing. This is a busy time of year on the imbibing front, and it pays to have your holiday beer out and about in the stores, representing your brewery.

Twenty years ago, very few holiday beers could be found on the shelves of Baltimore-area retailers. Back in 1985, when I began the annual ritual of tasting what then were called "Christmas beers," I had a hard time rounding up samples. The Christmas Ale from Anchor Brewing, Celebration Ale from Sierra Nevada and maybe a Noche Bueno, with a poinsettia on the label, were about all that could be found. Since then, the holiday crop has grown substantially. That indeed is good tidings.

This year, when our holiday tasting panel assembled at Clipper City Brewing, we sampled 37 bottled holiday brews. The brews, wrapped in decorative holiday labels, hailed from breweries scattered throughout the United States and Europe. All are being sold in the Baltimore market. Who says we haven't made progress as a civilization?

This tasting panel, a collection of brewers, retailers and writers, can be a picky bunch. They know diacetyl --- a downer flavor -- when they taste it. But this year's crop of holiday brews, we agreed, had nary a clinker in it. There was one Lump of Coal, a British brew, and a variety of brews called Bad Elf. Yet despite those bad-boy names, the beers were quite nice.

Members of the panel were Hugh Sisson, head of Clipper City Brewing and co-host of Cellar Notes radio show on WYPR; William Stifler and Tim Hillman of the Wine Source, the Hampden liquor store that organized the tasting; Mary Zajac, a columnist for Style and Edible Chesapeake magazines (who in a previous mention here was incorrectly called "Zagac" but has refused to change the spelling of her name); her husband, Kevin Gardner, a devoted beer taster; and Tom Creegan of the Brewer's Art, a downtown Baltimore brew pub and restaurant.

Some holiday beers pleased us more than others, and as is our habit at Christmastime, we made a list. We picked our top five domestic brews, our top two holiday brews from Belgium and our top two from England.

Our top five domestic holiday beers turned out to number seven. There were two reasons this happened. One was a result of trying to count after tasting 30-plus beers. The other reason was that three beers tied for fifth place.

Domestic

Flying Fish Grand Cru Winter Reserve from Flying Fish Brewing Co., Cherry Hill, N.J., $7.99 a six-pack. An American-made, Belgian-style ale, golden, full of flavor, including licorice notes.

Winter Storm Category 5 Ale from Clipper City Brewing, Baltimore, $7.99 a six-pack. Dark as Scrooge's heart, this is a complex, yet joyful mix of hops and malt and is made right here.

Avery Old Jubilation Ale from Boulder, Colo., $7.99 a six-pack. A horse-drawn sleigh is on the label and hops a-plenty are in this dark, delightful brew. Best-smelling beer of the season.

Hebrew Jewbelation, Shmaltz Brewery, conceived in San Francisco, brewed in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., $4.99 for a 22-ounce bottle. Jeremy Cowan, creator of "the chosen beer," says this beer, like the shofar, or ram's horn, delivers "our annual psychic wake-up call." Sweet and surprising.

Stoudt's Winter Ale, Adamstown Pa., $7.99 a six-pack. Chocolate and toffee flavors in a well-balanced brew.

Pyramid Seasonal Snow Cap Ale, Seattle, $6.99 a six-pack. A mahogany beauty with a smooth blend of spices.

Alpha Klaus Christmas Porter Ale, Three Floyds Brewing Co., Munster, Ind., $9 for a 22-ounce bottle. A pricey but flavorful Hoosier version of a London ale. Remarkable hoppy finish. When I worked in this region of Indiana, the beer was never this good.

English

Ale Mary, Wessex Craft Brewers, $4.99 for 17 ounces. A bottle-conditioned ale with hints of raisins and rum. Glorious.

Bah Humbug! Winter Ale, Wychwood Brewery, Oxfordshire, $3.99 for a 16-ounce bottle. Scrooge on the label and a delicious treat inside; crisp and hoppy.

Belgian

Golden Carolus Noel, Anker, Belgium, $9.99 for 750 milliliters. At 10 percent alcohol, it packs a wallop. One taster compared its aroma to tequila, yet this copper brew, refermented in the bottle, is smooth and rich. A terrific sip-by-the-fire beer.

Nice Chouffe Limited Edition 2005, from Brasserie d'Achouffe in Achouffe, Belgium, $7.99 for a 750-milliliter bottle. An ale brewed with thyme and curacao peel, a luscious after-dinner reward.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

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