Winter beers get warm welcome

November 28, 2007|By ROB KASPER

Dreaded holiday duties such as stringing the lights become much easier to perform, I believe, when you reward yourself with a hearty holiday beer. This year, brewers in America and Europe have given us an ocean of winter beers. At a recent tasting of winter beers, our local panel sampled 52 entries, a record number.

A couple of decades ago, these seasonal beers were hard to find and were generally called "Christmas beers." Now most are known as winter warmers, a name that offends no one and extends the selling season into January.

The beers made in the winter-warmer style show a big malt presence, while the hop bitterness is low, according to the Beer Advocate Web site. While some winter beers have spice, and some stress chocolate and coffee notes, for me the overriding theme of these beers is "more." They have more malt, more flavors and usually more alcohol - 6 percent to 10 percent alcohol by volume - than everyday beers. But unlike some hyped-up heavily hopped beers, these beers are not outrageous.

I like to think of winter beers as a "thank you," a handshake from the brewer to his customers. The "thank you," however, comes at a price, usually a dollar or two more than the standard six-packs.

These beers go well with cheese, smoked meats and fish. In my experience, they are at their peak when you sit in a comfortable chair, sip the beer, then revel in the rhythms of the season.

There are surprises each time our tasting panel picks its favorite winter beers. This year, the surprise was that three of our top six domestic beers were from Maryland. The Snow Goose Winter Ale, Clay Pipe's Pursuit of Happiness Winter Warmer Ale and Clipper City's Winter Storm were brewed locally. Our panel members could be accused of being "homers," but we didn't know what we tasted. The bottles we sampled were cloaked in brown bags.

We also liked three out-of-towners: Allagash Grand Cru from Portland, Maine; Brooklyn (N.Y.) Black Chocolate Stout, and Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale from Chico, Calif. On the international front, we picked three balanced English ales (St. Peter's Winter Ale, Ridgeway Lump of Coal and Samuel Smith Winter Welcome) and three very strong Belgian brews (St. Bernardus Christmas Ale, Kerstmutske Christmas Nightcap and Equinox Dark Winter) as the beers we would like as companions on a winter's evening.

Finding holiday beers can be tricky, so along with the listing of the panels' picks, I have included the name and telephone number of the beer's distributor, who can direct callers to stores that carry the brew.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

The tasting panel's picks

Domestic

Snow Goose Winter Ale:

Wild Goose Brewery, Frederick. A perfectly balanced winter brew with toasty body. $6.99 a six-pack. Sanders Distributing Co., Taneytown, 410-756-4419.

Clipper City Winter Storm:

Clipper City Brewing, Baltimore. An extra-special bitter with sweet, fruity malt notes matched with dry, bittering hops. $8.49 a six-pack. Republic National Distributing Co., 410-724-3300, ext. 6564.

Pursuit of Happiness Winter Warmer Ale:

Clay Pipe Brewing, Frederick. A delightful mix of caramel malt and hops with a pleasing pine finish. $8.99 a six-pack. Sanders Distributing, Taneytown, 410-756-4419.

Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout:

Brooklyn (N.Y.) Brewery. A dark, sweet brew that could pass for an after-dinner drink. $8.99 a six-pack. Dops Inc., Fort Washington, 301-839-8650.

Allagash Grand Cru:

Allagash Brewing Co., Portland, Maine. A big, burnt-orange brew redolent of fruit with gentle spice. $7.49 for a 22-ounce bottle. Dops Inc., 301-839-8650.

Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale:

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico, Calif. A classic that delivers yet again. More hops than most winter brews; terrific aroma. $9.99 a six-pack. F.P. Winner, 410-646-5500.

English

St. Peter's Winter Ale:

Suffolk, England. A ruby ale in a pale-green bottle that masters the malt-hop balancing act. $3.99 for a 17-ounce bottle. Dops Inc., 301-839-8650.

Ridgeway Lump of Coal:

Ridgeway Brewing, South Stoke, England. A black beauty, this stout has rewarding tart toffee flavors. The label cheekily says this brew is much more than you deserve this Christmas. $5.99 for a 16-ounce bottle. Dops Inc., 301-839-8650.

Samuel Smith Winter Welcome Ale:

Samuel Smith Old Brewery, Tadchester, England. Classic malt flavors; very easy to drink. A label only graphic designers could love. $4.49 for an 18-ounce bottle. Reliable Churchill, 410-439-5000.

Belgian

St. Bernardus Christmas Ale:

Watou, Belgium. Dark and potent, packing a sweet wallop at 10 percent alcohol. $10.99 for 750 milliliters. Legends Ltd., 410-325-6611.

Equinox Dark Winter:

Brasserie de la Senne, Sint-Pieters-Leeuw, Belgium. Dark ale that cloaks the 8 percent alcohol behind fruit and sugar notes. $12.99 for 750 milliliters. Dops Inc., 301-839-8650.

Kerstmutske Christmas Nightcap:

Lochristi, Belgium. Dark, sweet, with notes of cherry and pumpernickel; a sip of this at bedtime would give you sweet dreams. $12.99 for 750 milliliters. Dops Inc., 301-839-8650.

[Tasting panel: Al Spoler and Hugh Sisson, co-hosts of the "Cellar Notes" radio show on WYPR; Brian Leonard, Jed Jenny 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; her husband, Kevin Gardner, and Rob Kasper.]

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