Holiday beers: something to celebrate

November 26, 2008|By ROB KASPER | ROB KASPER,rob.kasper@baltsun.com

Now that Thanksgiving is upon us, it is OK to drink holiday beers.

I have a confession: Some of us have already started. A little over a week ago, in a move that some might equate with opening the presents before Christmas, I was among a panel of tasters who gathered in a back room at the Wine Source in Hampden, popped the tops off 60 bottled winter beers and "peeked" at what the next weeks of beer drinking have to offer.

The short answer is a lot of good stuff. The Belgians work wonders with sugar and yeasts in their beers. The Americans, an ever inventive lot, delight us with their bigger but balanced brews. And the English deliver toasted and roasted delights.

Whether these beers are called "winter warmers," holiday beers or Christmas beers, traditionally they have something extra - an additional ingredient or an extra helping of malt - that the brewers put in the mix. This year, for instance, several domestic beers have vanilla flavors in them.

The 60 bottles of beer, cloaked in brown bags to hide their labels, were divided among three categories: Belgium, Domestic and English. A panel of 12 tasters - media types and beverage professionals - sipped, scribbled and picked favorites.

Our winners were both predictable and surprising. Two of the six top domestic beers - Clipper City Winter Storm and Clay Pipe Pursuit of Happiness Winter Warmer - were locals, brewed in Maryland. They also were winners in last year's tasting. So, even though panel members did not know the names of the beers until after the conclusion of the tasting, our taste buds could, I guess, be accused of being "homers."

But we also liked Redhook Winterhook Ale, a winter beer from a Seattle brewery that is in partnership with Anheuser-Busch, a big brewery scoffed at by some craft beer drinkers. We didn't concern ourselves with the corporate connections of what was in each glass; we simply rated how it tasted.

Among the English beers, the top finisher was Ridgeway Lump of Coal, another repeat winner from last year's tasting. We might be wrong, but we are consistent.

The big surprise was in the Belgium category. Our top finisher, Klein Duimpje Kerstbier, came from the Netherlands, not exactly Belgium. But I bet you can see Belgium from the Netherlands. The beer had flavors of raisins, dark sugar and, according to one panelist, Earl Grey tea. It was terrific. Later, I saw the label. It had an illustration of two Santas dancing a jig. That is the effect these beers are supposed to have, filling us with winter joy.

Sometimes these winter beers can be hard to find, so I have included the name and phone number of their Baltimore-area distributors, who can refer you to a store that carries the beer.

WINTER BEER FAVORITES

Domestic

Clipper City Winter Storm

$9.29 a six-pack. Republic National Distributing Co., 410-724-3300.

Rich and complex, this ruddy ale is loaded with malt and hops, yet keeps the two in perfect balance.

Clay Pipe Pursuit of Happiness Winter Warmer

$9.99 a six-pack. Bond Distributing Co., 410-945-5600.

This had an intriguing mix of vanilla, pine and hops.

Allagash Grand Cru

$8.99 a four-pack. Dops Inc., 301-839-8650.

Smooth, almost creamy, this brew was laced with pleasing orange and vanilla flavors.

Southern Tier Old Man Winter Ale

$8.99 a six-pack. Legends Ltd., 410-325-6611, says its supply is sold out.

This is a muted and rounded old ale with a tight hop finish. Clean and balanced.

Victory Hop Wallop

$10.59 a six-pack. Dops Inc., 301-839-8650.

This robust ale is a hop-head's Christmas fantasy.

Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout

$9.29 a six-pack. Dops Inc., 301-839-8650.

An imperial stout, here's a beauty with chocolate and espresso notes.

Smuttynose Winter Ale

$8.49 a six-pack. Dops Inc., 301-839-8650.

This is a light-brown, mellow ale with Belgian leanings.

Redhook Winterhook Ale

$7.99 a six-pack. Winner Distributing Co., 410 282-1600.

The piney aromas of this beer remind me of a Christmas tree. The ale also sports floral hops and sweet roasted malt.

Belgium

Klein Duimpje Kerstbier

$14.99 for 750 milliliters. Dops Inc., 301-839-8650.

The name roughly translates, I am told, into Tom Thumb's Christmas beer. It is a rich brew artfully laced with the flavors of raisins and dark sugar.

De Proef Kerstmutske

$12.99 for 750 milliliters. Dops Inc., 301-839-8650.

This is a dark, rich brew with licorice flavor. It is a good brew to sip by the fire.

De Le Senne Zinnebir

$12.99 for 750 milliliters. Dops Inc., 301-839-8650.

Oranges in beer? Somehow, it works.

English

Ridgeway Lump of Coal

$6.49 for a 16.9-ounce bottle. Dops Inc., 301-839-8650.

This dark ale has just the right mix of chocolate malt and coffee notes.

Ridgeway Santa's Butt

$5.49 for a 16.9-ounce bottle. Dops Inc., 301-839-8650.

Dark, and toasted, this is a coffee lover's beer.

Samuel Smith Winter Warmer

$4.49 for 18.7 ounces. Reliable Churchill, 410-439-5000.

Tart and toasty, this has a good malt body.

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