Written for the Burlington Free Press by Jeff Baker http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/life/food/2016/12/08/recommended-holiday-craft-beers-jeff-baker/95160812/
This time of year the beer store shelves fill up with kitschy-looking holiday beers. Santa sticking out of chimney with his posterior facing up, Christmas trees adorned with holly and ornaments, picturesque fireplaces with stockings hung, snowflakes swathed across the label: All are aimed at grabbing our nostalgic attention without regard to what’s actually inside the bottle.
I find that most folks I talk to about holiday beers believe that they all contain some amount of spice. While some do, such as Anchor “Christmas Ale,” others, like Samuel Smith “Winter Welcome,” contain no spices whatsoever.
To help you with your holiday beer shopping, I thought I’d share with you some of my favorites that will be on shelves this season.
De Ranke (Belgium) “Père Noël” – A small producer of very fine ales, De Ranke offers us this 7 percent Belgian amber ale brewed with just a kiss of licorice. This is earthy, herbal licorice, not the sticky black candy you pick around in the candy bowl at your grandparents’ house. It is lightly bitter and very balanced with a dry spicy finish. It is truly unique.
If well-balanced, judiciously-spiced Belgian ales are up your alley, you might also try St. Bernardus Christmas Ale or Corsendonk Christmas Ale. If you want the full holiday spice cake experience, reach for Gouden Carolus Noël.
But if spices aren’t part of your holiday celebration shopping list, don’t write off all Belgian brews. Brasserie Dupont (Belgium) “Avec Les Bons Voeux.” which translates to “with good wishes from the Dupont brewery,” is released to the U.S. market just in time for the holiday season. “Avec” is a strong saison, a farmhouse-style ale that is coppery-golden in color, medium-bodied and has flavors of mixed citrus, white pepper and a lovely spicy yeast note that dries out the long finish. No spices are added during the brew; all the spicy character is from the yeast. It’s crisp enough to cut through richer dishes on the holiday table yet rich enough itself to not get lost among strong herbs and spices. This year, you’ll see some 2012 and 2014 vintage magnums (1.5 liter cork-and-caged Champagne-like bottles) in Vermont bottle shops.
One of my favorite releases every year are the highly-ageable Samichlaus beers of Austria. This year you’ll see three different versions available in Vermont beer shops. All three clock in at a respectable 14 percent alcohol and are all rich and on the sweet side. Think Oloroso or cream sherry. The “Classic” is the original Doppelbock lager version; “Helles” is a pale-hued Helles Bock; and “Schwarzes” is a strong black lager.
Before you go thinking that holiday beers are all about Christmas, check out a four-pack of He’Brew (New York) “Hanukkah, Chanukah, Pass the Beer.” This year it’s an 8 percent alcohol golden ale brewed with cocoa nibs, eight types of malts and eight different hop varieties to “celebrate all the miracles of the eight crazy nights.”
Two Roads (Connecticut) “Holiday Ale” is a French-style Bière de Noël, which is a more malty variation of the Bière de Garde. This deep amber, malt-forward farmhouse-style ale is rich in caramel and toasty grain flavors, but dry on the finish thanks to a balanced hand when adding the French Strisselspalt and Aramis hops.
Rock Art (Morrisville) “Mountain Holidays in Vermont” – A perennial favorite, this rich, creamy bock lager packed with flavors of caramel, vanilla, toffee and dried fruits. Silky smooth, it’s great for the dinner table or just with a nice book by the fire.
This year, the Berkshire Brewing Company (Massachusetts) “Holidale 2016” edition is a double IPA brewed with gooseberries. The result is a malty-rich IPA with a tart, cutting edge thanks to the tropical green gooseberries. (Gooseberry is one of the flavors commonly associated with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.)
And no list of holidays beers would be complete without including Anchor (California) “Christmas Ale.” The recipe is top secret and changes with every release. Each year the brewers start with a dark ale and add a mélange of spices. I recently tasted the 2016 release and noted flavors of cocoa nibs, nutmeg and dried citrus peel.
Malty and spiced are not for everyone. I suspect a few readers are wondering where all the hops have gone. If hoppy is more your speed, grab a six-pack of Rogue (Oregon) “Santa’s Private Reserve,” a double-hopped red ale.
Send me your favorite holiday brew suggestions on Twitter – I’m always looking for new ones to try.
Happy holidays everyone.
Jeff S. Baker II is the Curator of the Curriculum for Farrell Distributing. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @aPhilosophyOf. Jeff co-hosts the “It’s the Beer Talking” podcast found on iTunes and Soundcloud. More info at www.burlingtonfreepress.com/news/podcasts