By William Brand
Monday, December 1st, 2008 at 2:27 pm in Uncategorized.
This column appeared in the San Jose Mercury News last Wednesday. Thought putting it on the blog would be a good way to lurch er-launch the holiday season. My big question is, what have I left off. Let’s build a super holiday beer list. Post your comment below. Let’s talk.
By William Brand for the Mercury News
With the economy tanking, the holidays this year loom like the ghosts of Christmas past. Thank goodness for great beer. No, I’m not talking about chugging a couple of sixers to blunt the bad news. I’m talking about holiday beer: stony stuff to sip and savor and share with friends.
Since Roman Catholic monk-brewers in medieval times began creating their best beers of the year to honor the Christ child, the tradition of making great holiday beers has survived. Even the mightiest purveyors of light lagers make extra effort, and some of those — last year’s Michelob Celebrate, for instance — are excellent. But the real stars come from American craft brewers and from abroad.
Which beers are the best? To find out, I sat down with friends last week, and in a couple of hours we tasted our way through a couple of dozen. Here are some suggestions, ranging on my scale from four stars (stellar, not to be missed) to three (very good, worth a try):
- Brrr, Widmer Bros., Portland, Ore. This is Widmer’s first Christmas ale in four years. It was worth the wait; 7.15 percent alcohol by volume, hoppy nose, wild chocolate malt taste, dry finish. Absolutely excellent.
- Our Special Ale, 2008, Anchor Brewing, San Francisco. This 5.5 percent alcohol ale is the true American holiday classic. Anchor founder Fritz Maytag revived the idea of a holiday beer when he launched this beer in 1975. It’s brewed in the English “wassail” style, a brown ale spiced with — well, the spices are secret, but it’s fun to guess. Maybe allspice and grains of paradise?
- Santa’s Little Helper Imperial Stout, Port Brewing, San Marcos (San Diego County). This Santa’s a stunner: 10 percent alcohol, inky black, licorice nose, dry finish. A perfect fireside sipper.
- Stille Nacht, de Dolle Brouwers, Esen, Belgium. It’s hard to find this 12 percent heart-stopper, and if you find an older version, buy it. This dark, fairly sweet beer only improves with age.
- Affligem Noel, Affligem, Opwijk, Belgium. Sure, Affligem is now owned by giant Heineken, but this Christmas ale — spicy, mildly sweet, strong (8.5 percent) — is a good example of the Belgian holiday style.
- Bitch Creek Double ESB, Grand Teton, Victor, Idaho. This 7.5 percent alcohol treat marks Grand Teton’s 20th anniversary. It’s a strong version of the brewery’s prizewinning Bitch Creek ESB. Comes in a 33.5-ounce, wax-sealed, flip-top bottle. A great gift.
- Firestone Walker XII, Firestone Walker, Paso Robles. This jaw-dropping, 12 percent beer isn’t a holiday beer — it just came out at this time of year. But what a great beer. It’s a blend of several beers, mostly barrel-aged. Dark and luscious, it will improve over several years like a great cabernet. The Firestone Walker 10, marking the brewery’s 10th anniversary, is a classic, if you can find it.
- Jubelale, Deschutes, Bend, Ore. Each year this spiced, 6.7 percent ale improves. It has been a fascinating taste voyage as Deschutes brewers adjust the spice and malt. This year’s strikes an excellent balance.
- N’Ice Chouffe, Achouffe, Belgium. I’m a big fan of Achouffe’s beers, and this Christmas special is typical. Big malt presence, dry finish with warming alcohol that lingers on the tongue. It’s 10 percent alcohol by volume.
- Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, Sierra Nevada Brewing, Chico. This is a great beer and easily found. It’s made in the style of an India pale ale, 6.8 percent, lots of malt, plenty of hops. No wonder it has won so many prizes.
- 2 Below Winter Ale, New Belgium, Fort Collins, Colo. Another unusual beer from the makers of Fat Tire. 2 Below has a mild, floral hop nose; it finishes dry with a bit of spice.
- Winter Bock, Gordon-Biersch, San Jose. This is the only German-style lager in the list, but it’s a great one. Brewer Dan Biersch was trained in Germany, and all of his beers are authentic. This is a 7.5 percent, strong beer in the German double bock style. Malt to die for, a bit of hops. A real winter sipper.
AND A FINAL NOTE: In your hunt for that perfect holiday elixir, there’s a brand-new book that can help. It’s Christmas Beer: The Cheeriest, Tastiest, and Most Unusual Holiday Beers, by Don Russell, Universe Publishing, New York, $19.95. Russell, who writes the Joe Sixpack column for the Philadelphia Daily News, combed the world for great holiday beers. He came up with an awesome selection. It’s a great, informative read.
If you’re stumped about where to find good beer in the Bay Area, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and ask for the 2008 Northern California Retail Beer Store List.