Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Christmas beers: An early tasting…

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.

Some of the holiday beers we tasted. Tasters at Wine Thieves in Lafayette (CA.) inlcude Michael Condie, Tim Clifford, Steve Drury and Wine Thieves proprietor Rod Santos.

Some of the holiday beers we tasted. Tasters at Wine Thieves in Lafayette (CA.) inlcuded Michael Condie, Tim Clifford, Steve Drury and Wine Thieves proprietor Rod Santos.

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):

Four stars

  • 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.

Three-and-a-half stars

  • 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.

Three stars

  • 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 and ask for the 2008 Northern California Retail Beer Store List.

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  • jeff


    Just curious where you found the Port Brewing Company’s Santas Little Helper? Would like to pick up a bottle or two.

  • Jesse

    I would be sure to check out Shamltz Brewing’s Jewbelation 12 – it’s brewed with 12 malts and 12 hops for 12% ABV. It’s a lot like a Russian Imperial Stout – pair it was a really dark chocolate or carmelized cocoa nibs for a great winter treat.

    It’s a big, big beer that I blame on stashing away toa ge for a few years as well.

    – Jesse

  • William Brand

    Let’s see…Santa’s Little helper came from Monument Wimne & Spirits in Concord (Ca.)
    Jewbelation wasn’t out yet when we did the tasting. Intend to try it soon.

  • Scott B.

    I got my Santa’s Little Helper at City Beer.

  • James

    Have you tried Hoppy Holidaze by Marin Brew CO. sold in 22oz bottles at my Bevmo for $4.99 So far I’ve dabbled in two winter brews Holidaze and Wassail by full sail (6.99 six-pack). I’d say Hoppy Holidaze takes the cake of these two, but also liked the Wassail, had a dark roasted malt flavor with alcohol undertones.

  • The Duke Of Dunkel

    Ledger in Berkeley also had plenty of Santa’s Little Helper.

    Jewbelation 11 was outstanding, and a steal at under 5 bucks. Can’t wait to try 12.

    By the way, William, FW-12: 3 1/2 stars? You had it at 4 in your other column, you know…

  • Scott B.

    I think it was the Firestone Walker 10 that Bill gave the 4 stars to…and the FW 12 a 3 1/2.

  • piercival

    Do try the Black Diamond Winter Ale; a 7.4% Belgian style Dubbel, it’s malty with some nice plum and raisin notes and an even roastiness.

    Available in draught (aka Elf’s Ale) and bottles. BevMo and other finer retailers are stocking it now.

  • BahHumBrew

    Hoppy Claus from Hoppying Brewing Co and Alaskan Smoked Porter are two of my favorites.

  • jeff

    Recently hosted a christmas ale tasting that included avery old jubilation, st bernardus christmas, great divide hibernation ale, samuel adams holiday porter, samichluas helles, alaskan winter ale and a few others. Really liked the old jubilation, samichlaus and great divide beers. Top notch stuff

  • William Brand

    As you can see from the photo, Alaska Smoked Porter was one we tasted. I left it out, because I intend to write about it in detail in a couple of weeks.

  • William Brand

    Gotta check out Black Diamond.They’re literally in my neighborhood. In fact, I’ll make it a project to find a bottle tomorrow.

  • William Brand

    My opinion on the Firestone Walker 12 is that it’s young, like a promising cabernet. Time will tell. The 10 has matured nicely, ergo 4 Stars.

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  • Jon

    another shout out for the St. Bernardus Noel. Can Saint B do anything wrong?

  • craig

    you can always go to yhe “black diamond” tap 3-6 i think…it’s around the corner form “diablo creek golf course”…and around the other block from my work…the tap room is really well done….and since they raised their prices i stopped going….i mean 4-5$ to drink in an industrail park..(down wind from many nasty things i may add)…is just too much…

  • William Brand

    I’ve visited a few times. $4 – $5? Yeah that’s unfortunately becoming standard. It is hell and gone. Think I’ll look at Monument this afternoon.

  • KC

    Small kvetch: the Anchor Ale aint what it used to be. Back in the early days it was a very, very small production that was only available if you knew your distributor, or got a bottle right when it hit the shelves. And it was different every year.

    Now it is readily available and pretty consistent year over year. I find the nutmeg a bit overpowering. A still enjoy it, but it is not the same…

  • William Brand

    I’ve never been a fan of the Wassail Our Special Ale. Before they started spicing the beer, it was a champion brown ale. Wish they’d go back, but they never will Fritz Maytag loves the historical aspects of wassail.

    The spicing does change from year to year. What I always do is tuck a few bottles away and try them after a year, after two years., Aging reduces the impact of the spicing.

  • Matt

    I wanted to make sure that Anderson Valley got some love. While it may not be a “holiday beer” by name, Christmas doesn’t hit in my house unless Winter Solstice has hit the shelves. Fortunately for all the little kiddies out there, it has hit the shelves. Let the rejoicing begin!

  • William Brand

    Is Winter Solstice spiced this year? Have you tried it? Anderson Valley’s one of my all-time favorite breweries.But sometimes the spicing in Wionter Solstice is over the top.

  • Matt

    I agree, Anderson Valley is great. And yeah, there is some spice to A.V.W.S.. But not to the extent of, say, Anchor’s Our Special Ales of the past (have yet to try this year’s offering). And it’s balanced out by the slightly sweet aftertaste. I wouldn’t call it over the top. Just a great beer for a chilly night. Such as tonight. Speaking of which, I hear my refrigerator calling…

  • William Brand

    Refrigerators do have a way of talking, don’t they.