I spent my first Christmas in Mexico drinking too much Khalua in a hotel in Merida in the Yucatan after a too-long bus ride from Palenque, the Mayan ruins. So I didn’t learn about Twelfth Night until my next Christmas in Mazatlan.
I discovered that Christmas at least among some Catholics in Mexico doesn’t end on Dec. 25. The big feast, presents and all the rest comes on the night of Jan. 5, which marks the arrival of the Magi, the three wise men, in Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant Jesus.
So…with that explanation, here – in alphabetical order – are my 12 beers of Christmas. My criteria: Great beer, with enough muscle to ward off the winter’s chill and fairly easy to find.
- Anderson Valley Imperial IPA., Anderson Valley. Boonville, CA. This beer came out last February, marking Anderson Valley’s 20th anniversary. The event at the brewery was quite a bash and the beer is quite a beer. It’s got everything Anderson Valley’s famous for: 100 IBUs, 8.7 percent alcohol by volume: a big, malty taste up front and a killer hoppy finish. It can still be found and the age won’t have hurt it a bit. I’ve got one more bottle in my beer fridge and I’m saving it.
- Allagash Curieux, Allagash, Portland, ME. Curieux is French for curious. Brewer Rob Tod takes his Tripel, ages it for two months in Jim Beam bourbon barrels. Taste is complex: mildly sour with lots of vanilla and bourbon from the wood. 9.3 percent.
- Fantome Saison, Fantome, Soy, Belgium. Fantome is a one-man show. Brewer Dany Prignone, who has a reputatation for being daring and chaotic, makes Saison year-round, but importer Dan Shelton, of Shelton Brothers, says the ingredients change and he never know what’s in it: apple juice, peach juice, coriander added to a basic mash of two row pale and speciality malts: 8 percent, worth a hunt to find it.
- J.W. Lees Harvest, J.W. Lees, Manchester, England. Truth-telling time: This is one of my all-time favorite beers. It’s released as a “vintage” each year and a tiny, 9.3 oz. bottle can cost nearly $10 and older vintages may cost more. Don’t even blink, just biuy it. The version I like is aged in Calvados (apple brandy) barrels. We can thank Matthias Neidhart, founder of the Los Angeles-based import company B. United for the beer. Neidhart explains that J.W. Lees Ltd., an old-time Manchester, England brewer got the idea in 1986 to make a beer using just harvested Maris Otter barley and the new harvest of East Kent Golding hops. A few years ago, Matthias suggested asing the beer in barrels. It cuaght on and they age some in calvados, some in whisky barrels, some in port and sherry barrels. I’ll take calvados. It’s 11.5 percent alcohol and I can’t think of a better after dinner drink.
- Malheur 10, Malheur Bieren, Brouwerij De Landtsheer, East Flanders, Belgium. The late beer expert Michael Jackson discovered this tiny brewery and rightly extolled its beers. The brewery even makes a beer cave-aged in France Champagne stye, Malheur Brut Reserve. But Malheur 10 is equally delicious and at about $10 for a 750 ml bottle, far more affordable. It’s 10 percent alcohol, a light, unfiltered copper with a nose of spices. The taste is fairly sweet and full bodied with a surprising tart finish.
- Old Stock Ale, 2008, North Coast Brewing. Fort Bragg, CA. Can’t say enough about this aged, high-powered, 11 percent winter bomb. Don’t let the pale copper color fool you, it’s delicious and gut-warming.
- Ommegeddon 2008, Brewery Ommegang, Cooperstown, NY. The style is Belgian saison made with Belgian pale and pilsner malts; hops are Styrian Goldings and spicy Saaz. It’s 8 percent and a bit of brettanomyces wild yeast is added to each bottle for a slow fermentation that turns the beer slightly sour with a barnyard note. Ommegan is now wholly owned by the Belgian brewer Duvel Moortgat and the beer keeps getting better and better.
- Road Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter, Flying Dog, Frederick, MD. Even though they long ago fled Aspen, CO. and after a lengthy sojourn in Denver, now brew in Frederick, MD., Road Dog is one of the beers that delineate Flying Dog’s style: 7.8 percent, 85 IBUs, a dark chocolate color with a silky, velvety taste. My tasting notes say its like a “chocolate shake with alcohol and hops.”
- Santa’s Little Helper, Port Brewing, San Marcos, CA., this one of a long line of strong, delicious tonics from Tomme Arthur. It’s 10 percent, almost jet black color with an aroma of licorice and ripe fruit. It’s faintly sweet with a dry finish. A great beer at the end of the day.
- Salvation, Russian River, Santa Rosa, CA. This is a great beer, a darkly delicious, Belgian-style dubbel that hides in plain site. It’s obscoured by brewer-founder Vinnie Culurzo’s many outstanding beers, like Pliny the Elder, the double IPA, and his many stunning barrel-aged sours like Temptation. Salvation is a true-to-style, 9.,2 percent beer, with Belgian candi sugar added to give the Belgian yast more fermentables and help create a deceptively light tasting, effervescense. I call it sizzle on the tongue.
- Rochefort 10. Made at the Trappist Abbaye Notre Dame do St. Remy, Belgium, this is a dark, strong, 11.3 percent beer. Once imnpossible to find in California, hanks to Mechant du Vin, the Seattle, WA. importer, it’s now easily found. Rochefort 10 (there;s also a Rochefort 8 and a Rochefort 6) is a true Christmas treat. If thick and chewy’s your bag, this one of the good ‘uns.
- Unibroue Terrible, Unibroue, Chambly, Quebec, Canada. Unibroue is now owned by Sapporo, but so far the Japanese maker of bland beer hasn’t messed with Unibroue and zounds! Terribly is awesome. It’s a dark, almost opaque brown with a creamy, tan head with an aroma of alcohol, earthy yeast and licorice. This is a big beer, 10.5 percent alcohol by volume, double the strength of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. It’s a blend of barley malt and wheat and “American” hops. Terrible’s also bottled conditioned, a bit of fresh yeast’s added to each bottle, so a slow secondary fermentation continues in the bottle. The older the beer, the drier it is.