A request from the sister of Uncle Crappy, who wanted to know about Christmas beer. This adapted version of my December column should fit the bill pretty nicely.
I think Andy Williams was talking about Christmas in general when he sang “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” But he could have been talking about the annual introduction of Christmas and winter beers that have been hitting the shelves for the past few weeks. There’s no single style to look for this time of year, but there are a couple of fairly common characteristics: Spices, fruits … and a little extra alcohol. Hey, you gotta stay warm somehow.
I got my hands on samples of eight seasonal brews and, ahem, suffered through a tasting session to help you put together your holiday beer shopping list. In order of preference:
Troeg’s Mad Elf. The label says Harrisburg, but the beer says Belgium. This bright red ale thrusts the distinctive Belgian yeast to the front, but that’s followed by fruit, specifically cherries, and honey. It’s sweet without being cloying, and finishes with perfect balance. We’re lucky to live in an area that gets Troeg’s products, but Mad Elf doesn’t stay on the shelves long — if you want some, go get it now.
Great Lakes Christmas Ale. Our friends in Cleveland perfected this one years ago, and it’s consistently among the best seasonals out there. You get a mouthful with one sip — hops, nutmeg, apricots with a slightly dry finish.
Rogue Santa’s Private Reserve Ale. Holy crap — Santa has excellent taste. The aroma of spicy sweetness is evident when you pour this Oregon native in a glass, but the taste, at first, is almost all hops. There’s malt, there’s spice, and yeah, there’s an alcohol tinge at the end.
Southern Tier Old Man Winter Ale. Another great wintertime choice for hopheads. The Old Man, brewed in western New York, is a rich copper color, and tastes malty at first. The pronounced hops kick in after that, leaving a very nice balance and robust flavor.
Clipper City Heavy Seas Winter Storm Ale. This Maryland beer is big and hoppy, with a slightly sweet finish that balances with a noticeably warming alcohol flavor. Bringing up the malt would make this even better.
Anderson Valley Winter Solstice Seasonal Ale. From California, this pours deep amber, almost red, and a whiff reveals spice, vanilla and maybe even raisins.
Weyerbacher Winter Ale. This Easton, Pa., brewery is famous for huge beers, and I guess that’s why I wanted a little more from their holiday offering. The roasted malt flavors hit you first, followed by very mild spice.
Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome Ale. The lone import on my list tastes very British: it starts a little bitter — think Bass Ale — but finishes with some of the spice that’s the hallmark of the season.
Those are the ones I found in November, when I was collecting stuff for the column. There are other staples that weren’t out at that point, but are worth hunting down. Look for Penn Brewery’s St. Nicholas Bock — it’s rich, creamy and well-balanced without being gutbomb heavy. Sam Adams Winter Lager is also a nicely balanced beer, with more spice than many of the others in my list. Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale is all hops and spice, and it’s as good as usual.
Perhaps my favorite this year has been Boulder Beer’s Never Summer Ale. It’s strong and hoppy, but the hops don’t completely mask a tinge of caramel malt, spice and a little alcohol. Yum.
The only caveat to the Never Summer pick? We have a bottle of Delirium Noel waiting to be opened on Christmas Eve. It’s Belgian, and last year’s version was so good it was kind of silly. It’s pretty strong, too, at about 10 percent alcohol. Be sure to share.
That’s the list: nothing truly naughty, mostly very, very nice. When you’re doing your holiday shopping — and I know some of you still are — don’t forget to pick up something nice for yourself. And for Uncle Crappy.
UPDATE, Aug. 26, 2007: For some reason, this post has become the overwhelming favorite of those who want to tell Uncle Crappy’s readers about used car dealerships, cheap Viagra and skeezy porn sites. Guys? if you have a comment about the beer, I’ll let it stay.