Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas beer! Yes, Virginia, there is such a noble thing.

I'm drinking the Jubelale from Deschutes Brewery. Last year it was horrid, undrinkable. Tree sap hopped with the pine needle nests of four calling birds. This year, mmm not so bad... Actually hoppy, with a very nice color.

I'm behind on my tour of the Christmas beers this year. For one, they all seem to have gone up in price. This is sucky. For two, the first few I got were disappointing, and then I followed it with the Samuel Adams Winter Case, which has always been disappointing except for the nice Costco price. But the Samuel Adams Winter Lager was not too bad either this year. I found it refreshing, though not particularly bold nor ambitious as most winter ales are.

People generally don't like "bold and ambitious", with which I can sympathize, but it's good once a year, like garish Christmas decorations are good once a year. And most of these bold beers are well-hopped, well-spiced, and higher on the specific gravity scale (read: alcohol heavy. Meaning, drink a few and you're more likely to fall down from all that gravity.) so you feel warmer on the inside during cold weather. Interested in starting out on a few Christmas beers? Here's a few tips. (I'm an expert!)

The Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome is a great place to start. (Not Samuel Adams.) It's been bottled longer than just about any other Christmas brew and has a very attractive seasonal label, with a friendly Shakespeare quote on it. It's brewed in the style of the classic English ales, but with a bit of seasoning. It's not too heavy and, frankly, I could drink this any day of the year, but if you're new to this kind of beer you can get a feel for what you're in for without wading too deep into the seasonal spicy boldness. (The label, by the way, claims that the brewer uses "Fuggle and Golding hops with nuances and complexities that should be contemplated before an open fire" and who can argue with that?)

On the other end of the spectrum, all should know about the Anchor Steam Christmas Ale. They claim a different recipe every year, but every year you can expect a dark mahogany, fully-spiced beverage, somewhat ricocheted off a porter. It's practically a chocolate mint beer, with all the spices that dust a wassail, and then some. There's nothing like it. People new to beer will hate it, but old brew meisters LOVE IT to no end. I've always felt kinda funny about the stuff, but I find myself enjoying it in an odd way, if only for that pretty tree on the label. But I don't know how to describe this beer. If you put coffee, chocolate, brandy, rum cake, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, spearmint, caramel, and whatever random moldy fruit you had on the counter, into a blender and then let it ferment, you might have one nasty disaster, or you might have the perfect winter beer, Anchor Christmas! Anyway, everyone should try it. (This year's recipe feels a bit more mellow than previous years, so it's a good year to be a first-timer.) They also sell it in a magnum, and claim it tastes better after a few years of aging. Maybe it does, for the fourteen people in the world who age their beers.

I personally go for the Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. You can buy it most anywhere, and it's a hoppy, flavorful winter brew with some citrus notes that raise a December eyebrow like no other winter beer will. If you try this one first and discover yourself liking it, you may find that no other Christmas beer compares. If you don't like it at all, well... sorry -Christmas beers, most likely, are not for you.

There are many others, and I am happily working my way through them as a public service. (You're welcome.) Redhook's Winterhook used to be the best winter beer around, a truly stunning display, but now it tastes like it was brewed in a corporate reindeer stable. (I get depressed every year about it. I blame the Anheuser-Busch takeover.) Anderson Valley's Winter Solstice is always highly rated, and highly priced. I didn't like it last year, with its thick cream soda flavor, but I will gladly give it another tasting. That's what's great about the Christmas beers, they're slightly different every year, but altogether reliably pleasing, like the Christmas tree in the living room.


UPDATE: The Anderson Valley Winter Solstice has unique qualities that will really appeal to some. It reminds me of a cream soda, but with a full seasonal ale astride it. It's a winter beer for a sunny afternoon on the slopes, where the Anchor Christmas is one to have alongside a full holiday meal, and the Sierra Nevada Celebration is an end of day, gift-unwrapping's done kind of beer. They're all a pleasure.