Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Beercrft newspaper column #1: Holiday Ales

By Mark Tichenor and Bruce Lish

Jingle. Jingle. The arrival of the Holidays also means the proliferation of holiday beers on store shelves and in pubs everywhere. Some beer lovers find these spiced seasonals gimmicky, while others swear by the big flavor as the perfect winter nightcap. Rest assured, however, that there are plenty of holiday-themed beers that please the palates of seasonal celebrants everywhere.

Some say that the holiday ale tradition dates back to medieval times, when beer was a monastic thing. Supposedly, monks would brew special beers using special ingredients to celebrate the birth of Jesus. We’ve yet to run into a myrrh ale, so it’s hard to vouch for this story. More likely, some guys with tie-dyes, ponytails, and goatees brewed them up as a marketing ploy. At least on this side of the Atlantic.

Whatever the motivation, holiday ales are popular around the globe, and have been so for a while. While some are available year-round, many holiday ales are only distributed from November to January.

By general convention, holiday beers are dark, sweet, substantial ales, usually spiced with clove, cinnamon, and/or nutmeg. Many emphasize the “warming” quality with alcohol contents ranging from 6-7% by volume, as opposed to the 4-5% range within which most American lagers fall. Be careful, the extra percentage points can make themselves known in a hurry.

It is in the judicious use of spices that the best seasonal beers begin to distance themselves from the also-rans. Spices are a potential buzz kill for beer. Unless
used VERY sparingly, and at the proper time during the brewing process, they will overwhelm the flavor profile of the beer leaving it tasting like a biter spent teabag.
the spice essence should be most prominent in the aroma and less so in the flavor (Christmas trees are a joy to behold, but not as much fun to drink).

With this in mind, we hopped over to Acme Pizzeria to sample and suggest several locally-available holiday ales.

First up: a classic, Anchor Holiday Ale. The Anchor Brewing Co. produces a different holiday beer annually. Each year, a unique spice blend is used, and the brewers add a different pine essence.

This year’s caramel brown beer has a clove-tinged bouquet with a noticeable pine aroma. spices, are most pronounced on the front of the tongue, and the beer finishes with a balanced malt/hop taste. Anchor is a bit heavy on the “Holiday” side of things, so it might be a bit much for light beer drinkers. For those who like their Christmas spirit in liquid form, though, a couple of pints of Anchor Holiday beat eggnog hands down.

Some aficionados keep a few bottles from each different year on hand and hold "vertical tastings," opening them all and distributing a few ounces of each beer to each participant to taste, contrast, and discuss the beer from each year

St. Gootz Christmas Ale, from Vermont’s Magic Hat brewery, is more subtle. It’s like a German Dunkel Weizen with a mild mix of undefined spices, which linger briefly on the palate just inside the threshold of perception. Essences of clove and rasin are evident.

The beer is a rich maple color, with an attractive tan head. It balances toward sweet malt instead of hops, and its surprisingly light body makes St. Gootz a good choice for people who don’t like hevier beer. It also goes surprisingly well with pizza.

Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale is an easily found bottled alternative that looks great in any refrigerator. It wins scads of medals in beer competitions and is generally regarded as the queen of holiday beers. Celebration leans toward the dry side. Chinook and cascade hops lend a Pacific Northwest microbrew taste with a spicy bite.

Finally, there’s the local player. CB’s Christmas Ale, by Custom Brewcrafters, reminds us that there’s a lot more to the Honeoye Falls-based brewery than brown ales and IPA. This beer is skillfully spiced, with a cinnamon essence. More important, the spice is layered upon a rock solid, well-balanced beer that doesn’t attack your mouth with bitter hops, nor is it cloyingly sweet from too much malt.

One of the good things about being in Rochester is we get to enjoy these beers in their proper context; it would be more difficult to savor brews this robust in the 80 degree heat of Arizona. Thanks to the brewers and sellers of these fine ales for turning the bitter cold into an asset. Cheers and Happy Holidays!

Bruce is a certified beer judge and former commercial brewer. Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to beercraft@rochester.rr.com

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