Ales of Christmas Roundup (2014)

It’s that time of year again when I roundup the Christmas and winter ales and decide which one was the best. Actually, I admit it’s a little late this time, but I got sidelined with a stomach bug, plus I was a little more ambitious about the number of beers I wanted to include in the roundup. Anyway, enough excuses. I wanted to include more beers this time because it definitely seems as though there are ever more Christmas and winter beers available each year. I’ve also noticed about previous years that I’ve started with the bias of trying beers I knew I already liked or that I probably would like, so I wanted to include more that I had never tried, or ones that I thought I might not like that much. I thought this would give more meaning to the reviews of the ones I really did like. I thought it might also help you, the reader, figure out if you think your tastes align with mine when I trash a beer you’ve loved for years. First, some caveats as I always do. Christmas beers and winter ales are not all the same. They vary widely in terms of what the brewer considers a Christmas or winter beer. There are dark English Old Ales, Fresh Hop IPAs, Spiced Lagers, Barleywines, Belgian Strong Ales and numerous other variations in between. Thus, in some ways rounding these kinds of beer up is a little like comparing apples and oranges. However, there are clearly some I liked more than others and that’s what I intend to focus on. Here are the 19 beers I tried for this roundup, in no particular order: Samuel Smith Winter Welcome, Lagunitas Brown Shugga, Brooklyn Hand & Seal, Shiner Cheer, Redhook Winter Hook, Samuel Adams Winter Lager, Affligem Noel, Smuttynose Winter Ale, Uinta Yard Sale Winter Lager, Widmer Brrr Winter Ale, Anchor Merry Christmas and Happy New Year 2014, Great Lakes Christmas Ale, Avery Old Jubilation, Great Divide Hibernation, Weyerbacher Winter Ale, Ommegang Adoration, Hardywood Gingerbread Stout, and Bell’s Christmas Ale. Out of these some subcategories of winter beers did emerge, for example Lagunitas Brown Shugga is really an IPA; Samuel Smith Winter Welcome, Avery Old Jubilation and Great Divide Hibernation are all English Old Ales; Affligem Noel, Troegs Mad Elf and Ommegang Adoration are all Belgian Strong Ales. A category more specific to Christmas would be the dark ale with some kind of Holiday spices or other flavoring added, for example, Redhook Winter Hook, Smuttynose Winter Ale, Widmer Brrr, Anchor Merry Christmas, Great Lakes Christmas, Weyerbacher Winter Ale and Bell’s Christmas Ale. Shiner Cheer sort of falls into a category of its own. It’s sort of like a winter ale with spices added, except that they add peaches. It’s not an overpowering flavor, but it’s noticeable. It was the only one where peaches were added to a winter beer, at least that I found. I liked it a lot. In fact, it was probably the biggest surprise among the bunch. Brooklyn Hand & Seal is a barley wine and strong at that – 13%. It was also aged in bourbon barrels. It came out really bourbon-y and boozy. The flavor was a little overpowering at first, but mellowed as it warmed. Hardywood Gingerbread Stout was the only stout I had, but there are other winter stouts. Samuel Adams Merry Maker is another good example, though I didn’t have it for this roundup. Winter Lager is a new thing I don’t think I’ve seen before, though perhaps the Samuel Adams Winter Lager has been around before. Both the Samuel Adams Winter Lager and the Uinta Yard Sale fit this category. The Samuel Adams was dark, but the Uinta was golden. Both were pretty typical lagers, though the Samuel Adams was a tad malty. In the end, there were few surprises, the ones I thought I would like I did and the others were quite as good. The biggest surprise was Shiner Cheer, which I would definitely have again. I give it three out of five proper pints. The standouts were Mad Elf, Great Divide Hibernation, Avery Old Jubilation, Lagunitas Brown Shugga, Hardywood Gingerbread Stout, Bell’s Christmas Ale and Affligem Noel. While it’s a difficult choice to narrow them down, I would say my two favorites for this year were the Hardywood Gingerbread Stout and the Mad Elf. The Hardywood is just a perfect balance of roasty stout, slightly sweet with the lactose that makes it a milk stout, and the gingerbread spices. It’s got a nice warming feeling to it with its 9.2% ABV and it just feels right having it at Christmas time. I actually did have it on the day after Christmas. Five out of five proper pints. The Mad Elf is tough to beat and has been my number one choice for two previous years. It’s got so much going on with the cherries, figs, raisins, honey, and the warming alcohol from the 11% ABV. It really feels like Christmas in a glass to me. Five out of five proper pints for that one. I can’t not mention Great Divide Hibernation, with it’s dark brown toffee and caramel color and flavors, along with some roastiness and coffee. Five out of five for that one as well. Avery Old Jubilation also gets an honorable mention, with its dark caramel flavors mixed with brown sugar, adding a little sweetness in contrast to Hibernation’s roastiness. Also five out of five proper pints. I feel compelled to mention the Brown Shugga as well. I really enjoyed it, but it wasn’t what I expected. Given its name, I thought it would be more along the lines of a dark, spiced winter ale. However, it is really more of an IPA. It has a sharp aroma and taste of piney hops. It’s also lighter in color than I thought. More like a deep copper than a brown. The distinguishing thing about it is the addition of brown sugar, which adds more character to the IPA flavor. It gives it some caramel, toffee and, well brown sugar flavor in addition to the hops and malt backbone. The different and contrasting flavors mix and balance nicely making it a really pleasant beverage. I didn’t like it quite as much as some of the others, but I would definitely have it again. Maybe saving it for those nights around Christmas when I might have pizza instead of a roast beef or turkey. Happy Holidays everyone!

Great Divide Peach Grand Cru

I tried this beer for the first time at the Great American Beer Festival and the person who served it to me told it would change my life. I’m not sure I would go quite that far, but this is a very, very good beer. I usually am not a fan of peachy beers, but this one really is not peachy. There is a subtle hint of peach that rounds out a strong Belgian ale flavor. No doubt this one is strong, clocking in at 12% ABV. For those of you who didn’t know, there are peaches grown in Colorado, on what they call the “Western Slope” of the Rocky Mountains. Peach Grand Cru is made with these local peaches. Anyway, back to the beer. It pours a light orange-copper color. The aroma is slightly peach, slightly Belgian yeast, slightly bread. The flavor is a mixture of bread, malt, peaches, apricots, yeast, and a little bit of caramel. Nicely blended together. The alcohol is well hidden. There is almost no booziness to it considering it’s big ABV. I happened to have it sitting next to the fireplace and reading a book. I could see it going well with a variety of things. Chocolate, possibly, pizza, pasta, beef, lamb. I give it five out of five proper pints.

Dogfish Head Raison D’Extra

I really love Dogfish Head Raison D’Etre, so I was excited to learn they have an Incredible Hulk version of it. I managed to find some at Norm’s Beer and Wine in Vienna, VA. It is $12.99 per 12 oz. bottle, as a warning. Nevertheless, it is worth every penny. It really can be difficult to add lots more malt and other stuff to a beer and have it come out balanced, but Dogfish Head manages to really make this one taste similar to the little brother version of it. It is raisiny, malty and yeasty. However, this one is also warmly boozy as well. I believe it would age well and goes very well with dark chocolate. It is almost along the lines of a barley wine, but not sweet. It does also have a slightly thick body to it though. I shared the 12 oz. bottle and half was plenty at 18% ABV. I really like this beer. Five out of five proper pints.