Here we sit smack dab in the middle of the holiday season. For example, Festivus was a week ago, and Groundhog Day isn’t until February. Why? What holidays were you thinking of?
The best part of the holidays for me is that we’re in the middle of the greatest season of beer tasting. That’s right, it’s winter beer time.
I love the build up to winter beer tasting season. It starts in late August when the beer carrier cartons start to change colors, from the yellows and greens of the IPAs and Pilsners, to the oranges and browns of the Oktoberfests and Bocks. It is always exhilarating to me when I walk into a grocery store around Labor Day and have my first sighting of the Sam Adams Oktoberfest beer. I know that cooler temperatures, and much cooler beers, are just around the corner … and down the hall and through the door on the left.
Of course, as most drinkers of quality beer know, the Oktoberfests typically disappear around October. At least the good ones do. And even though I was informed by a beer guru that pumpkins really don’t add anything to a fall brew, and that it’s really the spices added by the brewer that make the beer taste the way it does, I still enjoy the Pumpkin Ales that roll off the shelf … and down the street before getting smashed by a truck and then turned into pumpkin pie … as Halloween approaches.
But the most wonderful time of the year is when the nights start getting longer, and the air starts getting colder, and all the syrupy beers with their holiday spices that my IPA-chugging friend can’t stand start to make their way onto store shelves and pub pulls. Yes, baby, it’s cold outside. But these beers warm my heart.
And in case you’re in need of some winter warming, I’ll share with you a list, in alphabetical order, of fall and holiday seasonal ales that I’ve tasted thus far. Nothing naughty or nice here, just sweet, malty goodness that makes my mouth wish the winter would last forever.
- Alta Gracia Coffee Porter – Wolaver’s – An outstanding ale made with organic barley, organic chocolate malts, organic vanilla beans, and coffee from a Dominican Republican farm community in Alta Gracia. Yes, its certified organic by the USDA. One of the best coffee porters I’ve ever had … and I don’t even like coffee.
- Anastasia’s Chocolate Fantasy – South Street Brewery – The Charlottesville, VA-based brewery made this Russian imperial stout aged on cocoa nibs. What’s a nib? Who cares? This beer is like a brownie in a bottle. And I don’t even like brownies (the desert kind, not the human kind, which are OK with me).
- Blitzen – Blue Mountain Brewery – This Belgian imperial Christmas ale is a strong dark ale that is rather bold and in your face. Some hints of fruit and lots of malt.
- Choklat – Southern Tier Brewing Co. – OK, so you can get this imperial chocolate stout in the fall, but it’s not available year round. And if it were, you probably wouldn’t want it on a hot summer day. It’s chocolaty goodness, and I don’t even like chocolate. There’s a growler of it in my ‘fridge right now.
- Christmas Ale – Great Lakes Brewing Co. – I love beer made with honey, and this one has that plus some cinnamon to boot. It’s a multiple award winner, so grab some if you can.
- Einbecker Winter-Bock – Einbecker Brauhaus – Lots of malt in this tasty bock made by real Germans in Germany. Watch out for the ABV.
- Elementary Porter – Three Brothers Brewery – A lot of caramel and a little coffee make this a powerful porter. I wish it was available year round. As good as it is, I like it’s companion beer, My Dear Watson, even better. The Baltic porter is a little sweeter with tastes of toffee on the tongue. Alas, I couldn’t get a growler of it because the tap was acting up and it took 10 minutes just to pour a pint.
- Fairgrounds Fall Ale – Three Brothers Brewery – While there might be lots of flavor going on here, the brothers know how to bring it together into a nutty, malty concoction. Nutmeg and cinnamon lead the way, with a little allspice at theback end. Perfect after a day of raking leaves.
- Hardywood Park – Gingerbread Stout – This thing is being traded around my area, which I’ll call Central Virginia, like gold on the Swiss financial exchange. And let me tell you, it’s demanding quite a bit in trade (don’t even bring those Sam Adams winter lagers in here). I managed to get clued in early, and was able to smuggle one out of state to my Dad in Texas. Shhh, don’t tell anyone. Oh, and if you wonder why it’s in demand, imagine the entire Christmas season in a bottle. That’s the GBS.
- Homebody – Three Brothers Brewery – I don’t even like sour style beers, but this tart brown ale was easy to drink despite its bitterness. Probably because brown ales tend to have more malt characteristics, and this one was also made with cherries and vanilla beans. I like vanilla.
- Long Winter’s Nap – Blue Mountain Brewery – Belgian Triple Bock (lager beer) – I don’t know if this beer will put you to sleep or provide you a slap-in-the-face wake-up call. It’s cold fermented for more than two months before release into the wild. Very bocky. Could put a novice into hibernation.
- Polar Bier – Three Brothers Brewery – I’m not usually a fan of wheaty beers, but this weizenbock is so sehr gut, I picked up a growler of it at the brewery. You can definitely taste the allspice and orange peel. But I bet it’s the candied ginger that makes this a wintery wunderbar.
- Pumking – Southern Tier Brewing Co. – The best pumpkin ale I’ve ever had. I know, I know, brewing with pumpkins doesn’t add anything to the beer. Yeah, well tell that to the folks at Southern Tier. In addition to pumpkins, they add two kinds of hops and two kinds of malts to create a copper colored beer that tastes like pumpkin pie. And I like pumpkin pie.
- Secret Spot Winter Ale – Evolution Craft Brewing Co. – One of the more hopped beers I’ve had this season. Still lots of malty goodness to go around, though. The Salisbury, MD-based brewery calls this a nod to the altbiers of Dusseldorf. Jawohl!
- Siren Noire – Heavy Seas – I’ve gotten to know Heavy Seas quite a bit over the last year, mostly because it’s about the only craft beer served at Camden Yards. So whenever I go see the Orioles play, I’m sailing the Heavy Seas. And this one’s made with Belgian coco nibs (anyone know what a nib is?). It’s also aged in bourbon barrels for that extra kick, with vanilla bean flavors as well. I felt like I could part a few seas after having one or two of these.
- Space Heater – Three Brothers Brewery – Winter warmers might be my favorite this time of year. Sam Smith first opened my account for these beers. The brothers have made a malty English ale with the usual spicy suspects – allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger. But this mix is their best. Terribly disappointed I can’t get a growler of it anywhere.
- St. Bernardus Christmas Ale – One must file this under “St. Bernardus” instead of just “Christmas Ale” because it might be the most famous Christmas ale of all. The quadrupel is known worldwide and anticipated by adults as much as Santa Claus is by kids. The good news for us older people is that this Belgian ale made by real Belgians is real. (Sorry, kids, spoiler alert.)
- Winter Solstice – Anderson Valley Brewing Co. – The other winter warmer I’ve tried this season is also delicioso. Tastes of honey and allspice, along with a malty mouthful. It’s the winter compliment to the brewery’s Summer Solstice. I’m just glad it’s my season now.
Of course, the holiday season isn’t over. After Groundhog Day we have Presidents Day, Arbor Day, Flag Day, and Talk Like a Pirate Day (celebrate the latter by drinking more Heavy Seas).
So I’m off to see the folks at Three Notch’d because there’s a Maple Vanilla Porter named “Mathia Sugar Shack” waiting for me with my name on it.
– Eric Van Steenburg