For beer lovers, the holiday season brings many gifts from the brewing industry. The production of winter beers pre-dates modern history, beginning as a way for pagans to celebrate the solstice.
Of course, with the advent of Christianity, these brews eventually became known as Christmas beers, and now in our modern era of PC, er, enlightenment, they are known simply as "holiday beers." I couldn't care less what they're called-so long as they remain shining examples of what's possible when one applies a little creativity to beer-making.
Holiday beers are an ideal canvas for experimentation, since it's not such a formal beer style. Generally, holiday beers are higher in alcohol, to fortify you against the cold. But these beers are often flavored as well, with various herbs, fruits and spices.
Older, more established breweries tend to produce relatively tame versions of holiday beer, with the younger upstart breweries turning in more adventurous offerings. Whichever one you choose, it's hard to go wrong. These beers offer brew-masters an opportunity to show off their skills, and they rarely disappoint.
I purchased these at Holiday Wine Cellar in Escondido, but at least four of them are available at Beverages and More or Whole Foods. My friend Todd and I tasted our way through them all and ranked them; they are listed below in descending order, starting with the best.
Surprisingly, to me anyway, our favorites by far were from two California microbreweries, hardly the place a traditionalist would expect to find exemplary holiday beer.
Anderson Valley Brewing Company-Winter Solstice Seasonal Ale: "Goddamn, that is fantastic," said Todd after tasting this one, and I couldn't agree more. This reddish-brown beer has one of the most unusual noses I've experienced. The fruitiness is overwhelming, but not a Belgian style of yeasty fruitiness. No, this is more like actual fruit. It smells like blueberries, with a bit of vanilla thrown in. It also tastes like blueberries and vanilla, though not overwhelmingly so, and it has a great mouthfeel-rich and creamy. Stellar. Run, do not walk, to Beverages and More and snap some of this up while you can.
Anchor Brewing-Our Special Ale: This seems to be based on Anchor's Porter. Nearly black in color, with a slight reddish-brown hue and creamy head, the nose on this one is pretty wild. Vanilla, molasses, brown sugar and a hint of smoke mingle in the aroma. My guess is that it's been aged in bourbon barrels. Lots of toasted malt flavors, suggestions of coffee, vanilla and a mild vinous quality give this beer a complex palate, while the prickly carbonation livens up the creamy mouthfeel. This is another must-purchase.
Wychwood Brewing-Bah, Humbug: Reddish-brown in color with a very thin head, this beer is quite delicious. You can really taste the toasted flavor of the malt, which helps to temper the sweetness. The toasted flavors and nutty finish made me think of this as a Newcastle Brown Ale for grownups (read: less sweet). Great match for English cheddar cheese or beef stew.
Samuel Smith-Winter Welcome: This was the first holiday beer I'd ever had, and, honestly, when I was in my 20s it was a bit much for me. Now, it seems kind of tame to my taste buds. Still, this is a textbook example of a holiday beer, arguably one of the oldest around. Spices aren't used here-instead, this is a beer built strictly from the flavors of malt and hops. It pours with a lovely orange color, the nose giving off subtle suggestions of caramel. Full-bodied and quite rich, this beer has an abundance of malt sweetness tempered by a light touch of hops on the finish. In a word: graceful.
Hitachino Nest-New Year's 2006: Hitachino Nest is one of the oddest breweries around, a Japanese microbrewery that produces Belgian-style ales. The Nest produces some really stellar beers (like its Japanese Classic Ale, an IPA aged in cedar casks), and the New Year's beer I had when 2004 arrived was similar to one of my favorite trappist ales, Orval. So it was with high expectation that I sampled this one, only to find it kind of disappointing. It's very sweet, which comes as no surprise since it's spiced with orange peel, coriander, nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla bean. The problem is there's nothing to counter this sweetness, so the end result is kind of one-dimensional. Still, it's by no means a bad beer; it just didn't rise to the same level as the others.This list is far from exhaustive; there are many other holiday beers out there that are worth your time and money. Don't be afraid to experiment, as single-bottle prices on these can run as low as $2.