All fine, fun, and worth trying

A recap of the 12 beers of Christmas — seasonal brews for the beer lover

WILLIAMSVILLE — This year, I did it again.

Last year on my blog, I started to pick a one-a-day holiday beer or winter warmer on Dec. 20 in a 12-day headlong rush to New Year's Day. This year, I tried a little earlier in a headlong rush to Christmas Day.

I never meant the list to represent any kind of ranking order or even a guarantee of good drinking; the beers were just 12 I picked up and went through one day after another, sometimes solo, sometimes with family assistance.

But they were all fine, fun, and worth trying.

1. Anchor's Our Special Ale 2013

Anchor's Our Special Ale is an annual given for me. All we really need to know is 1) how the 39th rendition tastes and 2) what tree is on the label.

Anchor tinkers with its recipe each year (though remaining tight-lipped about it), and slaps a new tree on labels drawn by artist Jim Stitt.

It's a pretty label this year of the California White Fir. It's a pretty beer, too - a deep garnet. In the nose this year, there's a bit of chocolate and plum.

It was a little mild, too - maybe too much so. The aroma is alluring and the beer starts off promisingly, with a sweet entrance, an immediate tart mouthfeel swimming in fruity aromas. But there seems less of last year's fruity tartness and more of a gingery spiciness that quickly flattens out and finishes thinly, without any closing snap.

This one isn't going to go down as one of the best of the bunch. Hell of a label, though.

2. Troëg's Mad Elf Ale

I tried my first Mad Elf a few nights ago and immediately reported to the social media: “Couple of those Troëg's Mad Elf beers and they can go ahead and cut the bullet out of you.”

Seriously, unless stretched out over hours, two of these in a night, and you're finished; call a cab. It's going to be a new seasonal staple for me.

The brewers were clearly having a free-for-all in coming up with the recipe for this one - adding honey and sweet and sour cherries to the boatload of malts and hops, along with a hybrid Belgian yeast. Still, the effect of the beer is less likely to be stimulative than narcotic.

Though I've run across the brewery's Trogenator double bock now and again, the beers aren't distributed in Vermont. Luckily, I ran into the Mad Elf in Massachusetts.

Once it's open, taking your time with it is worthwhile, as the beer will change character as it warms. The initial sensation is pretty sensational; both the cherries and honey seem evident in the nose and swirling in the sweet depths of the palate, along with spicy notes and a nice biting finish.

Let it sit for an hour or so and the carbonation will die out, turning the beer into a velvety dram.

3. Victory's Winter Cheers

I decided to greet winter with a suitable beer. The increasingly reliable Pennsylvania-based Victory Brewing Company has come up with a nice twist here, a spicy (yet not spiced) wheat ale that manages to be both highly refreshing and hearty enough at 6.7% ABV to chase away any chill.

Winter Cheers will be a good choice for those who eschew overly sweet winter beers stuffed with the usual fruit cake spices. Yet it has a spicy, peppery quality and there's plenty of clove character in this fruity, tart, estery mix.

Colored like hay, the beer is mildly cloudy as opposed to the often turbid quality of hefeweizens. The nose is a flowery bouquet, with notes of lavender, lemon, banana, and clove - very appealing. The beer lands spritely and spicy on the tongue, a touch of malty sweetness stirring in with a lemony tartness, a hint of anise and a finishing pucker that feels like a kiss. But if it goes down easy, it's no pushover, and demands respect.

4. Magic Hat's G-Thing

Of course, it will help with the G-Thing, a ginger-spiced ale, if you like ginger, and cinnamon, which I do. All bets are off, otherwise. The ginger character comes from the addition of ginger juice, along with six malts, an English ale yeast, and some cinnamon.

It's a deep mahogany brew, brimming with ginger aroma. I had a real sense memory thing going on when I took my first whiff of G-Thing. It reminded me of some kind of chewy, gingery Pine Bros. cough drop, which I indeed used to buy and devour pretty much like candy when I was a kid.

So to pin a “tastes like a cough drop” label on this beer is not indicating a blemish in my book. There's enough malt backbone to make for a lightly sweet, medium-bodied beer with its holiday gingery snap. Not a world-beater, but not bad for what is probably its sole trip around the block.

5. 10 Barrel Pray for Snow

With this year's weather, it makes sense go straight to the advice on the Pray for Snow label: “Drink Beer/Stay Warm.”

Easily enough done when the beer is a 7% ABV winter warmer like this one. Surprisingly for a Northwest beer, Pray for Snow is malt-accented, seven different grains producing a deep amber brew with sweet caramel notes, the toffee entrance quickly giving way to a spicy bite on the tongue from noble hops.

There are no bells, whistles, spices, weird yeasts, or barrels involved. It's a straightforward, smooth, ample mouthful that goes down easy and seems well-suited to sipping from a snifter by a wood stove.

6. Corsendonk Christmas Ale

The surprise to me was that the venerable Corsendonk tasted quite a bit like Pray for Snow. It's sweeter, though, with more depth, hop spiciness, and yeasty mysteries.

The beer is a dark brown, giving off notes of chocolate and a touch of smoke, with a citrusy tart finish. It's bottle-conditioned, and it could certainly be cellared for a few years. It is a beauty, almost a model Christmas beer, although that impression might come from a more-than-nodding acquaintance with Corsendonk, among the first batch of abbey, Trappist, or other Belgian oddities I had back in the prehistoric days.

On one of my first trips to Brattleboro, I went to Three Dollar Deweys, which had recently been taken over by Ray McNeill. I ordered something called Bios, a Flemish sour, and Ray warned me that it was a little different. Indeed it was, but wonderfully so.

7. Mahr's Bräu Christmas Bock

I need to try more Mahr's brews, if the Christmas Bock is a typical example of their brewing skills. All the peppery bite from this faintly chestnut-colored beer comes from the assertive hopping dancing with a robust, bready malt character. So as sweet as the beer is, the caramel tones are melded into a heady mix of fruit and perfume. Well-balanced, frothy, refreshing, and delicious.

The little I know about Mahr's Bräu is that it's a relatively small, family-owned independent in Bamberg, into its fourth generation of the Michel family at the helm, though the brewery claims to date back to 1670.

Our sole lager on the list, but a worthy one - one you could eagerly drink all evening as opposed to repeats of highly spiced ales.

8. Sixpoint Global Warmer

So what better choice for this screwed-up-ness of this winter's weather than Global Warmer?

We've even got some New England poetry on the side of its svelte 12-ounce can, the first four lines of Robert Frost's “Fire and Ice”:

§Some say the world will end in fire,

§Some say in ice.

§From what I've tasted of desire

§I hold with those who favor fire.

Sixpoint, founded in 2004 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, has taken the notion of a winter warmer, kept a strong malt profile with lots of crystal and bits of chocolate malt, left out spices, but hopped the hell out of it (70 IBUs) with Citra and Simcoe.

They call the end creation an Imperial Red, and certainly it's a lovely amber. But it could just as easily be called a double IPA. This is a sweetish hop nectar; those looking for darker, malt-rich spiced beers will have to look elsewhere, though there's plenty of spiciness here just from the hops and yeast.

Sixpoint Founder Shane Welch recommends letting the beer warm a bit before drinking, claiming it will open up the flavors more. I'd already finished my first can before I ran across this useful tidbit, but he might be onto something.

9. Nöel des Géants

I picked this one up mainly because I'm a sucker for good-looking bowling-pin-shaped bottles. The beer is imported by the Shelton Brothers, who call it a gruit and coyly let on that its spiciness is due to a “delicate addition of a special aromatic herb from the region of the brewery.”

Leaving the rest of us to go crazy trying to figure out what it is. My wife even thought it might be endive.

The beer is certainly more herbal than hoppy, and I started tasting everything as I let the beer sit around for a while, from cinnamon to anise to juniper to just about anything else I could imagine.

It's an unfiltered, unpasteurized, bottle-conditioned brew. It remained yeasty throughout, with a touch of garden hose, malt-accented but hardly sweet. A giant enigma.

Still, I had no trouble working my way through a 750 ml bottle in the course of the night. In the end, the beer strikes me as more intriguing than lovable. But intriguing enough that I'd be willing to try it again.

10. Mikkeller Hoppy Lovin' Christmas

I wound up doing bartender duty of sorts at the Christmas bash at Wildwood Barbeque, the restaurant in Hadley, Mass., owned and operated by my son-in-law and daughter.

I brought along the Mikkeller Hoppy Lovin' Christmas and poured plenty of samples. The instant Wildwood verdict - everyone loved it. Of the seven or so samplers, I think every one of them used the world “delicious” to describe the beer.

A big IPA brewed with ginger and pine needles, HLC is smooth overall, but the hop profile has a pronounced citrus smack, and there's certainly some ginger tang, too. There's a piney hop note, but otherwise frankly little evidence of pine needles. Nice to know they're there, though.

Like many of the Mikkeller beers, this one is probably an ephemeral thing. If you run across one, buy two.

11. Harpoon Winter Warmer

The Harpoon Winter Warmer is an old standby, brewed since 1988 by the Boston (and Vermont) brewery, hence an early exemplar of the spiced-winter-beer style. It's a coppery beer packed with cinnamon and nutmeg, tends to the sweet side, and after a quarter century, it produces its own nostalgia.

The beer also seems to produce reactions at both extremes on beer rating sites: folks who love it and those who hate it (much as pumpkin ales seem to do these days); indeed, the Winter Warmer wouldn't be out of place in that category.

Harpoon had another idea, however, and that is to mix the Winter Warmer with their Craft Cider, producing what they call Apple Pie. So I tried it. At first I was aghast, feeling I'd ruined a perfectly decent beer with a cider I don't particular care for.

But I let it sit awhile, tried it again, and dang if it didn't give off apple pie aromas and flavors. Granted, still not an apple pie I'd want to be eating.

12. Dupont Avec les Bons Voeux

The best of my 12 beers (saved for last) was introduced in 1970 by the brewery that gives us one of the world's great saisons, Saison Dupont. Although pegged as a winter seasonal, Avec les Bons Voeux is actually produced year-round in limited quantities.

It is of the same family as Dupont's other beers, but it packs a heavier punch. This corked and caged brew is unfiltered and a hazy orange in the glass, giving off aromas that are sweet, fruity, and absolutely alluring: lemon, apple, plum, and apricot, with perhaps the faintest whiff of anise.

The taste follows through, but the sensation is of a highly effervescent brew that scours the mouth, adds some mineral, pepper, and a trace of funk, and finishes as dry and tart as champagne.

But keep your champagne, I'll have the Dupont.

After a raucous day of tearing into Christmas gifts and then tearing around the house playing the Lazer Tag game we'd given the grandchildren, we popped open the beer as a dinner aperitif. If strong, it still works perfectly in the role.

Everyone else found it most appealing, and all too easily drinkable for a beer of this strength, so tread carefully.

We took a break with dinner, another amazing Lynn Bedell spread, accompanied by the more local Berkshire Brewing Company's Holidale Barleywine Style Ale.

Finally, it was me to the keyboard, along with the evening's digestif and nightcap of another Avec les Bon Voeux. (So much for the plan of cellaring the beer.)

It worked perfectly - is working perfectly - in this role, too, as well as a fitting end to this year's survey of a dozen beers for Christmas.

So, avec les bons voeux, à la prochaine mes amis!

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