Brewers celebrate the holiday season with special annual releases designed to bring comfort and joy during the dark, cold nights of winter.
Many seasonal brews showcase herbs and spices, such as Anchor Brewing’s Christmas Ale, released annually since 1975, though the original recipe was much hoppier than today’s version and did not contain herbs or spices. In addition to herbs and spices, other winter brews highlight bracing piney hoppiness, dark-roasted aromas and flavors or rich barrel-aged character suitable for sipping (or sometimes all three!).
Celebration Fresh Hop
Not far behind Anchor in the pantheon of California Christmas beers is Sierra Nevada Celebration Fresh Hop IPA, brewed annually in Chico since 1981. Many people think the recipe changes each year, but Sierra says the flavor variations are due to the character of each year’s hop crop.
The beer – a rich, reddish-orange color with a rocky, beige head – boasts classic American IPA aromas of pine and citrus from Cascade, Centennial and Chinook hops. Celebration features moderate bitterness on the palate, and a flavor profile that highlights bright pine flavors, with malt relegated to a supporting role.
The finish is dry and crisp, and Celebration evokes nostalgia not only with the snow-covered cabin on the label, but also with the classic flavors and aromas of the best early American IPAs, without the intense dankness and tropical fruit notes of many of today’s hop bombs.
San Francisco-based 21st Amendment Brewery has produced Fireside Chat Winter Spiced Ale annually since 2010. Ruby-brown in color with a dense, beige head, Fireside Chat begins as a strong English ale, but the spice additions give it a distinctly Belgian fragrance.
Aromas of sweet caramel malt, cinnamon, allspice and cocoa blend harmoniously, without any one element dominating the others. The flavor is similar to the aroma, though the individual components are even more difficult to detect. Medium bodied with noticeable alcohol warmth, the beer finishes dry and crisp, and the spices and cocoa linger on the palate.
The Bruery in Placentia is well-known for its creative Belgian-inspired brews, and its annual Christmas releases, based on “The 12 Days of Christmas,” are no exception. Their eighth Christmas beer is Eight Maids-a-Milking, a Belgian imperial milk stout that pours a deep chocolate brown color with a tall tan head that fades quickly.
The dark roast, spicy Belgian yeast and sweet lactose combine to create an unusual aroma that reminds me of licorice and burnt popcorn. On the palate, the sweeter elements overpower the roastiness, bringing the focus to the caramel-cream sweetness of lactose, cherry candy flavors of dark Belgian crystal malts, bright pear esters of Belgian yeast and the significant (11.5 percent alcohol by volume) alcohol. Full bodied with a semisweet finish that brings back the licorice notes, the brew is complex and interesting, but the elements don’t necessarily work in harmony.
Santa’s Little Helper
San Diego’s Port Brewing Co. makes two versions of Santa’s Little Helper Imperial Stout – the regular version, at a hefty 10 percent ABV, and the Bourbon Barrel Aged version, which weighs in at a whopping 12 percent. For this holiday column, I opened a 2014 bottle of the barrel-aged stout, and the sweet vanilla and charred oak aromas of the bourbon barrel made themselves known as soon as the cork was removed.
On the palate, the boozy bourbon goodness is also dominant, but it is supported by the rich, semisweet chocolate notes from roasted malts. Inky black with a dark tan head, the roast, hop bitterness and booziness combine to provide a long-lasting, chewy finish. Dark, thick, rich and intense, Santa’s Little Helper will keep you warm on the coldest winter night.
Derek Wolfgram is chief operating officer for the Silicon Valley Sudzers Homebrew Club, which welcomes new and experienced beer enthusiasts. For more information, visit sudzers.org.