Thursday, December 20, 2012

12 Beers of Christmas: 10 5 Golden Rings and 11 Gifts of the Magi

The presents are all wrapped, the cookies are baked and the Christmas Eve beer is chilling in the fridge; the big day is upon us, but there's still plenty of time to be enjoying the season's finest brews. If you've been following along, you know we're reaching the final beers in my First Annual 12 Beers of Christmas, a coveted position saved for the finest beers I have experienced this season. These are beers that you shouldn't hesitate to try. My Christmas Gift to you:

5 Golden Rings 
Golden Ale, 750 ML. Bottle, 11.5% abv
The Bruery
Placentia, CA

5 Golden Rings is the fifth beer in five years from The Bruery's own 12 Beers of Christmas (Last year was 4 Calling Birds, 3 French Hens before that and so on...), and for me they've been one of the high notes for my Christmas season.

5 Golden Rings is regal, a massively elaborate beer that actually tastes golden. Anyone who is a fan of Fin Du Monde  from Unibroue will find a lot to love in Golden Rings. Both are spicy golden ales, and like its Canadian cousin, it  has a powerful presence with a smooth but sparkling body and a noticeable kick from the high alcohol content.

But while Fin Du Monde is great as a year-round Dinner Beer (and for your Apocalyptic endeavors, since Fin Du Monde is "End of the World" in French, though that's more likely a nod to the hangover you'll get if you overdo it), 5 Golden Rings of course has a more pronounced Christmas feel to it.

The theme of Gold is prevalent, too, with not only its shining color but also its ingredients - pineapple and cake spices, caramel and cinnamon. The flavors are festive, evocative of sweet glazes and cookies and everything you love about the season, but pineapple wins out (that's Christmassy, isn't it? Something about welcoming people into your home?)

How, uh, festive?

It starts sweet with a tart finish from the pineapple. And, like any beer of this fortitude (more than 11%, remember), it lends itself well to sipping and savoring, preferably over the course of a meal. But, please, try to find this if you can. It's an exceptional beer.

Gifts of the Magi
Winter Ale, 10.7% abv
Lost Abbey/ Port Brewing Company
San Marcos, CA

While some beers may overload themselves with flavors to beat you over the head (DO YOU TASTE HOW CHRISTMASSY I AM?), others are content to merely evoke the feeling of the time of year. Gifts is one such beer, and it's a splendid beer that bursts with the flavor of, well, good beer. Copper colored with a spicy nose, wonderfully balanced malts and a hint of hoppiness in the finish, it's a wonderfully clean flavor that is really wonderful to experience.

It harkens back to "old times," (which I grant you I was no part of), but it evokes an old world sensibility and tastes warm and embracing, completely devoid of anything that would deter its straightforward flavors. I had the pleasure of tasting this "fresh from the tap" at Port's brewery after Thanksgiving, and I can tell you it holds up bottled tremendously well.

It sounds like the beer might relegate itself to "basic" with a "play-it-safe" appeal to simplicity, but there's actually a a great deal of Christmas Beer magic going under the hood. While thankfully sans the gimmick of gold leaf (no, it DOESN'T cut the inside of your lip, you goldschlager chugging sorority girl), the other two portions of its namesake are present, with Frankincense bark providing the bitterness and the myrrh giving it the herbal notes. I can't say I've ever consumed either before, nor that I could distinctly hone in on their particular flavors, but whatever their effect, it is anything but unpleasant.

The most unique aspect of the beer, though, might be the use of brettanomyces - literally, "British Fungus," a sort of wildcard of a yeast that is added at the last moments to "shake things up." The yeast is added after brewing has neared completion in hopes of sort of multiplying the flavors. It's a sort of gamble, though, as the yeast can be regarded as a pesky contaminant in other circumstances. Here, though, it brightens the flavors perfectly.

So, there you have it. My cream of the crop, my favorite beers of the season. Please, I implore you, to find these beers and give them a try. Delicious on two completely levels, they'd make any self-proclaimed beer snob (holler!) very merry indeed. Stay tuned for one final Christmas beer!

If you aren't following me on twitter, do so! Lots of mini beer thoughts on there.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

12 Beers of Christmas: 8 Jewbelation 9 Delirium Noel

So after a brief detour into the realm of disappointment and despair (hope I didn't dampen anyone's Yuletide spirits...if I did, by all means drink up), we have returned to a selection of beers that, while perhaps not on my short list for the season, are certainly tasty or at least interesting enough to warrant a try.

Without further hesitation:

16th Anniversary Ale
He'Brew, Shmultz Brewing
16% abv (seriously)

Let it never be said that I don't employ some level of diversity in my drinking - while beers celebrating the Festival of Lights may be relatively few (and by the way- I should hope that no one is silly enough to think that the beers of that other winter holiday are reserved for the Gentiles), a brewery out of New York has taken the Jewish culture and run with it. And run and run and run...

Presumably their first anniversary beer was kinda boring. Image from  Shmaltz
While Hanukah may be over, the brewery had a beer in time to celebrate it (and its own 16th Anniversary) with the Jewbelation, a behemoth of a beer that features a whole lot of everything - 16 hops, 16 malts and 16% abv. Hanukah beer is serious business.

But how does it taste? Well, it's certainly an experience.

The beer is very...everything. Bold, imposing and rich, it practically demands careful sips (chugging is out of the question) given its girth and heavy body. It activates every one of your tastebuds but no sense dominates. Bitter, sour, maybe a bit sweeter - all accounted for. Perfectly black and so thick you could chew it, the mass of malts stand out more than the whole hop harvest, but the flavors sort of cancel each other out. There's certainly a chocolate prevalence here, but it is sort of muddled. Each sip tastes pretty much the same, front to back, from first sip to last dregs.

So it doesn't sound like I liked it very much does it? I won't lie and tell you it's one of my favorites, but there's still something fun about it. Two friends and I stood around and discussed it, sipping and contemplating until a buzz had taken over. Not many beers would command that sort of discussion, so from that perspective the beer is truly fascinating and simply fun to experience. Whether or not I need to do it again is another matter.

The beer itself may be hard to find at this point (sorry...) but look for it next year, when they almost surely find another hop and malt to add...

Delirium Noel
Huyghe Family Brewery, Belgium
10% abv
750 ml 1 pint 9.4 fl oz

If you're reading this blog, you almost certainly have heard of Delirium Tremens, the flagship brew for a small family brewery from Belgium. For whatever reason (that is to say, a reason I will assuredly I investigate in a future in a future blog post), Delirium seemed to spearhead the emerging prevalence of Belgian beers in the United States. For many blossoming beer connoisseurs, Delirium Tremens was their first stop in a tour of more complicated, poignant beers.

And with good reason, really; tasty in its own right, it is well spiced, thoughtfully crafted, and decidedly more intoxicating than your average American pisswater (though it is probably a telling detail as to why anyone picked it up to begin with).

With that in mind, Noel should innately appeal to these drinkers, and it really doesn't disappoint. Noel starts a lot like Delirium, with a bright opening, but it fades into something warmer, gentler, than its year round cousin. The Christmas spices come to the forefront and its body is lighter and its color more coppery brown.

There's a lot of flavors present - a hint of this, a hint of that, a hint of orange, a hint of clove - that burst mid sip before combining into a melded sweet finish. Malts are prevalent here, not the hops, meaning this would please the most staunch IPAaphobe.

It should be familiar and welcome to anyone who is a fan of Tremens, but it manages to be a unique beer all it's own. Noel should be readily available at your favorite beer speciality store.

PS, this totally happened: A flight of 10 different Christmas Beers as part of my Christmas Homecoming Dinner. Tis the season, huh?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

12 Beers of Christmas: 6 and 7 -The Lumps of Coal

Every year, there's bound to be something you just didn't want, wrapped and waiting for you somewhere.

We've all been there - a giftcard to some obscure restaurant chain that is so totally not anywhere near you (oh thanks a burden), or some half-hearted appeal to a hobby they heard you might or might not have. You appreciate the idea but...ugh.

If you give me Bud Light for Christmas, Baby Jesus will cry.
Even worse than that though, is when a package, nicely wrapped and full of promise, reveals itself to be something far, far worse. Like that one Christmas where the package was obviously an N64 game and you so wanted it to be Mario Party (pleeeeease let it be Mario Party), and you told Santa you wanted it to be Mario Party, and you opened it and it turned out to be... Quest 64.

This game also probably made Baby Jesus cry. 
While I might be alone in that specific example, there's a theme here we can probably relate to year-round: when something fails to deliver on its promise, either based on expectation or reputation. Christmas Beer can be a great vestige of this concept, since pretty bottles and relished breweries abound. But things can go wrong, either in concept or execution. Which brings us to...

Yule Smith
Double Red Ale, 8.5 - 9.5% ABV
Ale Smith Brewery, San Diego CA

I find red ale (here an ode to its color, not really a style - it's certainly not a Flemish Sour Red) a somewhat odd choice for the seasonal selection. They tend to have at least some relation to your "standard' IPA, with a more aggressive hop flavor, and evoke a feeling of late summer, maybe early fall more than winter.

Yule Smith is another interesting concoction, since the nose is incredibly floral and hoppy, but the taste doesn't hit as hard as you'd expect. It's a loud flavor at first but simmers down as it goes along. It's got a bit of toasty, maltiness that puts it a bit more firmly into the season, but there's not much in terms of surprising flavor, or spice, or the unexpected. It's pretty content to be a "Winter IPA," if such a beast exists.

As I write this I'm sort of mad at myself for not adhering to my policy of drinking the beer while I write (I'm working from notes for a lot of these), but at I walked away with much of these beers with at least an impression. That's why Yule Smith is a lump of coal; it's not particularly bad, it just didn't do anything particularly special, either.


St. Bernardus Christmas Ale
Christmas Ale, 10% ABV
Brewery St. Bernardus, Belgium

It's no secret that I obsesses over Belgian beer - the flavors, the balance, the body, and yeah, of course, the elevated ABV - everything I treasure in a beer is exemplified by the old family brouwejis in Belgium. So, when they decide to make a beer dedicated to one of my other favorite things - Christmas - the combination makes me far happier than any consumable should.

But something went wrong.

All of the Christmas and winter flavors you'd want out of a Belgian Christmas ale are present and accounted - sweet, malty and creamy with some spice and vanilla, and a lighter body than you'd expect given its dark brown color and ABV. This is obviously not where the problem comes from. No, the issue comes with the inescapable flavor of banana-flavored candy. There was certainly no mention of a banana flavor on the labeling, especially one that tastes like the little yellow boomerang Runt candy (and, really, what says Christmas like fake banana flavor?). So, what happened?

"Come Children, time to observe the ancient Christmas tradition of filling our pockets with Runts in order to appease Santa"

It's just not what they intended, which makes it a different kind of of disappointment. St. Bernardus was bottle-conditioned. To over simplify it, bottle conditioning is a technique that allows the beer to mature and ferment within the bottle instead of before bottling, and is very common with beers of Belgian origin (and, really, any home kit you're going to use). This allows for all sorts of great flavor interaction, but at the same time it subjects the beer to all sorts of variables, especially temperature which is where this particular beer ran into a problem.

One particular type of beer yeast will thrown off, get this - banana flavors - if the yeast is allowed to ferment at too high a temperature. In other words, in its journey from Beglium to Southern California, the beer was allowed to get too hot, and tainted what would have been a fantastic beer with that weird candy vibe.

Again I offer the disclaimer here that St. Bernardus Christmas Ale isn't THAT bad - it's hardly undrinkable, but I don't believe the beer I had was the beer I was intended to consume. Which is what makes beer so fascinating, especially bottle conditioned ones; I had a bad St. Bernardus. Maybe the one in your store won't be. Maybe this year just didn't come together as well as they wanted, and next year will be a return to form. Like wines and their vintages, beer, especially winter seasonal ones, differ so much year to year that they're practically different beers each time you experience them.

So if you stumble upon a bottle of Christmas Ale, chance it if you'd like, it's certainly a fun experiment. But either way, don't dismiss the brewery for one hiccup that may or may not have been their fault. There are just better Christmas beers this year.

5 Days to Go!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

12 Beers of Christmas: 4 Snow Day and 5 Brown Shugga'

How're your pallets faring? Beered out yet? If you said no, thank you, and this is why we're friends. So, let us continue on this wintery adventure with two more six pack offerings, doofy Santa hats optional (though encouraged). Today we feature the Christmas Weirdos, like that uncle after drinking a bit too much of that scotch that you buy just for him (I don't actually have one of those, but I imagine it's a thing, right?) Tasty in their own right, they do something a bit different and unexpected than their chilly weather cousins.

Snow Day 
Winter Ale , 6.2% ABV
New Belgium Brewing
Fort Colins, CO

Snow Day is something of an odd brew, a seasonal beer with a bit of an identity crisis. From the outset , the color - deep, dark and nearly black - has you expecting a stout, but the body is lighter and the typical stout staples - like chocolate and coffee - aren't really present. The flavors arrive in layers - a hoppy opening is supplanted mid taste by the yeasty malts before you can label it anything close to resembling an IPA. A confusing beer, indeed.

It combines bits of pieces from a lot of different varieties and assumes its own identity. The flavors are mellow and mingle well; a bit of smoke and a lot of toasty flavors lend well to its classification of a seasonal beer - don a fez and grab a fireplace and this beer would suit you very well (if you're so inclined). Read A Christmas Carol aloud while you're at it for a festive kicker.

While White Christmas and Winter Solstice are crowd pleasers, Snow Day's slightly off-kilter flavors might not appeal to everyone. The psuedo-stout might appeal to fans of  your Guinness of New Castles (I personally liked the pint I had, but couldn't imagine chugging through a six pack), but beer newbies would probably find the mixed bag of flavors a bit too bizarre to really get into.

Kitschy scarf not required for enjoyment, though it hardly hurts ya know? Image from 

Brown Shugga' 
American Strong Ale , 9.9% ABV
Lagunitas Brewing
Petaluma, CA

Another enigma in a bottle, Brown Shugga' takes everything you expect it to be and defies you in one festive swoop, like some sort of tricky elf, if that exists in the Christmas mythos. With something that contains, according to Lagunitas themselves, "boatloads of brown sugar," you'd expect desert in glass, right? Not so much. But that's ok, actually, because it's something that's still pretty tasty. As it were, the brew itself was borne of a mistake - the brewery botched up another of their seasonals, and in hopes of resurrecting it, added all of that brown sugar. The result was something entirely new and as such has entered their annual offerings.

The brown sugar is certainly there - the flavor, that is, but not really the sweetness. In fact, the bitterness from the hops balanced with a bit of sourness is what really prevails here. It's surprisingly dry - the brown sugar notes flicker quickly at the beginning before hiding behind the hop flavors. It's tongue-tingling, and it activates your entire tongue (if you're into that).

It's called Strong Ale for a reason - at 9.9% abv its no slouch in the alcohol content, and its from this that it garners its "warmth." Still, as Lagunitas says, "Life is short, don't sip," and Shugga' went down surprisingly fast given its heft.

I personally enjoyed this beer but I anticipate many people would walk away from it after a sip or two. I won't say it's misnamed, but if you come in expecting some sort of sugary brown ale, you're in for a (tricky) surprise.

Photo from

Monday, December 10, 2012

12 Beers of Christmas: 2 Sam Adams White Christmas and 3 Anderson Valley Winter Solstice

Welcome back to Ben Likes Beer's 12 Days of Christmas! Let's continue with our friendly six-packs, the lovably chuggable brews of the season that you should be able to pick up just about anywhere with a decent beer selection. Pick up these guys for your Christmas Party with confidence as they should please just about anyone with a pulse.

Day 2: Samuel Adam's White Christmas 
White Ale 
Sam Adams Brewery, Boston, MA
5.8% ABV

What we have here is a seasonal beer done right. On paper - Sam Adam's calls attention to its "familiar citrus and wheat characters" - makes it sound like another run of the mill summer Hefe, but there's something more interesting at play here. 

It is indeed familiar (the sweet, medium bodied flavors of Sammy's lager are recognizable and welcome) , but its fun, too. There's a caramel warmth from the malts, and a whole hint of every flavor you'd identify in your favorite Christmas cookie - cinnamon, clove, nutmeg. There's a hint of citrus, sure, but it's content to remain behind its spicy buddies. It's sweet, in a sense, but not cloyingly so, meaning it's perfect to wash down your favorite baked goods with.

The front is crisp and the finish is smooth, and though it's not a tremendous departure, that turns out to be one of its greatest assets; it is a spirited beer that is easy to drive and derives its festivity from balanced flavors and not gimmicks. 

A word of caution - Be careful not to pick up the other Sam Adams seasonal brew, called Winter Lager, when hunting for White Christmas. Winter Lager is more likely to be plentiful on the store shelves, and there's a reason for that. While White Christmas may not be a huge departure from its Boston Lager base, Winter Lager offers hardly any difference at all. A bit spicier, maybe, but not as flavorful and not as "Christmasy" (though, to be fair, Winter is its seasonal release, not its holiday one). It's kinda boring, to be frank, so look carefully for White Christmas. If all else fails, it's part of their Seasonal Pack, featured among a few other less available Holiday offerings, though White Christmas should be the highlight for you. 

Picture from

Day 3: Anderson Valley's Winter Solstice 
Seasonal Ale
Anderson Valley Brewing, Boonville, CA
6.9% ABV

Those of you who have been following this blog for awhile (thanks Mom!), you know that Anderson Valley is one of my favorite breweries out there, with none of their offerings scoring below a "Solid" in my book. There's one general general kudos they invariably deserve - those guys can texture a beer, and Winter Solstice continues the tradition into the Holiday Season with much fanfare. 

Creamy, smooth and wonderful, Solstice has a wonderful mouthfeel that goes down with all the fuzzy goodness of liquid velvet. Anyone who enjoyed the Summer Solstice will find a lot to like here as well, as it shares many of the same sweet flavors. Like its Summer Solstice brother, the caramel goodness is in full force here, but the creamsicle vibe is traded in favor of the spices of the season, with ginger and cinnamon taking the forefront. There are hints of metallic flavors and the hops lend a touch of bitterness to balance the sweet, but you have to really look for them. 

Like White Christmas, Winter Solstice is a really well-rounded, crowd pleasing brew that is as delicious as it is simple, with the flavors of the season being used but not exploited. Creamy, sweet, and festive, Winter Solstice is yet another Christmas beer for the masses. 

This one should be widely available, in both cans and bottles.

Picture from 
Wonderfully similar but distinctively different, both have a place at your festivities. Christmas beer countdown continues! 9 to go!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The 12 Beers of Christmas : 1 Sierra Nevada

Good tidings, beer friends!

It's a really awesome, terrific, wonderful, totally brilliant time of year, don't you agree?

Pardon my excitement, but I put a lot of pressure on myself to inhale as much of this Christmas stuff as I can in one month's time. I have joked that December is the only time I'm really happy; I truly dig the whole yuletide thing - the lights, the countless (and awful) renditions of "Santa Baby", the limited edition flavors hastily advertised on coffee shop chalkboards - it's all pretty great, and I turn giddy as soon the season is upon us.

And possibly drunk. Pictured: Not me.  That you know of. 

It's that last point that I'm especially fond of. Christmastime gives us license to go above and beyond with the goodies - egg nog, baked goods, obnoxiously overpriced lattes. But it turns out that many of those flavors associated with the season - cinnamon, clove, orange peel - happen to lend themselves to one of my other favorite passions:

Beer, obviously (Ben likes beer).

So, welcome to the 12 Beers of Christmas, where I use the season as an an excuse to drink copious amounts of seasonal beers and share my thoughts with you fine people. 12 different kinds of beer may seem like a lot (and my wallet is probably inclined to agree with you), but it's actually only a small sampling of what's a pretty enormous "category" of beer, especially given that I'm wrapping, however unjustly, Christmas beers alongside their broader Winter brethren. Still, there tends to be a running theme across the lot, and, despite a few random surprises (which we'll get into), they all seem to fit snugly into a certain collection of expectations - warming, spicy, brown, medium bodied. And we're running the gamut here, from widely available six-packs, to highly sought after, limited batch from the monasteries. Without further adieu...

First Day of Beermas

Sierra Nevada Celebration Fresh Hop Ale 
Sierra Nevada Brewing, Chico, CA. Widely Available.
6.8% ABV

Sort of a lob to start this thing off, Celebration is a beer you've likely encountered as a seasonal offering at your local bar (I'd say "or grocer," but most of my Pennsylvanian/Marylander readers don't have that luxury), and it's a dependable, drinkable choice.

Hoppy, but not bitter (aside from a small nibble at the outset), the sweet malts take over mid-sip. Even though the term "Fresh Hop Ale" might evoke a sense of Spring, there's a distinct "wintery" taste here, with a nice warmth that comes along despite its lighter body and decided lack of spicy flavors (maybe due in part to its ever-so-slightly elevated ABV). Still, Fresh Hop is an apt label that does well to highlight the crisp flavors at play. So, more fresh snowfall that freshly cut lawn, if you will. Celebration is a very casual entry to the 12 Beers of Entry, an option that should suit a wide array of tastes, since it doesn't do anything too crazy or outlandish.

Sierra Nevada Celebration Fresh Hop Ale might not necessarily be a beer to look forward to come Christmastime, but it doesn't have to be; it's comfortable with what it is: a very drinkable, very tasty beer that tweaks the standard Sierra offering into something that would do well as the go-to beer for your Holiday gathering.

Celebration Christmas Ale. Picture from

Check back for the next beer soon!