Sunday, December 21, 2014

12 Beers of Christmas Part IV: California Christmastime

Welcome back!

This marks the final chapter of Ben Likes Beer 12 Beers of Christmas 2014, a tour of the local guys - the Christmas gifts from the Golden Coast and my current place of residence, California.

These offerings are probably tricky to come by if you're not nearby (within a 20 mile radius, actually, for one of these...), but they represent three very different visions of Christmas beers that you'd only find in the United States. While Belgium is content to revel in the spices of the season, these creative brewers take what it means to be a Christmas beer and injects it with some California dreamin'.

Merry Christmas everyone :)

Santa's Little Helper 
Imperial Stout
22 oz., 10.5% ABV
Port Brewing,
San Marcos, CA

This formidable little hunk of coal is as intense as a cup of strong-brewed black coffee. Vividly robust and charmingly aggressive, Santa's Little Helper earns every syllable of its Imperial title.

 Fun fact- there's no Santa on this bottle, and you can thank Coke for that. They own the visual copyright to Santa on beverage containers. Scroogey bastards.

But as for the beer...

A gentle note of chocolate opens the flavor before plummeting into the deep, dark depths of this crazy holiday malt bomb. As you drink, though, you warm up to (or gain a tolerance, really) this aggression and it becomes a tasty beer in its own right. Stout lovers will of course be pleased with this guy, but those prefer their beers light and bubbly might be out of their depth.

Pair it with a holiday dessert, though, and the story changes. Balance that Mall-on-Christmas-Eve-level aggression with some cookies and you'll get some delicious balance out of it. I paired it with egg nog and it was heavenly, I tell you. Heavenly!

Approach with caution, maybe, but definitely approach it.

Magnificat 2013 Edition
Belgian-style Christmas Ale
22 oz. bottle, 10.1% ABV
Monkish Brewing,
Torrance, CA

If you live in the vague vicinity of Torrance, CA, I implore you to make the effort to visit. Covered in a previous blog post, Torrance is a mini San Diego of truly excellent craft beer breweries and it is absolutely worth your while to make a Saturday of it.

My personal favorite of the bunch is Monkish Brewing - a wannabe monastary of a brewery that specializes in Belgian-style brews and a mad-scientist-like affinity for the spice pantry (a Dubbel with peppercorn? Why not!)

Their seasonal offering is the inexplicably named Magnificat - a Christmas ale in the traditional sense, with your favorite spices all acounted for- nutmeg, cinnamon, some chocolate. Note, this write-up covers 2013 in particular; I have 2014 waiting for me Christmas Eve. If anything, this means that the spice flavors have been allowed to mellow, but I'll let you know the difference, if any!

Serve this one a bit warmer - the bottle advises 55 degrees or so that you get more of the fruity ale flavors and a hint of tartness at the finish.

As it were, this is everything I want in a Christmas beer.  Rich, smooth, playful and festive, Magnificat is nevertheless an elegant Christmas beer, and one I highly recommend.

2014 Holiday IPA
Triple Black Rye IPA
22 oz bottle, 11%
Black Market Brewing
Temecula, CA

The oddball of the bunch, Black Market eschews your silly notions of the holiday and say, screw it, we're throwing in about 4000 pounds of hops and calling it a yuletide. And I'm ok with it.

Most notable about this drunk uncle of a beer is the positively gorgeous aroma. The grassy, citrusy aromas evoke more summertime than Santa time, and the flavor follows along in kind. It's not toxic bitter, rather an excellent showcase of how different hops can truly have a different array of flavors. Malt balance is practically absent - this is all hops, baby - until the end, when the stout-like dark robust flavors do make an appearance. The alcohol is huge - 11% - but you won't find any booze burn here, which is good. The hops do just fine on their own.

Obviously this is not your average Christmas beer, but for mixing it up and bringing a new Holiday offering to the table, I applaud Black Market. Brew this sucker year round and I'll be pleased.

Hey everyone, thanks for returning to my blog. I look foward to reviving it even more in 2015. Have an excellent holiday and be sure to have one for me. Not that I'll be needing any more, probably. But one more couldn't help...

Merry Christmas/Whatever else you're doing this end of December. See you in 2015!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

12 Beers of Christmas: Christmas in Belgium

Vrolijk Kerstfeest!

This time of year is magical, isn't it? Where we gather together, enjoy a lovely Kerststronk with our family, put our shoes by the fireplace, waiting for Zwarte Piet to leave candies and goodies there after we go to bed...

Wait, what?
Now I'm uncomfortable.

That's right. In Belgium (and many other parts of Europe) Santa (Sinterklaas) is assisted by a dude in blackface. It's as controversial as you'd hope it would be, by the way.

But aside from the aforementioned inane tradition, Belgium is  a country that takes its Christmastime very seriously, and its beer, as ever, is a fine showcase of that. Heavy handed with the spices to begin with, Christmas allows many brewers to really embrace the season with all of spices of an entire bakery.

Of course, not all breweries take the potpourri approach; others simply do stronger versions of their other year-round offerings. Here are four of some of the season's offerings (including one local homage).

Christmas Ale
Corsendonk and Brasserie du Bocq
Purnode, Belgium
8.1% ABV, 22 oz Bottle

A classic favorite of mine, Corsendonk's Christmas offering is probably the first "very" Belgian Christmas beer I had ever experienced, and as such has become something of a Holiday tradition. Available in large format bottles as well as smaller 4-packs, this beer should actually be reasonable to track down. But should you?

Certainly! Especially if you fancy yourself a red wine drinker - a lot of similar flavors are at play here. Dark fruits in particular - plum and cherry mix with a chocolate quality to compose a rich, silky brew that does evoke the season, but not from its spice profile; think more wassail, less snickerdoodle. There's also a slight tart quality that comes along with the cherry flavor. A solid and wonderful representation of Belgian Christmas beer, but as far as favorites so, it may have lost its crown to:

Noel Christmas Ale
Affligem Brewing
Opwijk, Belgium
9%, 22 oz Bottle

Affligem brewery was scooped up by Heineken, but has largely retained its robust abbey-style profile. And this beer could very well be the crown jewel of its lineup; it's that spectacular.

The soul of Belgium resonates in every facet of this beer, from yeast to malt to spicing. Fruity and caramel notes abound, like one of those candies you actually like picking in those huge boxes of chocolates. The spicing - vanilla and cinnamon - is great, but not obnoxiously festive. To continue the desert theme, I did get a creme brulee vibe - even the smooth texture, which is one of my favorite aspects of this beer. Elegant, warming, and delicious, this is probably my favorite beer I've had this season.

Thanks Colburn!

Christmas Ale
St. Bernardus Christmas Ale 
Watou, Belgium
10% ABV, 22 oz Bottle

Christmas redemption! 2 years ago when I did this feature, St. Bernardus had a spot on the list and, sadly, didn't fair well. It's (unintentional) banana candy flavors meant that somewhere along its quest to get to me, the beer was allowed to become too warm. And tasted like it could have cost a quarter and came in a tiny plastic capsule in a grocery store. Not the case this year.

This offering is the least innately "sweet" of the four, being kept in check with a robust, roasty bitterness in addition to distinct amount of tartness. We're in Flanders Red or Brown territory - markedly more tart, but not approaching the levels of a wild ale, but certainly nodding toward it. What it lacks, though, is anything distinctly Christmas- it lacks anything that would establish itself as a Christmas beer, which is a shame. A solid beer in its own right, but if you're looking for something that's the equivalent of drinking a fully decorated Christmas Tree, then you're better off trying one of the other options. But there is a chubby monk wearing a Santa hat on the label, so that's something.

7 Swans-a-Swimming
Belgian-style Quad
Placentia, California
11%, 22 oz Bottle

Heading back home, 7 Swan-a-Swimming counts because it calls itself a Belgian-inspired beer.

And therefore, by the very strict nature of this blog, it fits the criteria!

As you can probably discern, 7 Swans-a-Swimming is the latest in a series of beers that draw inspiration from that eternal (in terms of status of perceived length) Christmas song. Two years ago's 5 Golden Rings is certainly one of my favorite Christmas beers ever. Last year's 6 Geese-a-Laying was a somewhat interesting beer that made clever use of gooseberries. This year's is...a Belgian Quad.

That's it. Making use of swans in beer is pretty difficult, I grant you, but there's something a touch disappointing about being "merely" a quad. Sure, quads are somewhat uncommon - they're more or less Belgian tanks with big sweetness and formidable ABVs, a modern style created by La Trappe in 1990. And that's what Swans is - the label tells you so. I'm a Belgian-style Quad. Which is fine.  But to eschew anything remotely Christmasy is sort of a bummer. Give me a quad with vanilla and cinnamon. Give me a quad with pine-centric hop profile. Give me something. It lacks a special oomph that makes it worthwhile. Get Alesmith's Decadence (should be available now, too, actually) or the aforementioned La Trappe. Swans is good, sure, but a missed opportunity.

8 Maids-a-Milking better be a milk stout. It's a no brainer.

Phew, 3 of 4 done. Stay tuned for The final chapter - small format local bottles! Specific enough for you? Let's find out!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

12 Beers of Christmas Part II: 6-Packs-A-Packin'

Part 2! Tis' the season for a furious flurry of beer purchases, artsy amateur photos (it's ok, though because it's not food), and then thoughtful chugging and note taking. Seriously. I actually take notes. It's what distinguishes this whole thing from a drinking problem.

This mini section is about Winter 6 packs; unlike the bomber bottles of the season (stay tuned), I still have 5 more to go after the first one. Joyous day! I'm sure there's a joke in here about this being the only sort of 6 pack I'll have at this (FINE, ANY) time of year, but it's eluding me. The pieces are there. Put something together and I'll assume it's funny.

Note that I said winter - many breweries take the secular route with their offerings, but not always. Many simply offer a winter seasonal without any specific allusions to Christmas, though the flavor profiles are often the same; roasty notes in particular shows up in many of the offerings, though others aren't afraid of loading in the baking spices, particularly nutmeg and cinnamon. Of course, others eschew that concept altogether and put a Christmas tree on every carton. We'll take a look at both.

Regardless of the style, it's dependable truth that practically every sizable craft brewery will offer a winter seasonal. From Sierra Nevada's Celebrator to New Belgium's Snow Day, any of the bigger craft brews will usually offer a 6 pack varietal for the season. Smaller breweries will often go the bomber (22 oz) route, but we'll save that for another episode. Pick a favorite, though. They're crowd pleasers for your holiday events.

So, with that, let's go over three that I haven't covered before.

Hullaballoo Winter Beer 
Hangar 24 Brewery
Redlands, California
Winter Ale, 6.5%

This wintery bloke is American made but inside its malty, bready body beats the heart of a true English gentleman. The site claims that it starts as a Scottish ale, but I think it lacks the noted sweetness that often comes with that style.

Instead, we have a bready, biscuity, roasty malt showcase of a beer. Something of a halfway point between an English bitter and a traditional porter, Hullabaloo's British hops manifest quickly in the finish, meaning you won't be chugging too quickly (but a modest ABV means it won't be a problem if you do). But fear not, hop-phobes, it's a far cry from a "hoppy" beer. Its dark body belies a light and crisp body that practically begs to be enjoyed fireside. Bonus points if it's in an English pub.

Worth checking out.
Obligatory Caveat: Hangar 24 is a local California brewery with distribution only in California.

Old Jubilation 
Avery Brewing Company
Boulder, CO
English Old Ale, 8.3%

Formidable and yet equally kindhearted (sorta like your grandpa!), Avery's Old Jubilation is a Christmas staple for me; I say without hesitation that is one of my favorite beers of the season. And that's because it offers something very different than many of the other offerings of the reason (aside, actually, from the aforementioned Hullabaloo...which could fairly and endearingly a "Old Jubilation Light"). Forgoing Christmas spices, OJ (a better use of the acronym than many alternatives) is instead a celebration of specialty malt. Every robust flavor from your favorite dark beers are accounted for and in fine rhythm: coffee, chocolate, biscuit and hazelnut.

A bit stout-like, perhaps, but not nearly as dry, with a touch of nutty sweetness at play throughout. It's also a gorgeous  beer - cola-colored with a ruby shone - meaning I can make some sexy, sexy beer porn (see above). It's a sophisticated and alluring brew, sure to stand up to any bone-warming winter meal offer in December. And it'll last for years in your cellar. Grab a 6 pack and put a few away, if you can muster the restraint.

Highly recommended (and available nationwide).

Merry Christmas 2014
Anchor Brewing
San Francisco, CA

Sequoiadendion giganteum!
That's a type of pine- the Giant Sequoia. Or maybe a Harry Potter spell. Hopefully both.

It is certainly the tree adorning this year's Christmas Ale from Anchor Steam, a tradition that has reached its 40th year.  Each year, a different tree represents the brew, which likewise changes unpredictably with each new Christmas. Every aspect is labeled TOP SECRET. Speculate away, but it won't matter - it'll be a different beer next year.

This year's iteration walks an interesting line between Belgian Dubbel and Irish Stout, with some Christmas spices playing nicely, and quietly, with both. The roasty notes are distinctly wintery, but kept from being overbearing by a slight sweetness. It's lower ABV means you can go through the whole 6-pack quicker than you'd assume, but that's ok. It's a tasty beer that truly celebrates what it is to be a Christmas beer.

Also worth picking up - and better yet, should be relatively easy to find.

So...there you have it. 3 worthwhile winter 6-packs. A cop-out, perhaps, but I do believe that if you have allegiance to a certain brewery, you can pick up their winter offerings with confidence. But if you're a bit stuck hunt down that Old Jubilation. You won't regret it.

Stay tuned for Part 3! We're going to Belgium!