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!

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