Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

December 19, 2007

Beer Diary:

’Tis The Season To Get Jolly

Can’t seem to find that perfect gift? Facing a weekend with the in-laws? Sounds like you need beer, my friend!
by Nigel Tanner

"It takes beer to make thirst worthwhile."
Contact Nigel»
With the holidays once again upon us, it’s time to celebrate (and tolerate) by drinking some quality craft beer. Granted, as beer dorks we don’t really need a holiday as an excuse to drink good beer, but it’s always nice to have a “festive drinking session” rather than to just be “drinkin’ again.” The holidays are a great time to explore new and exciting brews, from seasonal releases to hard-to-find offerings that make great gifts for fellow connoisseurs of good beer. With that in mind, I thought I’d put together a holiday beer primer to help choose the right beer to celebrate the season and to help select the right brews for those lucky enough to receive them as gifts.

When it comes to seasonal offerings the options appear virtually unlimited, as it seems just about every North American and European brewer has some sort of special edition brew with a holiday theme. Creating a brew unique to this time of year is a concept as old as brewing itself. In the pre-Christian days, “pagans” in the colder, northern European climates of England, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia often brewed unique concoctions around the winter solstice. These brews tended to be dark, thick, and powerful, which undoubtedly helped offset the effects of the frigid temperatures that were setting in. This practice transferred to and evolved with the rise of Christianity in Europe, as many native traditions were assimilated into the new religion. The fact that the Judeo-Christian holidays of Hanukah and Christmas fall within the same time period as the traditional celebration of winter solstice makes this transition understandable.

In the U.S., the rise of corporate breweries nearly eliminated the idea of creating special holiday brews. While many smaller brewers tried to hold on to this tradition by brewing some sort of bock (typically a weak, watered-down version), the largest national brewers felt the best way to market beer for the holiday season was simply to put the same old product in a colorful package that had snowflakes and “happy holidays” written on it. What better gift for your loved one than a snowflake-encrusted 12 pack of Budweiser? Put a nice, green bow on it, and brother … you’ve just finished your Christmas shopping at the local Quickie Mart! Hell, they still play that damn Budweiser commercial with the Clydesdales pulling the sleigh through the snow, trying to get to grandma’s house for a Christmas feast of turkey, stuffing, apple pie, and Bud Light. “Happy Holidays from your friends at Anheuser-Busch.” That was it. It was the same crappy, watered-down “beer,” but it was supposed to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside because they had a commercial loaded with stereotypical holiday cheer.

Fortunately for us, the craft beer industry reversed this trend and we can now find special holiday brews nearly everywhere. Rekindling an ancient tradition, these craft brews are often of the dark, powerful variety. Keeping with current tradition, they’re often heavily marketed to the masses, coming in colorful, festive packaging and making you feel as though you must have them. Heck, even European brewers have given in to the commercialization of the season. While the Europeans largely kept with the tradition of seasonal brewing during the same period the Big Three was out to ruin American palates, they’ve now begun to package these brews as kitschy must-haves for American audiences. Whose curiosity isn’t piqued when they stumble across a Very Bad Elf or Santa’s Butt Porter this time of year? These styles of beer have long been popular winter brews for European drinkers, but they’re finding a whole new audience in the U.S. thanks to creative marketing.

OK, I’m really not here to lament the fact that we’ve lost focus of the “true meaning of Christmas” due to over commercialization; that’s better left to Charlie Brown, Linus, and the rest of the Peanuts gang. I’m here to try and help sort through the myriad of selections available at local craft beer retailers this time of year in order to find those that best accentuate the spirit of the season. It’s important to find the right type of brew, regardless of whether or not it’s a “Christmas beer” in order to fully enjoy the season.

When trying to select a beer that best fits your tastes, don’t give in to the marketing pressures of the season. If you don’t typically enjoy dark, powerful, thick brews like bocks, porters, and stouts, then holiday brews may not be for you. Similarly, many are loaded with spice and hops, so again—if that’s not your cup of tea, it may be best to stay away. It’s not like the standard releases are pulled from the shelves in order to make room for the seasonals. They’re still there, and they’re just as enjoyable to those who love them during the holidays as they are any other time of year.

For those who do want to experiment, there’s plenty to go around. I have some personal favorites. Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, one of the most widely distributed Christmas-themed beers, is an excellent IPA. Not necessarily a typical “Christmas beer” in that it’s not heavily spiced or overloaded with alcohol and thick malt, it demonstrates the fact that the holidays are all about enjoying what you love and don’t need to fall into any specific category. Celebration Ale is a nice, full-bodied IPA with good balance between piney Cascade hops and sweet caramel malt. And yes, it comes in a festive package should you be looking for a gift for the hophead in your life.

When it comes to “beers that taste like Christmas,” my clear-cut favorite is Lakefront Brewery’s Holiday Spice Lager Beer. Powerful and spicy, it’s got a nice blend of flavors that remind you of the season and is thick enough with a high ABV (9.5 percent) to warm you on a cold evening. Anchor’s Our Special Ale 2007 is essentially a weaker, somewhat sweeter version of Lakefront’s spiced beer, in my opinion. At 5.5 percent ABV it’s got many flavor similarities to Holiday Spice, but it’s not as extreme, which may appeal to drinkers with lighter palates. Great Lakes Christmas Ale is another nice example of a spiced beer/winter warmer at 7.5 percent ABV. Lighter on the spice and a bit heavier on the malt than both Anchor and Lakefront, it provides a pleasant drinking experience with a nice flavor of the season.

For those who don’t necessarily want boatloads of spice or pine in their holiday brews, there are still plenty of offerings. Goose Island’s Christmas Ale is a solid English brown ale, a bit maltier than their flagship Honkers Ale but very similar in taste. Rogue’s Santa’s Private Reserve is a nice smoked amber offering; not quite as high in ABV as many holiday brews, but still a good choice for a cozy evening in front of the fireplace. Left Hand Brewing’s Snowbound Ale provides a sweet honey flavor to offset the holiday spices. It’s a good choice for those who typically prefer lighter selections throughout the year. Dogfish Head’s Snowblower Ale is a Belgian offering for those who like a lighter, yet still powerful ale with a bit of clove. Fort Collins Big Shot is an inoffensive, by-the-books brown ale, and there’s always Sam Adam’s Winter Ale for the beginners. While this is only a partial list of available American offerings, it’s a start.

When it comes to the kitschy imports, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend avoiding them, but don’t get too caught up with how “cute” and “funny” they are. Many English brewers have cornered this market, starting with Ridgeway’s Bad Elf series and Santa’s Butt. Other English offerings, such as Wychwood’s Bah Humbug, et al, are along the same lines. While they aren’t horrible brews by any means, they don’t come close to resembling a quality American craft brew. Should you be tempted to sample or gift these brews, don’t get carried away … one or two selections is plenty. The only Christmas-themed imports that I would highly recommend are Belgian ales, most notably the popular Delirium Noel from Brouwerij Huyghe in Belgium. Not surprisingly, the Belgians have done a great job creating some nice, holiday-themed offerings.

While this won’t come as a shock to anyone familiar with my reviews, I’d stay away from the heavily-marketed national releases. My all-time dud-of-duds is Leinenkugel’s Apple Spice, which seems to have found a spot in the rotation from November to New Year’s. It’s a pitiful attempt at brewing, and should be avoided at all costs as it is virtually undrinkable. Also, be careful with the pseudo-craft swill that is being marketed by the Big Three. Blue Moon is NOT a Belgian ale; it’s made by Molson-Coors. Michelob may have a number of “fun” selections with gimmicky names, but it’s still Anheuser-Busch. Fredrick Miller’s Chocolate Stout may sound appealing, but it’s made by the same folks that bring us Milwaukee’s Best. Perhaps Winter’s Bourbon Cask Ale sounds interesting? That’s what A-B wants you to think. Experiment all you want, just be aware of what you’re buying.

When it comes to giving beer as a gift, the right selection is important. A couple of hints: First, if you’re not a craft beer connoisseur but are trying to purchase for one, consult the experts. Go to a specialty craft beer/wine/spirits store, where the employees are (hopefully) knowledgeable and can point you in the right direction. Many non-beer dorks think that because something looks unfamiliar to them or has a funky name, it must be good. Personally, Nigel isn’t be too keen on receiving a “Beers o’ the World” gift box loaded with Amstel, Corona, Dos Equis, Heineken, and Stella Artois. Know the recipient. Does he or she prefer crafts or imports? Light or dark? Hoppy or mild? Thick and syrupy or lighter bodied? High or low ABV? There are literally hundreds of selections available in each craft beer style, so make sure you’re at least in the right category before making a purchase. See if your recipient shares anything in common with our resident Dorks. If you don’t know any of this information, then perhaps you should just skip it altogether and head for the Chia Pet aisle.

Also, like any other gift, try to make it seem personal. For god’s sake, don’t get sucked in by those ridiculous “craft” beer compilations. These are the 8, 12, 18, or 24 pack boxes that claim to be a collection of the “finest” craft beers out there. You know … Jack’s Pumpkin Spice, Michelob Cherry Lager, Leinenkugel’s Honey Weiss, Sam Adam’s Light, Goose Island 312 … nothing but the best. Same goes for the import versions of this. I actually saw a “Best of Belgian gift pack” that was loaded with swill like Stella Artois and Hoeggarden. If that’s the best Belgium has to offer, then I’d like a refund on my authentic Trappist ales. These gift packs are put together with the idea of making the uninformed beer buyer think they’ve hit the gifting jackpot, when in fact the beer connoisseur who receives them will likely scoff in horror and flush them down the toilet at the first possible opportunity. If you want to buy a mix-and-match gift pack, go for it; it’s a great idea, but make sure you do it yourself. Most good craft beer retailers offer single bottle selections that can be put into a mixed sixer, and knowing what brews to select for the right person can make the gift that much more meaningful.

If you’re giving more than one selection I’d recommend following a simple rule. Assuming you know what style (or styles) the recipient prefers, mix it up. Try to get them a combination of the brews you know they already like and then look around to find similar brews that they may not have had before. For example, if you’re buying for a Midwestern hophead, get them a bomber of Three Floyds Dreadnaught, a sixer of Founder’s Centennial or a four-pack of their Devil Dancer, perhaps some Tyranena, etc. On top of that, find something unique. Perhaps you’ve traveled over the course of the year, and you found something unique to the Midwest on your travels. A bomber of Ruination IPA or a bottle of Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA would make a great compliment to the localized offerings. Be creative, but don’t try to force a new style upon them that they may not enjoy. After all, gifts are meant to have the receiver’s best interests in mind.

Finally, for the home brewer or potential home brewer, there are some options, but this is definitely something you should be knowledgeable about before making any purchases. If you’re buying for a current home brewer, be careful. Home brewers are both scientists and artists of the craft, and they like to be creative while putting their own personal touch on the beer. If you’re looking for a good gift, perhaps stick with the tools they need in the brewing process rather than ingredients. Bottling supplies are always in need, as are things from pots to pails, so there are some possibilities. For those looking to start home brewing, make sure you know what you’re looking for. Home brew kits come in a number of varieties, and if the person is serious about doing it, they should get a nice kit with all the bells and whistles. Getting them a cheap starter kit without the essentials pretty much defeats the purpose. And stay away from that Mr. Beer thing they’re selling at various discount stores like Walgreen’s. It’s around $30, but is NOT a home brew kit. While it may make for a gimmicky gift for the non-beer dork in your life, it’s a complete joke for anyone who is serious about brewing good, quality beer at home.

While this is clearly a topic that could be discussed in far more detail, I’ll wrap it up (no pun intended). Beer is a unique and far-reaching gift that appeals to a number of people, regardless of age (ahem … over 21, please), gender, ethnicity, or religious denomination. While it would probably be best to include it as part of a group of gifts (seriously, give your girlfriend nothing but beer this Christmas and see how long it takes her to slap you upside the head and storm out the door), it’s something that any beer dork will appreciate. Just make sure your familiar with what’s out there, what’s of good quality and what’s simply a marketing ploy, and know the preferences of the person receiving it.

And finally, here’s a holiday toast to all the loyal readers out there who have made this a year to remember for all of us here at We appreciate being able to share our unique take on craft beer with all of you, and we certainly hope you enjoy what we have to offer. So, best wishes to all this holiday season, and here’s to good beer!


Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

Beer Dorks News

Want to know how healthy the craft beer industry is? As always, look to Portland. Craft pioneer Bridgeport announces sudden closure, adding to a growing list of PDX casualties.
Did Anheuser-Busch Chicago offer their shit beer to Cody Parkey before his missed field goal? Because that may explain why he "accidentally" biffed it.
Chicago now has the most breweries of any city in the country. Other things Chicago has the most of: murders, mobsters, and Ditkas.
Trying to spin it positive, BA releases end of year graphic. Only 5% growth in the craft sector when nearly 1000 new breweries opened? That's a collapse waiting to happen.
R.I.P. Tallgrass... another casualty as the regional/national craft beer market continues to get squeezed.
Wait... Constellation Brands cut all of the Ballast Point and Funky Buddha sales staff? They merged it with their Corona/Modelo staff?? We're SHOCKED!!!
Pizza Beer founder crying about failure of company, blames everyone else. Reminder, the beer tasted like vomit. Try having better ideas or making better products so you're not a failure.
It's Bud Light so doesn't really matter, but we expect this beer to be sitting around for awhile.
Indiana brewery to open with controversial beer names to "get the conversation going". Translation: taking advantage of serious issues for free publicity.
Hundreds of amazing beers in Wisconsin and the Cubs took back the one everyone drinks just because it exists and people have heard of it. How fitting...