Choose holiday beers carefully, don’t fall for the gimmicks

by DGO Web Administrator

One of the strangest phenomenon of capitalism has to be “seasonal” goods. Sure there are some things that should be sold seasonally, like snow tires, shorts, and sandals (although some people still wear sandals with socks well into fall, they are wrong and should be publicly shamed for their nonsense), but when it comes to beer, I’m always highly suspect of the seasonal beer (see, pumpkin beer). And during the holiday season, it’s to the Nth degree with seasonal bullshit. Starbucks has five-plus holiday beverages, McDonald’s has a special holiday menu, but brewers put this to shame with their massive hard-ons for holiday beer.

At my local liquor store, there were at least a dozen different holiday beers. Some from American craft brewers, some from historic brewers across the Atlantic, and a few of them were good. The problem for the style, I think, lies with a very poor concept of flavor. For some reason, people think adding some random holiday flavor to a beer makes it appropriate to sell. I mean, if you want a candy cane, eat a goddamn candy cane, don’t make a candy cane beer. It’s just gross. Needless to say, I avoided any obvious “Christmas” flavor combos. That means, no peppermint IPAs, or gingerbread reds, or fruitcake stouts. Instead, I erred on the side of balance and interesting ingredients.

The first beer I tried, I picked blind. I just ordered a holiday beer at the bar. The beer was Holiday Cheer, a Dunkelweizen from Shiner. When I first smelled this beer, there was instantly something familiar about the aroma, almost nostalgically sweet and fruity. Upon research, I found that it is brewed with peaches and pecans (very Texas Christmas ingredients). The sweet, fruity aroma was that of Fruity Pebbles or peach rings, which easily overpowered the pecans, which did add a nice bit of roastiness to the beer, but it just wasn’t quite there. It was nice and light on the palate and finished pretty clean, but the smell of fake peaches was a bit too much.

When I started picking beers very intentionally, I decided to go with breweries I held in high esteem. I picked Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome Ale because I love their Oatmeal Stout, it was one of the first beers that really made me think beer could be something more than a path to intoxication. Winter Welcome Ale is a Winter Warmer, a type of English Strong Ale that will typically have a slight amount of spice, thus differentiating it from an Old Ale, though not so much that it becomes a Grut. Winter Welcome pours a nice copper color, with a solid, light tan head, with a strong malty aroma, and a hint of bitter orange. The beer was quite smooth, with a great melding of flavors from the malty sweetness, biscuit, and the orange coming through again in the flavor. It very much reminded me of English tea biscuits with marmalade. This balance and subtlety of flavor makes it a great beer, not just a great holiday beer.

Next, I picked St. Arnold’s Christmas Ale, also a Winter Warmer (labeled as an Old Ale), but this one does not have any sense of subtlety or balance. It tastes like a poinsettia looks. This was the Griswold family Christmas tree, complete with live squirrel. The beer pours a nice rust color with a good head. There’s a subtle smell of wood hiding behind a truck load of cranberry and cinnamon.

Finally, (I mean, FINALLY!) I got to Celebration, Sierra Nevada’s winter seasonal, which features fresh hops. And it tastes like it. It’s a well-constructed beer, with balance between the light caramel malts and the juicy fresh hops – not hoppy enough to be a full-on IPA and enough fresh hops to make sure it’s not a red ale. This beer is the antithesis of any holiday beer. The idea for most holiday beers is, “LET’S MAKE IT TASTE LIKE SANTA CLAUSE FARTS!” but Celebration is a great, thoughtful beer, made with seasonally available ingredients (what a novel idea!).

Robert Alan Wendeborn is a former cellar operator at Ska Brewing and current lead cellar operator at Tin Roof Brewing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.


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