It’s the most wonderful time of the year… for beer. Spring saisons, summer session ales, lawnmower lagers and fall harvest ales are all well and good. But give me the hearty porters, stouts and ales of year’s end.
by Peter Bailey
The holiday season is when brewers pull out the stops to create special brews, perhaps understanding that this is the season when we feel a little freer with our spending. Money managers advise against the “what the hell, it’s Christmas” approach to holiday spending, but come on, that $40 bottle of Orkney Dark Island Reserve Ale isn’t going to drink itself.
Really though, the richness of holiday beers is inside the bottles. We’re talking about big beers, styles like imperial stout and Baltic porter, winter warmer and barley wine, and most especially, Christmas ales—higher alcohol beers made for the holidays with dark malts and spices, herbs and fruit. These ales are part of the Christmas wassail tradition that goes back centuries to the medieval period. The wassail was a drink of hot, strong ale, mead, wine or cider, mulled with sugar, roasted apples, ginger and nutmeg. Wassailing was the custom of wishing one another good health with a toast. And with enough hot, strong ale, you will find yourself going door-to-door singing carols.
Fritz Maytag, former owner of Anchor Brewing, picked up on this wassail tradition and in 1975, Anchor released their first Christmas Ale, also known as Our Special Ale. Brewed every fall in the 41 years since, the beer is tweaked every year, with the recipe a closely-guarded secret. Indeed, part of the fun of this beer is trying to determine which spices were used in each year’s version. In recent years the beer has been a rich, dark ale with a complex, spicy flavour and earthy aroma. I’m pretty sure I tasted cinnamon and nutmeg in the 2015 edition. Despite the secrecy, Anchor’s Christmas Ale has become the template that brewers all over the world use for their own holiday brews.
Here in Alberta, another Christmas tradition was given a modern beery twist by the folks at Craft Beer Importers in Calgary. I remember the Advent calendars of my youth: counting down the days to Christmas, each day opening a little window and getting a waxy chocolate or small trinket. Craft Beer Importers came up with the ingenious and slightly devious idea of adapting the Advent calendar for adults—replacing the waxy chocolate with excellent beer. The first craft beer Advent calendar was released in 2012. They sold out within days. Chris Connelly of Craft Beer Importers tells me they haven’t looked back, with sales growing every year and distribution expanding this year to farflung places like Nunavut, P.E.I., and even, fortress Ontario.
Chris notes that it is a simple idea but logistically complex. Selecting the 24 beers isn’t easy—this year the calendar includes beer from 15 different countries, in as many beer styles as possible. They must take shelf life into account, looking for bottle conditioned beers and beer styles that last through the holidays. It’s almost a year-long process; as Chris says, “We were approaching breweries in March for beer to be brewed in July-August for arrival in Canada in September for distribution in October and sales in November-December.”
But it’s all worth it just to imagine the joy on an old beer geek’s face.
Some local beer enthusiasts take a DIY approach to the beer advent calendar. Homebrewer Chad Heinz has organized a DIY beer calendar for a few years—sort of a beer potluck. Heinz invites 24 beer pals to bring 24 bottles of a single beer to a trading day in late November, with each participant ending up with 24 different beers for the Advent season. According to friends who have participated, the decent beers outnumber the duds, and there are usually no duplicates. Almost as good as all the beer is connecting with other good people—and isn’t that what Christmas is all about?
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good beer.
Make the most of the holidays with seasonal beers that dispel the wintry gloom. Most of these beers are only available for a short time, so don’t wait until Christmas Eve to stock up!
Anchor Christmas Ale, San Francisco
A holiday tradition since 1975, the recipe for Our Special Ale changes from year to year, but of late it has been a dark mahogany-coloured beer with a rich, complex nose and flavour. It pairs well with roast turkey and trimmings but I like to serve it as an aperitif before dinner, especially if I have been able to get my hands on the magnificent magnum bottle.
|Deschutes Jubelale, Bend, Oregon
A winter warmer good for all that ales you this season. Jubelale pours a deep garnet colour and tastes of caramel and dark-roasted malt, with notes of cocoa, dried fruit, toffee and spice. A touch of alcohol warmth and hop bitterness make this beer a good companion after skating, skiing, sledding or, yes, shopping.
|Whistler Valley Trail Chestnut Ale, Whistler, BC
Chestnuts remind me of childhood Christmas trips to Toronto. We would watch the Santa Claus Parade, visit the ROM and take in the Christmas windows at Eaton’s. And everywhere there was a wizened old man with a cart, roasting chestnuts. So thank you Whistler Brewing, for this delightful, sweet, vanilla-tinged, seasonal beer redolent of chestnuts and childhood!
|Yukon Lead Dog Olde English Ale, Whitehorse
A winter warmer from Whitehorse, where they know how to make an ale strong enough to keep the howling cold at bay. At 7 per cent alcohol by volume, the beer is big, yet drinks smoothly, thanks to the mellowing effect of two months of aging. Smells of malt and earth, tastes of roast malt with a touch of dried fruit.
|Nelson Blackheart Oatmeal Stout, Nelson, BC
Back for the holidays is Nelson’s classic organic oatmeal stout, a delicious dry stout tempered by the smooth, silky finish provided by the addition of oats. A bit of a surprising hop bite for a stout, but the traditional coffee, chocolate and malt flavours are there as well.
|Howe Sound Father John’s Winter Ale, Squamish, BC
Named for John Mitchell, Howe Sound’s original brewer and a father of the Canadian craft beer revolution. A rich, malty winter warmer brewed with a heady blend of ginger, nutmeg, vanilla, molasses, honey and Demerara sugar. Really, it’s dessert in a glass—I’d advise drinking it by a fire, with a thick novel at hand.
Peter Bailey patiently awaits the return of Alley Kat’s Chocolate Orange Porter. He’s on Twitter and Instagram as @Libarbarian.