Monday, November 23, 2009

Hoppy Holiday Ales

Last week Jeff wrote about blindly tasting three Northwest winter-warmer type ales. I don't know if I'd really count it as a blind tasting, since he was able to identify all three, and while he had good things to say about all of them, he preferred Deschutes Jubelale over Full Sail Wassail and Laurelwood Vinter Varmer.

Now, Jubelale is a special obsession at my house, but this year I find myself drawn more towards hoppy holiday ales instead of the darker spiced winter warmers. Some representatives from the hoppy holiday side of the beer family tree are:
  • Widmer Brrr
  • Full Sail Wreck the Halls
  • Double Mountain Fa La La
  • Lompoc C-Son's Greetings
  • Lagunitas Imperial Red Ale
  • Sierra Nevada Celebration
  • Bridgeport Ebenezer
That list is more or less in my order of preference. Widmer Brrr is just so darn good. It takes the idea originally set forth by Celebration, and kind of dials up the crispness or the distinctness of the flavors. It's not that it's a hop bomb -- like Fa La La and C-Son's Greetings -- but the hops are much more floral and obvious than in Celebration, without obscuring the nice malt base.

Wreck the Halls is fabulous this year, a burly, heavily-hopped ale, with a strong bitter finish. Fa La La is also a marvel, a solid strong ale, with a big Double Mountain dose of hops. You won't find it in bottles, so if you see it on tap somewhere, you better have a pint. For some reason, the Lagunitas Red Ale isn't grabbing me this year as it has in years past. I almost want to say that it's too balanced -- the caramel malts give it a real heft that keeps the hops in check. Maybe it's just that Brrr has changed my idea of how the hops should be in a holiday ale.

C-Son's greetings, a kind of double C-Note, is a regular New Old Lompoc winter seasonal. This year for the first time, it's available in 22-ounce bottles. If you like C-Note, or big IPAs of any kind, you'll enjoy this malted-up version. Bridgeport's Ebenezer is not as hoppy as most of these holiday ales, but it seems to belong more in this category than the winter warmer one. It's not unpleasant, but it's not really very exciting.

I like this idea of a holiday-ale family tree. I'd say that winter warmers like Jubel are on a branch typified by Anchor's Christmas Ale -- think porters with winter spices. Then there's the Celebration branch of hoppy strong ales, and the closely-related winter barleywine branch, whose archetype is Bigfoot -- another Sierra Nevada brew -- emulated now by bruisers like Hair of the Dog Doggie Claws and Lagunitas Brown Shugga. I can think of one more category: the crazy European big brews -- Samichlaus, Scaldis, and various Belgian Noel beers. Can every holiday beer fit on one of those branches, or does the category need splintering some more?


  1. I just can't get behind Brrr--but mainly because of the style. I had it again when I was not getting CXI at the brewery, and I find it out of balance. That's typical for the hoppy red ales of the NW (Big NW reds (TM) if you're keeping track). Also, I think it has that damned Nelson Sauvin hop, which tastes like sweat to me.

    I have a growler of Fa La La La La in the fridge ... review to come.

  2. Are there any non-hoppy (or less hoppy) holiday brews? I'm not a big fan of bitter beers. Thanks.

  3. Jeff: Yep, the hops definitely dominate in those big reds, and I really like the floral flavor of Brrr. Maybe that's out of balance, but there's still a good body underneath the hops.

    Shawn: Certainly there are less hoppy holiday beers. Go with one of the Belgian Noel beers, or something in the Anchor Christmas family -- Anchor itself or maybe Jubelale (Jubel's a little hoppy, but I don't think you'd find it very bitter).

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  5. I am really enjoying the Christmas Ale from Anchor. It has some great spice to it, and seems more interesting than holiday beers that just add more malt and slap on a corny holiday label. It tastes..well...Holiday-ey.

  6. @ Shawn up until recently there weren't a large number of heavily hopped Christmas ales. Oatis is a seasonal stout from Ninkasi, for awhile Widmer had Snow Plow. If you go look in a good bottle shop you'll find plenty of decent non hoppy winter beers. I recomend winter Solstice from Anderson Valley

  7. Shawn, you might try Jubelale from Deschutes. It's got hops, but they're gentle. The beer is a lovely confection of candyish malts and floral hops--not a sharp edge anywhere.