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Oakes Weekly - November 20, 2003
Styles & Seasonals
November 19, 2003
Written by Oakes
Last week saw the first snow fly through the air here in Toronto. It didn’t stick, but the point was made. Winter is right around the corner. All the signs are there - Santa Claus displays in the malls, holiday travel plans are being made, you’re dusting off your Boney M Christmas album...and the beers of the season are hitting the shelves.
The Christmas beer tradition started famously with Anchor - at least the modern North American version of the Christmas beer tradition. Their Our Special Ale was created in 1975 as a gift for friends, family and customers. It bears the silhouette of a different tree every year, and the recipe changes as well. One year, the beer that was previously and would later again be known as Liberty Ale was an Our Special. These days, however the recipe doesn’t seem to change all that much. You have to look towards Sweden, and the every-changing Nils Oscar Julöl for that. These have included a barley wine, scotch ale, and my favourite, an imperial stout.
When I was in Finland, the Christmas beers made their debut right around Hallowe’en. Sure enough, it was getting cold and perpetually dark so it all started to make a lot of sense. There wasn’t much on offer from the Finnish breweries, as they all had variants on dark macroish lagers (the best being a schwarzbier from central-Finnish regional PUP), but I was in Tallinn, Estonia on the 30th of October that year. This just happened to be the first day for Saku Jõuluporter - now that’s my kind of Christmas lager! I found another Estonian Christmas porter later in November. But generally, viennas and dunkels rule the day in Scandinavia. They also rule the day in Mexico as well, where Jackson has written about Noche Buena practically by default given the dearth of quality brews down Mexico way.
In Teutonic lands, you see the emergence of various bock forms. This is led by Samiclaus of Austria. This beer began life in 1980 in Switzerland, and was in those days available in both pale and dark forms. In fact, an unopened bottle of pale Samiclaus from the mid-80’s still sits in a display case, hopelessly lightstruck, at Chester’s Beers of the World in Hamilton, ON. Such a shame. After Hürlimann, the original brewer, bailed on the brand it was picked up by Eggenberg of Austria. Probably for the best, IMO, but not all agree with me.
Occasionally you see Weihnacht beers in Germany. I had one from Ayinger once that was quite good, though obviously they don’t send this to North America. In Ontario we get as our holiday German the Weisse-Bock from Mahr’s of Bamberg (although they’ve just introduced a new Christmas Bock) and Asam-Bock from Kloster Weltenberg. It’s not much, but it is two very fine choices indeed.
From Belgium, I like the ones that are riffs on the abbey ale theme, like Corsendonk Christmas or Affligem Pater’s Vat. Another favourite of mine in Bush Noël. I’m not really sure what tradition, if any, these have in Belgium, but there’s no question that American beer geeks get excited about them, and with good reason. Belgians are at their best when they break the mold a bit and you don’t see very many Belgian Christmas ales sticking to any sort of formula.
The Anglo-American tradition has both strong ales and spiced ales in the heritage. The strong ales are largely represented by barley wines these days, and those are more of a January thing. There’s still a few left, however, that are geared for holiday consumption, most famously the consistently excellent IPA that is Sierra Nevada Celebration.
Spiced ales are generally inspired by the Anchor rendition, filled with cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, allspice and nutmeg, playing off of a rich, dark-malty backbone. In my experience both tasting and brewing these types of beers I will say that they are tougher to brew than you’d think. Spices can be a pain in the ass, especially in terms of balance. Many spiced ales are heavy-handed. I think Anchor’s in recent years has been heavy-handed, whereas it was sublime in the mid-90’s when I was first experiencing it. A couple of spiced ales I really have enjoyed at holiday time are Daleside Morocco Ale and Traquair Jacobite - not every specifically holiday beers but they certainly will make you feel festive.
In some places, stouts and porters constitute holiday drinking. In Ontario, the market is presumed to be timid, so in addition to a handful of bocks (Brick, Creemore, Niagara) we get a spiced porter from Black Oak and a regular one from Scotch Irish. In Malta, another market considered timid, their Lacto Milk Stout is a Christmas beer. In Alaska, they seem a more ballsy bunch of drinkers, and get their porter smoked like it was from Islay rather than Juneau.
But which ones are worth drinking? Well, I always start with the local ones. I dig the spiced porter from Black Oak. I dig Brick Bock. I used to dig Niagara Falls Eisbock a number of years ago.
After the local, here’s what we’ve got as the top Christmas beers at Ratebeer (bearing in mind I may have missed a few):
1. Midnight Sun Epluche-Culotte – Newcomer making big waves. I haven’t had the pleasure, yet.
2. Corsendonk Christmas Ale - I was surprised how much I liked it.
3. Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale – No surprise here, this has never let me down
4. Anchor Our Special Ale 2003 - Off to a good start, apparently
5. Bush de Noël - One of my favourites, but I’m a big Dubuisson fan
6. Gouden Carolus Noël
7T. Abbaye des Rocs Speciale Noël
7T. Deschutes JubelAle – always a favourite in the NW
9. Brøckhouse Juløl - I absolutely MUST get my hands on the stuff from this highly-touted Danish micro
10. Bornholmerbryg Julebryg
11T. Goose Island Christmas Ale
11T. St. Feuillien Cuvée de Noël
13T. Affligem Noël - Never had this one, but I loved Pater’s Vat
13t. Delirium Noël
15. Anchor Special Ale (vintages to 2001) - tough to say much...some were that good, some weren’t
16. Jämtlands Julöl - My favourite label of all the Christmas beers
17T. La Binchoise Speciale Noël - Probably my #1 Christmas beer all-time
17T. Anchor Our Special Ale 2002 - Surprised how high this is rated
19. Val-Dieu Bière de Noël
20. Maritime Pacific Jolly Roger
Too bad that Ayinger isn’t imported to the US - we need some lagers on this list. And how Fantôme Noël isn’t on here I’ll never know.
But nonetheless, Christmas beer rocks, so enjoy!
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