That’s right the holidays are here and, Lord help us all, the drinks are flowing. I asked for the wonderful assistance of my good friend, Dave Hilgier, once again to join me for a tasting of winter seasonal brews only. The appeal for this occasion was the unique chance to judge the best tasting winter ale. To my surprise, the winter seasonal brews are almost entirely comprised of ales. There were a few porters on shelves but we figured for the sake of standards that selecting one type of beer for blind tasting would be best.
Making their debut/guest appearances were my brother Robert, and David’s lovely lady Ms. Erin. Although my brother was not technically a judge, he did provide us with fresh cups and clean samples with which to experiment.
This time it wasn’t really about who was the best brewer or how refined the bottle was, it was more about the overall taste of a holiday brew. Since as a group we tend to stay away from winter seasonals due to the Russian roulette nature of the unknown, we thought this would give a sort of level playing field. As luck would have it, none of us had consumed the majority of the selection and there were nine healthy candidates to test drive.
We tried to judge purely on Overall taste, hoppiness, finish and of course plain old drink-ability. The BJCP would probably classify these as Specialty Beers, due to the unusual nature of their components. The theme, of course, is the holidays so the labels and ingredients contained Christmas esque elements like:
- Juniper Berry
- Frankincense and Myrrh
Jokes aside, let’s get it on!
I think we will go ahead and list these in the same order that they were served to us.
1. K-9 Cruiser Winter Ale by Flying Dog Brewery, 6.4% ABV & 30 IBU
Flying Dog was the first bottle out of the gate, and usually I find FD to be a substantially above average producer of fine beverages but unfortunately their winter ale only fared as average across the panel. Its wet taste with some sweet high notes had a nice head and was quite drinkable without being a stand out item. The hoppiness was quite unnoticeable and the finish had all of the funk of a pilsner with no sign of reward.
It was really an average beer but couldn’t escape an average rating of 3 out of 5 stars.
2. Christmas Ale by Breckenridge Brewery, 7.4% ABV & 22 IBU
Breckenridge is performing as I expect it to, even during the holidays they seem to really be really proud of the slurry that is being bottled in Denver. The Christmas Ale is no exception to their usual performance, strong alcohol finish and lackluster flavor. With a nutty texture, dark color, malty strength and watery flavor, this beer gets the Holiday Wino Beer award. Much higher ABV concentration than most of the other entrants, the overbearing fumes of booze crush all the other flavors and lead one to spit out the contents quickly. One can almost see old St Nick with a brown paper bag sipping ho ho ho-less glups of the stuff to erase the memories of Christmas past.
1.5 out of 5 stars thanks but no thanks.
3. 2 Below Winter Ale by New Belgium, 6.6% ABV & 30 IBU
New Belgium started to round out the evening without really trying. Nice head and clean aroma starts to prepare you for the aroma of Christmas that follows. The lightly carbonated and fruity accents lend themselves to balance the easy hoppiness and clean finish that rounds out the taste. Honestly, I usually feel 2 Below as a middle of the road sort of brew but this seemed like a breath of fresh air amidst the last 2 entries.
3.5 out of 5 stars for something reliably delicious and unique.
4. Never Summer Ale by Boulder Beer, 5.94% ABV, IBU unavailable
I am almost certain that this was the first beer that I have ever tried from the Boulder Beer company (at least on record). From the initial warm brown nutty appearance came a sweet fresh and clean brew that not only had a great beer foundation but all of the distinctive qualities of a seasonal brew. The hoppiness was palatable but not overwhelming and the finish lingered but in a way that was welcomed. I was surprised by the aromatic and flavor qualities.
3.75 out of 5 stars.
5. Nutcracker Ale by Boulevard Brewing Co., 5.9% ABV & 31 IBU
Hands down the FAVORITE of the evening and an absolute show stopper coming straight from Kansas City, Missouri. This was another first for the panel. The strong aroma of Juniper berries is a Christmas morning in a bottle for sure. The creamy texture and sweet hops really projects an appeal that no other beer in the evening could match. The Nutcracker lives up to its name like a liquid combination of gingerbread cookies and egg nog bottled and fermented to foamy perfection.
4.5 out of 5 stars.
6. Isolation Ale by O’dell Brewing Co., 6.0% ABV & 29 IBU
O’dell seems to have a hit and miss policy. They perfect somethings and then others seem to be so average. Not that I have ever had anything unappetizing from them. I have to say that the brew seemed to tie with the 2 Below in terms of taste and quality but it wasn’t a really big winner with the whole panel. The burnt nutty brown ale had some flavor and complexity to it but the slightly skunky finish kept it from being a real contender.
3.5 out of 5 stars.
7. Anchor Christmas Ale by Anchor Brewing Co., 5.5% ABV, IBU unavailable
There are some mixed feelings about this beer, I for one really love the drink but I try not to think of it as a beer. The drink really captures the essence of Christmas or the winter holiday flavors all at once. It is by far the most complex of the group but with almost no hops it seems to be an entirely different animal. It fades quickly at the end but over all is hard to grep as a beer, in my opinion. I like it for being something totally different than the other competitors but I graded it lower because it doesn’t really seem to have any beer attributes besides the name and the bottle.
2 out of 5 stars.
8. Celebration Ale by the Sierra Nevada, 6.8% ABV & 62 IBU
Sierra Nevada attempts to slide some random ale in and call it a winter seasonal without possessing any of the real tenants of its competitors, those being good flavor and seasonal themed seasoning. Thanks to the reefer like skunk which seems permeate the overall aroma of the brew there seemed to be no real high point to grab onto. Strong hops and lingering after taste seem to only complicate the despair of this simple beer.
1.75 out of 5 stars.
9. Special Holiday Ale by Stone Brewery, 9.0% ABV, IBU (satan?)
Stone Brewery Holiday Special Ale is misleading because 3 different brewers were responsible for its unholy conception.
In my opinion it should have been titled Black Christmas, because there is no chance that any holiday cheer could be gleaned from the venom like liquid that lurks under the cap. That black syrupy bile has a kick like an imperial stout and its tar like texture sticks to the back of your throat for what seems like eternity. It hates you, me and pretty much anything that it comes in contact with.
1 out of 5 stars.
Nut Cracker Ale was unanimously declared the favorite of the pack and to our surprise 2 Below and Never Summer were not all that far off. This was a first time drink for all of us and we were impressed with Boulevard’s offering as it was not only the most delicious of the group but the highlights were both Wintery and supported by a great Beer Foundation, which was rare among the offerings.
Seasonal brews are often a mixed bag and this group was no exception to that. Though through all the twists on holiday favorite themes, flavors and techniques, the true test for any great beer is the foundation. Without this your gingerbread house will collapse.
For your pleasure and consideration, delicious bottle caps.
To close out I would like to first thank:
For providing great information and resources for our little testing. Dave Hilgier also deserves all the credits for the photos and typography.
Please send us feedback and recommendations, they are always welcomed.
Happy Holidays — ZACH ATTACK MEYER