Merry Christmas! In July. While America suffers sweltering heat, we asked you to choose which winter beers we should open, and you delivered: 134 of you voted, and we spent yesterday afternoon tasting the holiday fivesome you chose. We could feel the holiday spirit as the beer community celebrated Christmas beyond our cubicles: Blind Tiger poured 15 gems yesterday, Cape Cod’s selling its Berry Merry Holiday Ale (and is releasing a bourbon-barrel-aged Old Man Winter tonight!), and as usual, Ohio’s going buckwild with holiday ales.
Here are your choices and our tasting notes, beginning with the vintage we liked the least.
2011 Boulevard Nut Cracker Ale: What a difference a year makes. This classic, 7.8%-ABV winter ale was one of our favorites in last year’s Christmas in July tasting. Usually delightfully toffee-laden with Chinook spice, the 2011 vintage is decidedly past it’s prime; our last bottle had that sourness that puts a grimace on any cellar rat’s face. So, while we defied the March 2012 drink-by date by a few months, it wasn’t that far off; score one for Boulevard, who thankfully prints date codes that let us learn how to (not) age styles like this.
2008 St Feuillien Cuvée Noël: We said it was now or never on this, but oh how we wish it had been before now. Our bottle was a couple years past its prime, but we were hoping the 9% ABV would have preserved the delightfully fruitcake-y profile the beer has young. It still had wonderful dark fruit, toffee richness and a distinct cider note, and we love how the Belgian yeast funks up the traditional winter warmer profile. But all that needs sturdier legs to stand on, and the body’s thinned out too much. Plus, a tiny thread of not-right sourness had started to work its way through the nose. Conclusion: This beer’s likely best before two years in the cellar.
2012 Penn St. Nikolaus Bock Beer: Beautiful, cohesive and down-right sessionable, this 6.5%-ABV bock is a delight to pop. We had expected a burlier malt profile, but what we got was a delicate, drinkable orchestra of bread, earth and figs. The Hallertau hops have lost their flavor, but they lend the swallow a nice dryness. If you’re sitting on this, open it now.
2010 Great Lakes Christmas Ale: This famous American Christmas ale was the top vote-getter with 23% of the vote, and it didn’t disappoint. What a delightful take on the Christmas beer: Honey softens the edges of ginger and honey, and aging has mellowed out a loud profile. There’s some wonderful, almost tealike earth and floral magic in there, too. Sure, it’s a great holiday beer, but there’s a reason they sell it in July: It’s still perky, but it goes down wonderfully easy, and it’s just plain refreshing. Get it if you can, and if you’ve cellared some, keep it no more than three years; our bottle wouldn’t have lasted much longer if we hadn’t cracked it now. If you want it fresh, the brewery’s pouring it this weekend.
THE WINNER: 2007 Schloss Eggenberg Samichlaus Bier: Christmas is supposed to be a time of peace, but this 14%-ABV holiday doppelbock—beloved among beer lovers—will unapologetically knock a good drinker down. This is a gem in any cellar, but we’re glad you let us open it: The beer’s loaded with cola, brown sugar, raisin and spice notes, but it’s tough to pick them out distinctly; they’ve all melted together into one singular, boozy swallow. Aging has done the beer well, refining the mouthfeel into a drink that’s more akin to a distilled spirit; there’s no head, and virtually no carbonation. This is not your average doppelbock; if you’re looking for an –ator, you won’t find it here. Instead, it’s a cognag-like sipper that should absolutely be shared. We suppose you could keep this around longer, but now’s a great time to uncap this Christmas miracle.
If last year was about falling in love all over again with old ales, this year was about minding alcohol strength. Was it any surprise that our favorite holiday beer was a 6-year-old 14%-ABV lager? Kind of: We had never aged such a strong lager before, and weren’t sure how it would fare. Even more surprising was the fact that so many of these malty holiday ales really can’t endure more than two years in the cellar. The takeaway: Cellar your holiday beers to take the edge off, but don’t be slow to bring them out. The exception: really boozy Austrian doppelbocks.
So, there you have it: Another Christmas in July tasting complete. Scaldis Noel, Double Diamond, Wassail, Festive Ale and Goose Island Christmas ale head back into the cellar, and we need the summer equivalent of a long winter’s nap. Happy drinking to all, and to all a good night!