By Jason Notte
Before you complain about holiday decorations appearing in stores in September or candy corn already being nudged out of supermarket aisles by candy canes, try drinking a seasonal beer this time of year.
Going through the email at this site's beer division is like diving headlong into the new releases cooler at your local bottle shop. It's a who's-who of seasonal beers and a good reminder of just how far along you are in the calendar. One particular brewer was kind enough to send along an invitation to the launch party for its dark, rich, spicy winter warmer.
The date of that party? Oct. 5.
C'mon, people. We understand that your breweries are slaves to the brewing cycle and have to release these beers early to get them out fresh and make sure there's very little left once the new year arrives. As Boston Beer founder Jim Koch told us about Samuel Adams' Fezziwig winter warmer last year:
"The basic reason -- and it's not that we can't get enough of the ginger or cinnamon or anything -- is that freshness is a big deal for us and this is a beer that has a season. Beer at its foundation is a performance art that exists in the moment of its creation and that's it, and Fezziwig is very much in that situation of being perfect for a certain time."
But, seriously, October? Samuel Adams doesn't launch its holiday beers until November, but that hasn't stopped holiday beers from appearing on shelves. We have drinkers who still aren't done with this year's fresh hop offerings. There are still going to be Halloween parties featuring refrigerators packed with pumpkin ale.
While we're unsure if we approve of this holiday creep into our local beer coolers, there are great holiday beers available for folks who are already in the spirit. We went looking for early signs of the season and found five beers that won't make you endure 23 hours of A Christmas Story or 12,000 plays of All I Want For Christmas Is You before you can enjoy them:
Don't call it a holiday "ale." This top-fermented beast is strictly old, Teutonic altbier. At 7.2% alcohol by volume it's as hard as Reign In Blood, War Ensemble or any of the other double-bass driven sonic assaults produced by its namesake metal band Slayer.
Ninkasi calls it a "dark double alt," but this gut warmer is just a high-octane dark brew built to keep drinkers warm on cold winter nights and get the blood boiling quicker than a thrash-metal solo.
Style: Strong ale.
The Christmas tree farms a short drive from this brewery aren't open for business yet, but harvest at the nearby hop farms waits for no man ... no matter how corpulent, jolly or laden with toys.
From its collage-style label by Oregon artist Kaycee Anseth Townsend made up of art from previous Jubelale labels to its fruity mocha flavor, Jubelale wraps itself in the season as snugly as possible. Caramel, coffee, chocolate, cherry and mild citrus come together in a mulled-wine porter with just enough spice to top it off. It's hoppier than most holiday beers, but that's to be expected in Jubelale's neck of the woods.
Style: English Strong Ale.
This brewery along the Columbia River Gorge has been brewing its Holiday Wassail since 1988, but you can forgive them for bringing it out early. If there's new snow on Mount Hood, there's going to be Wassail.
This year's Wassail edition blends caramel and dark chocolate malts to give it a deep mahogany color. Meanwhile, European noble hops and Pacific Northwest aroma hops give it a citrusy, slightly bitter finish that's the hallmark of the region's holiday beers.
Style: Winter warmer.
The Craft Brewers Association's Redhook Brewery has been cranking out different versions of Winterhook for 28 years, but the basic premise has remained: Make a beer as cozy as a blanket. This year's rich caramel body and malty backbone are balanced with a bold but not exceedingly bitter hoppy finish. Like any good winter warmer, Winterhook has some kick at 6% and a bit of bite from its Centennial, Cascade and Zeuss hops. Its brick-red color and mix of caramel, gingerbread and Munich malt flavor make it as serene as a first snowfall, though.
Style: Belgian dark strong.
If you knew you could make someone's favorite holiday gift every year without fail, you'd make sure it was on shelves by mid-October, too. Mad Elf's swirly cartoon-elf label hides a ruby red brew that sits like a holiday wine and sparkles like Rudolph's nose when poured. Its flavor is a bit less seasonally appropriate and combines the best elements of Belgian and German styles to do Pennsylvania's traditional and craft-brewing communities proud. The Saaz and Hallerstrau hops are bold without delivering an IPA-style bite, while the pilsner, munich and chocolate malts provide the smoothness of a stout or dark bock.
The core of its sweet, strong taste comes from a mix of honey and cherries that's Christmas-candy sweet without overdoing it. At 11 percent ABV, Mad Elf kicks like a reindeer, so it might be best to save it until you have time for that warm winter's nap.
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