By Jason Notte
Stop your grousing and start sipping: It's finally holiday beer season.
Little more than a month ago we were just as dismayed by the number of wintry holiday brews on taps and store shelves as most calendar-watching Americans. We realize brewers have to get these varieties out so there aren't a bunch of spicy ales and tree-laden labels lingering around packaged-goods stores in January. We're also aware beer shipments that exceed 15 million barrels during peak summer months slowly trickle to about 12 million barrels in December and slightly less during the Thanksgiving holiday season in November, according to the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
We can even see why breweries would want to capitalize on the thirst for holiday beer as much as possible. About 92 percent of American holiday consumers add food and beverages onto their holiday shopping in 2012, but spending on that holiday party cheer has risen from $86 per person in 2008 to nearly $110 this year. That's a difference of almost a full case per person.
Still, with the fresh hop and pumpkin ales not quite finished, it seems a bit much. We left just about all of those early entrants off of this year's holiday beer wish list, a shame considering it knocked out our top holiday beer of 2011. In fact, nine out of our Top 10 holiday beers have changed for this season, giving us all the more reason to get into the spirit and make with the list already:
Style: Imperial stout.
Think you won't be able to get by on just beer this holiday season? Think there isn't a beer out there that can warm you up like a good wine, a hearty cup of egg nog or a hot toddy? You're obviously not familiar with Port Brewing. This San Diego County brewer is one of the reasons California craft beer has a reputation for pushing limits. Port Brewing and its sister brewery Lost Abbey turn out great high-potency beers, and this 10 percent alcohol by volume is no exception. Port loads up Santa's Little Helper with nine kinds of malts, four kinds of hops, brown sugar, Belgian chocolate, espresso and lots of roasted and black barley to give it a smooth flavor with a fiery finish.
Style: Barley wine.
Brewers have no sense of charity around this time of year, as evidenced by this 11.5 percent ABV beast of a beer. Hair of the Dog brewmaster Alan Sprints makes clear that while this beer is good to go now, that alcohol content will help it improve with age. You could cellar this beer for years, open it during some Christmas Future and have a far more complex beer than the one you bought. Even straight out of the bottle, Doggie Claws is a tough customer, though. Its deep copper color masks an intense hop flavor courtesy of a truckload of Simcoe and Amarillo hops. It also contains just a bit of dark wildflower honey collected on Mount Hood, just to sweeten the pot a bit.
Style: Amber ale.
You don't have to get too fancy to make someone the perfect holiday gift. The Craft Brew Association sends its holiday wishes from Oregon with this deep red beauty imbued with the citrusy fragrance of Cascade hops. No need for bitterness this holiday season, as caramel and chocolate malts balance out that bold aroma. The smooth, sweetened flavor and 7.2 percent ABV make Brrr a perfect beer to warm up with one or two of while the windows frost and the temperatures drop.
Style: English strong ale.
This beer jumped the gun and was ready in October, but sneaked in under our watch. We're not sorry about that, as it would have been a shame to leave it out of our holiday party. At 7.5 percent ABV, it's the first beer on our list that we might suggest having more than one pint of during your holiday festivities. Teeming with caramel and chocolate malt and underscored with just enough hops to maintain its Pacific Northwest identity, Snow Cap is a smooth warmer that doesn't trap its subtle fruit flavors under a layer of spice. If you're a snob who can't see past Pyramid's North American Breweries connection and dismisses it as non-craft just because it's in the same company as Gennessee, Magic Hat and MacTarnahan's, get over yourself. All you're doing is depriving yourself of an eminently drinkable holiday beer.
Style: Winter warmer.
This was the only entry from last year's list that made it to the 2012 edition, despite Boston Beer's best attempts to dislodge it. Each holiday season, a scant two bottles of Old Fezziwig find their way into the Samuel Adams variety pack alongside Boston Lager, Winter Lager, Holiday Porter, Chocolate Bock and a new beer of Boston Beer's choosing. This year, that was a spicy near-witbier named White Christmas. Nice try. Old Fezziwig is still just as popular as the jovial, party-loving boss from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Caroland has been since its introduction 1995. Its balance of chocolate, caramel and toffee notes, ginger and cinnamon spices and just a bit of orange peel is still found only in the winter pack and -- without fail -- is usually the first beer in the pack to disappear completely from a holiday host's fridge. At 5.8 percent ABV, it's tough to blame guests for wanting more than one.
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