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On Tap: Holiday Ales Get Creative

There are a variety of holiday ales hitting store shevles now. (Valley News - Chris Fleisher)

There are a variety of holiday ales hitting store shevles now. (Valley News - Chris Fleisher)

Thanksgiving has passed, the holiday gift list is longer than it’s ever been, Route 12A will soon become a parking lot jammed with eager shoppers and every store we enter for the next four weeks will be playing Muzak interpretations of Jingle Bells, Feliz Navidad and Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.

Who needs a beer?

Fortunately, the options around this time of year are plentiful as “holiday” ales start showing up on shelves, reminding us that despite the hassles and headaches, this truly is a wonderful time of year.

It’s a time when a lot of breweries get creative and offer something special to conclude the year, and there is tremendous variety in how they interpret the flavors of Christmas.

One odd and I think mistaken assumption about these holiday seasonals is that they are all necessarily spiced.

Oh sure, many of them have nutmeg, vanilla, clove or cinnamon, but spice isn’t a requirement, and the underlying base styles will range from porters to browns, old ales, barleywines, saison and even India Pale Ales.

I reached out to a few beer geeks and brewers to get their thoughts on what they enjoy about holiday beers and get recommendations.

Everyone said “no” to spice, and here, I’d have to agree. I’m not an absolutist, as I think some cinnamon or vanilla gives a warming touch. But less is more and unfortunately there are some beers that go too far for my taste. It’s my feeling that if you can identify the specific spice, then it’s overdone.

There are Christmas ales that might as well be called “the cinnamon challenge.” I wouldn’t drink them on a dare.

Others, such as variations of Anchor’s Christmas Ale, seem to strike the right balance. The recipe changes every year, but last year’s entry held that bit of mystery that kept me wondering what Anchor had done. Tony Lubold, the brewer at Seven Barrel Brewery in West Lebanon, told me he felt the same way.

“It’s spiced but I can never quite figure out what the spices are,” he said. “It has a faint licorice thing going on but there’s more. I can never decide if I like it or not but somehow the six pack always seems to disappear and alas, I always remain undecided.”

Lubold’s preferences for holiday ales, alternatively called “winter warmers,” are for beers with deep brown color, dark fruit flavors of prunes, raisins and currants and low bitterness. Alcohol should also be a bit higher, around 7 1/2 percent, he said. After all, it is winter and many of us welcome the extra heat.

I’m there with him on the flavor profile, but these are not hard and fast rules. Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale is proof of that.

This is an incredibly popular beer that always seems to disappear from stores before I can get my hands on a six-pack. It’s closest in style to an IPA, dry-hopped and offering a wonderful citrusy bouquet.

A few Belgian beers got shout-outs among the people I asked. DuPont’s Avec Les Bons Vieux was a particular favorite of my friend Andy Ager, a fellow beer judge and president of the Upper Valley Beer Society. This is a strong saison, a style that is known more for its dryness, spice and big fruit flavors produced by the yeast.

Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome was mentioned as “a classic” by Scott Russell, also a beer judge and homebrew guru over at South Royalton Market. This English beer has flavors of caramel and a pleasant nuttiness, and some reviewers have noted hints of molasses.

Anyone looking for a bit more “warming” might try Troegs Mad Elf Ale, a big 11 percent Belgian-inspired beer featuring honey and cherries. It’s not for everyone, but is a favorite among fans of bold beers.

I could go on. There will be plenty more winter releases appearing in the weeks to come.

And for the really cold nights ahead, when you’re exhausted from shopping, preparing for family visits and warming your chill-bitten fingers by a fire, you can take comfort in knowing you won’t have to wait until Christmas to open one of these gifts.

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“Valley News” staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.