They’re old-fashioned. They inspire a sense of nostalgia. They can be sweet and spicy and maybe a tad over the top. And this time of year, they’re an essential part of the beer-drinking experience.
If you’re heading out to a Christmas party and want to win friends and influence people, think festive and celebratory when you make your beer selection – beers such as Celebration Ale, the fresh-hop IPA Sierra Nevada released to pent-up demand every winter since 1981; Anchor Christmas Ale, which Anchor has been producing with a tweaked recipe (and different tree on the label) annually for four decades; the hoppy and sweet Brown Shugga from Lagunitas; or the super-spicy Hoppy Claus Holiday Ale by Sacramento’s own Hoppy Brewing.
I know that last beer well. Put your nose over the pint glass and inhale – it’s like a blast of Christmas potpourri, gingerbread cookies and herbal tea. Along with Christmas movies, holiday shopping and the credit card statement in January, there’s nothing subtle about it.
I had it in the bottle three years ago and remember it well. So I dropped by Hoppy for a palate update. It was cold and rainy outside. This was the antidote I was after.
“When we came up with it in 1996, we played around with our flagship amber, took various tea bags and started dipping them in a pint glass. We got an essence of what we were looking for and went and brewed it,” said Hoppy’s Troy Paski.
“We amped up the malt, took out the finishing hops and replaced that with Celestial Seasonings tea. We brewed that and it blew everyone’s doors off. It was really quite shocking.”
Yes, the beer is assertive. It’s also award-winning – a silver medal way back in 1997 at the prestigious Great American Beer Festival. Hoppy Claus is available in bottles and on draft at the brewpub.
Among others brewing Christmas beer locally are Claimstake, which came up with Delta Pine IPA, which is aged on vanilla and pine needles. I had it recently and loved it. For the second year running, Rubicon has released two Christmas beers: Naughty, a Russian imperial stout; and Nice, an India pale lager. I have yet to taste those, but plan to remedy that soon.
My second stop in search of the meaning of Christmas (beer) was at Pangaea Bier Cafe. They’ve got so many Christmas beers that I wound up tasting through a flight fit for St. Nick.
Pangaea is featuring St. Bernardus Christmas Ale all December and it’s pretty much a perfect beer, a Belgian quad that’s sweet throughout with great depth and a balance of fruit and caramel notes that dance all over the palate and linger. This beer will make any Grinch feel warm and fuzzy about mankind (best not to drink it while watching cable news, though).
Pangaea features a special Christmas beer each Thursday in December. The next one is the oddest and most interesting you might taste in 2016 – or the entire 21st century. I’m referring to Bestefar Norwegian Winter Ale from the brewery Haandbrygerriet. Yes, you should probably get the Rosetta Stone short course on Norwegian before ordering it in a public setting.
Pangaea’s talented beer buyer, Anders Kindall, gave me a preview and, well, I was blown away – a mad conglomeration of smoky, peat-y aromas and chocolate, dried fruit and reindeer jerky (yes, I said that) on the palate. My reaction began with revulsion, followed by curiosity, then acceptance and, finally, a crazy kind of love I might never forget. Taste this on my recommendation and you’ll either send me a Christmas card – or threaten to choke me out.