The modern holiday season is rife with signs of cozy winter ambience and age-old tradition pumped up to catchpenny idolatry. Candy canes, reindeers, drummer boys, dreidels, nutcrackers, ladles of eggnog, animatronic Santas, snowflakes, and tangles of holiday lights all provide a certain atmospheric lingo for the season. Now what if you could bottle all of these signifiers of the holidays, ferment it, carbonate it and drink it down? Well, in a sense, that is what is being done every holiday season by beer brewers around the world with their own brands of holiday beers. While the cloying comfort of eggnog and the spicy fortified lift of mulled wine will always lead the pack for the time-honored seasonal libations, the sheer quantity and quality of this seasons holiday or winter beers threaten to gain some much deserved ground.
The inception of the holiday brew dates back a few centuries to the traditional Belgian ales, where the brewers were mostly monks who reserved their finest ingredients until year's end for a festive beer honoring the birth of Christ. These holiday beers tended to be brewed much stronger, darker, and heavier in calories than their spring and summer counterparts, in an effort to offset the grueling rigors of a merciless winter. Back in present-day America, the holiday brew furor really began in earnest in 1975 at Anchor Brewery in San Francisco. Known for their heralded and patented "steam beer" technique, Anchor owner Fritz Maytag decided to brew something different for winter, which had been considered the slower season for beer consumption. As a sort of one off, he brewed the now-famous and widely sought after Anchor Christmas Ale, and the rest is beer history.
Holiday beers are brewed around the Hudson Valley, and the rest of the world, starting in late October/early November. They are not so much of a particular style, but more defined by an evocative character. This may be anything from a bolstered alcohol content to the addition of fruits and spices to the brew, like cranberry, cinnamon, and cloves. All in all, these beers set out to capture the flavor of the season and our many associations surrounding the holidays.
John Eccles, Brewmaster at the Hyde Park Brewing Company since it opened in 1996, insists that the true appeal of these holiday beers is their power to evoke memories and associations through smell. For Eccles, Christmas was typified by the aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg spiced eggnog from his youth. So Eccles indulged his memories by adding a satchel of cinnamon and crushed nutmeg to the brewing of his annual Santa Lager. "The idea is to capture the character of the holiday, but not so much that people's eyeballs bug out," Eccles insists. The subtlety of Santa Lager apparently runs counter to the over-the-top tendencies of most holiday products, as Eccles observes, "Just about everything we know about Christmas is really more or less a marketing tool, and having a Christmas beer is part and parcel with the beer industry wanting to be part of the season and the money exchange." Regardless of his skepticism, Eccles insists that most of these microbrews exist to expand the palate and, while he may not always be enthused by the results, he remains a champion of his fellow brewer's right to experiment and push the beer envelope.
Across the river, Tom Keegan, owner of Keegan Ales in Kingston, is upping the ante with his seasonal "Super Kitty" beer. This après-ski concoction is a limited release barley wine-style ale that is a close relative to his other beer mainstay Hurricane Kitty. Both Hurricane and Super Kitty were inspired by the reckless vehicular antics of Keegan's beloved Grandmother, who earned the nickname "Hurricane Kitty" from the local traffic cops on Long Island. Despite his grandmother's penchant for automotive folly, Keegan insists that his Super beer contains two essentials needed in a winter brew—warmth and balance. With a degree in biochemistry and a fairly long lineage of brewers in his family, Keegan brews for "simplicity and drinkability" and came to his winter brew through countless hours of experimentation and patience. Weighing in at a whopping 12 percent alcohol content (most beers top out at about 8 percent), Super Kitty is surprisingly smooth and (as Keegan mandates) balanced with honey overtones, a fruity aroma, and distinct oakey undertones. Each one-liter flip-top bottle is hand-numbered with their necks ceremoniously dipped in red wax.
While both Hyde Park and Keegan represent the more modest of the holiday brew spectrum, there are as many conspicuous and ostentatious brews out there as there are gift returns the day after Christmas. A winter stroll through Half-Time beer emporium, on Route 9 in Poughkeepsie, reveals a whole fetishized world of bottled seasonal whimsy. Cranberries, allspice, ginger, licorice, cloves, and even juniper berries serve as key ingredients that transform your average beer into something a bit more festive. Alaskan Brewing Company takes it a step further by adding actual tips from the Sitka spruce tree to the brewing process of their Alaskan Winter Ale, which may be the only thing they could get their hands on during those permafrost Alaskan winters. Matthew Smith, Culinary Institute of America student and president of the school's brew club, finds it amazing that there are so many local craft breweries producing seasonal ales of all sorts. Being a beer aficionado, Smith has sampled a range of holiday offerings both good and bad (he claims one tasted like "a Christmas tree in a bottle, which was even less appetizing than it sounds"—see above). Smith maintains, "Some of the best in local craft beers will have nothing in marketing, save a seasonal name and winter-themed tap" and he routinely gets a laugh when he spots the likes of Budweiser six-packs festooned with bows and yuletide colors and marketed as a Christmas beer.
One place you are not likely to taste Budweiser is the Gilded Otter Brewery in New Paltz. Equal parts SUNY hangout and authentic brewpub, the Gilded Otter stands as the local go-to beer sanctuary. According to Darren Currier, the Otter's brewmaster for the past six years, "There is no distinctive way to make a winter beer," and they exist as a sort of grand experimental and improvisational zone for brewers willing to travel that road. Currier presides over their brewing process of his own Winter Warmer or Winter Wassail beer that is higher in alcohol, hardier, and "hoppier" than the usual ales in his brew repertoire.
On the flipside of the Christmas dominion is a singular and remarkable beer brewed in observance of Hanukah—yes, Hanukah! He'Brew 'The Chosen Beer' brews a limited release Monumental Jewbelation Ale in honor of the Hanukah season and their decade of brewing service. Brewed out of Schmaltz Brewing Company in Saratoga Springs but based in San Francisco, He'Brew is the lovechild of Jeremy Cowan, founder and all-around beer mensch of He'Brew. While at first glance Monumental Jewbelation may come across as a sort of novelty brew, nothing could be further from the truth. Lusty, dark, malty, with unmistakable hints of chocolate, and an absence of the requisite Christmas spices, this unique nut-brown ale is brewed with 10 different malts and 10 varieties of hops and 10 percent alcohol—making it a highly nuanced and potent brew. Cowan professes that his first intention was to make a "really spectacular, world-class beer as well as the first Jewish celebration beer," and he proudly maintains that it stands as the perfect beer, not only for Hanukah, but for "weddings, bar mitzvahs, and circumcisions." And yes, it is kosher.
Either way you choose to celebrate the holiday season, it is plain to see that the multitudes of seasonal beers out there are jockeying for your patronage. Whether your taste leans toward the bold or the slightly bizarre (as with all things during the holidays), select wisely, drink responsibly, and remember—you can't return an opened bottle of beer.
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