Holiday Beers (The Session #106)

This is my entry for The Session #106 with the topic of holiday beers; hosted at by Jay Brooks at Brookston Beer Bulletin, which is the home of The Session.

The Session, or Beer Blogging Friday

The Session, or Beer Blogging Friday

The prompt

So for this Session, write about whatever makes you happy, so long as it involves holiday beers.

Discuss your favorite holiday beer.

Review one or more holiday beers.

Do you like the idea of seasonal beers, or loathe them?

What’s your idea of the perfect holiday beer?

Do have a holiday tradition with beer?

Are holiday beers released too early, or when should they be released?

Do you like holiday beer festivals?

Those are just a few suggestions, celebrate the holiday beers in your own way. Happy Holidays!

General thoughts

I seem to have a somewhat fraught relationship with “holiday beers.” I’m going to talk about some generalities, some specific beers, and then answer Jay’s questions in the prompt.

This is what I recently wrote in a post about McMenamins’ 2015 Kris Kringle:

“Shortly after moving to the Pacific Northwest a couple years ago I looked forward to trying different winter warmer beers. I have gotten over them as quickly as I have pumpkin beers. Actually, I like some pumpkin (and yam) beers. What I pretty much despise are pie beers. Use the freaking pumpkin to flavor your beer. Keep the f’ing spices out of pumpkin beers though. I guess if you like Creme Brulee Stout and its ilk then have at it. But I think pie beer sucks.

Many, if not most (I’m betting), winter warmers are the equivalent of pie beers. Full of spices that are good for a sip or two but become gagging if I have to contemplate more than a couple ounces of said beer. Can’t stand beer like that.”

So my basic stance is “Um, no.”

But I followed those paragraphs up with “This is NOT one of those winter warmers.”

I also keep trying pumpkin, squash and yam beers and hoping they aren’t pie beers because I appreciate the subtle influence of those ingredients used well. Fort George has the wonderful Squashed Stout at the Festival of the Dark Arts, or has the last 3 years. There are others.

Perhaps more to the overall point, as Jay pointed out in his announcement post:

“So a holiday beer should be made to impress, to wow its audience, to stand out. That’s the only criteria that should be met by one of these beers. Will it impress? Different breweries, thankfully, do this in many, many different ways. Some use unusual spices or fruits, some use special malts or hops, some use other uncommon ingredients like spruce or rye, and some make a style that itself is unusual. So there’s nothing to tie these beers together apart from their celebration of the season.”

Thus, no stylistic rules to go by and while winter warmers do not fall into a coherent style many holiday beers are within its purview. But then anything “made to impress” can also be a holiday beer.

So I keep trying them.

Impress me. Please.

Specific beers

I have written positively about Kris Kringle twice now. But it is extremely lightly spiced and an otherwise well-executed amber perhaps. [McMenamins Kris Kringle (2015 | 2013)]

We recently shared a bottle of pFriem Winter Ale which turned out to be a very lightly spiced PNW IPA. It was a well-executed beer and I found it tasty although not what was expected. The wife spit and called them heathens. I told her that was a bit much but tilted her way a tad bit. Thankfully there are plenty of other pFriem beers we both adore.

Deschutes Jubelale is an annual ritual at the Deschutes Bend Public House. It gets some particular love for the free poster-sized artwork (which the labels are based on) with a signing by the artist each year. We have them all since we moved here in 2012 (um, 4 then). And the signing starts at a good time if you aren’t worried about dinner. Go to the bar at the Deschutes Pub and order a very fresh Jubelale and get in line to get your poster signed. We may have been first this year for posters. It is an easy in and out and you get to drink tasty beer, meet a talented artist and get a free, signed poster. Be sure to tour the brewery to get a view of the real artwork from most of the years as you finish your tour. Much of it is breathtaking. Thanks, Deschutes!

I actually need to pick up a six-pack of Jubelale as this is now the time of year for me to drink it. Was kind of craving it Tuesday night when we finally got home from work and the store. It is quite delicious this year. I don’t drink lots of it but a sixer or two each winter seems proper.

Wednesday night we had a Fermentum OG 1111 (2012?) [brewed at the Santa Maria al Carrabiolo convent per RateBeer] which I picked up a couple months ago at Corvallis Brewing Supply.

Carrobiolo

“birra stagionale invernale” = winter seasonal beer

This was an odd one. Smoked which I guess all of the flames on the label ought have tipped us off to. The aroma was of light smoke as was the taste. As it warmed that smoke became somewhat peat-infused. It was medium-bodied with the light peatiness lingering in the finish. Neither of us are smoked beer fans, nor especially of peat, but this was oddly drinkable. It wasn’t an awesome beer to us but I’m glad I tried it.

Deschutes Red Chair NWPA – fresh, in early to mid-Winter, it is one of the best beers in the world.

Maybe this is not actually a holiday beer I guess but I think of it as such seeing as it is a winter seasonal (available January – April). This beer has been named The Best Beer in the World a couple times, which is honestly ridiculous. But for about four to six weeks each year in early winter this is one of the world’s best beers. I don’t believe it would be if it was available year-round although it would still be an excellent beer. Just give me my several Red Chair between January and my birthday in February. Just please keep the nitro away from mine! Yes, I am a winter baby. Has something to do with my attitude towards holiday and winter beers, methinks.

Jay’s suggested questions answered

Discuss your favorite holiday beer.

In those special moments, that beer that makes, and marks, its own moments in time.

Review one or more holiday beers.

See McMenamins Kris Kringle (2015 | 2013) posts.

Do you like the idea of seasonal beers, or loathe them?

The idea is perfectly fine. It is the execution. And differences of opinion and literal taste and all that.

What’s your idea of the perfect holiday beer?

Nonsensical question to me. In a special context or situation—like I take it we assume “the holidays” to be—then I want a special beer. For me, and the wife, that is probably a massive imperial stout or a similar barleywine; quite probably barrel-aged. For me it could also be an excellent lambic or gueuze or Berliner Weisse on the rare occasion I get a chance to enjoy such lovelies. It could also be an aged Samichlaus. Considering so many other people who are routinely under the misguided impression that many of those are not year-round beers are now thinking the weather is right ….

There just are no holiday beers (as more commonly thought, but see below) that I have found yet that reach the pinnacle of my palate. Some are quite tasty and are indeed worth drinking by the numbers one can do on two or three  or maybe even four hands over the course of a couple months [see Jubelale and Red Chair, above]. But none have reached the level of preference for special occasions, or even if I just want a beer I will love [well, OK, extremely fresh Red Chair is a beer I will love BUT ONLY for a 1-2 month window].

For me then, holiday beers are those I drink across the holidays and winter but not particularly on special occasions. They are seasonally appropriate as (some of the) every day beer for the extended “holiday” period. And some are quite exceptional beers in their own right but they impress me in ways I consider differently, I guess.

Do have a holiday tradition with beer?

Deschutes The Abyss release day is a tradition for us. It is also a holiday for us. As far as I am concerned, it is one of the most important days of the year! The wife would also add Deschutes’ birthday which is (usually) release day for their Black Butte Reserve anniversary beer, which might be my second favorite Deschutes beer. Tis her first by a head.

The release the last couple of years [2013] has been between the second and third week of November so a great pre-Thanksgiving start. Last year (our 3rd) we got our first snow of the year the night before and it was a big one. The next day we faced the tough decision of whether to trudge the one mile each way to the pub in snow boots or to use our snowshoes. We opted for boots and was there for opening through a foot of snow, drifts were deeper.

I failed to write this up last year, which is one of my great ones along with nothing about Fort George’s Festival of the Dark Arts our 2nd and 3rd years.

It was an epic day but in a mostly fun and enjoyable way. We were able to spend several hours drinking our vertical flights and still leave while it was light out.

We will be there at opening (11 AM) this year on 17 December [got pushed back a bit this year but even more “holiday” now]. Cannot wait to compare 2011-2015 vintages and “Please, please, please!” have a truffle, Deschutes!

Based on this recent tweet I suspect they are. Not sure what that silvery gunk is but I imagine it is good or I can ignore it.

Official 2015 The Abyss release day info (10th release this year):

Sounds awesome but even I find that a tad insane. I’ll take my flight at 11 AM and settle in for the next couple of hours of tasty bliss.

If you want to read my sort of love letter (let’s be honest) to The Abyss then here it is. If all goes well I will get to have this experience again next month with even more vintages, all 10. Please, life. I am begging you.

Are holiday beers released too early, or when should they be released?

Ones that get wide distribution are released too early, in my opinion. Smaller, more local ones seem to be better timed.

Do you like holiday beer festivals?

I have not been to many. The only one that comes to mind was the 1st Annual Winter Beer Fest, sponsored by Growler Guys and hosted at GoodLife on 14 December 2013. The beers and the event were alright but we also had another beer event that evening, the inaugural event of a friend. We did not make last years event. This year’s event is the 3rd, now called the Central Oregon Winter Beer Festival.

Seems like it could be a festive mood in which to try various offerings and in smaller quantities. That’s one of those fraught questions which arises considering other beers in different styles, or various processes or ingredients: if it is only tasty for, say, 2 to 6 ounces can I call it a good beer? Let any superlative you choose that fits the context stand in for good? Is it then? I haven’t answered this one for myself yet. I can’t  answer it for anyone else.

Other holiday beers on hand to drink

HolidayBeers

I kept a couple Anchor 2014 Christmas Ales and picked up the pFriem and Stone yesterday.

Anchor Christmas Ale [Our Special Ale] 2015 release is here. This is its 41st year. See all of the labels here and see which trees have been used by artist Jim Stitt over the years.

We did drink one of the 2014s we held on Thanksgiving as our noon beer and it was OK. I don’t think the year did it any favors though.

pFriem Belgian-style Christmas Ale. Ah yes. Belgian (or Belgian-style) Christmas beers could almost be a class in itself. Not revisiting the others from over the years here. For instance, Delerium Noël or Fantôme Noël, which we had along with others at a Deschutes Brewery University class on Winter beer and cheese back in January 2013. Bring these DBU classes back please, Deschutes.

Stone Xocoveza Mocha Stout has just been rereleased (due to popular demand, by the way) and this time, now in 12 oz bottles versus first-run 22 oz bottles (bombers), it claims to be “For the holidays and the new year.” OK. It’s a holiday beer posing as a Mexican hot chocolate. It was damned tasty last time. Here’s hopin’.

It’s brewed with cocoa, coffee, chile peppers, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg. This semisweet milk stout was excellent last time. This is what I said about it in my Untapped checkin:

A full-on trigeminal attack. Oily mouthfeel; var. astringencies; spice & aroma of peppers w/hint of heat. 4.75

Oh yeah. I remember this. If you ever need a beer to engage every possible sense perception in your mouth, throat and nose this is a number one contender.

So. Much. Going. On.

In there all at once and in weirds successions and … It was mind-blowing actually. An experience, as they say.

Boy. I hope this can stand up to my hopes and memory now. But if this is a holiday beer then bring them on.

Final thoughts

So my holiday beer thoughts and experiences are fraught and complicated. I truly appreciate some beers that have spices and other flavorings; see Kris Kringle, Jubelale, and Xocoveza above as examples. Just as I do quite appreciate some pumpkin, squash and yam beers.

But these do not circumscribe holiday beers as Jay Brooks has described them for years in the annual holiday beer tasting for the Celebrator Beer News. Also above [with the clipped bit]:

“So a holiday beer should be made to impress, to wow its audience, to stand out. That’s the only criteria that should be met by one of these beers. Will it impress? … So there’s nothing to tie these beers together apart from their celebration of the season.”

As I said above,

“For me then, holiday beers are those I drink across the holidays and winter but not particularly on special occasions. They are seasonally appropriate as (some of the) every day beer for the extended “holiday” period.”

These are not the same things to one of a philosophical bent but I’m not defining “holiday beer” for anyone else either. Certainly not for myself for all time. This isn’t even a view I held 5 years ago.

But I see some overlap.

As I prefer a beer that impresses me–and those above that I want to drink several of do–I think they fit Jay’s description perfectly. [I am not claiming that he sees it as a definition.] The fact that they would only greatly impress me if they kept their seasonal, whatever the “season,” release and thus remain somewhat restricted is irrelevant.

Speaking of beers that impress me, I want to leave room in my description of holiday beers for the narrower one of “my favorite holiday beer:”

In those special moments, that beer that makes, and marks, its own moments in time.

Much overlap but these may also be beers that would make any occasion special, raise it from the ordinary, force you to pay attention. To it and to what is going on around it. They bring you back to yourself.

Cheers!

Thoughts from a real beer writer

Just in time, a new article by K. Florian Kemp from the Stylistically Speaking column in All About Beer v. 36(6) dated 2 December on the history of some kinds of holiday beers.

My previous posts for the session (one is by me wife)

McMenamins Kris Kringle 2015

With perfect timing for release day, a bottle of McMenamins 2015 version of their Traditional Yuletide Ale, Kris Kringle, showed up on my doorstep last Friday, the 13th of November.

Image of McMenamins Kris Kringle Traditional Yuletide Ale label

I also received and reviewed the 2013 release here.

Here is McMenamins description of this beer:

Just in time for the holidays, November 13th marks the release of this year’s McMenamins Traditional Yuletide Ale, Kris Kringle.  The busy-as-elves McMenamins brewers have created another wonderful gift for your taste buds this holiday season.  The 2015 version of Kris Kringle is a hearty and robust ale with a big and bold malt complexity as well as an intense and flavorful hop profile.  This “winter warmer” highlights the rich, toasty, aromatic and chocolaty malt flavors as its very sturdy foundation.  Generous amounts of two different hop varieties were added in five different additions, which delivers a magnificent and massive hop assault.  There’s still some ginger and cinnamon added into the batch but the spices are a little more subdued than in years’ past.  McMenamins brewers hope you enjoy this years’ version of our old Holiday favorite, Kris Kringle.  Happy Holidays and a Wonderful New Year!

Malts: Pale Ale, Munich, Wheat, 15L & 120L Crystal, Chocolate

Hops: Centennial (Bittering, Flavor &Aroma), Cascade (Flavor & Aroma)

OG: 1.068  TG: 1.015  ABV: 6.84%  IBU: 76  SRM: 15

Buzz Words: Robust, Hoppy, Festive

I popped open this very fresh “winter warmer” on Monday and quite enjoyed it. More on that in a moment.

Photo of bottle, glass of beer, and postcard for 2015 release of McMenamins Kris Kringle

Shortly after moving to the Pacific Northwest a couple years ago I looked forward to trying different winter warmer beers. I have gotten over them as quickly as I have pumpkin beers. Actually, I like some pumpkin (and yam) beers. What I pretty much despise are pie beers. Use the freaking pumpkin to flavor your beer. Keep the f’ing spices out of pumpkin beers though. I guess if you like Creme Brulee Stout and its ilk then have at it. But I think pie beer sucks.

Many, if not most (I’m betting), winter warmers are the equivalent of pie beers. Full of spices that are good for a sip or two but become gagging if I have to contemplate more than a couple ounces of said beer. Can’t stand beer like that.

This is NOT one of those winter warmers. McMenamins is claiming that there is still some ginger and cinnamon in this and I believe them. But the level of spicing is perfect! I had to keep asking myself whether it was spiced or not. Subtlety is the operant word. Never once did I think of this as a spice beer but only as a tasty beer that might have a small amount of almost undetectable spicing. As it should be.

In the aroma I got a medium caramel, very light cocoa and light herbal earthiness when cold. As it warmed, a very light woodiness, light nuttiness and very light vanilla notes came through.

While I did not have a strong light source at hand and the sun had set, I’d say the color was a dark copper-orange with a creamy off-white head.

The beer was creamy and medium bodied, with medium-light caramel notes, and a very light sweetness until the finish when a mild bitterness came along and cleaned up any lingering sweetness.

If this is what a winter warmer can be then I may have to reconsider my stance. But then most pumpkin beers are pie beers and I fear most winter warmers are, in my opinion, spice bombs also. No thanks.

I’ll be picking a couple bottles of this up and you should to. Only available until Christmas Day.

I also tasted our local McMenamins (Old St. Francis School) version on the previous Saturday while there for their birthday. The primary difference I noted was less carbonation and a thinner body but still tasty.

FYI: FTC. And all that: This bottle was provided to me by McMenamins.

McMenamins Kris Kringle 2013

On Friday I stopped by McMenamins Old St. Francis School to see brewer Mike “Curly” White who gave me a growler of the just-released-that-day 2013 Kris Kringle Traditional Yuletide Ale brewed by him along with two bombers of the Edgefield version. By the way: The flyer accompanying this years release lists slightly different hops that the one at the link.

Description: Just in time for the holidays, November 15th marks the release of this year’s McMenamins Traditional Yuletide Ale, Kris Kringle. The busy-as-elves McMenamins brewers have created another wonderful gift for your taste buds this holiday season. The 2013 version of Kris Kringle is a hearty and robust ale with a big and bold malt complexity as well as an intense and flavorful hop profile. This “winter warmer” highlights the rich, toasty, aromatic and chocolaty malt flavors as its very sturdy foundation. Generous amounts of four different hop varieties were added in five different additions, which delivers a magnificent and massive hop assault. There’s still some ginger and cinnamon added into the batch but the spices are a little more subdued than in years’ past. McMenamins brewers hope you enjoy this years’ version of our old Holiday favorite, Kris Kringle. Happy Holidays and a Wonderful New Year!

Ingredients: 

Malts: GWM Pale Ale Malt, GWM Munich Malt, GWM Wheat Malt, GWM 15L Crystal Malt, GWM 120L Crystal Malt, Baird’s Chocolate Malt.

Hops: Nugget (Bittering & Flavor), Chinook (Flavor), Cascade (Flavor & Aroma), Santiam (Flavor & Aroma)

Buzz Words: Robust, Hoppy, Festive

Alcohol: 6.84% • IBU: 90 • SRM: 15 

I took the growler and a bomber over to Paul and Sandi’s house that night, where we re-watched the 1st Thor movie since we were going to see the Thor: The Dark World on Saturday. I poured the wife a glass from the growler before I headed over since she wasn’t joining us for the movie.

McMenamins Kris Kringle Traditional Yuletide Ale 2013

McMenamins Kris Kringle Traditional Yuletide Ale 2013

Let me say up front that I enjoyed both versions, as did everyone else who tasted them.

Kris Kringle 2013 Old St. Francis School version:
A: medium level of fruity hops and very light pine.
C: Dark orange-brown.
Malty with a slightly sweet finish, while also having a slight hop bitterness in the finish. Was kind of wondering where all the claimed bitterness was hiding. I’m not complaining because I’m not a hophead. I found myself really enjoying this as a highly drinkable beer. It certainly is no session beer based on ABV but it was going down easily like one.

Kris Kringle 2013 Edgefield production brewery version:
A: far more aroma, especially more pronounced hops.
C: same color but definitely clearer, more heavily filtered.
Hoppier tasting and far more bitter. More attenuated; still malty but not sweet; dry finish. A very different beer, although the family resemblance was definitely there. Also found this one going down quite easily.

I enjoyed both and suggest you get to your local McMenamins and pick some up along with a bottle or two of the Edgefield production version and do your own head-to-head taste off. I’d be interested in hearing what you discover. Thanks, McMenamins!

Disclaimer: Beer provided to me free of charge by McMenamins.