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Holiday Brews

[whitespace] beer A classic Belgian: Scaldis Noël is a stout, hearty seasonal brew that won the affection of our dedicated tasting team.

Michael Amsler

Sizing up seasonal suds

By Tom Butler

FOR THE LAST FOUR YEARS, during the week of Thanksgiving, I have hosted a holiday beer tasting at the Sonoma Wine Exchange on the plaza in Sonoma, home to what just might be the best selection of beers in Northern California. It is certainly home to some of the most knowledgeable beer enthusiasts (as they say, it takes a lot of beer to make good wine), and manager Dan Noreen always surprises this crowd of hard-to-please homebrewers, winemakers, and beer maniacs with new and delightful selections that range well beyond the ordinary.

This year we sampled 22 beers and came up with a list of stellar top 10 and a list of remainders that are at least improvements over years past. The biggest complaint was that most of the offerings from the California micros were nearly identical, with only slight differences in color and nose, but not much interesting going on in the glass. They offer, in the words of vineyard manager Jim Taylor, "what a Budweiser drinker would like for Christmas."

The top-rated beer in the tasting isn't really a "holiday" beer at all. It's North Coast Brewing's fabulous Anniversary X, released as a celebration of the growth and maturity of this Northern California micro. It's a rich, full-bodied, beautifully balanced, strong ale, truly competitive with some of the best beers in the world. It immediately begs the question why California micros don't make more of this topnotch style. Anniversary X harkens back to the original tradition of Anchor Brewing's holiday ales when founder Fritz Maytag took the opportunity to experiment and explore, serving up a sort of reward for all the dedicated Anchor fans.

North Coast is followed in the ratings by an international roster beginning with Harvey's Elizabethan Ale, a slightly syrupy, almost portlike ale, possessing lots of body and good balance. This is a beer you could have after dinner, but you wouldn't want to be quaffing several bottles during the football game (then again, maybe you would). A classic Belgian, Scaldis Noël, joins the top three for the third year in a row with a crisp fruitiness that is completely different from, yet just as satisfying as, the Harvey's. Rich and complex, with a bottle wrapped like a Christmas present--all blue foil and snow flakes--Scaldis Noël would make a perfect gift for any Belgian beer lover, as well as anyone looking for a special brewer's treat during the wintertime.

The next three selections are strong ales of the classic European tradition, brews designed to carry you through the long dark winter and leave you smiling in the spring. J.W. Lee's Harvest Ale and Fuller's Vintage Ale are both classic, full-bodied English strong ales, while Sammichlaus Brown Ale possesses a smoky flavor and syrupy body. More than any of the other ales at the top of the list, Sammichlaus is for the die-hard strong-ale drinker, a big beer with an Alpine punch.

The tasting returned to the West Coast with Sierra Nevada's Celebration Draft pulling seventh place. The bottled version of this beer was universally voted lower on the scale (coming in at No. 11) but at the end of the tasting a straw poll of favorites led to a third-place finish for Celebration right behind North Coast and Scaldis. Year after year, Sierra Nevada Celebration proves to be the perfect bridge between the European ales and the lighter American stylings offered by most of the micros.

Alaskan Brewing's Smoked Porter, an alder-smoked beer with definite hints of smoked-salmon flavor--came in at No. 8. This dark brew had several people raving about its distinctive flavor (sculptor Jim Callahan's comment: "I love this beer!"). Ninth place went to the 24th annual release of Anchor's Our Special Ale. This brew was a little more mellow and approachable than in recent years while still maintaining its now traditional "Christmas" flavorings. Tenth place returned to Belgium with Noël, from the monks at Abbey Affligem. Noël garnered its share of praise for its full, creamy body, beautiful nose, and crisp taste.

As you consider the results, be sure to take your own taste into account. The second half of the tasting left very little to be raved about, but plenty to enjoy if you're looking for a holiday treat without the punch of a true wintertime ale.


The complete list of seasonal beers and their respective ratings.


IF YOU'RE A FAN of big flavorful and full-bodied ales, go for the beers at the top of the list. On the other hand, if your preference--and the preference of your holiday guests--leans toward lighter fare with a seasonal flourish, you'll find the micros from North Coast, Anderson Valley, Full Sail, Portland, and Healdsburg's own Bear Republic to be suitable interpretations of this classic brewing style. In fact, the Bear Republic brew was actually quite nice for the lighter category beers. It did not have the strength and body one expects from "winter ales," but it was generally well received.

You can find all of these beers at the Sonoma Wine Exchange on the plaza and at other specialty beer stores throughout the area, so even if your tastes run toward the less than daring, try one of those special beers at the top of the list and see what great beer is really all about.

One cold dark night in December you might discover that you've found a new friend.

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From the December 17-23, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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