THIS HOLIDAY WE are blessed with many seasonal beers. These beers tap the tradition of the brewmaster thanking customers for a year of patronage by giving them a full-bodied, sometimes spiced brew at year's end.
As is my holiday custom, I recently gathered with a handful of other hale and hearty fellows and quaffed the seasonal suds and took notes. My fellow tasters included beer makers Jack Callahan of Sisson's restaurant and Hugh Sisson of Clipper City Brewery, as well as beer connoisseurs Tim Hillman and Dave Butcher of Rotunda Wine and Spirits, who organized the event.
We drank a lot of beer, and liked most of what we sipped. With one exception, we drank only holiday beers that had been put in bottles and could therefore be found at your neighborhood six-pack dispensary.
The exception was a pitcher of Prancer's Pride, which was served on tap, by Callahan. That's the way it is delivered for $2 a glass at Sisson's in South Baltimore. This refreshing ale had flavors of cinnamon, orange and ginger. It was an outlaw, a tap-beer in a bottled-beer tasting, and we loved it.
Back on the bottled front, we tasted 23 holiday beers. Here, in alphabetical order, and divided into domestic and foreign categories, are ones we liked, and why we liked them.
Anchor Special Ale (about $10 a six-pack): This ale pushes both the amount of cloves you want in a beer and the amount of money you want to spend on a six-pack, yet once again it pulls the malt and spice flavors together and wins you over.
Catamount Christmas Ale (about $7.50 a six-pack): A hearty ale, with a masterful balance of malt and Cascade hops.
Clipper City Winter Ale (about $6 a six-pack): A Scotch ale with DTC dark, roasted notes and tastes of caramel and coffee. Distinctive.
Coors Winterfest (about $6 a six-pack): A wonderful, malty brew, so much richer than traditional Coors.
Pyramid Snow Cap Ale (about $7 a six-pack): A dark, almost mahogany ale. Tasters praised the Fuggles hops, the espresso flavor notes. One guy, an apparent licorice lover, gleefully reported tasting anise.
Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig (about $7 a six-pack): One of several Sam Adams issues, this ale is the plum pudding of holiday brews. A mixture of cinnamon, ginger and orange that comes together nicely.
Samuel Adams Winter Lager (about $7 a six-pack): A wheat bock with a terrific, dry finish.
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale (about $8 a six-pack): A brew that was hard to find here last year is abundant this year. There is an abundance of flavor as well, with a joyful malt ride followed by a taste of the delightful grapefruit flavors of Cascade hops.
Snow Goose (about $6 a six-pack): A pleasing ale from Maryland's Eastern Shore. The bottle is graced with the image of a white goose, and carries a dark chocolatey brew with an astringent finish.
Affligen Noel (about $7 for 25.4 ounces -- wine-bottle size): An intense Belgian ale with notes of dark, dark chocolate.
Affligen Pater's Vat (about $7 for a wine-size bottle): Loosely translated, the name of this favorite from Belgium means "the monk's cask." The monk this brew was named after liked his beer flavored with apples and hops.
La Binchoise Noel (about $6 for a wine-size bottle): This Belgian beer was not shy. It was spiced to the max, with flavors of oranges, cloves and sugar candy.
Sam Smith's Winter Welcome (about $4 for an 18-ounce bottle): Next to the assertive Belgians, this English beer provided a pleasant understatement. Lighter and smoother than your average holiday heavy-hitter.
A few informal awards were given at our tasting. The award for best new beer bottle of the holiday season seemed to go to Anheuser Winter. I say "seemed" because no formal vote was taken. I decided on my own. The boys who brew Budweiser put their holiday brew in a classy vessel, complete with etchings on the sloping "shoulders" of the bottle.
The nod for most eye-catching label seemed to go to the three-dimensional look of Snowball's Chance, the winter ale made by Maryland's FrederickBrewing Co. Honors for best-smelling holiday beer seemed to go to New Amsterdam Winter, with its cherry-cola aroma. The all-spice aromas of Harpoon Winter Warmer helped it finish a close second.
That put the cap on our tasting of bottled beers. Later, I decided that I should taste the locally made holiday beers served only on tap: the Doppelbock of Baltimore Brewing Co., the Christmas Ale of Oliver Breweries, the Santa Class from Oxford Brewing and the Big Strong Ale made by Brimstone Brewing.
One final note: This practice of comparing holiday beers is open to anybody with pencil and palate. If you want company as you sip, visit one of the several area pubs that have large selections of holiday beers on tap, including Racer's Cafe in Parkville, the Last Chance in Columbia and Max's on Broadway in Fells Point.
Pub Date: 12/08/96