IT IS THE SEASON of the big beer, the brew with more malt, spice or just plain oomph than everyday suds.
Traditionally, this beer is a brewer's way of saying thanks to his customers for the past 12 months of patronage. This year, many brewers appear to be very thankful.
I say this after tasting 25 - that's right: 25 - offerings at an annual tasting of holiday beers. As is our December custom, a panel of tasters - beer makers Jack Callahan of Sisson's restaurant and Hugh Sisson of Clipper City Brewery, as well as beer connoisseurs Tim Hillman, Dave Butcher, Dan Zetlmeisl of Rotunda Wine and Spirits, who organized the event, and myself - gathered at Clipper City Brewery to pick our favorites in this year's crop of holiday beers.
When the sipping and scribbling stopped, these beers emerged as this year's favorites: Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, Clipper City Winter Ale, Affligem Noel Christmas Ale, Anchor Brewery's Our Special Ale, Geary's Hampshire Ale, Catamount Christmas Ale, Corsendonk Christmas Ale.
Other holiday brews that garnered at least one vote were Lancaster Winter Warmer Ale, Sam Adams Winter Lager, Broadway Solstice Winter Ale, Frederick Brewing's Snowball's Chance and Sisson's Prancer's Pride.
One of the things beer journalists are supposed to do at such events is to make note of any trends. In that regard, I dutifully report two - less spice in the holiday beers and more blue on labels.
For example, the holiday brew from Anchor Brewery, which in prior years has been the model of a spiced ale, was more muted this year. One taster said he got a hint of "gingerbread" in the brew. Mostly, what I detected was a well-made ale.
I confess I am not fond of spices in my beer. I prefer the malt-and-hops style of holiday thanks offered by Sierra Nevada, Geary's and Catamount. The Harpoon Winter Warmer, for instance, loaded with nutmeg and cinnamon would not be my mug of choice. But spice girls and spice boys might appreciate it.
As for labels, I counted six holiday brews with blue coloring, proving, I guess, that as Elvis used to croon, it is going to be a blue, blue Christmas.
There is also much more information on the labels of holiday beers than there has been in prior years. My advice to the holiday beer shopper is to read the label, especially the one on the neck of the beer, to find out what kind of "thank-you" the brewer has concocted. For instance, when I see "cranberry" or "fruit" on a label, I move on.
Rather than being accepting of thanks from only one brewer, I believe in letting many beer makers express their gratitude.
Instead of confining myself to a single holiday beer, I prefer to have a favorite holiday practice of making the rounds of local pubs and sampling the locally made offerings.
I have already had the Doppelbock, the prize-winning, extra-potent malty double bock served by the Baltimore Brewing Co. It is exceptional stuff.
I am making plans to taste the Christmas Ale at Oliver Breweries near Camden Yards, the St. Festivus Ale at the Brewer's Art on North Charles Street, the Holiday Bock at Ellicott Mills Brewing Co. in Ellicott City, the Black Jack Stout at DuClaw Brewing Co. in Bel Air and the Calvinator Doppelbock at the Ram's Head Tavern in Annapolis.
The other day I learned that the holiday beer with the best name, TC Oxford Brewing Co.'s Santa Class, has picked up another name. In some pubs, it still is called Santa Class, but in others it is known as Tommy Knocker Barley Wine. It is on tap at area beer bars, such as Racer's in Parkville and Max's in Fells Point.
After sampling these holiday brews, I plan to take a long winter's nap.
Pub Date: 12/16/98