GOOD THINGS come in a variety of flavors. This is especially true when you are sipping winter beers, a brewer's traditional way of saying thank you to loyal customers.
This year, there are beers for the hop heads, beers for the spiced-ale crowd and some winning winter brews -- hardly anyone calls them Christmas beers anymore -- for those who are content with a richer version of their favorite beer.
A panel of tasters -- Hugh Sisson of Clipper City Brewery; Tom Creegan of the Brewer's Art; Tim Hillman, Dave Butcher and Dan Zetlmeisl of Rotunda Wine & Spirits, who organized the event; and myself -- convened at Clipper City Brewery to pick our annual favorites among the crop of winter, or holiday, beers.
This year, we sampled 14 bottled brews and two from the tap. I'm not sure whether winter brews are getting better or whether the tasters are getting mellower. Unlike previous years, when some tasters made snide comments or rude noises after a sample sip, we were fond of almost everything we tasted.
The exception was Pete's Winter Brew, which had too much raspberry and too much nutmeg for this group. The Harpoon Winter Warmer also was too heavily spiced for most of us, with its flavors of pumpkin pie, ginger and nutmeg. But we recognized that the heavily spiced holiday brews have their followers, and this brew is for them.
After the sampling, we organized our favorites into two tiers: winter beers we were wild about and beers we were fond of.
The top winter bottled beers were, in no particular order, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, Clipper City Reserve Winter Ale, Grant's Winter Ale, Anchor's Special Ale and Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout.
The Sierra Nevada and the Clipper City beers leaned heavily on hops, yet had a strong, burned-caramel flavor in the body to provide balance. The Anchor and the Grant's had artful mixes of spices. There were mentions of "mint" when the Grant's was sipped and "ginger" and "juniper" when the Anchor went around. The delight is that the spices delivered graceful, not overpowering, flavor notes.
The Aass Juleol from Norway was a pleaser both because of its dark malt flavors -- one panelist called it "sweet brown bread" -- and because of the winsome image of an elf on its label. Next came the Stoudt's Holiday Reserve, a serving of pure malty delight, and Sam Adams Winter Lager, a quaffable blend of nut-brown flavors and a hint of spice.
The Snow Goose Winter Ale had a great label -- a goose wearing sunglasses -- but the beer was thinner than in previous incarnations. The winter offerings from Samuel Smith's, Otter Creek and Dominion did not offend but didn't wow us either.
We tasted two draught beers. Cerberus (named, oddly, after a mythological beast that guarded the gates to the lower world) is a sweet Belgium beauty from the Brewer's Art, a Baltimore brew pub. It was a knockout. We lapped it up. The Lancaster Winter Warmer will eventually end up in a bottle, but we tasted it in jug form. It showed promise.
While the bottled winter warmers are already in the stores, the draft versions will show up soon at area pubs. I plan to make my way around town, sampling the season's greetings, such as the Doppelbock at Baltimore Brewing Co., Prancer's Pride at Sisson's and Oliver's Christmas Ale at the Wharf Rat. 'Tis the season.