Nothing says Merry Christmas like a good beer. OK, maybe not everyone shares that outlook. But recently, after sampling 59 seasonal brews, I was feeling pretty jolly.
I know it is incorrect to refer to these brews as "Christmas beers," or even "holiday beers."Instead the preferred nomenclature is "winter beers." This name does not tie the beers to any particular holiday, and, among other things, it makes them easier to sell after Dec. 25.
Nonetheless, as soon I see lights twinkling, I get thirsty for the richer, and in some instances spicy, beers that brewers release this time of year both as a thank-you to their loyal customers, and a way to snag some new ones.
Judging by the beers our tasting panel sampled, it is going to be a dark, robust winter.
The bottled beers were divided into three geographic groups: those brewed in Belgium, those brewed in America and those brewed in Britain. All bottles were cloaked in brown paper bags of uncertain origin. We tasted the Belgians first because they are traditionally the richest brews with the highest alcohol content.
It turned out than an American Ommegang Adoration, at 10 percent alcohol volume, packed the biggest alcohol wallop of our preferred brews. But the Belgians were definitely the sweetest. The Americans were a diverse group: There were some stouts, some ales with spice, some without. The ones that worked for us were ones that negotiated the tricky terrain of balancing rich flavors. The Brits were dry and witty.
Our tasting panel was composed of Brian Leonard, Jed Jenny, Andrew Hinshaw all of The Wine Source, the Hampden liquor store that organized the tasting, Hugh Sisson, proprietor of Clipper City Brewing Company, Wayne Mahaffey, proprietor of Mahaffey's pub in Canton, and me.
Here are our favorites, listed in order of preference. Note that the first four American brews were tied for the top spot. Because some of these brews can be hard to find, I have included the name and phone number of the Baltimore area distributors who can direct callers to a store near them that sells these beers.
* Corsendonk Christmas Ale: A gingerbread aroma with artful spice, a hint of anise, a beautiful head and mild sweetness. 8.5 percent ABV, $11 for 750 milliliters at Legends, 410-325-6611.
* Affligem Noel: A golden, sweet brew with a winning mix of butter and dark fruit flavors. 9 percent ABV, $7.49 for 750 milliliters at Republic National, 410-724 3310.
* De Proef Kerstmutske Christmas Nightcap, A surprisingly clean mix of toffee and molasses, like a Heath Bar in a bottle. 7.4 percent ABV, $12.99 for 750 milliliters at Dops, 301-839-8650.
* Klein Duimpje Kerstbier Christmas Ale: Sweet and spicy with mild raisin notes; a few sips of this brew from the Netherlands could have you dancing like the Santas on its label. 8.5 percent ABV, $14.99 for 750 milliliters at Dops, 301-839-8650.
* Dogfish Head Chicory Stout: A dark chocolate stout, lush notes of chocolate with a tannic, oaky finish. 5.2 percent ABV, $10.49 a six-pack at F.P. Winner, 410-646-5500.
* Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale: Pleasing citrus aroma, smooth with multiple bright hop flavors. 6.8 percent ABV, $8.49 a six-pack at F.P. Winner, 410-646-5500.
* Great Divide Hibernation Ale: A spicy beginning followed by creamy malt and toffee flavors. 8.1 percent ABV, $11.49 a six pack at Legends, 410-325-6611. (Very limited supply.)
* Clipper City Heavy Seas Winter Storm: A ruby beauty with citrus aroma, hop intensity and yet pleasingly light on the palate. 7.5 percent ABV, $9.29 a six-pack at Republic National Distributing Co., 410-724-3310.
* Avery Old Jubilation Ale: An elegant brew with butter-rounded malt and hop notes. 8 percent ABV, $9.99 a six-pack at Dops, 301-839-8650.
* Ommegang Adoration: A heavy dose of spice sits atop raisin and other fruit flavors, with a surprisingly hot finish. 10 percent ABV, $13.99 for 750 milliliters at F.P. Winner, 410-646-5500.
* Southern Tier Old Man Winter: Smooth, creamy, drinkable, a seamless marriage of malt and hops. 7.2 percent ABV, $8.99 a six pack at Legends, 410-325-6611.
* Ridegeway Lump of Coal Dark Holiday Stout: A mild English stout with a pleasant finish and a market-savvy name; a favorite stocking stuffer for someone who has been bad. 8 percent ABV, $6.49 for 16 ounces at Dops, 301-839-8650.
* Hook Norton 12 Days: Smooth ale with good balance that promises to deliver more holiday happiness than the proverbial partridge in a pear tree. 5.5 percent ABV, $5.49 for 16-ounce bottle at Dops, 301-839-8650.