From the Romans gorging themselves on strong brews during Saturnalia to the Vikings drinking themselves blotto during Yule, pre-Christians took their winter intoxication seriously, as a way to commune with deities and supernatural spirits.
While the guests of honor at this annual winter feast have morphed from the god Saturn and Nordic Asa gods to jolly ol' St. Nick, the communal beverage of good cheer remains. In Belgium, they're Noël beers, and ever since Anchor revived the "winter warmer," typically a spiced, dark ale known as a wassail, craft brewers have been brewing up a winter storm. For the literate, there's even a whole book about 'em by Don Russell called Christmas Beer.
Other than this blogger, panelists for December's blind tasting included Mill Valley Beerworks owners and this month's hosts, brothers Justin and Tyler Catalana, Old Oak Brewing proprietor Damian Fagan, Brewery Adventures cofounder and guide Elana Leoni, and Brewed for Thought blogger Mario Rubio. The tasting list that follows contains 10 different interpretations of what the holidays-in-a-bottle should taste like from local, craft, imported, and corporate brews available locally. They're scored on a scale of 1 to 10, based purely hedonistically, with 70 being the highest possible score, listed in order of overall preference.
(Note: "ABV" indicates alcohol by volume; prices are approximate.)
1. Shmaltz Jewbelation 14 (San Francisco via Saratoga Springs, N.Y.): 45 points. The best Christmas beer, it seems, is a Hannukah beer. (Woe that we didn't have Alex Hochman on the panel.) Garnering several top scores ― from the brewery that brought you He'Brew ― comes the latest in its series of holiday beers where the number of grains (all the usual malted barleys plus flaked quinoa and spelt), hops, AND alcohol are also calculated to mark its anniversary. This year's rendition is velvety and chocolaty to the point where this blogger wished it came with mistletoe, since I wanted to kiss it. (14% ABV, $6/22 oz.)
2. Dupont Avec les Bons Vœux (Tourpes, Belgium): 44 points. It wouldn't be the holidays without this anticipated number from our friends in Belgium, whose name translates as "With the best wishes (of the Brewery Dupont)." The Catalanas (who ranked beers nearly in lockstep) enjoyed this as a saison ale but questioned its Christmasiness. Same went for Fagan, though that didn't keep him from bestowing it with his highest score. (9.5% ABV, $9/750 ml)
3. Anchor Our Special Ale 2010 (San Francisco): 42 points. Anchor has been brewing this winter classic since 1975, each year tweaking the spice bill ― some connoisseurs bring up older vintages to try them side by side with the latest iteration. (In fact, that's what we did, including the 2007 and 2008 vintages as ringers, which the panel awarded scores of 40 and 36, respectively.) This spicy offering had Rubio pining for a "Christmas tree thrown on the festive fire." (5.5% ABV, $2.50/12 oz.)
4. Anderson Valley Winter Solstice (Boonville, Calif.): 37 points. [Tied with the next entry.] Like its summer counterpart, this sweet number from AVBC is dark, heavily spiced, and has some diehard fans. Tyler found it tasted like Baskin-Robbins vanilla ice cream, while his brother Justin scored it the highest because he thought it tasted like "sweet coconut" and found it very drinkable. (6.9% ABV, $2.50/12 oz.)
4. 21st Amendment Fireside Chat (San Francisco via Cold Springs, Minn.): 37 points. [Tied with the previous entry.] The only taste of Christmas-in-a-can in the lineup. This chestnut Strong Ale, dosed with "spices [and] cocoa nibs," was hit-and-miss for the panel, garnering comparisons ranging from teriyaki to red wine, but to Fagan, going on the assumption it might be a Flanders Red, it was his "fave so far" (it was third from last in the tasting lineup). (7.9% ABV, $2.50/12 oz.)
6. Deschutes Jubelale (Bend, Ore.): 28 points. Another brown ale that does a little magic misdirection, insinuating the rich malts are going to take it in one direction as the high notes break free and spin around in the opposite way ― the spiciness here actually comes from the hops. Maybe that's what makes it a good winter beer for California (even if it is from Oregon) since Leoni would "drink this on [her] front porch in the winter." (6.7% ABV, $2.50/12 oz.)