Hark the herald brewery angels sing, and the message they are blaring from their trumpets is that the crop of festive holiday themed brews is hitting the market. Some of these are delicious, some of these are disappointments, and some of these are frankly legendary from the first sip. Let's not waste any more time on this intro-folderol, let's get to the beer.
Harpoon Winter Warmer, 5.9% ABV, 22 IBUs
Massachusetts seems like a beer lover's paradise. There are so many high-quality micro and quasi-micro (Sam Adams) breweries there, that I quiver at the idea of ever moving there. It excites me from its selection of good beer, and it terrifies me in how much larger pants I'd have to buy after just one year there. Harpoon is just another one of the wonderful smaller breweries that make the kinds of beers you'd love if you actually drank for flavor rather than to get hammered.
Regarding the Winter Warmer, I wanted to like this beer more than I did. If there's one thing I look forward to at the end of the year, it's the flowering of spiced ales. This beer, billed as the brewery's very first seasonal, delivers a nicely dark coppery colored ale that hits your tastebuds with cinammon, nutmeg, and a hint of caramel. It's a wonderful flavor combination that quickly washes away as you swallow. That's a shame in one regard, but if you wish to truly enjoy this beer, you must slow down.
Were you to slow down your usual quaffing and let this beer rest on your palate, the various spices will occur to you one by one, warming and satisfying your tongue.
There's a minimal amount of fuss made with cabonation or lace to interfere with your enjoyment of the drink, but it feels like it's lacking just a tiny touch of something. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but there was a thinness to the flavor that seemed to disappate rapidly. You drank, you smacked your lips, and that was all. There was no linger, no aftertaste, no residual warmth in the mouth. All it took for Harpoon to disappear from your consciousness, it seemed, was to swallow.
But while you had it in your mouth, the beer was just a shy glimpse of heaven.
Breckenridge Brewery Christmas Ale, 7.4% ABV, 22 IBUs
Colorado is another state that shines in the microbrewery market with New Belgium being on my all-time long-standing wish lists of out-of-state beers I wish we could get in Ohio. (The moment seems right to pimp for my brother-in-law's city of Chicago, where one can get New Belgium and Great Lakes in one lucky go.) How I have ached for their Fat Tire to make its appearance in the more easterly parts of the midwest.
Nevertheless, a rather less charming entry into the Christmas/Holiday Ale market is Breckenridge's American Style Strong Ale which they dub as their Christmas. Don't mistake me, though. A far-better than average beer, this just doesn't cut it in the holiday category. There's an obvious lack in the joie de vivre range from this beer's first sip that doesn't mark it out as something to be branded as part of what's only the biggest holiday in the Western World.
A rather spiceless affair, Breckenridge's entry is a decent enough brew in its own right and would be fine any other time of the year. There is little about the beer, strong as it is, as winter seasonals should and tend to be, that gives it away as a Christmas Ale, lacking as it does sweetness or warmth. An initally dry taste on the tongue with a laciness that lingeres only around the rim, Breckenridge resolves itself into a faintly (nearly imaginary) raisinish aftertaste, that feels more like an after effect than after taste. The feel in your mouth (I'm going to resist the charmless portmanteau term, mouthfeel) is a bit oily, though not in a bad way. You want that vague cling of ingredients to stick with you. But only if the're lovely and memorable.
Again, don't think from my critiques that this is an unsatisfying beer. With its fantastic ABV and nicely done caramels and hint of chocolate in the aftertaste, Breckenridge has a charming beer for the year's end. I just wouldn't go about calling it a Christmas Ale as its warming qualities are a bit spartan. Rebrand this as a Winter Warmer, the way Harpoon has, and you have no complaints. In fact, between Colorado's offering here and Massachusetts there, they should swap names, and with it, expectations. A tough beer to get you through a hard winter? Yes. A joyful beer to celebrate Christmas? Not quite.
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, 6.8% ABV, 65 IBUs
Note that second number. Take a good hard look at it. It is three times the rest of our beers' bitterness units, but that's typical actually. At the first drink, I thought I'd been slugged in the mouth. The bitterness hits you hard, fast, right out of the gate, -- and then sadly crushed any reaction to this beer outside of obvious ones.
With such an aggressive approach as the brewery has taken, Sierra Nevada is uninterested in subtle flavors or interesting ways to use hops as a point or a counterpoint. This, as said above, is unsurprising. Like modern GOP legislators who see tax cuts as the solution to every single problem, even if originating from tax cuts, Sierra Nevada's brew wizards seem only capable of envisioning hops or a slightly different breed or mix of hops to bring new flavors to their beer. Search the term on their beer page alone. There's not a brew where they don't accentuate hops, it seems.
And quite frankly, this beer only counts as a celebration if you've shown up a couple hours after the bar opened and then were promptly treated to a brisk black jack to the face. If there is one tiresome trick they know in Chico, California, it is how to make a punchy, hop-laden beer. Frankly, this bottle has killed the brewery for me, and I'd always sort of regarded their product as in the category of acceptably craft. Now, I'd cross the street to a different bar to avoid contact with any Sierra Nevada product after this one.
A reddish amber, an obscenely high level of bitterness, and misplaced priorities turn a professional brewery product into an object lesson on obsession and hackery, especially the kind where everything looks, smells, and tastes the same.