Have Yourself a
        Beery Little Christmas

The highlight of the year for all beer lovers has to be the
Christmas season. For generations breweries have
brewed special Christmas beers as a way to enhance the
celebration of this most festive of seasons, and as a
result, perusing the seasonal displays of the liquor
stores makes a beer fan feel like a kid in a candy shop.
Christmas (or, for the politically correct, “holiday”) beers
can be anything from spiced ale to imperial stouts and
porters, to winter warmers, or even imperial lagers. But
in spite of what style it is, a Christmas beer is meant to
be savored in the special ambiance of a Yuletide
gathering.

Many Christmas beers have appropriate names to
designate them as such without having to resort to the
generic “Christmas Ale”, “Holiday Brew”, or other equally
bland titles. Portland’s “Santa’s Little Helper”, Rogue’s
“Santa’s Private Reserve”, Troeg’s “Mad Elf”, Diamond
Knot’s “Ho! Ho!”, Bateman’s “Nosey Rosey”, Shelton
Bros.’ “Pickled Santa”, DeRanke’s “Pere Noel”, Full Sail’s
“Wreck the Halls” and Sam Adams’ “Old Fezziwig” can all
be identified as special Christmas beers without ever
seeing the word “Christmas”. Britain’s Ridgeway Brewing
outdoes them all. I have had five of their beers brewed
especially for the Christmas season: “Bad Elf”, “Very
Bad Elf”, “Seriously Bad Elf”, “Insanely Bad Elf” and the
ever popular (except in states where the idiot label
police have banned it), “Santa’s Butt”.

In my opinion, the greatest Christmas beer ever made
was the iconic “holy grail” of beers, Ballantine Burton
Ale. Brewed only twice, on May 12, 1934 and May 12,
1946, the super strong (for that time) brew was then
stored in huge wooden vats in the brewery’s basement
until being drawn of at Christmastime to be bottled with
a special Christmas label denoting the bottling date and
for whom it was bottled, and given away as presents to
dignitaries, employees and friends of the brewery.

I recently spoke to a man who worked at Ballantine’s
and he related how the US Secret Service was present
to oversee the bottling of several cases labeled
specifically for President John F. Kennedy. This beer is
still available via E-bay and a few years ago our beer
club bought one for a princely sum. See Vince Capano’s
Adventures in Beerland article “
You Spent 99 $#@%&
Dollars on a Bottle of Beer?
”.

But modern day beer
fans don’t have to spend quite
that much. Thanks to the expertise and inquisitive
historical mind of Pabst (they now own the rights to the
Ballantine brand) head brewmaster Greg Duuhs, 2015
marks the first time this beer has been available to the
general public. But unfortunately it’s no longer for free.

I had my first taste on tap at the Gaslight, proudly
serving what was perhaps the first ever Burton that was
paid for. But a week or so later I ventured into the
Liberty Tavern and discovered the holy grail on tap
there as well, served in a FROSTED full pint. Probably
NOT the intention of Mr. Duuhs, nor any other
knowledgeable beer geek.

A childhood Christmas tradition in my house, like many
others, was leaving a snack for Santa and his reindeer,
but with a different slant. My father, known to close
friends as “Iron City Bob”, felt that after visiting a billion
homes and downing milk and cookies in most of them,
Santa most likely desired something a tad stronger to
sustain him through the rest of his stops, so the Hodge
children always left a bottle of Iron City and a plate of
cheese and crackers for Mr. Claus and occasionally some
pretzels for the reindeer. Proof that Santa had visited
was offered not only by the mounds of presents under
the tree, but also by the empty beer bottle and cleaned
plate!

I have previously written about Christmas decorating
with beer, including tree garland made from pop tops
and miniature beer can ornaments, not to mention the
“tree” made from beer bottles I observed at the Steigel
brewery in Salzburg, Austria. But just this afternoon as
I was trimming my tree, the beery aspects of Christmas
decorating came much closer to home. Among the
hundreds of ornaments I was hanging were pilsener
glasses, frothing mugs, little lederhosen-clad German
men hoisting steins and frauleins holding six of them in
each hand. Gazing at the tree with a beer in your hand
while people in the tree with beers in their hands are
gazing back makes Christmas celebrating much more
pleasurable.

Unfortunately, as in many other areas of our consumer-
driven society, brewers are not immune to rushing the
season. It’s now customary to see the first Christmas
beers appearing on the retailer’s shelves in October, and
therefore some of the most sought after versions have
to be purchased then, because by Christmas Eve they’ll
be gone. But while Santa is busy loading his sleigh, you
can probably buy all the “spring ales” your heart desires.

Two highlights of the beery Christmas season happen
very close to home. The Gaslight’s Victorian Christmas
Dinner is a gourmet seven course meal with each course
complemented by a beer and wine specially paired to
what’s being served. The dinner is preceded by a
“cocktail” hour featuring new and vintage Christmas
beers as well as mulled wine for those unenlightened
folks who don’t appreciate great beer.

Very close to home, in fact IN it, is the annual Hodge
Christmas beer tasting at which draught Board 15 cask
Commissioners and an occasional guest drinker
assemble around my dining room table between
Christmas and New Year’s to taste and rate varied
examples of Christmas, Holiday, and “winter” brews. We
have had as many as 62 on one occasion but usually we
are in the 40-50 range. The tasting is done blind so as
not to unfairly prejudice the palates of the tasters and
even though after 40 or 50 some people might think we
know not what we’re drinking, amazingly Sierra
Nevada’s Celebration Ale and Clipper City’s Winter  
Storm always finish in first and second place.

This should prove that despite sampling 50 beers, the
Cask Commissioners are discriminating beer
connoisseurs who really know a good one when they
taste it. But this year maybe I’ll put off serving those
two until the end. That way, we’ll know for sure whether
or not they’re really the best.

Have yourself a Beery Little Christmas and by the way,
clusters of hops make a nice substitute for mistletoe!


                            Cheers!

       









             Dan
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