Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

It’s that time of year again: Saturnalia.

Sorry, I mean: Christmas. (I think this column’s new Latin name is getting to me. Although, seriously, Saturnalia—the wild ancient Roman winter festival—seems way more fun than Christmas. However, I digress.)

I won’t be covering Hanukkah or Kwanzaa beers, although I have celebrated Hanukkah multiple times, because my mother’s side of the family is Jewish; therefore, according to the matrilineal tradition of Judaism, I am considered a Jew. Sadly, there is not a wealth of Hanukkah beers; that, plus my ignorance of Kwanzaa outside of Lionel Richie references in “All Night Long,” means I’m forced to stick with Yuletide-themed beers.

I will be doing the very cliché thing of recommending some of favorite holiday beers to you. But isn’t that what Christmas is really about, anyway? (Yeah, yeah, there’s that Middle Eastern guy who people have carried on about for the last two millennia, too.)

Enough of my insolence. Let’s get to the list.

Winter Welcome Ale, Samuel Smith Old Brewery: The wassail (pronounced wahss-uhl) is an English tradition that extends back before the Norman Conquest. In the context of beer, in medieval times, a traditional winter wassail consisted of hot strong ale, sugar, spices and roasted apples. It came to America as the “Winter Warmer” and usually consisted of a stronger English ale that, if not spiced, gave hints of spice from the malts and hops used.

This is my favorite incarnation of the wassail (that I can find, of course) and has been for a very long time. If you haven’t experienced the beer of Yorkshire, England’s own Samuel Smith Old Brewery, you should; they are pretty widely available here, and I cannot recommend them enough. This beer gives the distinct English malt nose of treacle and caramel, with earthy, woodsy hop notes from the Fuggles and East Kent Goldings hops. There is a lingering flavor of plum, and as it warms a little, you can pick up apple esters from the English yeast. It warms my heart more than my chest, even though it has a respectable 6 percent alcohol by volume—a medium-high level of alcohol as English ales go. I may use a bottle of this to attempt a traditional wassail drink. Wish me luck.

Delirium Noël, Brouwerij Huyghe: No, I didn’t just pass out on my keyboard. That’s the name of the Belgian brewery that also brings you its flagship beer, Delirium Tremens. Christmas versions of Belgian abbey ales are not uncommon and are among my favorite seasonal beers. (This is unsurprising, really, since many of my favorite beers are Belgian or Belgian-inspired.)

This Belgian dark strong ale clocks in at 10 percent ABV, but like any well-made abbey ale, the alcohol is well-hidden in the aroma and flavor. This is due to the widespread use of candy sugar that adds alcohol during fermentation but, due to its lack of proteins, doesn’t also add body as malt sugars would. This leads to deadly drinkable beers with tons of flavor. In this particular beer, I picked up a slightly floral note, plus apple, spiced plum, clove and a hint of banana. That is followed up by a lovely warmth in the chest as it goes down, but not so much as to prevent the next sip. If you’re a beer drinker but haven’t tried Belgian ales, you need Jesus.

Christmas Ale, Brouwerij St. Bernardus NV: Here’s another dark Belgian Christmas ale from one of my favorite Belgian breweries. This brewery is unique, not just because of the exceptional quality of all of its beers, but also because of the character of its yeast. It contains many of the characteristic esters and phenols found in other Belgian ales, but also a unique hint of licorice. I don’t even like the flavor in the wild, but when it’s embedded among other flavors expertly, it’s very satisfying. Such is the case with this Christmas ale.

This very dry 10 percent ABV with dark fruit, banana, clove and, of course, a hint of licorice is balanced by a medium-bitter spice finish. Am I making it plain enough how much I love Belgian ales yet?

Jubelale 2018, Deschutes Brewery: From closer to home comes a beer from a beloved beer-maker in Bend, Ore. This is their version of the wassail, and while at a traditional 6.7 percent ABV, it is true to American versions of Old World styles and is hoppier. I usually decry this lack of imagination when it comes to such American recreations, but here, it suits the beer.

Cocoa powder, prune, coffee, a hint of cherry, raisin and a lovely toasted quality are all in play with this one. It has a medium-bitter finish and medium body; the extra hops not only contribute flavor, but balance out all of the malt flavors, making it actually thirst-quenching.

Rise and Pine, Uinta Brewing Company: This beer is a recent favorite of mine from a Salt Lake City brewery whose beers I’ve happily sampled for a decade. I first tried Rise and Pine last year and fell in love. This is described as a “hoppy dark ale” with juniper and piney hops—and it delivers just that. I wondered why it wasn’t considered a black IPA until I saw the malt bill on Uinta’s website and noticed it didn’t include any pale malt. Mystery solved.

Aromas and flavors of prunes, pine and grapefruit predominate and evoke Christmas. It has a medium body but is crisp enough to be very drinkable despite the 7.5 percent ABV. I took a can of this on each of my biggest hikes last year and enjoyed them tremendously. (You might think it foolish to have a beer after a big hike, but for my cousin Josh and me, it almost immediately relieved all of the aching in the legs.) Especially after hiking up to the Palm Springs tram, this beer was a fitting end to a very rugged trek.

I hope I’ve portrayed how much I love these beers and look forward to greeting them every year, like friends I haven’t seen since last Christmas. Give them a try, and see what you think—preferably beside a fire with friends and/or family around.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Beer

I would like to shove the year 2016 into the anals of time—I mean right up into the bowels of the space-time continuum.

Not only did we lose Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, Prince, Alan Rickman, David Bowie, George Michael and Carrie Fisher (I’m weeping again); record temperatures are taking hold as climate change accelerates. And then there’s the fact that a minority of Americans elected a climate-denying, misogynist, racist, egotistical guy who’s clearly not qualified for the job.

On the upside … 2016 did give us some amazing new beers.

Behold—some of the year’s best winter beers.

Bell’s Winter White Ale: This is a lovely wheat alternative to your normally heavy and dark winter beers. It’s low in alcohol at 5 percent and has some of those delicious clove and fruity aromas that are reminiscent of the holidays. Try it with eggs Benedict, omelets or cranberry-apple cobbler. It is available through the end of January.

Port Brewing Santa’s Little Helper: This “winter warmer” appeals to those who just want a dark, strong Russian imperial stout without barrel-aging or added spices or fruit. This is one seriously naughty but nice beer. Flavors of heavily roasted grain, espresso, molasses, roasted malt and light bourbon make this beer the real deal.

Pyramid Snow Cap: A rich, full-bodied winter warmer crafted in the British tradition of holiday beers. This deep mahogany-colored brew balances complex fruit flavors with a refreshingly smooth texture, making Snow Cap a highly drinkable and desirable cooler-weather drink.

Samuel Adams Winter Classics Mix Pack: This is a nice starter for beer-lovers who are just discovering craft beer. Though it can change from year to year, the pack often contains Boston lager, Old Fezziwig ale, winter lager, holiday porter, black lager and cranberry lambic.

Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale: This is a true classic for hop-heads, having been on the market since 1981! Beyond a pretty significant bitterness at 62 IBUs, this beer is dry-hopped, which elevates the hops in the aroma and the flavor. When you’re drinking Celebration, you’re drinking a bit of history.

Great Divide Hibernation Ale: Great Divide cellars Hibernation until late October. A lengthy aging process gives Hibernation a malty richness, a complex hop profile and a hearty warming character. Hibernation is a lively treat that really beats the winter chill. This scrumptious, collectible and imminently cellar-able ale has won four Great American Beer Festival medals and is fantastic with grilled beef tenderloin.

Stone Xocoveza: This “Mexican hot chocolate” packs a delicious punch of bittersweet cocoa, cinnamon, Mostra coffee, pasilla peppers and vanilla. It was first brewed in 2014 with San Diego homebrewer Chris Banker after his recipe won Stone’s annual homebrew competition. Craft-beer drinkers clamored for more, and it quickly became a cross-country sensation. Drink it fresh or age it at cellar temperature. Try it with bacon-wrapped figs or tiramisu.

Avery Brewing Old Jubilation: We all need more feelings of jubilation in 2017. This winter strong ale has a gorgeous mahogany hue, a hint of hazelnuts, and aromas of mocha, toffee and darker cracker malts. It has chocolate flavors, with residual sugar notes of blackstrap molasses and fig, and a wisp of smokiness.

Scaldis Noel Premium: This is how the Belgians make a winter warmer. This beer is rich with lots of malt, and though malt dominates, the complexity from the wilder yeasts Belgians tend to use, plus the unusual practice of aging this beer with hops flowers, gives this brew unique flavor and character.

Rogue Santa’s Private Reserve: Rogue’s annual holiday offering is a variation on the classic Saint Rogue Red, with double the hops—including Chinook, Centennial and a mystery hop called Rudolph from head brewer John Maier. This holiday elixir is brewed with a variety of malts, coastal water and Maier’s proprietary top-fermenting Pacman yeast.

Brasserie d’Achouffe N’Ice Chouffe: This Belgian specialty ale is a 10 percent alcohol-by-volume slow-sipper. N’Ice Chouffe is brewed with thyme and Curaçao orange peel, and has a candy-sweet malty aroma with cherries and apples. It has a strong finish but is superbly well-balanced.

Telegraph Brewing Winter Ale: With hints of cinnamon, allspice, caramel, vanilla and sweet ancho chilies, this spiced dark ale is inspired by Mexican hot chocolate. It has a 7.7 percent ABV; make sure to let this warm up a bit to bring out the flavors.

Firestone Walker Anniversary XX 2016: It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since brothers-in-law Adam Firestone and David Walker established their brewery in a converted shed at the back of the family vineyard. This is a limited release, and here’s why: 17 winemakers convened in late August to help create the blend for XX, combining 250 oak barrels and five different beers including Parabola, Stickee Monkee, Velvet Merkin, Bravo and Helldorado. The resulting brew is silky-smooth, with molasses and rich brown sugar, and touches of cinnamon spice and brandy soaked cherries.

Enjoy now—or age for four years to celebrate a new president!

Published in Beer

The colder winter months not only bring us sparkly lights, spiced aromas, family gatherings and tryptophan-induced naps; they also bring us sanity-saving winter warmers and Christmas ales with malt, spices and fruit. Unlike gifts under the tree, these smile-makers can be opened and enjoyed before or after Christmas. (During Christmas is OK, of course, as well.) Here are some winter beers worth checking out:

Alaskan Winter English Olde Ale (Alaska, 6.4 percent alcohol by volume): Supposedly made with ingredients based on Captain Cook’s historical recipe, this holiday beer has clean, slightly sweet, bready malts, and is accented by fresh Sitka spruce tips. Citrus and fruity flavors like orange zest, blueberry and peach cream pack this beer with some serious holiday revelry. The ale, made with glacier-fed water from the Juneau Ice Field, is brewed in the old ale style, which means it’s a little heavier on the alcohol and the malt. The brewery suggests pairing it with roast goose, turkey, ham, lamb or apple pie. I suggest sipping it front of a roaring fire, even here in the not-so-chilly Coachella Valley.

Avery Old Jubilation Ale (Colorado, 8.3 percent ABV): This winter strong ale has flavors of plums, raisins, burnt sugar, vanilla and hazelnuts, and finishes with mocha and toffee. It is chocolaty goodness in a glass. It pairs with all manner of game birds, as well as roast duck, rack of lamb and prime rib.

Abita Christmas Ale (Louisiana, 5.5 percent ABV): Sweet caramel and slight pine scents blend with clove for a subtle, earthy aroma in this brown ale. The ale is lightly spiced, with hints of cinnamon and brown sugar; piney and floral hop flavors ornament the profile. This year’s edition is hoppier than most brown ales. The spicy character is excellent with holiday foods such as gingerbread or spiced nuts.

Brouwerij De Smedt Affligem Noël (Belgium, 9 percent ABV): Brewed by monks from an abbey that was founded in 1074, this bottle-conditioned strong ale has apple, brown sugar, nutmeg and molasses in the nose. Candy sugar, toffee, cherry and soft flavors of clove spice blend beautifully with a complexity of malt flavors and fruity yeast esters. The finish is full with substantial stickiness.

Brasserie Dubuisson Scaldis Noël (Belgium, 12 percent ABV): At 12 percent ABV, the little Scaldis Noël bottle packs a giant holiday punch. Caramel malts, plum, alcohol-soaked raisin and cracked pepper notes—with hints of anise—make this festive beer sweet and drinkable. The boozy heat of this Belgian strong dark ale will keep you warm on the cold winter nights. This beer has amazing complexity and balance. The high alcohol content makes it a good candidate for cellaring, so start a holiday tradition, and store a few away. Suggested food pairings include some cheeses and goose. Fun fact: This beer is sold in other countries as Bush de Noël. The Bush name hasn’t been trademarked in the U.S., so it is sold as “Scaldis” instead.

New Belgium Frambozen Raspberry Brown Ale (Colorado, 6.5 percent ABV): The aroma is sour raspberry candy, hibiscus flowers and woodsy roasted coffee. Berries from the Pacific Northwest are turned into a pure juice that is then added during fermentation. The resulting taste: fresh, tart raspberries backed by nut, chocolate and caramel malts. Pair with certain cheeses, seared duck and mushroom risotto—or chocolate-rich desserts.

Alesmith YuleSmith Winter Imperial Red Ale (California, 9.5 percent ABV): Sweet caramel, orange marmalade and woodsy pine resins make for an earthy and rich aroma. Significant sweet malts—like toffee and toasted bread—balance with hop grassiness, grapefruit and piney notes. This is an exceptional beer from the San Diego brewery, as proven at the World Beer Championships: It won gold in 2003, 2004 and 2005.

Deschutes Jubelale Festive Winter Ale (Oregon, 6.7 percent ABV): This is a classic annual winter warmer that also celebrates artists by showcasing them on the label. Pouring with a burgundy hue, Jubelale pleases the palate with piney hops, coffee bean hints, caramelized flavors, cherry notes and a bit of floral edge. Hops make their presence known in the end—a nice little surprise. Pair with short ribs and various cheeses.

Brasserie Dupont Avec Les Bons Voeux Saison (Belgium, 9.5 percent ABV): The name translates as “With the best wishes of the brewery Dupont,” and this Christmas beer pours a clear golden color. Wonderful and complex aromas accompany a hint of spices, banana and even rising bread. The typical saison funk and mustiness is present, but not overpowering. This beer is fresh, with a hint of Belgian candy sugar, coriander and lemon peel. It’s a full-flavored beer with zing!

Samuel Smith Winter Welcome Ale (England, 6 percent ABV): Welcome this winter ale into your home, and you’ll enjoy toffee, caramel and toasty notes—as well as a full body, resulting from fermentation in “stone Yorkshire squares.” There’s a healthy amount of carbonation, bringing a lively feel. Bonus? The Winter Welcome Ale has a collectable label: The picture in the middle of the label changes every year.

Odell Isolation Ale (Colorado, 6.0 percent ABV): A sweet, bready malt aroma accompanies caramel and nutty accents in this winter ale. This winter warmer is brewed with English hops; the spices, malt and hops work in perfect harmony. A sturdy hoppiness, plum and citrus flavors, great drinkability, and hints of toasted grain and clove make this a world-class holiday beer.

Port Brewing Santa’s Little Helper (California, 10 percent ABV): Pouring a jet-black color, this beer from San Marcos has a big, roasted malt character; hints of coffee and dark chocolate fill the air. The flavor is complex but still balanced, with cocoa and toffee overtones, burnt sugar, chicory and some barrel flavors. The assertive alcohol content offers a bit of spice blooms over the tongue. Buy a couple, and age this big guy to round out the flavors next winter.

The Bruery 6 Geese-A-Laying Belgian-Style Dark Ale (California, 11.5 percent ABV): This is the sixth beer in The Bruery’s “12 Days of Christmas” winter seasonal ale series. The classic Christmas verse has been honored with gooseberries, and gives off notes of plums and dark cherry. The sweet sugary malt balances with the tart berries, making for a voluptuous beer with holiday cheer. It’s perfect now, or age it for a year or two. Enjoy this with your holiday roast.

These festive releases are perfect matches for the cooler winter months. Enjoy!

Published in Beer