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Winter Holiday Beers

By Owen Ogletree
Athens Magazine Beer Columnist

This article originally published in Owen Ogletree's ON TAP beer column in Athens Magazine.

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Standard light beers, perfect as a refresher after jogging or cutting the grass, simply lack the character and flavor required to stand up to a holiday feast on a cold winter's night. For lovers of gourmet craft beers the chilly, festive months call for dark, robust, seasonal brews capable of putting eggnog or mulled wine to shame.

These beers make up a beloved brewing tradition in England, Belgium and Germany during wintertime - when many brewers concoct special recipes that are usually darker in color and stronger in flavor and alcohol content than usual offerings. Winter ales are believed to have started with ancient European celebrations of winter solstice. Later, when abbeys and monasteries took responsibility for brewing local beers, winter ales helped celebrate the birth of Christ and provided nutrition and fortification for monks during the fasting period of Lent.

Read on for descriptions of nine of the most memorable winter beers available at Athens' best pubs and package stores…

Athens' own Terrapin Beer Company produces a line of seasonal brews and one-time recipes throughout the year known as "Side Projects." Late in 2009, be on the lookout for Side Project #9 - Terrapin Dark Side Ale, a jet-black, strong stout fermented with Belgian abbey ale yeast that provides an elegant spicy, fruity character. Dark, roasted, coffee-like grains and a hint of smokiness contribute a sharp contrast and balance to the yeast complexity.

When introduced into Georgia earlier this year, ales from the popular New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado immediately won over the hearts of beer lovers here. New Belgium's 2į Below Ale, first brewed for an annual ski race held in Crested Butte, Colorado, contains a dose of fresh hop blossoms during fermentation, creating a floral aroma and spicy, fruity flavor profile with pepper undertones. This bright, amber beer with a slight, pleasing bitterness makes a perfect pairing to a slice of apple pie with cinnamon.

Delirium NoŽl is a popular Belgian strong dark ale packaged in foil-topped, corked, 750ml (wine size) bottles sporting a label with a pink elephant in a Santa hat. Flavors of molasses and burnt caramel mingle with a variety of spice, raisin, plum, clove and fruitcake notes. Delirium NoŽl, and most all Belgian ales, should be poured into a large goblet or wine glass - with attention given to forming a large, attractive head of foam.

The guys at Pennsylvania's Weyerbacher Brewery have outdone themselves this year with the release of their new Winter Ale brewed with deep roasted chocolate malts. A delicious cocoa-like taste comes through, along with notes of cherries, figs, vanilla and a hint of warming alcohol in the slightly dry finish. Look for the festive label with snowmen carrying cases of beer and six packs.

Maryland's Clipper City Brewing Company releases their perennial favorite Winter Storm "Category 5" Ale each year just prior to Thanksgiving. This 7.5% alcohol, ruddy-hued brown ale contains toffee-like English malts and spicy, citrusy American hops for an interesting, lingering hop flavor and bitterness. Try this beer alongside aged cheddar cheese or sausage balls.

St. Bernardus Belgian Christmas Ale, another selection delivered in tall 750ml bottles, provides a robust, caramel, treacle-like, spicy quality best enjoyed in front of a fire or paired with a sumptuous dish of duck demi-glace and sweet potatoes. Based on the recipe of a rare Belgian abbey ale from northwest Flanders, that is considered by many to be the greatest beer in the world, St. Bernardus Christmas offers amazing dark fruit complexity in aroma, flavor and finish. Like many fine Belgian beers, the bottle contains a slight sediment of yeast in the bottom, so try to pour slowly into two or three large wine glasses, leaving the last half inch or so of beer in the bottle.

The UK's Ridgeway Brewery takes its name from an ancient road - open now only to foot traffic - which winds along across the high ridges of scenic, southwest England. Ridgeway Brewery produces a line of comical, yet delicious strong ales each holiday season with labels featuring "elves with attitudes." Bad Elf, Very Bad Elf, Seriously Bad Elf, Criminally Bad Elf and Insanely Bad Elf range in strengths of 6-11% alcohol, and all exhibit notes of biscuity malt and floral, wood-like English hops. Check out the labels and decide just how bad you want to be this season.

The old Spoetzl Brewery ranks as the most popular tourist spot in the small town of Shiner, Texas, but the brewery's refreshing Shiner Bock is renowned nationwide. Shiner's Holiday Cheer, the brewery's first Christmas seasonal ale, boasts a very unique recipe incorporating wheat, caramelized malts, Texas peaches and roasted pecans! The wheat provides a bready, cereal-like tone complemented pleasantly by subtle peach and pecan flavors.

Michigan's Jolly Pumpkin brewery dreams up some of most bizarre craft beers on the market today. Their winter Noel de Calabaza is deep mahogany in color with sharp aromas and flavors of sugar, leather, flowers, figs, prunes, raisins, roasted nuts and sherry. Built for the adventurous, this 9% alcohol strong ale can be found in 750ml bottles with a label featuring a dark Jack O' Lantern covered in snow. Pair with brie or pungent blue cheeses.

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