Like Christmas itself, these winter seasonal ales come but once a year
Anchor 2007 Christmas Ale
This is the 33rd annual version of Anchor's holiday brew, and it’s one of the best I can recall. The nose is pure homemade pumpkin pie, with keen spice and custard notes. The medium-bodied brew slides down the throat as easily as Santa down a freshly swept chimney, leaving in its wake glorious tones of malt, caramel, carefully chosen hops and a finish that will last till the kids wake up.
Alsakan Winter Ale
Alaskan's owner-brewmaster, Geoff Larson (see story on page 24), is a beer historian at heart, and he modeled this winter seasonal brew on a recipe first recorded by the 18th century explorer, Captain Cook, who stopped in Alaska to brew beer during his search for the Northwest Passage. The secret ingredient is new-growth spruce tips, which, as Cook's beer-hungry crew found, add a pungent, raspberry-like character. Lovely and unique.
Brekenridge Brewery Christmas Ale
This nut-brown number from Colorado nails the festive spice of the season right down to the aromas of Christmas tree (white fir?) and the frothed-up cup of cocoa left under it for the man in the red suit. On the palate, it’s as revved up as a 10-year-old opening a new Game Boy . . . and as deep as the gouge Xmas will leave on your Mastercard. Simply delicious.
Fish Tale WinterFish Ale
Hopsy to the max (we’re talking IPA territory), this winter warmer from Fish Brewing in Olympia, Washington, also has bell-ringing overtones of nectarine. It uses 100% Yakima Chinook hops for a flavor profile that’s as brassy as a Christmas chorale. Great stocking stuffer.
Full Sail Wassail Ale
This darkly bronzed, full-bodied Christmas ale from Full Sail is brewed with four different malts, which may explain its quadruple complexity. The back-and-forth tug o’ war between malt and hops keeps it always alive on the palate. Are we wassailing yet?
Shipyard Brewing Prelude Special Ale
Nut-brown and smelling like walnut torte batter, this winter ale from Portland, Maine, is a chart-topping seasonal in my book. It has deep, rummy flavors of black-strop molasses and distant Malacca spice, with a finish as haunting as the ghost of Christmas past.
Beer at the Fringe
Utopias and its special Riedel-designed glass.
By the account of those who know him well, Jim Koch is a crazy. “Jim is a beer nut,” swears brewmaster Grant Wood, speaking of his boss. Sixth-generation brewer Koch founded Boston Beer Company in 1984 and has been seeking the outer limits of brewing ever since. His relentless quest for “extreme beer” has led him deep into uncharted territory, perhaps never to return.
Koch first challenged the outer threshold of the beer universe back in 1994 with the creation of Samuel Adams Triple Bock, at the time the strongest beer ever marketed, at 17.5% alcohol by volume. By the turn of the century he climbed to 21% in a mind-bender dubbed Samuel Adams Millennium Ale.
Continuing his voyage beyond the possible—with microscopic help from Schwarzenegger-like yeast strains that could withstand the intense alcohol levels he was bent on achieving—Koch announced Samuel Adams Utopias MMII in 2002, at 24% abv. Koch pushed the envelope another degree the following year. This year’s batch of Utopias weighs in at 27% abv.—enough to make it illegal in 13 states.
The Utopias 2007 blend—which includes some of Koch’s original 13-year-old Triple Bock—was aged in various woods, from bourbon barrels to sherry, Madeira and cognac casks. Delivered in individually numbered, brew kettle–shaped bottles, the überbrew has an SRP of $120–$140.
Boston Beer brewmaster Grant Wood speaks at the Samuel Adams Utopias tasting at Providence in Los Angeles.
What do you do with a beer this extreme? To provide the answer, Koch and Grant recently booked an 11-city tour of the U.S., inviting ever-foolhardy beer writers and other intrepid souls to experience Utopias matched against alcoholic beverages of similar weight and caliber. The events also showcased Boston Beer’s flagship brew, Samuel Adams Boston Lager, paired with cuisine from some of the country’s best chefs—definitive proof that beer can work as well as wine with serious food.
Set up in blind tastings against Frapin’s VIP XO cognac (40% abv.) and the 1994 Fonseca vintage port (20.5% abv.), and rated on color, aroma, taste, mouthfeel and finish, Utopias came out the winner in eight out of nine markets. (Results from the final two stops on the tour were unavailable at press time.) THE TASTING PANEL’s own Anthony Dias Blue moderated the tastings.
True to the founder’s vision, Utopias has gone where no beer has gone before. Jim Koch may be crazy, but he’s no fool.