The following is a guest post from Memphis craft beer drinker Blake Marcum, who previously wrote about pumpkin beers in the 901.
It may be hard to notice over all of the jingling bells and sparkling lights down Poplar Avenue, but the approach of winter has brought us the greatest gift of the season, Christmas beer. Beers this time of year get darker, sweeter and give a much better meaning to the holidays than whatever movie marathon is on television.
In the 901, we are blessed to have a massive selection of winter beer options at our local bars and beer stores. Nothing gets me more into the spirit of the holidays than filling my shopping cart full of tasty treats with so much flavor they put all Christmas cookies to shame. Today we’ll be your personal beer shopping elves, here to help you decide the right beer to get in the 901.
During our tastings, we were really surprised by the large number of beer that had no discernible spice characteristics to truly make it a winter/Christmas beer. This made us realize we had two categories of beer we were dealing with from the breweries: Fruitcake and Ornaments.
Fruitcake is the most unapologetic holiday dessert ever created. It looks festive, it smells festive and it’s full of whatever ingredients Mrs. Claus could find in the cupboard. Fruitcake beers follow this same trend. They look, smell and taste like the holidays. When you try them, you’ll have gingerbread men and sugar plums dancing all in your head, no matter what style of beer it is. Fruitcake, in this article, is pure heaven.
Ornaments are plastic, cheap, and no one sheds a tear when one breaks, because you’ve got dozens more just like it stored up in the attic. Ornament beers have festive bottles, clever names and sometimes even an aroma of intrigue, but the flavor characteristics are that of any other beer readily available on the store shelves all year round.
Fruitcake Beer (the good kind)
1. Shiner Holiday Cheer: If Santa and Jesus brewed beer together, all they would brew is Shiner Cheer. It’s a dark wheat beer with peaches and pecans. When I taste it, I am instantly thrust into Christmas memories of my brother and me wearing our Memphis State University sweatshirts when I was growing up in Nutbush. This is truly the shining star of the Spoetzl Brewery’s lineup. I celebrate this beer by buying eight cases of it each year. I continuously enjoy this beer all throughout the year, and it holds up incredibly well, even in the summertime. Tony Lucchesi, owner of Lucchesi’s Beer Garden and one of the most recognizable last names in the 901, sends me a picture of this beer when it arrives as he knows I’ll be at his bar immediately. Shiner Cheer on tap is a wonderful experience, and it can also be purchased in bottles or cans.
2. Samuel Adams White Christmas: This beer impresses me more and more each time I try it. Cinnamon, nutmeg and orange peel help give this white ale its warm and cozy taste. I’ve started buying more and more of this beer because of its incredible flavor. In the spring, Sam Adams releases Cold Snap, the junior version of White Christmas, which is also delicious. Do yourself a favor and try this beer. If you disagree with my review, that is absolutely OK. Three ghosts will be visiting you in the future to help you change your mind.
3. High Cotton Brewing’s Christmas Stout: As a big supporter of our local breweries, it thrills me that one of them produces a Christmas beer. This is a fantastic stout that has so much Christmas thrown into it, I laughed when I first tasted it. It is unapologetically Christmas and deliciously so. If darker beers are not your usual, don’t let the fact that it is a stout keep you away. The spices in the beer will help distract you from the color and keep you thirsty for more.
4. Leinenkugel’s Snowdrift Vanillla Porter: This beer is simply delicious. It has nice chocolate notes in the porter, with subtle hints of vanilla. It is incredibly smooth and easy to enjoy. Being a porter, it will be too much for the light beer crowd, but it is definitely worth a try.
5. Blue Moon Gingerbread Spiced Ale: This beer is definitely one to keep on your wish list this year. Wonderful spices and flavor, with a smoothness you could drink all year round. The only way you can get this beer in the 901 is in a winter variety 12-pack, along with their Mountain Abbey Ale and their Cinnamon Horchata Ale, but that is like killing three tasty birds with one stone.
6. Blue Moon Mountain Abbey Ale: Since I already mentioned it, I might as well tell you about this other Blue Moon ale. This is a solid amber beer that has some Belgian sugar and a touch of wheat to it. Blue Moon swears it has a smooth toffee finish, but I guess by “smooth” they mean non-existent. I could easily drink a 12-pack of these while sitting around the fire watching Grizzlies games. Besides the variety 12-pack previously mentioned, this beer can also be found in six-packs by itself
7. Blue Moon Cinnamon Horchata Ale: Any beer with that much cinnamon in it deserves to be on our list. While the aroma and taste of cinnamon hits you very strong on the front end, the beer quickly mellows in your mouth and leaves you with no lingering mouth feel or aftertaste, staying close to the mild flavor characteristics that horchata rice is known for. This beer will only be found in the winter variety 12-pack.
8. Woodchuck Winter Chill: This cider, aged over premium French and traditional American Oak chips, is delicious. The flavors of the oak and apple make this a great cider for the winter time. I had this slightly chilled and let it warm up, and the flavors really came alive. If you want something crisp, sweet and light, but with nice flavors that linger, this is something you should try.
9. New Belgium Accumulation White IPA: When it comes to my love affair with New Belgium, unfortunately it is always 1 step forward, 1 step back. They made an amazing pumpkin beer this year, and then… I had the 2014 Accumulation. The 2013 Accumulation was delicious and was welcomed as a new champion of the Christmas beer selection in Memphis as a wonderful White IPA. In 2014, they took the flavor down, jacked up the hop level and made this beer just another on the one-and-done list for me. It’s still a nice beer and if you like hops, give it a try for sure. Your palate may love what mine does not. I just hope in 2015 they go back to the joyous recipe that made me believe.
Ornament Beer (liquid coal)
1. Yazoo Winter Scotch Ale: I think the important thing for beer fans to remember is, this is a Scotch Ale that is simply being released in the Winter. It’s not a Winter beer the way that I think of Shiner Cheer or Blue Moon’s Mountain Abbey Ale. Though I love most of their beer dearly, the flavor of the Scotch Ale fell short of my expectations. I should be fair and state that I am a hardcore Scottish drinker. I like a rich flavor that many beer drinkers would find too flavorful and overwhelming for their taste buds. This beer is more of an introduction of Scottish beers to the masses. And in that goal, they succeeded. But don’t be fooled by the packaging and think you’re going to taste a hint of reindeer in this one.
2. Anchor Brewing’s Christmas Ale: While I truthfully don’t care for many of Anchor’s other offerings, the Christmas beer is one I always look forward to. Anchor’s employees change the recipe every year, so you never know what you’re going to get when you have that first taste. In 2012 it was a phenomenal experience. In 2013 it tasted like a pine tree and I did my best to keep anyone from buying it. In 2014 they have given us a beer with very low spice notes to it, that has a bitter taste on the back end and just drank like an average amber or brown ale.
3. Abita Christmas Ale: I want to like Abita so much, especially since their Spiced Turbodog changed my life for the better, but I can’t when they offer up beers like their 2014 Christmas. It is a hoppy wreck of a beer, not even enjoyed by my close friends who embrace high IBUs. This seems like another example of breweries putting “Christmas” on a label with no reason to do so, except for marketing purposes. No one wants this beer in their stocking.
4. Magic Hat Snow Roller: Continuing their adventurous push for strong flavor variety in 2014, Magic Hat delivers a hoppy brown ale with absolutely no Christmas taste to it at all. You can drink it at Christmas, but it offers no excitement. It’s the poinsettia of Christmas beers.
5. Samuel Adams White Lantern: I purchased this beer by mistake one year, thinking it was White Christmas. I will never make that mistake again. Sam Adams describes this beer as a crisp wheat, with tangerine, orange peel and coriander. All I tasted was regret.
6. Jolly Traveler Winter Shandy: Have you ever wanted to make out with a candy cane? How about purging your taste buds with the overbearing power of peppermint? If those things do not sound like a good time, avoid this beer at all cost. I can’t believe this even got released. This beer is a big letdown considering how much I loved their Jack-O Traveler pumpkin. There are going to be people that love this beer … and Nickelback.
7. Samuel Adams Winter Lager: This beer is completely lacking Christmas in any way. It’s a bock winter beer that is described as having “dark wheat spice with fresh ground cinnamon, ginger, and orange peel.” I tasted none of that and was really disappointed. It’s just a drinkable bock beer. Bah humbug!
Now it is important to remember, that these are opinions that are based on personal taste preferences and palates. The great experience of beer is the adventure of trying new things, and we encourage you to enjoy that journey, even if you experience a few wrong turns along the way. No matter what kind of beer you get in your stocking this year, you can be sure that you’ll be merry and full of cheer. And remember that it is the season of giving, and there is no better gift to give than that of delicious beer.
So open up a wonderful holiday beer, enjoy the fellowship of being around family and friends, and begin the difficult part of the holidays, deciding whether “Gremlins” or “Die Hard” is the better Christmas movie.