By Matthew Meador
For the Oregon Beer Growler
I used to hate the holidays. Well, maybe “hate” is a strong word. At best, the holiday season offered a reason for an extended period of revelry along with invitations to some great parties. Altogether, though, the sense of harried chaos that has come to define this holiest of all shopping seasons was a pretty strong turn-off. From traffic and crowded malls to artificially cheery canned music and incessant bells outside the doors of every drugstore, I had decided the whole season was something I could do without. But, hey, even though I may have experienced some inconvenience and irritation from all the commercial rush, attending parties is a pretty good way to take the edge off, right?
I spent the holiday seasons of my twenties grumbling. Then I had kids. If one single event can wipe out a Scrooge’s Christmas crankiness, it’s having children. Something about the wide-eyed wonder of a little one discovering the season is truly magical. I think my transformation was complete when I took my preschool-aged daughter to see Santaland in a helicopter. Santa climbed out of the aircraft, dozens of excited kids looking on. The big red jolly fellow walked right up to me and said, “Hi, Matt!” My daughter, awestruck, looked up at me with giant eyes and asked, “You know Santa, Dad?” It turns out — unknown to me — one of my friends was playing Santa at that event. I am forever grateful to him for that moment.
So my seasonal outlook got considerably brighter when my daughters came along. I now tolerate the hectic holiday madness maybe better than most parents. Okay, let’s be honest: I actually enjoy the holiday season now — there’s no “tolerate” about it. But even though “party season” has become “parent season,” I still manage to celebrate the old-fashioned way with festive seasonal brews like the ones we feature in this month’s blind tasting evaluation.
Widmer: Brrr, Portland
7.15% ABV; 50 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Brrr is a moderately strong dark red ale. The generous use of citrusy hops provides a tangible, but not excessive, bitterness that ultimately erodes into a candy-like malty sweetness and quick finish. Caramel and chocolate malts provide complexity, an enticing color and subtle dark malt flavors.
Consumer Comments: Of all the packages under the tree, this brew was our panelists’ favorite. Widmer hits the winter mark with Brrr, a bright, amber-colored brew with a sultry nose of florals and grains. Well-balanced and bold, this brew is defined by hops without being overwhelmed. Tasters noted its smoothness and up-front flavor, agreeing it could earn a place on any holiday beverage menu.
Full Sail: Wassail Winter Ale, Hood River
7.2% ABV; 56 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Wassail is brewed with a range of caramel and dark chocolate malts giving it a deep mahogany color and full malty body. We used a blend of Pacific Northwest hops for a pleasant hoppy aroma and finish, creating a deliciously balanced beer that appeals to both hop and malt lovers alike.
Consumer Comments: As winter approaches and night falls early, Full Sail’s Wassail Winter Ale provides an inviting warmth to ward off the chill. A favorite among tasting panelists, this brew exhibits notes of cocoa and toffee with a bit of nutty toast. Tasters described this brew as “full of flavor” and “very drinkable.”
Burnside: Permafrost, Portland
8.3% ABV; 77 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Our original winter elixir is a big strong ale brewed with seven different malts and copious amounts of Columbia and Amarillo hops. It’s designed to give this warming brew a chewy, complex malt body and a unique fruity, juicy hoppiness throughout. You won’t want to just sip this dangerously strong and tasty beer … but you should.
Consumer Comments: With an autumn hue of unfiltered apple juice, the Permafrost from Burnside sports exuberant carbonation, balanced hops and a clean finish. Tasters liked this brew’s sweet character, noting its balance, hints of honey and palate-cleansing acidity. All agreed this beer would be a great holiday party pleaser.
Golden Valley: Tannen Bomb, McMinnville
8.0% ABV; 50 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Tannen Bomb is brewed annually to help take the chill off the Pacific Northwest winter clime. Our brewers use an enormous malt bill of primarily Northwest-grown two-row barley as well as Vienna, Monastique, Victory, crystal and chocolate malts. To balance the huge malt presence, Tannen Bomb is generously hopped with Apollo, Golding, Cascade and Willamette hops. Cheers!
Consumer Comments: McMinnville’s Golden Valley crafts this eagerly awaited holiday favorite every year. With a bold introduction, complete with notes of wheat, chocolate and even a little almond, this brew softens mid-palate, but returns for a strong finish. An altogether amiable brew, you might want to be careful — the Tannen Bomb will get the better of you if you don’t respect it.
Zoiglhaus: Nikolaus, Portland
5.1% ABV; 36 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Do you really think St. Nick wants to eat chocolate chip cookies and drink milk after busting his ass all night? Hell, no! He wants to pound lagers and eat gingerbread. With that image in mind, we thought we would save him some trouble and just put the two things together: German Pilsner, Wheat, Munich, Caramel, Carapils and CARAFA malts were selected to work their magic with a secret blend of gingerbread spices and a splash of German Magnum and Hersbrucker hops. Nikolaus is spicy, delicate, nuanced and plain fun. Enjoy our celebration of the seasons!
Consumer Comments: Everybody loves a visit from St. Nick and Zoiglhaus’ Nikolaus was no exception. This brew captures the holiday spirit up front with aromas of cinnamon and clove. The gentle spices yield to ginger and citrus, never letting the taster forget its spicy foundation. Panelists thought this brew might accompany a spiced holiday ham or act as a perfect stand-alone beverage to boost your guests’ holiday spirit.
Cascade Brewing Barrel House: Sang Noir, Portland
9.9% ABV; 10 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Sang Noir is a blend of sour imperial red ales aged in bourbon and wine barrels for up to two years with Bing cherries. It features flavors of dark roast malts, bourbon, cherries and port.
Consumer Comments: Cascade’s Sang Noir is a great holiday treat, perfect for the fall and winter. Presenting a uniquely seductive fruit nose, the brew’s fruit character merges effortlessly with its mid-level carbonation. Sang Noir’s bold notes of apple and cherry delighted our panelists, drawing comparisons to ciders and wines.
As an all-year-long rule, the exceptional creativity of our regional brewers manages to capture the independent spirit of the Pacific Northwest magnificently. But at no other time of year is this talent as evident as it is during the holidays, when their efforts produce some of the best seasonal brews around. And whether you have children or not, you can hoist a pint and toast the good cheer the season offers.
Oregon Beer Growler each month invites consumers to “blind” taste a different style or group of beers at various locations across the state.