Holiday beers don’t have to hew to the Belgian Noel beer tradition of dark malts and heavy spices; there are some hoppy beers that are perfect for getting into the spirit too.
When I think of holiday seasonal releases the beer that comes immediately to mind is Sierra Nevada’s fresh-hop IPA Celebration. A longtime favorite of hop-heads around the holidays, Celebration mixes a deep and rich malt body with buckets of freshly harvested Cascade and Centennial hops that lend a potent piney punch to the brew. I’ve been regularly enjoying this year’s batch (contrary to popular rumor, the recipe for Celebration does not change year-to-year. The variance in the fresh-hop harvest is the reason for the changes in flavor from year-to-year), and I never get tired of the brew.
Stone Brewing’s Pale Ale is another beer with a strong resinous hop character, and a special version of the beer spiked with ginger root has been released. The ginger is assertive but not dominant, and the earthy spice matches the piney intensity of the hops very well. Ginger is a flavor common to many holiday treats, and while Stone may not have meant for the Pale Ale with Ginger to be holiday beer it fills the role quiet nicely.
Gypsy brewer Mikkeller has a new beer that takes the ginger + pine even further; A Hoppy Lovin’ Christmas is a near 8%ABV IPA with ginger and pine needles added. I expected an overwhelming blast of ginger and pine flavors, but the balance of the toffee-sweet malts, spicy ginger, and subtle medicinal piney flavors made for a surprisingly drinkable IPA. I’ll be looking for another bottle of this.
One holiday ale that sticks closer to the traditional holiday styles was Eagle Rock Brewing’s Jubilee, a spiced old ale. This beer is complex and rich, heavy on the dark fruit, and subtly spiced with a warming finish. I may be an outlier, but the beer is thick with the tart and bitter flavor of black cherries to me.
The few times I’ve sampled the beer there has also been another, more mysterious flavor that seemed to taunt me. Like a song who’s name I couldn’t recall, or a word on the tip of my tongue, the flavor’s identity floated on the very edge of my sense-memory. It took much smelling, swirling, tasting, and thinking, but I was at last able to draw the association out of the depths of my brain: Italian amaretto biscuits! A staple holiday treat from my childhood, the Lazzaroni cookies are deeply tied to recollections of family, holidays, and mirth, and the Jubilee brings these memories into sharp focus.
It’s a rare and precious beer that can provide such strong sense and memory associations, and it is even more special and wonderful when those remembered smells and tastes are as dear as a happy childhood recollection. Jubilee might not be a beer that I reach for often, but I know that when I do I’ll be in for a heady trip down memory lane.