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Santa Suds: More Brewers Toasting Season With Special Beers

December 19, 1990

Undated (AP) _ At the New England Brewing Co. in Connecticut, the holiday spirit flows this season in flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and vanilla. This is the stuff of winter, of eggnog, fruitcake and cider.

But this is beer.

New England’s 1990 Holiday Ale is one of an increasing number of special seasonal beers that are being cooked up at small breweries around the country.

Scholars of suds can raise toasts this season with mugs of Hoppy Holidaze, Kris Kringle, Our Special Ale, Celebration Ale, Wassail, Christmas Ale, Winterfest, Winter Welcome, Winter’s Tale - just a few of the names given by brewers to their holiday offerings.

″A lot of the small breweries, a lot of the microbreweries, are doing what brewers in Europe have been doing for centuries, and that is brewing different beers for the different seasons, and the most special season is the winter,″ said Tom McCormick, a specialty beer distributor in Rocklin, Calif.

McCormick is carrying nine holiday brews this year and said his volume in winter beers has roughly doubled each year for the past several years.

″There’s really been an increase in awareness of microbreweries and specialty beers in general, so it’s all part of that,″ he said.

The holiday beers are usually stronger and fuller-bodied than brewers’ usual offerings; they typically are a deep reddish-amber and are relatively high in alcohol content.

And increasingly they are brewed with spices, including cinnamon, orange peel, ginger, nutmeg and cloves.

The tradition, beer-o-philes say, goes back centuries. The main flavoring ingredient in most beer now is hops, a bitter vine, but brewers once used whatever spice they had on hand.

Philip Markowski, the brewer at New England Brewing in Norwalk, Conn., traces the tradition to America’s colonial days. David Edgar, news editor of the New Brewer magazine in Denver, said it goes back much further, ″to pagan festivals at which they would brew a ritual ale.″

″So basically,″ Edgar said, ″the tradition of a special winter festival beer has existed since before Christ - since before there was a Christmas.″

In the United States, the modern tradition can be dated more accurately. It goes back 16 years, to the first holiday ale produced by the Anchor Brewing Co. of San Francisco.

Anchor’s first offerings were strong, hoppy ales, perfect for sipping in front of a fire on a cold winter’s night. Later, the brewery began adding spices that gave the beers a delicately fruity smell and taste.

Other early entrants on the holiday beer scene included the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. of Chico, Calif., which produces a bold, unspiced Celebration Ale, and the Yakima Brewing Co. of Yakima, Wash., which makes Grant’s Spiced Ale.

Once distributed only locally or regionally, these beers are now in gourmet liquor shops and bars across the nation.

They have company in some imported holiday beers, including Aass Winter Lager from Norway, Young’s Winter Ale from England and Samichlaus from Switzerland, which claims to be the strongest lager in the world.

The giants of the beer industry have mostly ignored the holiday beer trend. The small brewers say it’s simply too difficult for the major brewers to interrupt their production lines to make seasonal batches of beer.

One exception is the Adolph Coors Co., which has been marketing Coors Winterfest, a full-bodied lager, since 1986. The company won’t release sales or production figures, but spokesman Todd Appleman said the market for Winterfest has been growing annually.

″I think each year you’re going to see it become a little more national, a little more high-profile,″ Appleman said.

You’ll hear no such claim from Grant Johnston, the brewer for the tiny Marin Brewing Co. in Larkspur, Calif. His Hoppy Holidaze winter beer won a gold medal at this year’s Great American Beer Festival in Colorado.

But fans of Hoppy Holidaze are lucky to find it on the other side of San Francisco Bay, much less across the country. This year’s entire production was 28 barrels, each containing 31 gallons of pale, spicy beer.

Still, Johnston isn’t complaining. He’s only worried about selling out.

″We try to have it on hand through Christmas and New Year’s,″ he said, ″but I doubt we’ll last that long.″

After that, it’s just like baseball. There’s always next year.

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