Way back in the Middle Ages, during the holidays, spices, instead of hops, were added to beer to add flavor. That tradition reemerged in the 1900's, and is the inspiration behind many holiday beers on the market today. Great Lakes Christmas Ale ($12) is one of many in a crowded market, but manages to separate itself with its unique recipe and flavor profile. Christmas Ale is brewed with honey and spiced with fresh ginger and cinnamon, providing a tasty gift that belongs under the tree of every craft beer enthusiast.
For shoppers, Black Friday means waking up early and standing in line awaiting the best bargains on Christmas gifts. For beer dorks, there may be lines and even some early wake up calls, but it's not bargains we pursue, it's Bourbon County. Bourbon County Barleywine ($20) is one of the newest offerings in an already famous line of barrel aged beers released by Goose Island brewing. The first four packs will hit store shelves on Black Friday, and those lucky enough to purchase some will be treated to a 12.1% English-style Barleywine aged in the third-use barrels that were once home to Kentucky bourbon and then Bourbon County Stout.
If you were wondering what the holiday season in Texas tastes like, look no further than Shiner Holiday Cheer ($9) from Spoetzl Brewing. It might not stand out amongst the sea of holiday themed brews lining your bottle shop shelves, but it's an underrated gem worthy of your attention. In the same way that the holidays are a little different in the Lone Star State, Holiday Cheer is a little different than most beer released during the season. It's a Dunkelweizen brewed with Texas peaches and roasted pecans, providing some sweetness along with a subtle, nutty finish. A great way to break up the monotony of typical Christmas beers and enjoy a taste of Texas.
There's nothing quite like the holiday season, mostly because of the unique beer releases that make their way to bottle shop shelves. 21st Amendment Brewing in San Fransisco agrees, and treats us with Fireside Chat ($12) to help usher in the season. Just like the depression-era radio addresses FDR used to churn out, this spiced winter ale is both warming and illuminating. It's a dark English-style ale with a nice balance of spices that bring to mind vanilla, nutmeg and caramel malt. A flavorful, comforting beverage for any winter evening.
Sometimes, there is a certain amount of extra testosterone required to eat intensely hot chili peppers. And it might take even more to tip back a bottle of one of Stone Brewing's new fiery beers Crime and Punishment ($18). Stone co-founder Greg Koch started with barrel aged Lukcy Basartd (correct spelling) and Double Bastard, and then dumped a variety of estate-grown chile peppers into the beer. The results are two ruthless, sweat-inducing beverages that are not for the faint of heart. This is the first time Stone is nationally distributing beer from their limited Stone Quingenti Millilitre Series, so keep an eye out, if you can stand the heat.
As temperatures begin to plummet and most of us are suddenly coping with less sunlight, we start to crave beer with some more malt and warmth to cap off an evening. One of the best candidates to fill this void is Backwoods Bastard ($15) from Founders Brewing. It's a Scotch Ale, an already full bodied and strong style, but this bastard has another trick up its sleeve. Aged in bourbon barrels, this seasonal offering delivers vanilla, butterscotch and bourbon scents and flavors. So put another log on the fire tonight and settle in with this 10.2% treat.
In the ever expanding world of craft brewing, it's not easy to have a unique offering anymore. Extreme recipes are copied, and trending styles are suddenly being brewed everywhere. But at Funky Buddha Brewery in Florida, they have a one-of-a-kind on their hands with No Crusts Peanut Butter & Jelly Brown Ale ($12). We love a good PB&J, and we love beer, but it didn't sound like two things that would mingle well. Well they not only mingle well, but taste perfect together in this incredibly well balanced brew. The distinct aroma of creamy peanut butter and sweet jam come through in the taste as well, but the previously mentioned balance makes this much more than a novelty sampler.
If the flavors you crave when you reach for a stout include a little dairy, then look no further than Udder Love ($8) from Beachwood Brewing in California. Udder Love is said to be a traditional milk stout, but with rich flavors like bittersweet chocolate, milk sugar, and roasty coffee, it's probably a new tradition for most. One tradition that is quite common though, is how often this beer brings home awards, including a Silver this year at the Great American Beer Festival in the Sweet Stout category. It's a gentle, delicate beer that finishes like a tasty glass of coffee chocolate milk.
There are plenty of gimmicky craft beers hitting store shelves these days, and sadly, not very many of them live up to their unique descriptions. Windowsill ($20) from The Bruery however, is one of the rare exceptions. The idea hit KCRW's Good Food host Evan Klieman after enjoying a homemade Rhubarb Raspberry Pie, and a collaboration was born. Specialty grains were chosen to mimic the crust, and rhubarb and raspberries were used during stages of the brewing process. It has a tart fruit taste, a bit of pie crust malt, and a delicately masked 10.5% ABV.
During the fall season, the beer market gets flooded with pumpkin beers. And the thing is, most of them aren't very good. But the season does call for some variance when it comes to style and Jolly Pumpkin Autumn Fire ($14) is a perfect change of pace. Brewed with chestnuts and spices before aging in oak barrels, the taste is quite the companion for a fall evening, with smooth caramel notes, subtle fall spices, and a touch of tartness. It's quite possibly the best autumn beer that has nothing to do with pumpkins.
If you crave hop intensity and prefer a trusted source, The Oracle ($20) from Bell's Brewery certainly fits the bill. This West Coast style double IPA is clean, resinous, and incredibly aromatic. You won't find much balance with this beer, but we aren't complaining, because it's all about the hops, and the 10% ABV packs a wallop as well. A drink that should be in every hopheads future.
Summer is winding down in many parts of the US, but that doesn't mean a crisp, refreshing beer isn't on our minds. Mint and cucumber are both regularly associated with refreshment, but rarely are they associated with beer. R & B Brewing Company out of Vancouver, Canada decided to take on this refreshment challenge, and have exceeded our expectations, and enlivened our palates as well. Birra Fresca Cucumber Mint IPA ($8) uses over 200 cucumbers that were sourced locally along with their mint. It's a fresh, clean, IPA to sip on in a comfortable chair as you wave farewell to summer.