Santa sees you when you're sleeping, awake and even when you're buying beer. The old man has the coolers covered, showing up in early October and hanging around until the new year.
It seems everybody—even traditional Belgian breweries like St. Bernardus—cashes in with some sort of holiday beer these days.
Many of these "Winter," "Christmas" and "Holiday" ales are mostly about marketing, though. Too often, they're merely the same pale ales sold the rest of the year, plus some sort of seasonal pun and a green-and-red label.
You can try a lot of them at this week's Holiday Ale Festival. Head on down to Pioneer Courthouse Square and you'll find more than 50 beers spread around the maze of tents. Tents, in December, in Portland? Don't worry, you'll be packed in too tight to feel any chill.
We held a blind taste-off of 12 festive seasonal ales currently on shelves. Four WW tasters—Ruth Brown, Martin Cizmar, AP Kryza and Brian Yaeger—rated the beers' general likability on a 100-point scale.
JOY TO THE WORLD:
Northeast Fremont Street's Alameda Brewing strikes a nice balance with a caramel-colored brew that's as smooth as Santa's velvet suit with subtle sweetness. The maltiness, a soft hoppy spice, and a subdued whiff of chocolate and raisins make this 7.2 percent alcohol-by-volume strong ale a perfect warm-me-up. Papa Noel, which will be on tap at the Holiday Ale Festival, was our consensus pick, topping three of four ballots.
Tasters said: "This could get me on the naughty list real fast," and "Like a nice, fuzzy sweater."
Portland's Lompoc Brewing makes a mealy chocolate rye that will thicken your saliva—in a good way. Though chocolate dominates, the midweight rye body has notes of salt and earth, presumably from bourbon-barrel aging.
Tasters said: "Xmas=dark!" and "Sweet, sweet astronaut chocolate."
10 Barrel Pray for Snow
While 10 Barrel Brewing's awesome bottle design did not factor into our blind tasting, it is representative of the beer itself: black and tan, not incredibly festive, but appealing nonetheless. Some of us loved it, and some didn't, but it's worth trying.
Tasters said: "It tastes like the Trix Rabbit's blood test after a night out," and "Coppery, but delicious."
Fire Mountain Hangman Winter Fest Strong Ale
The strength in this ale from Carlton's Fire Mountain Brew House comes from its deceptive depth and darkness. It pours more coppery than deep brown, but a sip is packed with hearty cardamom and citrus. Don't let the Hangman fool you.
Tasters said: "The aftertaste is what I think of when I think of a holiday beer, minus the mall violence."
A LITTLE LOUDER, DRUMMER BOY:
Laurelwood Vinter Varmer
Laurelwood Brewing seems to have been aiming for a nutty, seedy pint, and it certainly succeeded in giving this beer flavors the squirrel on the label would love. Ultimately, though, we didn't find it to be interesting beyond that.
Tasters said: "Chestnuts...open fire... yawn," and "I could drink the shit out of this all night."
Terminal Gravity Festivale
We found this strong ale from Enterprise hard to pin down. A variety of crisp, earthy tastes proved divisive among tasters.
Tasters said: "Hits all the holiday notes, except 'fa,' but fuck 'fa,' this is great," and "Figgy pudding dunked in pale ale."
Famous for its constantly changing recipe and label artwork, you never know what to expect from Jubelale until your first bottle of the year. Bend's Deschutes Brewery has been making this beer for a quarter-century now, and it's often one of our favorites. We were only mildly impressed with this year's version.
Tasters said: "Tastes like a soggy Christmas card," and "Red velvet! Pretty good."
The "C" is not for Christmas, it's for all seven "C" varieties of hops (Centennial, Cintra, etc.) that find their way into this Imperial IPA. Perhaps that doesn't sound especially festive, and our tasters agreed. Is the Santa cap on the label the only thing holiday about this?
Tasters said: "More hops than an entire Blazers season," and "Festivus for Portlandia: Look for hops in your stocking."
AWAY TO THE MANGER:
Full Sail Wreck the Halls
Intended as a hybrid of a hoppy IPA and a malty winter warmer, this seasonal Frankenbeer from Full Sail's Brewmaster Reserve series didn't fare well in our blind test. Wassail, the Hood River brewery's standard-bearing winter ale, is a better bet.
Tasters said: "The bitterness reminds me of a holiday family gathering, but it's not," and "Beefy malt and hops."
Bridgeport Ebenezer Ale
An annual release since 1984, Oregon's oldest craft brewery uses four types of malt to give Ebenezer its slightly nutty flavor. Unfortunately, this 6.4 percent ABV brew lacks the depth to sate any but the scrawniest carolers.
Tasters said: "This is drinkable, almost to a flaw," and "Bo-o-oring."
Widmer Brothers Brrr
The Rudolph-shaming reddish hue is the only thing very Christmas-y about this herbal brew.
Tasters said: "Maybe after three I'd feel jolly about this one," and "Lots of something naughty in a bad way."
Double Mountainh Fa La La La La
This Hood River brewery's poor showing was a bummer for several of our reviewers, who like its other beers. On the plus side, you should never feel the need to suffer the indignity of calling for "a pint of Fa La La La La" in a bar. A blindsiding bitterness that's definitely not hoppy in origin killed our Christmas spirit.
Tasters said: âFeels like a homeless guy was camping in my mouth,â and âPepÃ© Le Pewâs Christmas Ale.â
DRINK: Holiday Ale Festival, Pioneer Courthouse Square, 701 SW 6th Ave., holidayale.com. Noon-10 pm Wednesday, 11 am-10 pm Thursday-Saturday, 11 am-5 pm Sunday, Nov. 28-Dec. 2. $30, includes mug and 10 sampling tickets.