Treat yourself to a better holiday beer

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Holiday beers have just begun pushing their pumpkin brethren out of the coolers — and not a moment too soon.

But will beer drinkers be better served with a palette of peppermint, spice and all things nice?

There is something to be said about well-made, subtly seasoned Christmas ales produced by brewmasters who take a restrained hand to the nutmeg, cloves and vanilla extract.

They know that too much Christmas may result in something akin to liquid fruitcake, and not in a good way.

So, this year, rather than checking out every gingerbread porter and eggnog shandy on the shelves, we’re going to mix things up a bit.

We’re going to try a few brews we’ve never had but always wanted to sip, along with a few choice seasonal selections and some old, higher-priced favorites we pledged to try again.

‘Tis the season to be jolly, after all, and there’s no better place to start than with St. Bernardus Christmas Ale ($11.99 for a 25-oz. bomber). The abbey-style Belgian brew pours a dark reddish brown with an aroma of dark fruits, cinnamon, cloves and other spices. The flavor palate follows, with additional notes of peppery spice, apricots, licorice and molasses. At 10 percent alcohol by volume, St. Bernardus warms you up on cold winter nights.

Perhaps this one is a Halloween holdover, but the 3 Floyds Topless Wytch Baltic Porter ($8.99 per bomber) offers similar levels of warmth thanks to its 9 percent ABV. The often-outrageous Munster, Indiana, brewer has created a very dark, well-balanced brew with a clean, velvety mouthfeel and notes of molasses and cocoa. Fans also have tasted earthy notes, figs, espresso and even charred toast on the palate, but that could just be the Wytch working her magic. Find her if you can!

The aforementioned fruitcake really does come forward in the aroma of Anchor Christmas Ale, one of the few beers available in a party-sized magnum ($15.99) as well as six-packs ($9.99). At 6.5 percent ABV, the San Francisco-brewed beer is relatively tame compared to others of its ilk, but still boasts flavors of caramel, spiced chocolate and nuts against a velvety mouthfeel. It’s been brewed annually since 1975, changing slightly each year. Fans have been known to keep notes.

Wisconsin’s own New Glarus Brewing Co. made its fortune with Spotted Cow, a beer so popular that it was being smuggled into Minnesota and sold illegally until authorities put a stop to it. Brewmaster Dan Carey wisely has decided to trade on its popularity, releasing Spotted Cow Grand Cru ($11.99 per four-pack) just in time for the holidays. The bottle-fermented beer, part of Carey’s Thumbprint series, boasts the addition of orange peel and coriander, as well as an amped up 8.5 percent ABV to give this cow a little more refined kick.

This may be the year we invest in a little Southern Tier Choklat ($16.99 per four-pack). The Lakewood, New York, brewer, long known for its high-power beers, tops Choklat out at 10 percent ABV, brewing the dark, opaque beer with two varieties of hops, four different malts and bittersweet Belgian chocolate. The result is a chocolate caramel nose and a bittersweet palate of chocolate and dark cherries. This one is a real fireside sipper.

When Adam Avery of Boulder, Colorado’s Avery Brewing Co. and Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing Co. in Guerneville, California, discovered they both produced Belgian-style ales called Salvation, they faced a legal dilemma. The solution was to blend the two brews and call it Collaboration not Litigation Ale ($8.49 per bomber). The Belgian strong ale, which weighs in at 8.5 percent ABV, pours dark and yeasty, with flavors of dried fruits, figs and even a little honey on a palate with a full body and fine carbonation.

Similar in style and strength, but with an equally interesting backstory is North Coast Brewing Company’s Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale ($11.99 per four pack). The 9.4 percent ABV dark strong ale is produced in conjunction with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and the Fort Bragg, California, brewer makes a donation to the institute for every bottle sold. The beer, one of our favorite guilty pleasures, pours a dark mahogany with malt-driven aromas and flavors of caramel, figs and dark fruit. The label boasts a painting of the late jazz pianist dressed as — what else? — a monk, but wearing Monk’s characteristic fez and dark glasses. Clever.

One beer we’re hoping Santa will drop off this year is The Bruery Poterie Ale ($28.99 per bomber). The eighth anniversary release from the Placentia, California, brewery is an old English style ale that has been aged in former scotch barrels. It’s been blended in the same solera style used in making Spanish sherry, incorporating dribs and drabs from other barrels of previous anniversary ales. We’re told the beer’s smoky, earthy complexity from the scotch is balanced by essences of toffee, caramel, vanilla, honey and oak, along with a booziness due to the brew’s whopping 16.8 percent ABV.

“Poterie” is French for “pottery,” the traditional eighth anniversary gift. Sounds like we’re going to have to buckle our seat belts for this one.