Foam for the holidays

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It was when the bartender offered to glaze my glass with spices that it struck me that I may have gone a little overboard on my annual holiday beer hunt this season.

What began as a simple beer run to the corner deli had degenerated into a desperate drive down I-95, through pelting rain and savage traffic in the middle of the Thanksgiving weekend. And now this: a pint of suds decorated by Martha Stewart.

The beer hunt seemed reasonable at first, in a twisted sort of way.

Every Christmas season, mad brewers dream up a dizzying variety of hearty, high-alcohol specialties to warm us through the cold months. Holiday ales are a ticket to happiness, a pleasant way to get beer freaks from Oktoberfest to bock season. Problem is, most of these specialty brews never make it to this side of the Delaware. So, this year, I would track them down and haul them back myself. Never mind that there are plenty of perfectly good beers in Philly – I told myself I needed more. . .more. . .

“More spice? “

I looked up at the toothy bartender.

Pardon? I said.

“Pumpkin spices – we sprinkle them around the rim of your glass, like salt on a margarita. “

I’ll pass. He handed me a glass of something called Happy Trails Christmas Ale and I downed it in two gulps.

It was 10 o’clock – 15 hours after I’d left home. I was 30 miles outside of Washington, D.C., in a brewpub at a shopping mall, where all the waiters, inexplicably, have four ball-point pens clipped to their shirts, just below the collar. Don’t ask me how I found the place. It’s just a dot on a map in a suburb spelled Centreville. (What, was Centerville already taken? )

The joint is the Sweetwater Tavern, a friendly, crowded place run by former Dock Street brewmaster Nick Funnell. And the beer, despite my initial misgivings, was the kind of malty holiday brew that I’d been searching for.

But instead of fully enjoying this beer, I quaffed it and tried to retrace my steps. The Foodery (10th and Pine, Center City) to Voorhees Liquors (10 Berlin Road, Voorhees, N.J.), back to Kunda Beverage (349 S. Henderson Road, King of Prussia), through Delaware and down to State Line Liquors (1610 Elkton Road, Elkton, Md.), to Chevy Chase Wine & Spirits (5544 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.), and now this place in Virginia.

Two hundred miles through five states and the nation’s capital, for what – a trunkload of Christmas beer?

A trunkload of beer, indeed!

I’m still tasting my take, but here’s the inventory. When you’re traveling this season, get your hands on any of these. Don’t worry when you’ll drink them; they’ll age for at least a year.

  • Anchor Our Special Ale (San Francisco) – The first Christmas beer I ever tasted, and maybe the best. The recipe reputedly changes each year – sniffers with more refined schnozzes have detected clove, pine, cinnamon and chocolate in past years.
  • Weyerbacher Winter Ale (Easton, Pa.).
  • Saint Sylvester Flanders Winter Ale (France).
  • Brimstone Big Ale (Frederick, Md.) – I found a plastic-sealed bottle from ’98; the label says it’ll improve for 10 years.
  • Clipper City Reserve Winter Ale (Baltimore).
  • Harpoon Winter Warmer¬†(Boston).
  • Blue Ridge Snowball’s Chance (Frederick, Md.).
  • N’ice Chouffe (Belgium) – I found a bottle dated 1996. At 10 percent alcohol, this brew can probably stay in the bottle another two or three years.
  • Rogue Yellow Snow Ale (Newport, Ore.) – I couldn’t find Rogue’s hoppy Santa’s Private Reserve this year; this one’s flavored with juniper berries.
  • Widmer Winternacht (Portland, Ore.).
  • La Moneuse Special Winter (Belgium) – An 8-percenter made by schoolteachers in a garage.
  • Rudolph’s Revenge Winter Ale (United Kingdom).
  • Sierra Nevada Celebration (Chico, Calif.) – Time was, beer aficionados just counted the days till this hoppy ale arrived on the East Coast. These days, I don’t hear as much enthusiasm for Celebration – and I blame that on excellent HopDevil IPA from Victory Brewing (Downingtown). This local beer has spoiled us.
  • Anderson Valley Winter Solstice 2000 Select Ale (Boonville, Calif.).
  • Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome (United Kingdom).
  • Sam Adams Winter Lager (Boston).
  • Pete’s Wicked Winter Brew (Palo Alto, Calif. – I picked up this raspberry-flavored brew despite a previous tongue-numbing go-round that was reminiscent of cough syrup.
  • Bobby Dazzler Old London Style Holiday Ale (Portland, Ore.).
  • Snow Goose (Frederick, Md.) – This brew lost something (the yeast) when Frederick Brewing took over the old Wild Goose brewery a few years ago, but this year’s version is the closest to the original.
  • Delirium Noel (Belgium) – The best label of the bunch features a tipsy, mug-hoisting Santa and eight reindeer.
  • Scaldis Noel (Belgium) – The country’s strongest beer (12 percent) is available in a four-bottle gift pack that comes with its own glass.
  • Avec les Bons Vouex de la Brasserie Dupont (Belgium).
  • Harpoon Winter Warmer (Boston) – Dark copper with that infamous pumpkin-pie flavor.
  • Geary’s Hampshire Special Ale (Portland, Maine) – This may be the best holiday ale brewed on the East Coast. I’m still working on a half-case left over from last year. Can’t wait to see how it matches up with this year’s batch.
  • Samichlaus (Switzerland) – Great story. Renowned as the world’s strongest ale, the brew had been discontinued three years ago because of production costs. An Internet campaign led by breWorld.com convinced another brewer, Eggenberger, to revive it last year. I haven’t seen any of the new bottles, but you can still find leftover four-packs featuring a selection of past vintages from the mid-’90s.
  • Stille Nacht (Belgium) – Voorhees Liquors had bottles left over from ’96, last time I checked.

That’s more than two dozen, and I’m still trying to get my hands on three other locals:

  • Old Salty (Ocean County, N.J.) – A barleywine-style ale from Heavyweight Brewing, this malty 9-percenter was concocted with help from beer cartoonist/homebrewer Bill Coleman of Ale Street News. Served in a 12-ounce, vintage-dated, wax-dipped bottle.
  • Trubbel de Yards (Manayunk) – The new, 9.6 percent Belgian-style dubbel from Yards Brewing. Brewer Tom Kehoe describes it as “big, meaty, almost raisiny and cherryish. It’s a little big for a dubbel, but it works. ” Look for it on tap and, shortly, in bottles.
  • Stoudt’s Holiday Reserve (Adamstown, Pa.) – This year, it’s a rye beer.

I’m not the only one driven to extremes by Christmas beer.

“It’s one of the reasons we started Brewery Ommegang,” Wendy Littlefield told me a few days after my beer run.

Up in Cooperstown, N.Y., she and her husband, Don Feinberg, had already owned a highly regarded Belgian importer, Vanberg & DeWulf. But they were growing frustrated when they couldn’t get their hands on some well-known labels. One of the final straws was the loss of Affligem, an abbey-style ale that traces its roots back to an 11th-century Benedictine monastery. The beer – including its chocolatey holiday ale, Noel – is MIA in America these days, thanks to some nefarious distribution practices by its owner, Heineken.

When Joe Sixpack can’t find a favorite beer at the deli, he climbs into the T-bird and drives 200 miles. Littlefield and Feinberg opened an entire brewery.

And it didn’t end there.

This year, the Ommegang crew went on its Christmas beer run nine months early, when they trekked to the east to New York’s Cave Country, with 280 cases of their farmhouse-style Hennepin Ale. On a snowy February day, they lowered the bottles 156 feet into Howe Caverns, where the beer sat at a constant 52 degrees until November.

The freezing folly paid off. Littlefield says the cave-aged Hennepin’s familiar ginger flavor has faded, but that’s been replaced by a stronger orange aroma. If you can get your hands on this bottle, keep it – it’ll age for up to five years.

OK, you don’t have to drive 200 miles or open your own brewery to collect a decent sack of holiday ales. Here are four upcoming chances to get into the spirit:

Dec. 8 – Brewer’s Reserve Night, Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, Church and State streets, Media. Along with Iron Hill’s own IPA, Maibock and Saison, the brewpub will debut the previously mentioned Trubbel de Yards. No cover, and free pint glasses to the first 50 guests. Info: 610-627-9000.

Dec. 8 – City debut of Trubbel, along with a host of other Christmas ales, including Anchor Our Special Ale on tap, the Khyber (54 S. 2nd St. Old City).

Dec. 10 – Winter beer gathering and craft show at Sugar Mom’s Church Street Lounge (225 Church St., Old City). Sponsored by Beer Philadelphia magazine, it’s a chance to savor a half-dozen or more holiday ales on tap and get some Christmas shopping done. It starts at noon and there’s no cover. Info: 215-928-8219

Dec. 12 – Holiday beer dinner at Monk’s Cafe (16th and Spruce streets, Center City). A selection of holiday ales will be paired with a traditional American holiday feast. It starts at 7 p.m. and tickets are $65. Info: 215-545-7005.

Or you can just mix in a little brewpub-hopping. Here’s what’s on tap at a few local haunts:

  • Nodding Head (1516 Sansom St., Center City) – Brewer Brandon Greenwood, always protective of his recipes, reveals his Christmas Ale is flavored with “some spices. ” It won’t be available for another two weeks; meanwhile, try his Old Willy’s Ghost, a dry-hopped barleywine.
  • Dock Street Brasserie (18th and Cherry streets, Logan Circle) – Eric Savage’s Pumpkin Ale is still available; look for his barleywine in a few weeks.
  • General Lafayette Inn & Brewery (646 Germantown Pike, Lafayette Hill) – Brewer Chris Leonard’s 9.2 percent barleywine and his Loch Ness Monster strong Scotch ale are pouring. Look for Holiday Cheer, a English strong ale with a hint of cranberry, cinnamon, nutmeg and apple, in the next two weeks.
  • Sly Fox Brewhouse & Eatery (Pikeland Village Square, Route 113, Phoenixville) – Bill Moore (formerly of Stoudt’s and Independence) has created his own version of a Belgian-style winter ale. In coming weeks, look also for an English-style Winter Warmer and a mahogany-colored Christmas Bock.
  • New Road Brew House (36 W. 3rd Ave, Collegeville) – Brewman Brian O’Reilly is pouring Christmas Ale, a medium-bodied brew with taste of ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.

Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with Corsendonk Christmas Ale. 

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