It’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas

ON A brisk, rainy morning this week in a generic suburban shopping center, Brian O’Reilly shuffled into work to honor a tradition that brewers around the world have practiced for 700 years.

It was time to brew this year’s Christmas beer.

This is no small matter for brewers. Winter Warmer, Holiday Reserve, Santa Claus Beer – whatever it’s called, a brewer’s Christmas beer is the most special of the year. It goes back to medieval monks, who traditionally saved their best ingredients for a brew to honor the birth of Christ.

Or, at least, that’s the story.

For O’Reilly, the lone brewer at Phoenixville’s Sly Fox Brewhouse & Eatery, it’s a chance to play to the crowd.

“Everybody at a brewpub expects a Christmas beer,” O’Reilly said while running a paddle through a thick mash of steaming grain. “It’s like egg nog or hot cider – you want a taste of something special, that you only drink once a year.”

The pressure is on, then.

O’Reilly showed no stress, however. Dressed in a T-shirt and tattered jeans – the usual, comfortable garb for a 30-something brewer – he seemed at ease in the confined space of his brewhouse. Up and down a steel ladder, he busily adjusted valves and checked gauges.

“I’ve been doing this for nine years,” he shrugged, paddling the porridge-like mash.

A native of New England, he got his start by apprenticing in a couple of small New Hampshire breweries before taking a job with the John Harvard chain in Cleveland. He hit the local scene in ’99 at New Road, the former Collegeville brewpub, where he quickly gained notice with a gold medal winner (a German-style Pilsener) at the Great American Beer Festival.

After New Road’s brewery went dry, O’Reilly spent a few months at Victory in Downingtown before landing the Sly Fox gig last March.

He quickly showed that his GABF medal was no fluke. Last month, America’s most important beer-judging event handed O’Reilly a bronze for his French Creek Helles, a light lager.

Beer freaks noticed. You see a Sly Fox tap handle, you know you’re going to get an expertly crafted brew with balanced flavor. Helles, for instance, greets you like a routine thirst-quencher – the sort of thing you’ve been drinking since you turned 18. But it finishes with a remarkably rounded malt body that raises the stakes well above lawnmower standards.

It is pure and simple.

And that’s not an easy feat where the limited space and rudimentary equipment of a tiny brewpub conspire against a brewer. Each batch at Sly Fox produces only about 25 kegs – enough for a decent-sized frat party.

I wondered how O’Reilly would tackle the challenge of a head-banger like Christmas beer.

When I visited, midway through the batch, a comfortable haze of steam lifted out of the mash tun. The sweet aroma wafted into my face and fogged my glasses.

“In New England, Christmas beers are usually big, hoppy IPAs [India Pale Ale],” he said. “Of course, brewers loved it.

“But when I got out to Cleveland, they expected a spiced ale. So we developed a Harvest Ale, a malty red ale with a lot of spices.”

Red ales got a bum rap a few years ago when, in a flash of popularity, every brewpub (and even a few suds factories) sprayed its own crimson version at addled patrons. Many of ’em were red in color only, with little of the roasty malt flavor balanced with high hops bitterness.

For O’Reilly, red ale provides just enough sweetness to balance the spices he ‘ll use to flavor this beer. It starts with British pale malt, then a touch of caramel malt (for sweetness) and chocolate malt (for dark color).

He uses Centennial hops, a West Coast favorite known for its occasional appearance in Sierra Nevada’s annual Celebration Ale. But O’Reilly uses only enough to produce a relatively low 20 International Bitterness Units (by comparison, a decent IPA will reach 50 IBUs).

“I’m not really concerned with the hops presence on this beer,” said O ‘Reilly. “The Centennial will give me some fruity flavor, but the aroma and flavor mostly boil out.”

The same goes with the yeast. It’s a British pale ale yeast, which will provide some natural fruitiness after fermentation – but not enough to notice in the glass.

“Really,” said O’Reilly. “This beer gets its flavor from the spices.”

Cinnamon, allspice, clove, nutmeg, fresh ginger. Instead of cooking the spices into the beer, a tea of those spices will be added just before kegging. O ‘Reilly says that’ll give the ale a fresher flavor.

Somewhere, I know, a Budcoorsmiller drinker is grimacing. Nutmeg in beer? What is this, mom’s pumpkin pie?

Where’s your holiday spirit, pal?

At 7 percent alcohol, Sly Fox Christmas Ale will put a smile on your face.

Because Sly Fox is so small, most of O’Reilly’s beer is available only at the brewpub. It’s at Pikeland Village Square on Route 113, just south of Phoenixville.

A few kegs do make it out of P-ville.

Christmas ale will make an appearance at Grey Lodge Pub (6235 Frankford Ave., Mayfair) around Thanksgiving. You’ll find other Sly Fox styles on occasion at Standard Tap (2nd & Poplar, Northern Liberties), Monk’s Cafe (16th and Spruce streets, Center City), Chap’s Taproom (2509 West Main St., Jeffersonville) and the Drafting Room, (635 N. Pottstown Pike, Exton).

Here’s another heads-up: By the end of the year, look for bottles of Sly Fox Ichor. Now fermenting, it’s O’Reilly’s stab at an abbey-style tripel, like Chimay Grand Reserve or Westvleteren 12.

The name? “Ichor” is the Greek mythological term for blood of the Gods.

 Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a growler of Sly Fox Pughtown Porter.

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