Happy St. Nicholas Day: A toast with holiday brews

Break out the Christmas beer, today is St. Nicholas Day. No, not Christmas – you’ve still got 19 days of standing in line at Wal-Mart for that.

Dec. 6 is the day the rest of the world (OK, would you believe, the Netherlands?) lifts a pint to St. Nicholas the original Santa Claus. Born in the fourth century in what is now Turkey, the future symbol of consumer excess was an archbishop with a reputation for piety. How that grew into the tradition of Christmastime gift-giving, you’ll have to ask Hans in Amsterdam.

Though the beer-drinking connection is even less obvious, it should be noted that St. Nicholas is the patron saint of both sailors and virgins.

More to the point, St. Nicholas Day is also the day they traditionally brew Samichlaus Bier, the super-strong (14 percent alcohol) Christmas beer from Austria’s Eggenberger brewery. The doppelbock lagers for 10 months, so the stuff you see on shelves this month was made last year.

Or maybe even earlier (see below).

Too strong? Too old?

Then try one of these other Joe Sixpack holiday favorites.

Great-looking bottles

Take them to holiday parties, but make sure you do the pouring.

  • Delirium Noel – From Belgium’s Huyghe Brewery, it features Santa and his tiny pink elephants.
  • Samuel Smith Winter Welcome – A new label every year, the 2002 version is a nod to the Queen Elizabeth’s golden jubilee.
  • St. Nikolaus Bock – This is a purist’s double bock with a purist’s pre-shopping mall Santa.
  • Rogue Santa’s Private Reserve Ale – St. Nick raises a mug – and his fist – on a bed of snowflakes that actually glisten in the light.

A little spice

Forget the German purity law that forbids anything other than water, malt, yeast and hops. These brews have secret ingredients.

  • La Binchoise Speciale Noel – Like a spicy champagne, this Belgian angel hit me with a honey, banana and vanilla.
  • Anchor Merry Christmas and Happy New Year – Apparently no longer called “Our Special Ale,” the 28th version of this seasonal is the usual inscrutable melange of clove, nutmeg and ginger.
  • North Coast Wintertime Ale – Let this one sit a half hour after cracking the cap. The aroma will open up with a subtle blend of spices.

Hometown favorites

Locals pull out the stops with stronger brews in the winter.

  • Flying Fish Grand Cru Winter Reserve – If you smell fruit, it’s the yeast at work. If you smell burning toast, you’re having a stroke. Around $25 a case, it’s an excellent price for a superb beer.
  • Weyerbacher Winter Ale – A dark ale from Easton, it goes well with hearty stews and sausage.

Mainstream

Can’t get to a specialty shop? You can find these almost anywhere.

  • Sam Adams Winter Lager – As Boston Beer revamps its image for the kiddies, this is one of the last of Boston Beer’s labels depicting the brewery’s colonial namesake. I’m guessing the labels are left over from last year.
  • Sam Adams Cranberry Lambic – Juicy and lightly tart, it’s not bad if you like this sort of thing. Taste one before investing in a sixpack.
  • Pete’s Wicked Winter Brew – Nutmeg and raspberry flavor, reminiscent of Robitussin.
  • Winterhook Robust Winter Ale – Dark, roasty and, at under 5 percent alcohol, one of the lighter holiday brews.

The classics

It wouldn’t be Christmas without ’em.

  • Stille Nacht – Though no longer using distinctive Rodenbach yeast, this annual still teases the tongue with a tingling bite.
  • Samichlaus Bier – You can still find bottles, like this one from ’97, brewed at the original Swiss brewery. Now made in Austria, still just as malty, almost nutty.
  • Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale – Philly beer freaks wonder why anyone gets excited about this brew when we have Victory HopDevil year-round. I say: Get into the spirit. It’s a terrific California ale.
  • Wild Goose Snowgoose – Another beer that suffered when the brewery switched yeast. Still a hearty treat.

Primo

I’m hoping these are in my stocking this year.

  • Geary’s Hampshire Special Ale – I don’t get much spice here. Instead, it’s a broad, malt flavor beautifully balanced by Cascade hops.
  • Anderson Valley Winter Solstice – Like Anchor, this California brewery changes recipes annually. Very smooth.
  • Abbey Val Dieu Biere de Noel – Think Chimay Grande Reserve, then add icicles.

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