Excitement is brewing over holiday ales

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THIS TIME of the year, the buzz really kicks in, and I’m not just talking about the high octane in cold-weather beers.

The buzz is the excitement, the impatient talk that circulates among beer freaks over an assortment of highly desired, once-a-year, craft-brewed specialties. Though breweries release specialties throughout the year, the pace picks up during the holidays, when winter warmers and turbocharged “imperial” ales get the blood running.

Weeks, even months before these beers show up on area shelves, anxious fans start yammering about treasured ales with quirky names. You read it on Internet beer-rating sites, you hear it at area distributors:

How long till Double Bastard makes it to the East Coast?

Can I reserve two cases of Mad Elf?

Let’s do a road trip to Downingtown for Hop Wallop on tap.

Yeah, it’s cultish, but the fever pitch is one of the joys in the world of craft beer. If your attention is fixed only on the mainstream – Bud’s commercials or Miller’s taste test – you miss it completely. No one goes nuts when Coors decorates its 30-pack with snowflakes, but in the weeks before Christmas, word spreads like a blizzard as the red-and-green bottles of Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale make their annual appearance. (This year, the hoppy ale arrived earlier than ever, in late October, nearly 10 weeks before Christmas. How do I know? An ecstatic reader named Andy Mulherin e-mailed me and other area hop heads the minute it showed up at Bell’s Beverage in South Philly. )

Rather than being the product of expensive marketing campaigns and focus groups, the excitement is the natural, happy confluence of over-the-top brewers, willing to experiment with exotic tastes, and appreciative beer drinkers who are more than willing to give them a try.

When it clicks, when the suds leave their mark on our palates and our memories, a frantic wave of crowing erupts. First one to get a taste gets bragging rights.

At RateBeer.Com, one member lucky enough to get his hands on an early bottle of Stone Brewing’s 2004 version of Double Bastard Ale offered a quick review: “A little more balanced and less alcohol showing through IMO. I’m not sure if there is a recipe change of any kind or just a palate change on my part. “

Meanwhile, over at BeerAdvocate. Com, readers updated each other on the near-record alcohol content of this year’s edition of Dogfish Head World Wide Stout. (It’s 18 percent, according to Dogfish’s Web site, which also helpfully posts the release dates of all its wintertime specialties. )

And at Liquid Diet Online, Jack Curtin wasted little time sharing his view of Victory Brewing’s Hop Wallop:

“Personally, I miss the pine and citrus notes of the 2003 version, which was more complex and easier to imagine downing several pints of over the course of an evening. I have little doubt, however, that the masses who have eagerly been awaiting this release will be more than delighted with it. “

Indeed, area distributors like the Beer Yard, in Wayne, were so overwhelmed by the demand last year for Hop Wallop that they now take pre-orders for cases.

“The word spreads like crazy,” said Matt Guyer, of the Beer Yard, who compares the buzz to the frenzy around the Eagles. “I can’t get enough of it. “

When one of these brews catches the wave, entire shipments are sold out in days. Frantic phone calls are made to outlying beer stores, searching for any spare sixpacks. Especially treasured bottles are cellared for safekeeping and sipping. Sometimes, brewers re-gear their production schedules to squeeze in one more batch. But mostly, when it’s gone, it’s gone till next year.

So, here’s fair warning. Look for this sixpack of buzz – but by the time you read this, it may be too late.

(Note: some of these cases go for 40 bucks or more. Find a couple pals and split ’em up.)

1. Troegs Mad Elf. This rich but tart red ale from Harrisburg is flavored with cherries. But it’s the Belgian yeast strain that’s the star of this brew, gushing down your throat with a tingly spice.

2. Victory Hop Wallop. I missed this one last year (Victory produced just 800 cases), so I was first in line when this year’s version was released this week. You don’t even need to swallow to taste the hops; they just explode right off the top of your pint and right into your schnozz.

3. Stone Double Bastard. Served in 22-ounce bombers (and bone-crushing, 3-liter weapons of mass destruction), this is an ultra-hopped version of the California brewery’s Arrogant Bastard ale. This angry brew weighs in at a hefty 10 percent alcohol but, honestly, it drinks like dream. And if you’re looking for something smoother, there’s a variety that’s been aged with oak chips.

4. Weyerbacher Insanity. Speaking of oak, this is the Easton brewery’s Blithering Idiot barleywine that’s been aged in bourbon barrels. Though this first-time brew’s too young to qualify as a true buzz beer, it’s already making a commotion. When Weyerbacher applied the same aging to its Old Heathen imperial stout last summer, word spread so fast that the resulting brew – called Heresey – sold out in a couple weeks.

5. Sierra Nevada Celebration. The king of all buzz beers, its appearance in the fridge is as much a sign of the holiday season as Santa Claus climbing up the ladder at Gimbel’s. OK, I’m dating myself, but Celebration – a perfectly balanced, dry-hopped ale made with English malt – turns me into a sentimental fool.

6. Anchor Our Special Ale. Another longtime American holiday ale, this beer gets the buzz from its ever-changing ingredients. Every year, enthusiasts compare notes, detecting aromas and flavors, from clove to pine.

Beer radar

Locals are awaiting the arrival of Secret Ale, the bottled alt from New York’s popular Southampton Publick House. Brewer Phil Markowski said he’s still trying to line up a distributor, and there’s talk of bottling some of his well-regarded, Belgian-style ales at the new Sly Fox brewpub in Royersford . . . Fox, by the way, opens its Royersford location on Monday.

New on local shelves

Cricket Hill American Ale, Southern Tier Belgian Tripel, Rogue Santa’s Private Reserve and Landmark India Red Ale.


Tonight: A traditional (if slightly late) Oktoberfest at Cannstatter Volksfest, the German-American club (9130 Academy Road, Northeast Philadelphia). Have a beer and a bratwurst while enjoying performances by Bavarian dancers. Doors open 7 p.m. Tickets $8 ringside, $7 general seating. Info, 215-855-3376.


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