The (Fashionably Late) 2012 Beer Advent Calendar

Loath to break tradition, Jim brings us the 24 beers of Christmas. Keep that holiday spirit alive a couple days more with these brews.

Long-time readers of the Digest might have noticed the absence of a Badass Beer Advent Calendar this year. What with one thing and another we just couldn't pull it together in time for Christmas but here's an abridged calendar (arriving fashionably late) so that we don't break the streak.

1. Rahr Angry Santa

One of the beers featured in last year's calendar was Rahr Winter Warmer. I've had a bottle or two of this superb beer in recent weeks, even managing to get this adorable glass at a pint night held by one of the local bars. Rahr also makes a bourbon barrel-aged version which is even tastier but is produced in smaller quantities. Another Rahr Christmas seasonal that's even more limited than that (in fact I believe it was cask only) is Angry Santa, which I didn't get a taste of, but I've been told to think Winter Warmer with added spices. That sounds pretty damn tasty.

2. Gouden Carolus Noël

Het Anker (The Anchor) is one of those Belgian breweries that was founded by a religious order, but not monks in this case. The Beguines was an order of women who devoted their lives to prayer and good works and lived semi-monastic lives in communities called Beguinages. It was a lay order, which means that, although they lived a religious life, they didn't take vows or renounce their worldly goods and could come and go freely, even leave the order if and when they pleased. It came about as a result of the high number of widows left behind after their husbands were killed in the mediaeval Crusades to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. The brewery has been a commercial business since 1872. 

3. New Albanian Naughty Claus

I'm including the spicy winter warmer from this little Indiana brewpub for two main reasons: firstly, its founder writes a fine beer blog, and secondly there was some asinine censorship surrounding this year's release of the beer, a subject we've touched upon before.

4. Karbach Yule Shoot Your Eye Out

Yule Shoot Your Eye Out from Karbach Brewing Co. on Vimeo.

There are now so many Texas breweries producing so many good beers that I could have filled half the calendar with Texas-brewed Christmas beers this year (but not necessarily from Austin breweries – more on that later). Karbach has been around for a little over a year and as yet is only distributing to their local area around Houston, but I'm waiting for them to start sending their beer to Austin on a regular basis because the word is that they make some excellent brews.

5. Karbach Fra Gee Lay

Fra Gee Lay from Karbach Brewing Co. on Vimeo.

Karbach have taken some Yule Shoot Your Eye Out and aged it in barrels, which seems to be a growing trend (see above, no. 1). There will be no prizes given for guessing the inspiration for the names of these two festive beers. No sir, and definitely not a major award.

6. Williams Brothers Nollaig

Nollaig is a word I hadn't heard of before I sat down to write this post for the Digest, but apparently it means 'Christmas' in both Scottish Gaelic and in Irish. The Williams Brothers brewery is located in Alloa, a town which was once a centre of Scottish brewing with at least ten breweries operating there in 1837. Not bad when you consider that at the 2001 UK census its population was under 20,000, and would have been considerably less than that 160 years ago. There must be something in the water that makes very special beer. Nollaig is a spruce beer (the website says that it's “brewed with Christmas trees”), and it's packaged in one of the most attractive beer bottles I think I've ever seen. The brewery seems to lean heavily towards traditional Scottish ales and ingredients, including heather, pine, elderflowers, elderberries, tayberries, gooseberries, seaweed, and a genuine old fashioned (alcoholic) ginger beer. Only 800 bottles of Nollaig were filled this year but they say they might make 10,000 for the next release, so if there are any beer importers reading this could you please look into setting up a contract with Williams Brothers and bringing their beers to Texas? Thank you.

7. Sierra Nevada Celebration

Yes, I know this one was included in the first advent calendar but I thought it'd be worthwhile to bring it in again in order to dispel a couple of myths. Firstly, the brewers at SN don't change the spices every year because there are no spices in Celebration! Secondly, yes, it is as hoppy as last year. And thirdly, Celebration doesn't turn into barley wine if you age it. Yes, it's a hoppy IPA and therefore not the kind of beer you'd normally think of ageing but Celebration has a strong enough malt component to back it up, and it ages quite well. Year-old Celebration tastes pretty good; I usually keep three or four bottles back to drink the following Christmas.

Besides, featuring Celebration in the calendar is always a good excuse to listen to Premiata Forneria Marconi (the first band I saw play live) again. Was there some kind of regulation that compelled prog rock bands to have a flautist in their lineup?

8. He'Brew Jewbelation Sweet 16

Many good things have happened in the past 12 months. One that I'm particularly happy about is that we can now get Shmaltz beers in Texas and I was able to pick up a bottle or two of this year's Jewbelation, as well as several other beers from Shmaltz Brewing. I'm really starting to wonder how much further they can go with their practice of brewing Jewbelation with the same number number of different malts and hops, and to the same ABV, as the number on the label. Just like Easter, Hannukah doesn't always fall on the same day each year and in 2012 it began at sundset on December 8 th, so Jewbelation is beer number eight in this year's calendar.

9. Leinenkugel Snowdrift

The Wisconsin brewer introduced a new winter seasonal this year – Snowdrift, a vanilla porter. I do wish that people wouldn't dismiss and denigrate vanilla by using the phrase 'plain vanilla' to describe things that are ho-hum because it's far from being either plain or ho-hum. In brewing it's one of those flavours, along with coffee and chocolate, that works well with porter and stout, both as an ingredient in the brew and as a pairing option, and you can even use the beer as an ingredient (pdf). The brewery press release says that this beer has been aged on real vanilla, and if by that they mean vanilla pods it must come in at quite a price because they ain't cheap, but they do impart a good hit of flavour. If you bake a lot of cakes and you don't have a jar or container of sugar with a vanilla pod buried in it in your pantry, now's a good time to go out and buy one because vanilla sugar adds BAM! to so many baked goods.

10. Widmer Brothers Brrr

Brrr began life in 2006 as W'06 Red Ale, one of the Brewmasters series of W beers, and is now their winter seasonal. Other Brewmasters beers have included W'08 Crimson Wheat, W'11 KGB Russian Imperial Stout (which was delicious), and one other W beer which has made the transition to the brewery's regular lineup – W'10 Pitch Black IPA. Brrr is described by Widmer brewer Doug Rehberg as a classic winter warmer, made with caramel and dark chocolate malts for sweetness and dark malt flavour, plus simcoe and cascade hops to counterbalance the malt and give some citrusy hop flavour.

11. The Bruery 5 Golden Rings

Their Christmas beer last year was Four Calling Birds so this year has to be, well, you know. It's a golden ale, of course, coming in at a respectable 11.5% ABV. In fact all five beers in The Bruery's 'Twelve Days of Christmas' series so far have had ABVs in double figures. Sounds like they might be worth cellaring for a Stone Vertical Epic kind of tasting seven years from now. I have a friend who is a firm believer in synchronicity, and I'm sure he'd make something of the fact that there were five other rings much in evidence last summer. Each year a financial company called PNC Wealth Management calculates the cost of all the items in the song – the Christmas Price Index. Last year it went past $100,000 for the first time, and this year's figure is up by more than 6% at $107,300. Have you seen the price of gold lately?

12. Nøgne Ø/Jolly Pumpkin Special Holiday Ale

A collaboration between Nøgne Ø (Det Kompromissløse Bryggeri – The Uncompromising Brewery) of Grimstad in Norway, and Michigan's Jolly Pumpkin brewery. Norway isn't a place you normally associate with craft beer (neither is Denmark, I guess, but the gypsy brewer Mikkeller is one of the most familiar names in the craft beer world today) but Nøgne Ø is starting to make a name for itself, winning a gold medal at the 2008 World Beer Cup for its Russian imperial stout, Dark Horizon. Besides this collaboration Nøgne Ø makes a range of its own Christmas beers – God Jul (Merry Christmas), Julesnadder (Christmas Presents) and Underlig Jul (Peculiar Christmas), a spiced beer inspired by the Norwegian mulled wine called gløgg.

13. Jolly Pumpkin Noel de Calabaza

It seems only fitting to follow with Jolly Pumpkin's own Christmas beer (calabaza is Spanish for pumpkin, in case you didn't already know). This is a brewery that has a well-deserved reputation for making some of the best farmhouse and sour beers in the country and I wish we could get them in Texas, although I really shouldn't complain too much since we have Jester King right on our doorstep. Maybe a collaboration, guys?

14. Southern Tier 2XMAS

Another glögg-inspired (note the change from Norwegian to Swedish spelling) beer is 2XMAS from Southern Tier of New York, the latest in their 2X series. I'm going to let the folks at Southern Tier take this one because I like any brewery who not only makes good beer but goes to the trouble of making good videos too.

15. Firestone Walker Velvet Merlin

Strictly speaking, Velvet Merlin isn't exactly a Christmas beer, being Firestone Walker's autumn and winter seasonal, but style-wise, as an oatmeal stout, it fits the bill. Oats are added to beer to give a rich, creamy mouthfeel, something that works particularly well in stouts and porters. Firestone Walker is noteworthy for being the only US brewery that uses the Burton Union brewing method. This beer used to be called Velvet Merkin but FW decided to change it to Merlin as their distribution footprint has started to expand. That doesn't work for me. What does Merlin have to do with velvet? By the way, if you're not sure what a merkin is... oh, look it up. Disclosure: BSFW (borderline safe for work). 

16. Deep Ellum Festivus

Festivus – the hoppy black ale for the rest of us. That's the tagline Deep Ellum are using for this second annual brewing of their Christmas, oops, Festivus beer. Last December this new Dallas brewery was barely out of the starting blocks. They were brewing a batch of double brown stout but something went wrong somewhere along the way (it was a stuck lauter tun for those of you geeky enough to know what it means), but they managed to rescue about half of the wort and decided to throw a shedload of hops into the brew kettle with it. What came out was a seriously good black IPA, Cascadian dark ale, American black ale, call it what you will. They've decided to stick with the same style this year, but with a brand new dedicated recipe that's not based on trying to save several hundred dollars-worth of  sugary liquid. Nice job.

17. BrewDog Hoppy Christmas

What a year it's been for the enfant terrible of British brewing. A brand new brewery, a victory against underhand tactics by one of the biggest drinks companies in the world... why don't I just let James and Martin tell you about it because no-one says it quite like they do. Here's to finding more BrewDog beers in Texas in 2013.

BrewDog Alternative Queen's Speech 2012 from BrewDog on Vimeo.

18. De Dolle Stille Nacht

The name Brouwerij De Dolle Brouwers (The Mad Brewers Brewery) is one that's spoken in reverential tones by beer geeks. Located in the village of Esen (near Diksmuide), not the town of Essen (near Antwerp), they make some of the finest Belgian beers you'll ever lay your hands on, if you can. Sadly, they're one of the many Belgian breweries not approved for sale in Texas (along with others like Cantillon and Drie Fonteinen) so the only alternative is to trade or to go somewhere they can be bought and bring some back home. One of the reasons for this lamentable situation is the hoops a brewery and its importer have to jump through in order to be able to sell their beer in Texas, including the prohibitively high cost of obtaining the initial licence. This may be one of the issues debated when the next session of the Texas Congress convenes in January, along with doing away with the laws that prevent a Texas brewery from selling direct to the public and a Texas brewpub from selling to a distributor.

19. Füchschen Weihnachtsbier

Altbier, a style we've featured before in the Advent Calendar, is fast becoming one of my favourite beers. It's malty enough to pair well with all kinds of food, especially meat, but hoppy enough to satisfy my love of bitterness. The long, cold conditioning it undergoes takes out some of the fruitiness you find in other related ales such as English bitter but the crispness it gains more than makes up for it, and at around 5% it's nicely sessionable. These days I've almost always got a couple of cans of Hops and Grain Alt-Eration in my fridge. Altbier is a style most closely associated with Düsseldorf (there's a northern variant too) and Brauerei Füchschen (Little Fox) is one of only four traditional altbier breweries in the old town.Their Christmas beer is available strictly from November 10th until Christmas. No brewery-led seasonal creep here.

20. Rogness Holiday

Here's yet another new Texas brewery. Rogness, situated a few miles to the north of Austin in Pflugerville, is less than two years old and was founded by Forrest and Diane Rogness, who for many years have been the same people behind Austin Homebrew Supply. Their homebrewing background has led to an interesting philosophy regarding the brewery – they brew whatever takes their fancy, just as most homebrewers do. I don't think they actually have a set of core year-round beers like most other breweries, they simply work through their portfolio, which expands every few months by another beer, and so far their brews have ranged from (including but not limited to) a Scotch ale to an IPA to a Porter to a Bière de Garde to a chai-spiced amber and this, their spicy winter ale which was “based on an oatmeal cookie”.

21. Wincle Wassale

Another kind of mulled wine (see above, 11: gløgg, 13: glögg), and one that's graced the calendar in previous years, is wassail. This is the seventh year that the Wincle Brewery (Wincle, Cheshire) have produced their Christmas beer, Wassale, a spicy winter warmer. Interestingly, they brew it to two different strengths – 4.8% ABV for cask-conditioning and sending to pubs, and an 8.0% version that's bottled for home consumption. Of all the breweries I've ever visited or seen pictures of, I think this one has to take the prize for the most picturesque setting (here's another vista from Google Streetview). Just imagine going to work in a place like that every day, and to do something as satisfying as brewing beer! I guess that's one of the advantages of locating your business within a national park. Not far from the brewery, across the county border in Staffordshire, is one of the UK's best kept secrets, a natural formation called Lud's Church. At one point in the video below the man with the camera says that it leads to the Black Gate of Mordor. It looks more like Cirith Ungol to me, but I'm nerdy that way.

(Best viewed in HD and full-screen)

22. Liefman's Glühkriek

And here we go with one final beer that's based on or inspired by mulled wine (see above, 11: gløgg, 13: glögg and 20: wassail). Glühwein is the German version, and some Germans have migrated the principle over to beer. The famous beer purity law (the Reinheitsgebot) still applies to indigenous

breweries, so adding anything to beer in the brewing process other than water, malted grain, hops and yeast is forbidden, although once the beer is in the hands of the consumer they can add whatever they want to it. Belgian breweries don't have to abide by the same brewing restrictions, so Liefmans (noted for Goudenband) have made a spiced version of their kriek.

23. The beer to be named later

Despite there being so many breweries in Austin and its immediate locale (Live Oak, Independence, (512), Thirsty Planet, Circle, Austin Beerworks, Adelberts. Twisted X, Hops and Grain, Jester King, Rogness and South Austin Brewing), there are surprisingly few local festive beers. Some of the breweries have winter seasonal beers, and Real Ale's Coffee Porter is a de facto Christmas beer for many Austin beer lovers, but Rogness is the only one that brews a specifically themed Christmas seasonal that you don't have to go to a brewpub to drink, as far as I can make out. This time next year  I'd like to be knocking back a few more locally brewed Christmas beers (and featuring them in the calendar) so perhaps one or two of the Austin brewers might like to consider developing a Christmas beer over the coming ten months or so.

24. Anchor Our Special Ale (aka Anchor Christmas)

In line with tradition, our last beer is Anchor Christmas. As always, Anchor have featured a new tree on the label – this year it's the Norfolk Island Pine, a representation of which is also to be found on the flag of this small south sea island, although the inspiration for the actual tree on the label is growing in Golden Gate Park not far from the Anchor brewery. And, also as always, debates have been waged (no doubt over several glasses of the brew) about exactly which spices Anchor have used for this year's release, whether it's is better or worse than previous years, and how well it will age. I hear a rumour that next year's Our Special Ale might be a completely different kind of beer because the brewers feel they've gone just about as far as they can with the spicy winter warmer style. If it turns out to be true I don't know how I might feel about that. We love it just the way it is and it's just the right kind of beer for the time of year, even on a 70° December day in Texas. We'll hold our breath until next November and see. Who knows, it might turn out to be something even better.

And I think that's a wrap. Another Advent Calendar is in the can and the new year is upon us. May there be plenty of good beer in your 2013.