Wine & Spirits - Winter Brews


‘Tis the Season

Toasting the Holidays with Winter Brews

By Laurie Daniel
Anyone who likes to drink artisanal ale looks forward to holiday
beer season.
These beers, as most beer drinkers know, are only one type of seasonal blend—craft brewers make bock beers for early spring, beers with a hint of citrus for summer and Oktoberfest beers for fall. “The seasonal market is a good market,” says Simon Pesch, head brewer at Pyramid Breweries in Berkeley (901 Gilman St., 510-528-9880, “Seasonal products definitely create a lot of anticipation.”
But for me, that’s particularly true with holiday beers. Such winter beers are a long-standing tradition in Europe. Americans, more accustomed to light, mass-produced beers, were late to the party. Finally, in 1975, Anchor Brewing Company of San Francisco (1705 Mariposa St., 415-863-8350, introduced Our Special Ale (now called Christmas Ale). The secret recipe changes from year to year, but the beer is always rich and dark, with added spices.
There are other spiced winter beers, such as the Gingerbread Ale from Bison Brewing in Berkeley (, and still others have some sort of fruit flavoring. But more common—locally, as well as elsewhere—are beers that are simply more robust than usual. Some have rich, roasted flavors; others are extra hoppy; many have a higher alcohol level.
Take the Reindeer Ale at Triple Rock Brewery (1920 Shattuck Ave., 800-THE-BREW, Christian Kazakoff, head brewer at the Berkeley business, describes the holiday ale as a “strong amber with a really nice floral, hoppy finish.” Rather than adding spices, he says, “I like to make my spicy beer out of hops.” He adds that it has more alcohol than usual—about 6 percent. (This is still relatively modest—some holiday beers weigh in at almost 10 percent alcohol.)
“A common term for this type of ale is a winter warmer,” says Pesch, who makes Pyramid’s popular Snow Cap Ale. Pesch describes Snow Cap as a strong ale, with about 7.3 percent alcohol. “It’s fun for us to make such a strong, heavy beer,” he says.
Pesch and Kazakoff say their holiday beer recipes don’t vary much from year to year. “I’ve dialed it all in, so I try not to deviate too much from the recipe,” Kazakoff says. But others make changes now and then.
At Oakland’s Pacific Coast Brewing (906 Washington St., 510-836-2739,, owner and brewmaster Don Gortemiller makes a couple of holiday beers and alternates them from year to year. “For a long time, we were doing something different every year,” he says, but he’s now settled on a Belgian-style triple ale and a darker, more full-bodied beer called Holiday Abbey Ale.
Bison’s Gingerbread Ale used to change from year to year, too. “We’ve experimented with a lot of things over the years,” says Dan Del Grande, the owner and brewer. He was “trying to have some fun with ingredients around the house” and tried spices such as nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon and allspice. But in 1999, the Gingerbread Ale got a “highly recommended” rating from the Beverage Testing Institute, and Del Grande decided not to tamper with success.
If you want to sample some holiday beers, don’t wait too long. Most places start brewing their holiday offerings in October or early November, and the goal is to sell most, if not all, of the beer by the end of the year. Pyramid’s Snow Cap Ale and Bison’s Gingerbread Ale are available in stores (Bison no longer has a restaurant), but the others are strictly draft beers served on premise.
And, if you’re interested in trying a number of holiday beers at one time, Pacific Coast Brewing Co. holds its annual holiday beer tasting in December. The tasting includes Pacific Coast’s own beer, as well as holiday beers from about dozen other brewers. At press time, the date hadn’t been finalized. Check the brewery’s Web site for updates.

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