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Posted at 4:07 PM ET, 12/ 9/2009

Seasonal beers make the holidays merry

By Fritz Hahn

Every December, Christmas comes early for beer lovers as breweries rush to release special seasonal offerings. This is my favorite time of year. In spring, it's all about who can make the lightest, freshest lagers. Winter ales are the complete opposite -- big, malty and full of fruit and/or spice flavors. They're also somewhat stronger than "normal" beers to get you through cold winter nights, so watch how much you drink.

Want to get into the holiday (beer) spirit? Here's where to go.

Bars with special menus

Christmas beers aren't as rare as they used to be; you can find them popping up on draft all over town. R.F.D. has the tasty Winter Ale from Pennsylvania's Weyerbacher Brewing Company. Birreria Paradiso has a few on right now, including St. Feuillien Cuvee Noel.

ChurchKey just tapped Nogne-o Winter Ale, a Norwegian English-style strong ale with American hops, and will be tapping spiced winter ales from Belgium's Brasserie de Blaugies, Brasserie des Geants and De Dolle over the next few weeks.

Other bars have been adding special menus and dedicated draft lines for the season. If you're looking to sample the breadth of seasonal brews, these are all worth a visit.

The beer list at Brasserie Beck swells around the holidays. The Belgian restaurant offers Scaldis Noel, Gouden Carolus Noel, St. Bernardus Christmas Ale and Corsendonk Christmas Ale on draft. The Scaldis Noel is a beer I look forward to all year -- dry and malty with hints of apple and caramel and a little bit of nuts in the finish. It's so easy to drink you don't realize it's around 12 percent alcohol until you ask. Yikes.

On top of that, Beck dedicates a whole page of the bottle menu to seasonal beers like De Ranke's Pere Noel, the 2008 Brasserie des Geants Noel and Gulden Draak Vintage Ale. A standout for me was Struise Tsjeeses, one of the most perfect Christmas beers I've tried, a hazy blond ale with lots of orange and spice and a good (but not overly strong) amount of hops. Watch your wallet -- some of rare brews will cost $12 to $15 per bottle.

Boulevard Woodgrill has relaunched its annual "12 Beers of Christmas" program, with seasonal beers staking out places among the 15 draft lines. On a recent visit, I found Clipper City's Winter Storm, Bell's Winter White, He'Brew Jewbalation, Harpoon Winter Warner, Bell's Expedition Stout, Victory Yakima Twilight and Delirium Noel on draft. For me, the big winner was the dark, malty, heavily hopped Great Divide Hibernation Ale, served in a large snifter. (At 8.1 percent alcohol by volume, it's probably good I didn't have a full pint.) Wondering why it's called the 12 beers of Christmas when there are only eight listed? As these kegs kick, new seasonal brews will replace them. Each costs $6 or $6.50 per glass, except the Delirium and Jewbalation, which are $8.

Pity poor Belga Cafe, which has far more varieties of seasonal beer than taps that can pour them. "We only have five [taps] and we ordered a whole bunch of beers," explains chef Bart Vandaele. "Most of them are not the big-sized kegs, so it goes fast." If you're lucky, you'll find N'ice Chouffe, a winter ale with thyme and curacao, or the hearty Petrus Winter when you visit, but other beers rotating through include Corsendonk Christmas, St. Feuillien, St. Bernardus and Delirium Noel. Beers will be going on and off as kegs finish, so if you don't see the beer you're looking for, it doesn't mean you've missed it completely. (All these beers and others, including the Glazen Toren Winter Scotch, are also available in bottles.) Drafts run between $8.50 and $11.

On December 29, Belga's monthly beer dinner will feature four or five of these on draft, plus a three-course meal and a few more bottled beers. It's priced at $49 per person.

Galaxy Hut is pouring the lovely St. Bernardus Noel, Delirium Noel, Southern Tier's Old Man Winter and Anderson Valley Winter Solstice right now, but more holiday beers will be arriving on draft by the end of the week, including Scaldis Noel, Clipper City Yuletide and The Gift from Virginia's Starr Hill Brewery. Coming soon: Lights Out, a "holiday ale" from the tiny Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton, Va.

Some squirrels hibernate through the winter, but not the Black Squirrel, the Adams Morgan beer bar named for the Canadian squirrels that live in Rock Creek Park. Instead, the neighborhood hangout offers a list of predominantly American seasonal bottles that includes New Holland's excellent Cabin Fever Ale, Brooklyn Brewery's Winter, Anderson Valley Winter Solstice and the traditional Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome (that one's from England). While it's not strictly a winter beer, check out the Voodoo Vator Dopplebock from Michigan's Atwater Block brewery, which is sweet and strong. Bottles range from $6 to $8.50, though you should check your tab -- while the menu says the Sam Smith's is $8.50, the computer rang it up as $9 on my last visit.

On weekends, you can check out the Black Squirrel's upstairs lounge, which offers different beers than what's available downstairs.

(Note: Since most of the beer dinner events have occurred since this post was first published, we've moved them to the bottom of the post to make it easier to see which bars are still offering Christmas beers.)

Beer dinners and parties

Tomorrow night, Dec. 10, the Reef is hosting a Hoppy Holidays Party, a dinner with five courses of food matched with six beers, including DeKoninck's Winter Koninck and Troegs' Mad Elf, plus casks of Bell's Double Cream Stout and Allagash Curieux. Tickets are $50, and include admission to the after-party, where DJ Jeff Wells spins hip-hop, go-go, funk and reggae. There will be a Jeroboam of Allagash -- that's a three-liter bottle -- for the best dancer. Call the bar to make reservations. (This is a good chance to check out the Reef's beer list, which was revamped last week and now includes Great Divide's chocolate-and-spices St. Bridget's Porter, 21st Amendment's Monk's Blood and Lagunitas Brown Shugga.)

Speaking of holiday parties, there's a good one coming up at ChurchKey, though I can't tell you what date to mark on your calendars. While I was writing my review a few weeks ago, Beer Director Greg Engert told me about plans for a "Dickensian" Christmas feast, featuring beers paired with old-time treats like goose. I'll post an update when I hear more.

Update: The Brickskeller's Winter Holidaze Extravaganzee, an annual event that allows brewers from D.C.-area brewpubs and breweries to talk about (and offer samples of) their winter seasonals, was originally scheduled to take place on Dec. 9 and 16. The first date has been canceled. There will only be one session on the 16th. Tickets are $35 from lovethebeer.com and include all beers tasted.

-- Fritz Hahn

By Fritz Hahn  | December 9, 2009; 4:07 PM ET
Categories:  Bars and Clubs, Events  
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