10 Best Holiday Beer Buys of 2012

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Stop your grousing and start sipping: It's finally holiday beer season.

Little more than a month ago were were just as dismayed by the number of wintry holiday brews on taps and store shelves as most calendar-watching Americans. We realize brewers have to get these varieties out so there aren't a bunch of spicy ales and tree-laden labels lingering around packaged-goods stores in January. We're also aware beer shipments that exceed 15 million barrels during peak summer months slowly trickle to about 12 million barrels in December and slightly less during the Thanksgiving holiday season in November, according to the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

We can even see why breweries would want to capitalize on the thirst for holiday beer as much as possible. About 92% of American holiday consumers add food and beverages onto their holiday shopping in 2012, but spending on that holiday party cheer has risen from $86 per person in 2008 to nearly $110 this year. That's a difference of almost a full case per person.

Still, with the fresh hop and pumpkin ales not quite finished, it seems a bit much. We left just about all of those early entrants off of this year's holiday beer wish list, a shame considering it knocked out our top holiday beer of 2011. In fact, nine out of our Top 10 holiday beers have changed for this season, giving us all the more reason to get into the spirit and make with the list already:

10. Port Brewing Santa's Little Helper
Style: Imperial stout

Think you won't be able to get by on just beer this holiday season? Think there isn't a beer out there that can warm you up like a good wine, a hearty cup of egg nog or a hot toddy? You're obviously not familiar with Port Brewing.

This San Diego County brewer is one of the reasons California craft beer has a reputation for pushing limits. Port Brewing and its sister brewery Lost Abbey turn out great high-potency beers, and this 10% alcohol by volume is no exception. Port loads up Santa's Little Helper with nine kinds of malts, four kinds of hops, brown sugar, Belgian chocolate, espresso and lots of roasted and black barley to give it a smooth flavor with a fiery finish.

Port's been brewing Santa's Little Helper since 1997, so there's a bit of holiday tradition behind it, but drink cautiously. While it's an old favorite, the affectionate nickname Santa's Little Hangover should give some idea of the kind of pain you're in for if you quicken the pace and drink yourself into a long winter's nap.

9. Hair Of The Dog Doggie Claws
Style: Barley wine

Brewers have no sense of charity around this time of year, as evidenced by this 11.5% ABV beast of a beer.

Hair of the Dog brewmaster Alan Sprints makes clear that while this beer is good to go now, that alcohol content will help it improve with age. You could cellar this beer for years, open it during some Christmas Future and have a far more complex beer than the one you bought. Even straight out of the bottle, Doggie Claws is a tough customer, though. Its deep copper color masks an intense hop flavor courtesy of a truckload of Simcoe and Amarillo hops. It also contains just a bit of dark wildflower honey collected on Mount Hood, just to sweeten the pot a bit.

8. Widmer Brrr Seasonal Ale
Style: Amber ale

You don't have to get too fancy to make someone the perfect holiday gift. The Craft Brew Association ( BREW) sends its holiday wishes from Oregon with this deep red beauty imbued with the citrusy fragrance of Cascade hops. No need for bitterness this holiday season, as caramel and chocolate malts balance out that bold aroma. The smooth, sweetened flavor and 7.2% ABV make Brrr a perfect beer to warm up with one or two of while the windows frost and the temperatures drop.

7. Pyramid Brewing Snow Cap Ale
Style: English strong ale

This beer jumped the gun and was ready in October, but sneaked in under our watch. We're not sorry about that, as it would have been a shame to leave it out of our holiday party.

At 7.5% ABV, it's the first beer on our list that we might suggest having more than one pint of during your holiday festivities. Teeming with caramel and chocolate malt and underscored with just enough hops to maintain its Pacific Northwest identity, Snow Cap is a smooth warmer that doesn't trap its subtle fruit flavors under a layer of spice. If you're a snob who can't see past Pyramid's North American Breweries connection and dismisses it as non-craft just because it's in the same company as Gennessee, Magic Hat and MacTarnahan's, get over yourself. All you're doing is depriving yourself of a eminently drinkable holiday beer.

6. Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig Ale
Style: Winter warmer

This was the only entry from last year's list that made it to the 2012 edition, despite Boston Beer's ( SAM) best attempts to dislodge it.

Each holiday season, a scant two bottles of Old Fezziwig find their way into the Samuel Adams variety pack alongside Boston Lager, Winter Lager, Holiday Porter, Chocolate Bock and a new beer of Boston Beer's choosing. This year, that was a spicy near-witbier named White Christmas.

Nice try. Old Fezziwig is still just as popular as the jovial, party-loving boss from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and has been since its introduction 1995. Its balance of chocolate, caramel and toffee notes, ginger and cinnamon spices and just a bit of orange peel is still found only in the winter pack and -- without fail -- is usually the first beer in the pack to disappear completely from a holiday host's fridge. At 5.8% ABV, it's tough to blame guests for wanting more than one.

5. Southern Tier Krampus
Style: Imperial helles lager

Southern Tier doesn't typically play around with weak beers this time of year. Its Pumpking imperial pumpkin ale is one of fall's best offering, while its Blackwater series of coffee- and chocolate-flavored stouts and porters makes its way onto many winter beer wish lists.

Krampus is no exception. Named for the fanged, goat-horned bully that European tradition suggests is the evil sidekick of St. Nicholas and enforcer of "the list," Krampus is finished with lager yeast and aged cold for about a month. Rich, dark malts, aromatic hops and a potent 9% ABV make Krampus a complicated holiday brew that newcomers should approach cautiously. While St. Nick delivers presents to good boys and girls, Krampus punishes naughty children. Don't be on the bad side of that list. Drink this slowly and responsibly.

4. Three Floyds Alpha Klaus Christmas Porter
Style: Porter

Exactly how is a dark, roasty porter related to this brewery's flagship Alpha King pale ale? Three Floyds claims it's all in the hops and, after tasting it, we can see the resemblance.

The holiday spices mask the citrusy hop aroma a bit, but it's apparent immediately after the first sip and fights continuously with mellower chocolate and coffee flavors of the porter. English chocolate malt and Mexican sugar are apparent in Alpha Klaus' sweet finish and 7.5% ABV, but fans of maltier holiday beers should probably get in the gift-giving mood and hand this off to a hop-loving friend.

3. Cascade Lakes Slippery Slope Winter
Style: English strong ale

The entire point of a warmer like this is to get you warm from sip to stomach. Mission accomplished, Cascade Lakes.

Even for an English strong ale, Slippery Slope can be a bit of a scorcher. We tried it on draft out of a nitrogen tap such as those used to pour Guinness and even with the lighter, bubblier body and creamy head, the alcohol from the crystal, chocolate and honey malt made its presence felt. There are just enough Cascade hops to round out the flavor, but even at a relatively scant 6.4% ABV that hop bitterness just blends into the overall heat. It's sweet at the start, but stokes the fire at the finish.

2. Hill Farmstead Twilight of the Idols Winter Porter
Style: Porter

Happy holidays from the decidedly non-nihilist winter wonderland of Greensboro, Vt.

Hill Farmstead and its Vermont neighbor The Alchemist have been giving the beer intelligentsia reason to reconsider Northeast beer with brews such as the Alchemist's formidable Heady Topper imperial IPA and beers such as Edward Pale Ale, Abner Double IPA and Ephraim Imperial Pale Ale, named after founder Shaun Hill's ancestors.

Hill's lone nod to the season blends his education as a brewer in Denmark, his travels through Europe visiting breweries and absorbing local flavors and his years as a philosophy student. Twilight of the Idols takes its name from the 1889 Frederick Nietzsche book of the same name. Perhaps best known for its line "From life's school of war: What does not kill me makes me stronger," Twilight of the Idols decries cultural nihilism, decadence and weakness in favor of vitality and lust for life.

How does that translate into a winter porter? Well, brewing a porter with coffee and cinnamon and aging it over vanilla beans gives it a flavor mistakenly referred to as "decadent." In truth, the embrace of those winter flavors as nature's defense against seasonal disappearance of daylight indicates a love of nature and the sensory world. Eat that, Plato.

1. Hopworks Abominable Winter Ale
Style: American strong ale

We'll make this deal with Portland, Ore.-based Hopworks: We'll keep enjoying this big, malty winter IPA in all its 7.3% ABV glory if you will please stop calling it "A-Bomb."

This beer is packed with Cascade, Centennial and Simcoe hops and six organic malts. It has a lovely floral aroma, some citrus and spice in its hop bitterness and just enough malt sweetness to remind drinkers it's a seasonal beer. But there's no need to give it a bro-tastic nickname just because it comes in a can. Unless you plan on crushing that can on your forehead in front of a table full of holiday company, just enjoy some holiday hops and fight your way through the word "abominable." It's worth the effort.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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