10 Best Holiday Beer Buys of 2013

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Our beer coverage does not do a great job of hiding love of holiday seasonal offerings. It's a gross display of subjectivity for which we make no apologies.

Little more than a month ago, we feigned surprise at the number of wintry holiday brews on taps and store shelves before Halloween -- as if seasonal creep isn't something that affects beer releases every quarter or so. Here's the issue: Brewers don't sell a whole lot of beer in the last two months of the year, and beer lovers won't even sniff a holiday offering after New Year's Day. 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. That gives brewers more than enough impetus to not only get their holiday and limited-edition winter offerings out there early, but to get you buzzing about them as quickly as possible.

In fairness, you U.S. beer drinkers tend to go to town on seasonal anyway. Market research firm Symphony IRI says seasonal beer sales have risen between 15% to 25% in recent years, leading some folks to suggest that early holiday beer offerings could have the same effect on seasonal retail as the early appearance of decorations or the first strains of All I Want For Christmas Is You played in October. Spending on holiday party cheer is projected to rise to more than $110 this year from $86 per person in 2008. That's a difference of almost a full case per person.

We don't see why those cases can't be enjoyed just as much in November as they are in December. We've already begun sampling some of our favorite selections from 2011 and 2012, but we're continuing our grand holiday tradition of tossing out all but one of the last year's offerings in favor of some new holiday cheer. We hope you enjoy these seasonal tidings as much as we did finding them:

10. Accumulation White IPA
New Belgium Brewing, Fort Collins, Colo.

Admittedly, we looked at this beer slightly askance when it came out of its bottle with the cozy image of an Airstream in the snow. New Belgium warns that it's a white IPA -- just about the direct opposite of every other dark, malty holiday beer out there -- but seeing that champagne-pale color and fizz was still a bit jarring.

The flavor, however, wasn't in the least. The brewery claims there are Centennial and Target hops in here, but the Amarillo and especially the Mosaic hops used in the dry-hopping process for flavor and aroma are right out front. That's where you want them, as Mosaic hops give a beer a nice, fruity flavor without being as citric-acidic as a Citra hop or as puckeringly bitter as a Cascade. It wants to be super bitter, but that sweetness in the initial taste just carries through. It's one of those great holiday presents that you didn't ask for, but didn't know you wanted until you opened it.

9. Black Bock Lager
Full Sail Brewing, Hood River, Ore.

We threw this one into our list of fall beers a while back, but it's out until December and we reserve the right to respect that overlap.

This lager is supposed to help transition from the lighter offerings of summer to the dark porters and stouts of winter, but it's way too good at the second part of that job. This take on the dark Czech Cerne Specialni isn't a porter, stout or even an ale, but this limited-edition offering is still packed with caramel and chocolate malts that give it the chocolate and coffee notes that fans of those styles are going to love.

Full Sail brewed this as a 7% ABV holiday warmer and plans to keep it around through December. Just sit back, look at the pretty image of a snow-capped Mount Hood on the neck of the bottle and stop fearing the impending winter.

8. Yule Smith Winter
AleSmith Brewing, San Diego

AleSmith brewers Peter Zien and Tod Fitzsimmons could have just let their holiday beer offering be yet another bottle under the tree in beer-rich San Diego, but their Yule Smith has become a seasonal standout.

It's brewed under the same name in the summer, but as a Christmas-in-July Imperial IPA. For the winter, Ale Smith switches to a super malty, incredibly smooth Imperial Red Ale with a whole lot of hop aroma. There's a bit of hop bitterness, but not so much that it overpowers the style completely. This is a way easier sip than any 9.5% ABV beer should be, but those hops on the nose should provide fair warning about the warm winter's night ahead.

7. Winter Solstice
Anderson Valley Brewing, Boonville, Calif.

Best known for its Boont Amber Ale, this 26-year-old microbrew mainstay has made a legacy out of its smooth, malty brews, its "Bahl Hornin'" Boontling logger speak and its part-bear, part-deer "beer" mascot Barkley. For a brewery that opened at a time when there were only about two dozen others like it, Anderson Valley has managed to keep a good sense of humor about itself over the decade.

Its Winter Solstice, however, is one seriously enjoyable winter warmer. Seriously, if you bring some to a holiday party don't just let the folks who brought that light lager hog all of it. This beer is just a whole lot of warm, roasty malt in a dark amber package. Little bits of toffee, caramel, pecan and pie spice blend together like a holiday dinner as the Munich and Crystal malt works its magic. There are not a whole lot of hops to be had in this one, and those who aren't fans of creamier brown ales or ambers will be woefully disappointed. For the rest of you, just let that 6.9% ABV get you nice and toasty.

6. Fireside Chat
21st Amendment Brewery, San Francisco

Don't let the can or Franklin Delano Roosevelt's smiling face fool you: This beer means business.

We can see how this beer would be as cozy as a fireside lap blanket. It's built on the foundation of a rich, English ale and a whole lot of Munich, Crystal, Chocolate and Black malts that give it the deep ruby look of a benign brown ale. But that six-pack holds an English Strong Ale that's 7.9% ABV despite a host of holiday spices and cocoa nibs that may tell you otherwise. Turn the radio on, throw a couple more logs on that blaze and settle in: This is one to be savored.

5. Widmer Brrr Seasonal Ale
Widmer Brothers Brewery, Portland, Ore.

We don't generally like to include repeats on the holiday beer list, but we're making a noteworthy exception this year based strictly on the 2013's flavor. The Craft Brew Association ( BREW) sends its holiday wishes from Oregon with this deep red beauty imbued with the citrusy fragrance of Cascade hops. That's just about all for aroma, however, as caramel and chocolate malts balance do a great job of balancing it out. It's the little hint of dark cherry on the end of this year's edition, though, that reminds of of another favorite -- Troegs Brewing's Mad Elf out of Hershey, Pa. That has a similarly pleasant finish, if a bit more of a ruby color, but may be just a bit stronger than Brrr's 7.2% ABV. Basically, you can have a second of the Widmer Brothers' brew without heading into hibernation.

4. Nutcracker Ale
Boulevard Brewing, Kansas City, Mo.

Listen, Kansas City, we know this is going to be a tough winter. We know you might be on edge after Boulevard was sold to Duvel and placed into the hands of owners an ocean away in Belgium.

That's understandable, especially considering the brewery had become synonymous with your town and so intrinsically tied with it that it got the big-beer treatment during Royals games at Kaufmann Stadium. But there's a lot of upside here. First off, everybody at the brewery kept their jobs and won't have that looming over their heads this Christmas. Secondly, Duvel's done a great job with Brewery Ommegang in New York and is still a family-run company. There are no board meetings, no multiple headquarters in different nations and no stock tickers.

Lastly, you still have all your great beer being made in the same fashion it was under the original owners. That means the bottles of Nutcracker that just hit shelves this month are still filled with the dark brown, malty mix of toffee, caramel and molasses that they've been on holidays past. There's still that little hint of spice from the Chinook hops, there's still the brown sugar poured right into the mix and there's still that powerful 7.8% alcohol to keep you warm. There's no need for a blue Christmas when you're still getting everything that's on your list.

3. Cold Mountain Winter Ale
Highland Brewing, Asheville, N.C.

Long before craft beer's elite started setting up their second brewing homes in Asheville, Highland Brewing was cranking out beers downtown using retrofitted dairy equipment. Nearly 20 years and a whole lot of expansion later, Highland is one of the city's elder statesmen and a standard bearer for its homegrown brewing community.

This winter ale has changed similarly during those years. A light, malty offering flavored with vanilla, hazelnut and other seasonal favorites, this blend tends to shift from year to year and never tastes quite the same. It is, however, reliably mild at 5.2% ABV and one of the few winter ales in the country that we could recommend having more than one of without suggesting you find a cozy place for an impromptu nap first. Those Vienna, Pilsen, Caramel and Chocolate malts give Cold Mountain a lovely, creamy finish that's perfect for a long seasonal session.

2. 12 Dogs Of Christmas Ale
Thirsty Dog Brewing, Akron, Ohio

This brewery really carries the dog theme to the far end of the spectrum and labels its beers with images that look as if they were taken from a school secretary's motivational calendar, but please don't let that deter you from the pure taste of wonderful inside this bottle.

Its 12 Dogs of Christmas is a deceptively complex winter warmer whose cocoa-and-molasses maltiness is only a base for an impressive array of spices. Lots of honey, nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon are just about all that's preventing this smooth, sugary package from being overly sweet. That 8.3% alcohol doesn't show up until the end of your sip and doesn't stick around long enough to make your regret it. It's holiday ale's equivalent of a gingerbread house: It looks fairly benign and simple on its surface, but requires a great deal of time and skill to make well. If we were those dogs, we wouldn't leave the label, either.

1. Festive Ale
SweetWater Brewing, Atlanta

How does Atlanta get into the holiday spirit? With a whole lot of munich, chocolate and black malt and an abundance of cinnamon and mace -- nutmeg's less abrasive cousin.

This dark pseudo-porter is a bold blend of sweet and spicy that's a bit more forward about the "warmer" portion of its winter warmer character than most of the beers in this group. With 8.5% ABV to light the fire, though, maybe making the drinker aware that they're enjoying something so potent is one of the better holiday gifts SweetWater can offer.

-- 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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