NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Well, it's finally happened: We've received so many samples that I can't remember which ones arrived since the last column.

I'm thinking the holiday season has to be a fairly thankless time for a brewery's marketing and public relations staff — you know, other than the company party with fairly bottomless beer. They're sending out samples right before the holiday (this year, we had one box arrive on Christmas eve itself) and dealing not only with a congested delivery system, but beer writers who've already gone ahead and checked out for a few weeks or so.

Still, the beer calendar doesn't just pause, and new year-round beers make their way to the shelves each New Year's Day. A couple such beers made their way to our doorstep with a few weeks left to go in 2014.

Session IPA is taking over

According to the Brewers Association craft beer industry group, retail sales of India Pale Ale increased 47% by volume last year. The bitter, hoppy style accounted for 21% of all craft beer sold in 2014 and was the category that most of the nation's more than 3,000 brewers wanted to enter during the Great American Beer Festival last year.

Session IPA, a lower-alcohol version that usually restricts potency to 4% alcohol by volume or less (but is often sold under the “session” moniker with ABV up in the 5% range), has only helped the continued mainstreaming of the style. Founders' All Day IPA, Stone's Go-To IPA and others load up on hops at the end of the brewing process and use overwhelming amounts to add to IPA's aroma and flavor without making it exceedingly bitter or alcohol-laden.

Seeing other breweries jump on the session IPA bandwagon and release the style in cans, canned craft beer pioneer Oskar Blues from Longmont, Colo., introduced its Pinner Throwback IPA as a new year-round style for 2015. At 4.9% ABV a fairly mild 35 international bitterness units, this balanced IPA with a monster malt backbone is smooth drinking, but absolutely reeks of citrusy hops. It's really more of a floral pale ale than a true IPA, but it's about as much hop bitterness as you're going to want out of an IPA that's designed to lure you into drinking more than one. Our Pinner came with an orange koozie, and that's just the kind of vibe it's giving off: A cooler-bound, “crushable” warm-weather brew that's just waiting for the snow to clear out and the summer months to start.

Skiers love beer, too

In Bend, Ore., they're in no rush to chase the snow away.

They're heading into peak ski season on Mount Bachelor and elsewhere, and that means the arrival of refreshing apres-ski beers. Though the weather indicates dark porters and stouts, that sun on the slopes or in the bowl makes it pretty steamy inside the goggles and suit.

Bend-based brewer Deschutes knows this, and makes sure folks fresh off of the peak get their hands on a balanced, citrusy Red Chair NWPA at the end of a day on the slopes. Its copper color hints at a malty amber, but the Cascade and Centennial hops add some pine and grapefruit that, honestly, doesn't show up all that often in seasonal beers around this time of year. It's a beer that would be a welcome addition to the year-round stable and has enough balance to be a serviceable flagship pale ale. During a dark winter filled with dark beers, it's a lovely change of pace.

If you're missing more potent IPAs and don't want to hold off, however, Deschutes stops holding back and gets right to the bitterness with its Hop Henge IPA. Restricted to 22-ounce bottles and standard pints, this 9.5% ABV, 90 IBU beast is just a piney cloud of hops. Millennium, Cascade, Chinook and Centennial hops keep the citrus to a minimum and put the more traditional West Coast, tongue-scraping hop bite up front. It's a dead-of-winter IPA that makes spring seem a lot closer.

Just a bit outside

One of the big reasons people love craft beer is that its brewers like to experiment and take risks.

When that risk doesn't pay off, however, it's a bit disappointing. Atlanta-based SweetWater sends a whole lot of samples our way and, this winter, sent along three bottles of its Spinnerbait winter seasonal. It claims to be a “Belgian Style Red Ale,” but this brewery's background in more traditional Czech, German and English styles have steered it a bit far from Belgium. In this case “Belgian style” means yeasty, which is exactly what Spinnerbait's aroma and flavor indicate. It's not subtle, nor does it particularly complement the hop or malt profiles as it does in more traditional Belgian Saisons, Dubbels or — and we hope this isn't what they were going for — Flanders Reds.

It was honestly as if someone at the concessions counter at a cool little brew-and-view theater knocked a shaker of popcorn yeast into an open pint of amber ale. The Columbus and Willamette hops were lost in the shuffle, as was what was supposed to be a sweet wheat malt. It was a courageous effort, but one we're glad to see pass with the season.

When the Budweiser arrived

We haven't typically seen samples from the larger brewers. After some brief interaction with the folks at Anheuser-Busch InBev for stories throughout 2014, though, we found ourselves on the receiving end of a one-off mailing.

We got a box containing three bottles: one of standard-issue Budweiser with a vintage 1976 label from the brewer's 100th anniversary year, and two plainly labeled bottles of a beer from the Anheuser-Busch test facility in St. Louis. That was Faust Lager, originally brewed in 1884 for the long-departed Tony Faust's St. Louis Oyster House and Restaurant. The joint was a favorite of Adolphus Busch, who ate lunch there every day, but was torn down in 1933.

Anheuser-Busch held on to the recipe and brewed it again this year for National Lager Day in December. Honestly, it's the kind of beer we wish Anheuser-Busch InBev would make more of. It has a dark, copper color like a Vienna Lager, the faint scent of actual hops on the nose and an almost sweet flavor. There's some hop bite on the finish, but it's more pleasant and welcome than offensive. That aroma and flavor sits in stark contrast to Budweiser and, quite frankly, was more reminiscent of a Vienna Lager along the lines of Negra Modelo or even Dos Equis Amber. It isn't the most complex or full-bodied beer of its type out there, but it's eminently drinkable and would be a nice counterpart to light lager for drinkers seeking a slightly different flavor profile.

For a moment, it reminded us of McSorley's Old Ale House in Manhattan, where the two choices of ale remain light or dark. It's not the best beer in the world, it's not the worst, but it's something for everyone and great with a cheese plate. Faust represents that kind of opportunity for Bud, which has seen its sales decline steadily in recent years as traditional U.S. light lager continues to fall out of favor. Considering that Mexican lagers such as Modelo, Corona and Dos Equis continue to gain ground — and that A-B now owns Grupo Modelo, if not the right to distribute its brands in the U.S. — it might want to take a page from its past to match what Mexican brands are doing in the present. At the very least, it would give drinkers a choice beyond light lager.

Hello, Stone!

We were very happy to make the acquaintance of the folks at storied craft brewery Stone in Escondido, Calif., last year and got a care package just before New Year's Eve. It contained two bottles of this year's Double Bastard strong ale, an 11% ABV powerhouse that Stone's been making since the late 1990s and that we just happened to have a 2004-vintage bottle of in our shed. The current limited release is hoppy and bitter on the front before fading into a more balanced warmer. The aged version, however, strips a lot of that hop profile away and makes it a richer, sweeter beer. Buying two and aging one is a great idea, but one you'll have to try next year.

Brewers also sent over a bottle of their Enjoy After 12.26.2015 Brett IPA that blends wild yeast with a strong hop base into a beer that we're not really meant to taste until it's had a year to age. We're more than happy to honor the brewmaster's wishes on that one.

Finally, there's a 22-ounce bottle of Smoked Porter with vanilla bean that, at a relatively mild 5.9% ABV, was basically latte in a bottle. Sweet with a chocolate-coffee flavor cut ever so slightly by the vanilla, this was an unexpected treat that was gone all too quickly. Seriously, if you're really into milky coffee or light mocha espresso drinks, this is basically as close as you're going to get in beer form.

For folks who fall more on the tea end of the spectrum, Stone has re-released its Japanese Green Tea IPA collaboration with Japan's Baird and Ishii breweries that they first made as a fundraiser for Japanes tsunami victims in 2011. Dry hopped with five types of hops — including Japan's citrusy Sorachi Ace — and green tea, there's a fruity, zesty flavor to this 10.1% ABV IPA that's balanced well by the herbal elements of the green tea. We'd love to delve as deeply into the backstory as Stone does, but the flavor will do more to woo adventurous beer drinkers than the narrative ever will.

— By Jason Notte for MainStreet

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