Sunday, November 23, 2008

Joy to the wort

Yes, Virginia, there is a Samichlaus.

It exists not just as a single, cheerful, grand beer, annually brewery-gifted to the masses at Yuletide, but in the hearts of everyone who welcomes the moment to throw arms around old friends and clasp hands, meeting in the pub at Yuletide.

Alas! How dreary it would be if there were no Samichlaus. It would be as dreary as if there were no alehouses at all. There would be no friendship bonds made ’round pints and banter, no laughter, no cheer to make tolerable this existence. We should have no pleasures, except in Sports Center and widescreen TV. The forever light by which camaraderie fills our world would be extinguished.

OK, enough of that, before the literary license gets revoked. And apologies to Francis Pharcellus Church, the longtime-gone New York Sun, and Don “Joe Sixpack” Russell, whose account a couple years back about touring Austria’s Castle Eggenberg Brewery, home to the actual Samichlaus (Swiss-German for Santa Claus) beer, opened with a turn of phrase upon Church’s classic editorial.

The point is, Yuletide fast approaches, and regardless whether your elves are Mad, breaking Bad, Seriously Bad (even Criminally Bad), or Santa’s showing his Butt, you’ll find no truer cheer than to celebrate the holidays and friendship over a pint of beer.

Mulled, honeyed, fruited or just brewed extra rich and alcohol-robust to bring a warming smile, ’tis the season for these beers, and Don, already a renowned beacon for all things malt and hops, is lighting the way again, as our beer fridges become nothing short of advent calendars.

Don availed himself last week for a chat about his latest book, Christmas Beer: The Cheeriest, Tastiest and Most Unusual Holiday Brews, and talked about the inaugural Yuletide beer festival at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, set for the Saturday sandwiched between Christmas and New Year’s. (FYI: Don's a co-organizer of the festival.)

Yuletide beer guide
Three years in the making, Don’s latest beer treatise is the product of world travel, sampling the products of brewing traditions that date back nearly two millennia. If Joe Sixpack’s Philly Beer Guide was Don’s spring equinox (released last March), this book is the winter solstice, and bound to be enjoyed for its capturing exotic, unusual, or one-of-a-kind beers in a single, handy volume. (The book’s available through Don’s Web site, or Amazon, but we say support the beer scribe – buy directly from him.)

Christmas and beer, perfect together?
Absolutely, Don says. Christmas beer isn’t a definable style, yet it embraces an impressively wide variety of flavors. And when it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, there’s a celebratory mood in which people try new things and want to enjoy fine foods. Beer owns a place amid that terrain.

Plus, Christmas beers are special in that many have interesting backstories, lore or cultural ties. Take for instance, Anchor Brewing’s Yuletide offering, Our Special Ale, its commemorative, dated labels and secret recipes that ensure each year’s edition is unique unto itself. For sheer pop culture, think Ridgeway Brewing (South Stoke, England) and Seriously Bad Elf, banned in two states (one being Connecticut, thankfully not New Jersey), for the red speck on the label that, upon close inspection, is Santa Claus in a reindeer-hauled sleigh.

Beer folks are good folks
Some of the most cherished friendships are struck over beer. But sometimes, because of the everyday and pressing commitments of family and work, those friendships get revisited only at Christmas. Don mentioned forging such friendships at a brewpub in tiny hamlet in Norway.

The festival
Yes, Virginia, Philadelphia is earning yet more stripes as the best beer city going. While the lineup of 50 US and international Yule brews and winter warmers is still being worked out, the Dec. 27th festival promises to say Fröliche Weinacht and Joyeux Noël, as easily as it does the Dickens-like wish of Merry Christmas.

You’ll encounter some familiar brews, notably Tröeg’s Mad Elf, an 11% ABV cherry and honey Belgian-style strong ale to which Don gives supreme props (we say, for a beer with such warmth, this is surprisingly easy-drinking brew; but it’s a sipper, of course, not a chugger). But you’ll want to keep your taste card open because the event does promise variety.

Among Jersey beers, look for the yeast-spicy Flying Fish Grand Cru Winter Reserve and possibly High Point’s Ramstein Winter Wheat Doppelbock, a rich and chocolaty beer that finishes with hint of raisin. Or River Horse’s Belgian Freeze (if Don’s online column about his favs for the Yule season can be taken as a measure of how the fest list might shape up).

Don will give a talk at a VIP session of the festival (tickets are premium priced but include complimentary copy of his book, an hour of sampling, a three-course lunch and Christmas beer rarities).

In a recessionary time, the ticket prices may seem expensive, but we’re willing to say it: Christmas comes only once a year. And, hey, c’mon, it’s beer.

The W’s

  • What: Christmas beer fest.
  • When: 1-4 p.m., Dec. 27th (VIP admission, 12:30 p.m.).
  • Where: UPenn's Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, 3260 Spruce St., Philadelphia.
  • Wallet: $75 in advance, $90 day of; VIP session, $125 in advance, $150 at door.
  • Web site:

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