Like most families, ours has a sacred holiday tradition. Ours just happens to involve beer.
Christmas Day on Growlers Gulch Road, west of Castle Rock. Friends and family members had been shuttled over via four-wheel drive, the turkey was in the oven, and the gutters had started peeling off the house under the pressure of a 30-inch snowpack.
Fifteen craft beers were lined up on a table in our basement for the 8th Annual Growlers Gulch Holiday Beer Tasting. Judges included eight veterans and three rookies hoping to earn varsity credentials.
In a close vote that broke down along gender lines, newcomer Ninkasi Oatis took home the top prize, edging Left Hand Snow Bound Winter Ale. Eel River Climax Noel Imperial Red Ale finished third.
Oatis (7.2 percent ABV) is an outstanding oatmeal stout from Ninkasi Brewery in Eugene. Think deep, dark roasted malt and a mouthful of smoky flavor with every sip. Open since 2006, Ninkasi has quickly established a reputation as one of the Northwest’s best breweries. The company’s website says the focus is on producing “flavorful, balanced beers,” and Oatis certainly fits the bill.
Snow Bound (8.6 percent ABV) from Left Hand Brewery of Longmont, Colorado, was a surprise second-place finisher. Spice beers are fairly common during the holidays, but few brewers have the skill to do them right. Snow Bound’s complex blend of cinnamon, honey, ginger, and cardamom was smooth and well-balanced. Eel River Climax Ale (8 percent ABV), an aromatic Imperial Red, garnered strong reviews, but faded in the medal round against the big flavors of Snow Bound and Oatis.
With fifteen beers in contention, the opening round was chaotic. Judges tasted each of the brews, sometimes more than once, before voting four off the island. First to go were Elysian Bi-Frost (boring), Great Divide Hibernation Ale (poorly balanced), Scuttlebutt 10 Below (watery), and Pike Auld Acquaintance (thin).
Pike Auld Acquaintance earned the dubious distinction of being named “worst beer,” with one judge calling it “an auld acquaintance that needs to be forgot.” Elysian Bi-Frost, the fourth-place finisher at the 2007 event, was surprisingly bland. Ditto for Scuttlebutt 10 below, which packed about as much character as Rod Blagojevich.
Great Divide Hibernation Ale, a silver medalist at the 2005 Great American Beer Festival, drew widespread criticism from judges for the second consecutive year. Touted on the company’s website as “the most sought-after winter beer in Colorado,” Hibernation was sought after by no one on Growlers Gulch Road, although one judge’s comment (tastes like dirt) seemed a bit harsh.
The second round saw the elimination of five beers – all decent but unremarkable. They included Laughing Buddha Purple Yam (funky aftertaste), Avery Old Jubilation (nothing special), Anderson Valley Winter Solstice (light, with minimal flavor), Anchor Steam Christmas Ale (a poor imitation of Left Hand Snow Bound), and Lazy Boy Mistletoe Bliss (smooth, but thin).
Once we were down to six contenders in the third round, there were no Cloris Leachmans, so the judging became more strenuous. The three beers we eliminated – Southern Tier Big Red, Port Brewing Santa’s Little Helper, and Maritime Jolly Roger Christmas Ale – were all good.
Big Red (9 percent ABV) is hoppy with just a hint of sweetness; despite the high alcohol presence, it is smooth and easy to drink. Jolly Roger is dark and malty with caramel sweetness; several judges rated it a more balanced version of Great Divide Hibernation.
Port Brewing Santa’s Little Helper was my favorite. A true winter warmer with an ABV of 10 percent, it is dark and flavorful, with a sweet finish.
Sidebar – Start Your Own Tradition, Organize a Tasting
The Pacific Northwest is home to some of the most innovative brewers in the world. Why not join in the celebration by organizing a beer tasting for a family get-together or a party with friends?
Tastings are not the place for pint-pours. We use two-ounce glasses and do a lot of sipping. The ABV (alcohol by volume) of microbrews often ranges from 7 to 8 percent; a number of those we sampled on Christmas Day exceeded 9 percent. If you have any Bud Light (4.2 percent ABV) drinkers in your crowd, you might need to explain that pounding down a half-rack is not an option.
Possibilities for organizing a tasting of your own:
- If you have several breweries in your vicinity, purchase 22-ounce bottles or growlers from a single category – IPA or stout, for example – and determine the local champion.
- Compare stouts, IPAs, or winter beers from the large microbreweries, including Deschutes, Pyramid, Bridgeport, Full Sail, Red Hook, Alaskan, Sierra Nevada, and Widmer.
- If you’re lucky enough to have a specialty beer shop in your area, ask the libations expert for a list of his or her favorites and purchase those for a tasting.
- Do some research at ratebeer.com or beeradvocate.com. Check the highest rated beers, pick up a few that are available in your area, and make your own decision.
We start the competition by deciding which beers we like least during the early rounds. By the time we get to the final four, we rate the beers 1 through 4 and then average the scores.
The key is to be creative and have fun.