16th Annual Holiday Ale Fest – 10 Must Try Beers

16th Annual Holiday Ale Festival

The five day extravaganza that is Holiday Ale Fest (HAF), you know, the biggest winter beer fest on the West Coast, is upon us. Beginning at 2PM on Wednesday November 30, 2011 and lasting throughout the weekend, this beer lover’s occupation of Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse square once again will bring merriment to the space beneath several heated tents.

Each day at HAF brings to light new select vintage and one-of-a-kind brews not to be missed. As a whole, the selection is quite daunting, with mostly above 7% ABV one-offs as the focus. Curator Preston Weesner, who also works as general manager at Cascade Brewing’s Barrel House, a boutique pub mongering some of the region’s most touted sours, has been calculatingly stowing away special kegs while encouraging breweries to formulate new and insightful styles. This year’s lineup is no exception to the ever awe-inspiring score of brews HAF has continued to build upon. Here’s ten beers that we greatly look forward to tasting, and if you are as fanatical about beer as we are, you might just want to seek out as well:

Bison Brewing Barry White’s Voice in a Barrel – Besides having the best name of any beer at HAF, this beer sounds simply amazing. Berkeley, CA’s purveyors of certified organic beer took their beloved Chocolate Stout (a dry foreign-style stout) and aged it in second use Four Rose casks for eight months. According to the program guide at the fest, “The result is a delicately balanced, medium-bodied ale boasting notes of toasted oak, vanilla, dark chocolate and espresso with hints of molasses and caramel.”

BridgePort Brewing Old Knucklehead Barleywine – No glitz, no glam, just one of the best English-style barleywine’s you’ll ever have the pleasure of sipping on. Dating back to Portland’s craft revolutionary roots and the earliest Holiday Ale Fest, this warming winner holds a the flavor that can always brings us back to this season while warming the cockles of our livers. There’s a lot to love about zany brews and bombastic barrel-aged behemoths, but this Rose City sipper is so money and it doesn’t even know it, but they do.

Cascade Brewing Sang Noir – With a name that means “black blood”, this Northwest original is not in any way for the faint of palate. If you have convinced yourself that sours aren’t for you, then move along quietly with your tail between your legs because this boozy, fruity, bastard is definitely not for you. Pinot Noir and Bourbon barrel aged for 12 to 24 months, this brew is a journey to the dark and mysterious side of Beervana. Brewmaster Ron Gansberg wants to hurt you real good with this beer, and it’s likely he will, if you are tough enough to except the challenge. Sang Noir is one of the most beautifully complex and puckering holiday offerings to date and is quickly becoming a HAF classic. Servus!

Cascade Sang Noir

Columbia River Brewing Drunken Elf Stout – While you might not think it would take much to get a wee elf inebriated, consider for a moment that those little SOBs are after all magical. CRB doesn’t get enough credit for their consistently solid and delectable recipes, but we are very confident that this imperial oatmeal stout with Belgian chocolate and Kona java will have you turn your black heart into a Burkhardt.

Drunken ElfDouble Mountain Chimney Stout – Sure, the brewers at Hood River’s Double Mountain might not have the most voluminous repertory of brands, but one thing is for certain and that is that what they do make they make extremely well. So even though the beloved Fa La La La La is taproom only this year due to a short supply of necessary hops, you can feast your holiday tastebuds on their promising American-style stout. Roasty but not smoky as the name connotes, Chimney Stout makes use of four grains for what sounds like a lush and chewy mouthfeel and big acidic, chewy malt spine with a mildly sweet and mostly dry follow through. As a bonus, it’s one of the lighter brews at the fest alcohol-wise (6.4% ABV), so you can probably stand to enjoy a full pour without getting too blatto.

Breakside Brewery Cranberry Biere de Table – Speaking of the less available lower alcohol beers to be found at HAF, one particular petite piwo stands out above…err below…the rest. From Portland’s most imaginative brewery, Breakside, under the guidance of brewmaster Ben Edmunds comes this fruity 3.3% ABV (that’s not a typo) beer. A saison by style, the ale uses French farmhouse yeast and “a substantial amount of Munich malt” along with Oregon-grown cranberries over which the brew was fermented.These cherubic citrus fruits provide not only color but a quenching tartness that is coupled with a tangy aroma. Edmunds can’t help himself to adding a splash of wintry spices for that little something extra.

Breakside Brewerys Ben Edmunds

Hopworks Urban Brewery Kentucky Christmas – Hops are tops when it comes to Christian Ettinger’s organic beer playground. But in this standout barrel-aged gem, the resinous lupulin of it’s base beer (Abominable Winter Ale)  is caressed and engaged with the residue of freshly emptied Buffalo Trace Kentucky Bourbon barrels.  Dancing like sugar plums in your head will be notes of vanilla and spice. Match these with the uncompromising citrus and caramel of the respective gratuitous hopping schedule and bold malt underpinning, and you’ve got a good ol’ kick ass beer that you’d likely never find in the hilly country south of the Mason Dixon Line.

Kentucky Christmas

The Commons Brewery Bourbon Little Brother – While we may never get over the fact that Mike Wright changed his brewery’s moniker from the endearing “Beetje” to the jejune “The Commons”, we will live with it. Especially considering how uncompromising and unblenching his recipe formulation is. Now up and going on his new 7-barrel system (look for them to be open this Saturday), Wright and assistant Sean Burke have developed one amazingly unique specimen. This roasty, somewhat sweet and malty brew with notes of candy and chocolate is enhanced by barrel aging a smaller batch of of the brew in a Heaven Hill Bourbon casks before being blended back in. And, despite the name, there is nothing little or common about this guy.

The Commons brewers Mike Wright (left) and Sean Burke at GABF

MacTarnahan’s Barrel-Aged Ink Blot – This savory Baltic Porter was undoubtedly our favorite beer from our 3rd Annual KillerBeerFestival. Super limited, the Mac’s brew crew under now Hopworks brewer Tom Bleigh really crushed it on this hearty lager. After resting in Jack Daniel’s Whiskey Barrels for a spell, the outcome is a favorably flavorful silky, chocolaty dessert with suggestions of vanilla, raisins, and a hint of chicory. Don’t rush this one. Let her warm up a tad. Swirl it around, breathe it in, and remember it. We think it could be your favorite beer of the year, too.

Former MacTarnahan's brewmaster Tom Bleigh' s inked out

Firestone Walker Bourbon Barrel Velvet Merkin – No need to wig out over the name of this beer. You see, Firestone Walker is an American champion. Brewmaster Matt Brynildson and company took home the esteemed Great American Beer Festival’s mid-sized brewery and brewer of the year. The mid-sized Brynildson did laps around the stage at GABF collecting medal after medal in an exemplification of he and his staff’s undeniable brewing prowess. The Merkin (you may know it as Velvet Merlin thanks to censorship) is unquestionably one of the brewery’s most coveted year-round releases. It is a traditional oatmeal stout brewed with Maris Otter malt and a portion of roasted barley and hopped with Fuggles and is perhaps the greatest example of the style anywhere on earth. Take that dreamboat and imagine it aged on 100% Bourbon barrels, mostly from Heaven Hill, and you have what could easily be the ultimate HAF quaff.

Firestone Walker's Matt Brynildson

You should be well aware that the aforementioned list of promising pours is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to HAF ’11. Yes, indeed, you should also be readily cognizant of some especially limited tapping occurring throughout the week. These offerings/times are as follows:

Wednesday November 30, 2011 @ 4 PM

2005 Schloss Eggenberg Samichlaus: tasters only, double tickets

2009 Deschutes Lost Barrels of Mirror Mirror: 2 tickets per taste, 6 per ll

2007 Cascade Soured Baltic Porter (last one!): tasters only, double tickets

2008 Oskar Blues Ten Fiddy: 2 tickets per taste, 6 per ll

Thursday December 1, 2011 @ 2 PM

2010 Lompoc Bourbon Barrel Aged 8 Malty Nights: regular pricing

2010 Upright Noel: regular pricing

2006 Anchor Old Foghorn: tasters only, double tickets

2009 Widmer Babushka’s Secret: 2 tickets per taste, 6 per ll

Friday December 2, 2011 @ 2 PM

2009 Cascade Sang Noir: 2 tickets per taste, 6 per ll

2010 Deschutes Sour (mystery): tasters only, double tickets

2008 Hair of the Dog JIM: 2 tickets per taste, 6 per ll

2009 Hair of the Dog JIM: 2 tickets per taste, 6 per ll

Saturday December 3, 2011 @ 2PM

2008 Stone Belgian Style Triple: 2 tickets per taste, 6 per ll

2009 Kona Black Sands Porter (from the island): 2 tickets per taste, 6 per ll

2010 Cascade Barrel Aged NON- Sour (Surprise): tasters only, double tickets

2009 New Belgium Eric’s Ale: regular pricing

For complete details regarding the 16th annual Holiday Ale Fest, be sure to visit their official site: http://www2.holidayale.com/

Also, keep in mind the following before and while enjoying this year’s event:

Know your limits in advance. The beers at HAF are bigger than normal. It isn’t hard to get buzzed quickly. Drink plenty of water and make sure to eat enough food to counterbalance the beers. Never drink and drive. Make use of a designated driver, public transportation, and/or cabs.

Be respectful to security as they are simply doing their job and trying to ensure your safety. More importantly, be courteous to volunteer servers and staff, as they are working hard to serve you in a busy and fast-paced environment in order to provide you with great beer. Don’t hesitate to say thank you and smile. Afterall, it is a fest, so it should be fun. Don’t expect or ask for freebies, extra pours, or other “hook ups” beyond the scope of what is allowable.  Look out for your friends and be open to meeting new ones while you share your favorite beers. Cheers!