Seven Local Beers for the Christmas Season

‘Tis the season for family feasts, yuletide gatherings, and Christmas mayhem.  What better way to celebrate the season than by imbibing in locally brewed beers from around New England?  Instead of showing up with a bottle of Cabernet to this year’s Festivus party, grab a 22 oz. bomber or a growler of the brilliant beers discussed below.


1. Ursa Minor — Rising Tide Brewing Company

Do yourself a favor and drive to Rising Tide’s tasting room in Portland and fill up a growler of this wheat stout.  You can get bottles at Hannaford, but at the brewery they have a nitrous hookup that makes the brew extra creamy like a Guinness.  It’s a full-bodied stout that will hit the spot as we find ourselves in the darkest days of the year.  (Also try: Zephyr (IPA) and Daymark (APA).)

Hill Farmstead Sign2. Everett — Hill Farmstead Brewery

This one’s tougher to acquire than the other beers on this list, but if you’ve been nice — or extra naughty — there’s a chance this one could end up in your gullet this Christmas.  You’ll have to drive to their brewery in Greensboro, Vermont to get it, but it’s worth the trip.  Actually, saying it’s worth the trip is a vast understatement.  This porter has the Hill Farmstead signature crisp freshness that is a direct result of their well water and yeast.  It’s robust with heavy notes of fresh coffee.  Show up with a growler of this brew, and you’ll be the hit of this year’s ugly sweater party.  (Also try: Abner (IPA) and Edward (APA).)

3. King Titus — Maine Beer Company

Though by nature I’m a Lunch guy (mmm, Lunch), I’m going to highlight this porter offering from Maine Beer Company.  It’s a roasty, malty beer that’s a perfect match for combating the cold days of December.  There are some serious coffee notes, but it’s also got enough hops to offer some bitter at the end.  (Also try: Mean Old Tom (Stout) and Mo (Pale Ale).)

4. Allagash Black — Allagash Brewing Company

I’m not normally an Allagash guy, but I’m going to give them some love with this winter choice.  It’s a Belgium Strong Dark Ale that is absolutely brilliant for a dark offering.  It’s not overpoweringly malty, and it has the right bite to make this guy want to go back for more.  And with the cork top, it’s sure to make you look like a classy Steve when you walk into any gathering.

celebration-label5. Celebration Ale — Sierra Nevada Brewing Company

Ok, ok, ok, I know this isn’t a local brew.  I catch a lot of flack for being a Sierra guy, but, come on, it’s one of the first microbrews created for this time of the year since the Homebrew Act of 1979.  Its hop/malt balance of sweet and bitter and walloping alcohol content make this brew perfect for Uncle Leroy’s Yankee swap shindig.  Just look at the label.  Don’t you want to imbibe? (Also try: Sierra Nevada Porter.)

6. Winter Warmer — Harpoon Brewing Company

As my wife likes to say, “This beer tastes like Christmas.”  I concur.  I only drink about one bottle per year, usually around the time when we put up our Christmas tree, but I enjoy the heck out of that one beer.  Harpoon beers have been off my radar for a long time, but I still come back to this nutmeg and cinnamon delight for a taste of the Christmas season.

7.  Heady Topper — The Alchemist

Of course, any New England beer list wouldn’t be complete without adding Heady Topper.  I’ll put that one to the ‘wish list.’  Like when you were a kid and you wanted a bike, but you also wanted a Nintendo, you tossed both on the list just in case Santa was feeling extra generous. (Also try: more Heady Topper.)

Remember, the artisan beer is the new bottle of wine — you can still be upper-crust and show up with beer to a Christmas party.



Rising Tide’s Zephyr Pushes our IPA Boundaries

We live in a world with a glut of hoppy beers.  Let’s get something straight: I’m not complaining.  When I die, I’d like to be entombed in citra hops.  In this heavily-hopped world we live in, however, we’ve begun to hit a wall.  Though we have access to a myriad of piney and uber-citrusy West Coast-style IPAs, they’re all beginning to taste the same.

Rising Tide 2Enter Portland, Maine’s Rising Tide Brewery and their true original, Zephyr.  This is not your typical West Coast knock off.

Time to tell the truth: the first time I tried Zephyr, I didn’t get it.  Where are the heavy grapefruit overtones?  And the deep pine notes?

But here’s the deal, the first time I heard Magical Mystery Tour, I didn’t get that either.

Why? Zephyr, like Magical Mystery Tour — or anything that challenges our boundaries — wasn’t what I was used to drinking.  I had no point of reference.

It’s similar to the first time I listened to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew.  I felt ungrounded.  Like I had vertigo of the mind.  I knew that what I was listening to was brilliant, but with nothing to compare it to, I felt like I was free-floating through space and time.  So I kept listening, and eventually, melody and time-signatures and songs began to pop out to me.

220px-Bitches_brewSince I’m as persistent with beer as I am with music, I kept drinking Zephyr.  Like Magical Mystery Tour or Bitches Brew, I knew there was something brilliant in there.

Then, one September evening, standing in Rising Tide’s tasting room, Zephyr in hand, I got it.  It was almost a Zen moment.  My tongue and brain locked into Zephyr, and it made perfect sense.  Like the first time I really got “I am the Walrus.”

I stopped asking the beer to be something I knew, and understood it for what it is.  And what it is is delicious.

Here’s the skinny on Zephyr.  This beer is all about the calypso hop.  It has the cascade and centennial hops we’re used to in our everyday IPA’s, but the calypso is what makes this beer a trailblazer in IPA flavor.  The best way to describe the flavor profile is to compare it to pears or apples.  That’s what initially threw me off, and now that’s what I crave about this beer.  It’s different.  Zephyr has a strong malt component to balance out the hops, but it’s not an obnoxious amount of malt that many American IPA’s contain to achieve that high alcohol content.  The mouth feel is full-bodied.  The yeast finish — like all Rising Tide beers — is clean and refreshing.

I felt downright silly when I finally understood Magical Mystery Tour and Bitches Brew.  How did I not understand these tracks from first listen?  Well, when something is truly attempting to be original, it’s impossible to understand at first glance.  The upside to being bold is that what you end up with has staying power, and that’s what Rising Tide has in Zephyr.


What Nelson Mandela Means to Me

It’s 2004. The spring of my first year of teaching.  I work at a rural school in Vermont’s North East Kingdom.  The school serves the children of the hardscrabble loggers and hippy back-to-the-landers who both try and have a go at this beautiful, but relentless landscape.

The savage winter is giving over to warm spring days.  A colleague of mine hands me a young adult novel about Apartheid in South Africa.  “It’s the tenth anniversary of the end of Apartheid,” she says.  “What do you know about it?”

“Not much,” I confess.  And it’s true.  Nelson Mandela is a peripheral figure in my life.  A vague name on the edges of humanitarians on my radar.

I’m young, and she’s generous, so instead of chiding my ignorance, she says, “Do a little research.  I think you’ll find South Africa’s history intriguing.”

She’s right.

Nelson Mandela on Day After ReleaseIn the Johnson State College library, I move Nelson Mandela from the fringes of my world knowledge to the forefront.  I’m slack-jawed as I read about this man.  Twenty-seven years in prison.  Twenty-seven years of labor.  Twenty-seven years of his life lost for an idea.  And when he gets out, he forgives his captors with the ease of brushing dust from his shoulder.  I’m twenty-four at the time.  I can barely imagine twenty-seven years.

How did I not know about Nelson Mandela?  His great acts took place during my lifetime.  He wasn’t a Lincoln or a Thoreau or a Gandhi; his patient fight for the rights of his people were on my planet in my lifetime.  My fingers tingle as they work over library books.

I become a believer in Nelson Mandela.

His ceaseless hope fuels my belief in the goodness of the world.  No small feat in a post-9/11, two-war world, where my vote for Nadar had been a vote for Bush.  A world where ‘mistakes are made’ and no one pays the consequences.

To say I become a believer in Nelson Mandela, is more aptly put: I become a believer in humanity.  I believe that the good guys can win, because in this case, they did win.

Nelson Mandela enters my life just when I need him the most.

In the past nine years since my great awakening to the gift of Nelson Mandela, each time I hear his name uttered, a great life force passes through my veins.  It’s visceral.  Guttural.  I’m physically moved by the power his name evokes in my mind’s eye.

Upon his passing, I don’t feel sadness.  He wasn’t gunned down like Lincoln or Gandhi.  He was ninety-five.  I feel a calmness about his death.  The Fates let him live a life all the way to the end.  Maybe they figured he endured twenty-seven years of prison, so that must count for something.

Nelson Mandela is one of the great ones.  I’m honored and humbled to have existed on the same planet during the same historical moment.

Lost Beer Passage from Kahlil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’

The ProphetThen an old man, a keeper of a bar, said, Speak to us of Beer.

And he said:

Would that you could live simply on the fruits of the earth and be sustained by wine.

But since you were born to drink delicious craft beer made locally by brewmasters who harness the powers of grains and hops and yeast, let this be an act of worship.

Let your palate be an alter on which the pure and innocent cascade and centennial and citra and amarillo and warrior hops are sacrificed for that which is purer and still more innocent in man.

Lunch LabelWhen you crush a succulent can of Heady Topper or a Rising Tide Daymark or a Maine Beer Company Lunch, say to the brewer in your heart, “By the same power that draws you to the fermenter, I too am drawn to your frothy brew.  As the brew is consumed, I too shall be consumed.

“My blood runs thick with golden malts and hazy wort.  Your malty blood and my malty blood is naught but the sap that feeds the tree of heaven.”

Hill Farmstead SignAnd when you drink from a growler filled past the brim with Hill Farmstead Abner, say to it in your heart, “You have harnessed the secrets of God’s great teet and fit it within a glass bottle.  Your brew shall live in my body, and the yeast of your tomorrow shall blossom in my heart, and your dry-hopped fragrance shall be my breath, and together we shall rejoice through all brewing seasons.”

And in the winter, when pale ales and IPA’s turn to Sebago Brewing’s Lake Trout Stout and Sierra Nevada’s Porter, say in your heart, “I too am a chocolatey grain, and my dark roasted malt shall be gathered for the fermenter, and like new beer I shall be kept in an eternal growler.”

And when the brewing is completed and the beer is drawn through bar taps, let there be in your heart a song for each glass.

And let there be in the song a remembrance for the fields of grains and hops, and for the brew kettle, and for the noble brewer.


(Yup, Kahlil Gibran even said “Cheers.”  What a visionary!)

Kahlil Gibran