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The Twelve Beers of Christmas: The Final Round

A session with five big, bold holiday beers

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It's time to wrap up the Twelve Beers of Christmas session. The closing round of winter ales and lagers is a heavy-duty bunch. I saved some of the biggest and boldest for last (two days before Epiphany).

These reviews included three mighty imports — Samichlaus from Austria, Evil Twin's Christmas Eve At A New York City Hotel Room from Holland (by way of Denmark), Gouden Carolus Noël from Belgium. There are two big-flavored domestics as well — Harpoon Vermont Spruce Tip Ale from Vermont and Sweetwater Festive Ale from Georgia.

Samichlaus (14 percent a.b.v.) is a super-strong dark lager produced by Schloss Eggenberg in Austria. It was originally brewed by the Hürlimann Brewery in Zürich, Switzerland (the name means Santa Claus in Swiss-German). For decades, this holiday specialty has been brewed once a year, always on December 6th. It's stored and matured for over 10 months before being bottled. It went hiatus in 1997, but Schloss Eggenberg revived the tradition in 2000, using the original recipe. Before the recent wave of extreme high-gravity beers, it was long considered to be the strongest lager in the world.

Samichlaus is a variation on the full-bodied Bavarian Doppelbock style. The first sips are almost sticky-sweet and cloying, but they mellow out with a long, warm, alcoholic finish. There's no hop flavor or aroma whatsoever. Caramel, candy apple, maple syrup, coffee, raisin, and toffee aromas and flavors dominate. It's definitely a sipping beer with complex malt character. Perfect as an after-dinner beer on a cold, rainy evening.

The funkiest winter beer moniker of the year might have to go to Evil Twin's Christmas Eve at a New York City Hotel Room (10 percent a.b.v.), a seasonal imperial stout produced by Holland's Brouwerij de Molen with guidance from Denmark's Evil Twin Brewing, an unusual "contract brewery" run by the nomadic brewer Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø. Evil Twin is distributed to only 10 states by Twelve Percent Imports, so it's a treat to find the stuff in Charleston.

I'm not sure whether this black, malty, roasty ale conjures as many images and aromas of Christmas Eve as it does winter in general. With a medium body and delicate nuttiness, it's surprisingly drinkable for the style. There's a hit of oak, dark chocolate, and cinnamon in the background that lingers with each sip.

Belgian brewery Brouwerij Het Anker's Gouden Carolus Noël (10.5 percent a.b.v.) totally embraces the richest flavors of Christmas fare — from the fruitcake to the ginger bread cookies. This malty Strong Ale is dark red/brown in color, very well conditioned, and quite spicy. The brewers add several spices and herbs during the process. It boasts fruity, bready aroma with hints of close, spruce, and anise. Plum, blackberry, and chocolate blend with the flavors of the dark malts. There's barely a hop presence at all. It's big and sweet, but nicely balanced.

Out of Atlanta, Georgia, the Sweetwater Brewing Co. has been brewing it's winter seasonal Festive Ale (8.5 percent a.b.v.) for years. The 22-ounce bomber I opened was sealed with red wax, Makers Mark-style. It's a medium-bodied beer that could be categorized somewhere between a strong brown ale and a traditional English Old Ale. Copper-brown and nicely conditioned, it's a creamy, malty ale. The brewers seasoned it with a little bit of cinnamon and mace, but the spices blend nicely with the caramel and toasted malts. A mild hop flavor and bitterness (from Centennial and Golding varieties) balances the sweet flavors. A hint of juniper berries hides in the finish.

If the packaging of Sweetwater's Festive Ale resembled a big bottle of bourbon, the bottle of Harpoon's Vermont Spruce Tip Ale (7 percent a.b.v.) looks a lot like a nice bottle of single-malt scotch. In fact, it pours with the light-brown/amber hew of scotch as well (but with a foamy head on top). Part of the brewery's 100 Barrel series, Vermont Spruce Tip contains "locally gathered spruce tips" from trees in Vermont (thanks to Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation). The piney, woody zing of the spruce is mild in the aroma, complementing the bready malt palate, but it comes through strongly in the flavor. While many of the high-gravity IPAs and high-gravity pale and dark ales from the Northwest bring pine flavors through copious amounts of hops, this cross-country counterpart strikes a unique balance that allows actual pine flavors to linger and float along with the caramel malts and Chinook hops. It's a Christmas tree ale in all the right ways, and it's my favorite of the session.

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