Holiday Ale Fest 2009

Ah, Holiday Ale Fest, how we love thee… I suppose it’s fitting that I’m the BS blogger who ended up writing this review, since I’m probably the one with the strongest predilection towards big, and often dark, beers. As a lover of stouts, porters, barleywines, and the venerable “winter warmers,” I look forward to freezing my ass and warming my belly in Portland’s living room every December.

Before I get to the beers though, a warning: most of these beers are strong. Some of them are very strong. Please make responsible transportation arrangements (it shouldn’t be hard, given the fest’s location at the confluence of all four MAX lines) and go easy. Also, drink at least a pint of water when you get home. My head is none to happy with me this morning, but these are the things I do for you, our loyal readers. On to the beers…

[Sorry, forgot my camera. Imagine a slightly blurry picture of a bunch of people standing around in a huge white tent, drinking beer from small plastic mugs.]

Jim ’07 – Hair of the Dog For those who don’t know, Jim is an annual collaboration between HotD brewer Alan Sprints and Ale Fest organizer/host Preston Weesner. It is a blend of several HotD beers (Adam, Fred, Doggie Claws, and Blue Dot) as well as a few others. The ’07 variety featured Adam (an “old ale”) prominently but you can also easily taste the sweet spiciness of the Doggie Claws and the floral hoppiness of the Blue Dot, all perfectly balanced. This is my favorite of the Jims, and one of my favorite beers ever. If you’ve never had this beer, you really must try it. What? It’s all gone? ALL of it? In the whole world?!?! Oh, well, nevermind then.

[picture of dark beer in a small plastic mug]

Jim ’09 – HotD Sorry about the ’07 tease. On the upside, there should be plenty of Jim ’09. While Adam was in the forefront in ’07, ’09 is all about the Blue Dot and Doggie Claws. Well, not ALL about those two. Much as those added key flavors to Jim 07, now Adam and Fred provide the hints of chocolate, toffee and other notes that make this year’s Jim equally well-rounded, if totally different. Getting to see what treat Alan and Preston have concocted each year has come to be a highlight of the Holiday Ale Fest.

Barrel-aged Baba Yaga – Bear Republic Don’t let the 110 IBUs fool you, this is actually not an especially bitter or hoppy beer. The sweetness and alcohol combine to balance out the bitterness and you’re left with a smooth, sweet, smoky, maltiness that lingers nicely in your mouth.

Wassail Holiday Blend – Full Sail Usually Wassail is not one of my favorites of the local winter ales, but here they’ve combined it 65/35 with some of their bourbon barrel aged porter. To taste it, you’d think that ratio is reversed. The malt and bourbon flavors of porter actually end up coming through strongest, and the hoppy notes of the Wassail end up as pleasant accents. It does end up a bit thinner than many of the beers here, but that can actually be a bit refreshing, given how full-bodied and heavy things can get.

North III – Fort George I’m normally not a big tripel drinker either, but this was a very different tripel. They’ve added a ton of maple syrup and sugar plums to give the beer a great sweet maply flavor. It’s possible that if you ARE a big tripel fan, you’ll find this a horrible bastardization, but I loved the way the fruit and spiciness balance out the hops. This was one of my favorite beers.

[picture of slightly less dark beer in a small plastic mug]

Sang Noir – Cascade If you like sour beers, you’re going to love Sang Noir. If you don’t, stay far away because this is one of the sourest sours I’ve had. It’s also fairly dark and has some nice oaky notes from the barrel-aging. It reminded me in some ways of Russian River’s Consecration (those who know me will know that this comparison is one of the highest compliments I can pay a beer), though most of the flavors are a little more in-your-face. Another really great beer.

Spiced Baltic Porter – Eel River The name really says most of what you need to know about this beer. It’s really just what you’d expect, a rich, full-bodied porter (though definitely a bit less coffee-tasting than many) with some hefty flavors of cinnamon and vanilla. Not too much though. This was also one of the better beers I tried.

Oaked St. Nick – Block 15 I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t actually familiar with Block 15 before several folks recommended this beer (there, I gave them a little linky to make up for the oversight). Anyway, apparently they’re doing some really nice things down there in Corvallis because this is a really solid beer. It has a great dried-fruit flavor with plenty of spiciness, and also just a touch of floral hoppiness. A really nicely balanced beer.

If it sounds like I was really impressed with the vast majority of beers I tried, that’s no accident. There were way more triples and home runs this year than I remember in the past (a baseball metaphor for Dave). Not to say I didn’t find a couple strikeouts. I didn’t care for the chocolate huckleberry stout from Laughing Dog. Some of you are probably shaking your head, wondering why I even thought that would be a good idea. Well, I do believe it could be done, and be good, but this wasn’t it. There was just a bit too much bitter coffee-ness that didn’t mesh with the berry sweetness. Or, at least it didn’t work for me. YMMV. I also wasn’t a big fan of the Son of Santa from Southern Oregon. It had some nice spiciness, but overall I found it a bit thin and not especially well-balanced.

I’ll also throw in a word or two about two beers that were only available yesterday, but unlike the incomparable Jim ’07 (yes, I’m still an asshole) you might be able to find them elsewhere. Braggot from New Old Lompoc is, well, a braggot, which is to say it’s beer mead. Or mead beer. Or something like that. Anyway, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from such a strange beast, though I guess I should’ve known. It tasted like mead mixed with beer. Duh. It also worked a lot better than I expected. Give it a try if you happen to see it around, just for the uniqueness if nothing else. Also, I got to try some Scaldis Noel ’07 which had aged REALLY nicely; a very complex mix of fruity flavors, spiciness, malts and floral notes. It really made me wish there were a few more beers that had been given a few years to mellow and mature.

Well, that brings us to the end of my Holiday Ale Fest wrap-up. One last note for those who made it all the way to the end, do try and warm the beers up a bit with your hands before you drink them. Preston says he turned the coolers up to 44 degrees (from the OBF standard 34), but it’s still damn chilly out, particularly at night, so hold that beer close and warm it a bit to get it to ideal sipping temperature for beers like these (which, contrary to what the American macro-beer industry tells you, is not actually a tenth of a degree above freezing).

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not promote the wonderful little book that allowed me to take notes on these beers to share with all of you. Yes, I tried out the 33 Beers beer sketchbook, and I must say it pretty much rocked. I took much better notes than I ever have at previous beerfests. So, go order some online at or pick them up wherever fine beer is sold (well, at least a few places in Portland where fine beer is sold, specifically Saraveza, Bailey’s Taproom, and Belmont Station).

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