Jingle Beers

Giving and receiving are the most important concepts this time of year. Unfortunately, for too many of us. those ideas translate into "buying" -- the deeper meanings of the season be damned. Thankfully, the holidays also offer plenty of relief from the stresses of shopping till dropping. This month local craft brewers are rolling out the barrels and bottles of their Christmas beers in a gift-giving gesture that rivals those offered by Saint Nick himself. If you'd like to treat yourself to a holiday six-pack of your very own, you have lots of choices.

The bulk of the bunch are strong ales, hefty beers made with extra malt and hops. They feature higher amounts of flavor and ethyl alcohol, and Great Divide's Hibernation Ale rates a spot at the top of anyone's list. An English-style strong ale, Hibernation takes the concept to great heights with a caramel middle and a rich spank of chewy hops; lush and loaded, it's the beer fiend's equivalent of a pile of boxes under a Christmas tree. "We wanted to do something big and exciting and really out there, something that would really stand out," says Tara Dunn, owner of the Denver brewery. "It's a serious beer, but balanced enough that anybody can go for it."

Local stores are also holding an apparent newcomer to the muscle-ale category: K-9 Cruiser from Broadway Brewing. It's actually the former Winter Solstice Ale wrapped up in new ribbons and nomenclature; the canine handle and Ralph Steadman artwork are designed to make the most of Broadway's booming Flying Dog line. It's a bitch of a beer, with an intense, grainy bouquet of hops and alcohol, a thin semi-sweet body and slow-to-fade, molasses-like finish.

Breckenridge Brewery drink designer Todd Usry is weighing in again with his annual Christmas Ale. It's an English-style heavyweight similar to Broadway's holiday beer, but with a more medicinal aroma of alcohol and a more rustic hop flavor. Its sticky-sweet sugared middle gets swept off the palate with a farewell jolt of hop bitters and ethanol. Boulder's Igloo Ale walks a similar trail, but it does so with a more aromatic nose and a thinner body.

Of course, as old man winter joins old man Claus on the calendar, a heavier beer becomes necessary for shaking off the winter freeze. Left Hand's Imperial Stout handles the task easily. This huge, stealthy black beer is Neil Smith in a glass, a robust gentleman that smiles politely before leveling the unsuspecting quaffer. Coffee, dark chocolate and bourbon notes all make an appearance on the tongue blessed with this exceptional December dram.

But if high-octane maulers are too much for your Yuletide tastebuds, area zymurgists offer other options for holiday beer drinking. Fort Collins-based New Belgium Brewing's Frambozen is an unfiltered Abbey-style brown brewed with an addition of raspberries. Its aroma is heavy with fresh-and-bright berry delights, and the fruit flavors reappear on the palate of this garnet-toned refreshing wonder. New Belgium is also releasing its annual Abbey Grand Cru, a richer version of its acclaimed standard Trappist-style brau. The winter version thrills with whiffs of fresh-sliced Bartlett pears and rock candy followed by an earthy semi-sweet taste.

But in the season of the pine tree, perhaps the most appropriate concoction is Avery's Hog Heaven Barley Wine. "I'm trying to pack as many ingredients into a bottle as I can and scare people as much as I can," says Adam Avery, brewmaster and part-owner of the Boulder brewery. And with a hop bitterness level that reaches the North Pole, this ooey-gooey palate-puncher bristles with resinous, piney notes of Chinook hops from start to finish. Weighing in at about 9 percent alcohol by volume, it's the ultimate winter warmer -- a beer guaranteed to keep Rudolph's nose red. Use with caution.

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Marty Jones

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