Holiday Ale Festival Picks from Day 1: Best Bets & What to Avoid

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Right now in Portland it is all about the Holiday Ale Festival, which kicked off Wednesday and runs through Sunday. While many other sites are offering their best bets and top picks, we decided to keep coverage to a minimum before we could actually try the beers.

In previous years I have bemoaned the Holiday Ale Fest’s pin-up girl and weighed its pros and cons, but this year I am just going to concentrate on the beers themselves and leave it up to you to decide weather the festival is worth it. However, seeing as you are a reader of this blog, I imagine I will be seeing you at the fest. Here is what we think you should make sure to try…


Firestone Walker: 100% Barrel-Aged Velvet Merkin
This is probably the best beer of the fest, and some people might accidentally skip it over because the sign simply says Velvet Merkin, which is Firestone’s regular year-round oatmeal stout. This is a barrel-aged version, though, and it has the same amazingly slick, oily mouthfeel, but with charred oak, bourbon, and spice added without being a huge monstrosity like The Abyss. It is balanced yet bold and delicious.

Upright Brewing: Provisions
Yes, I do work for Upright Brewing, but I still think this is one of the better beers and perhaps the best holiday beer ever from Upright. It is 80% Biere De Garde, which for the layman is a Belgian farmhouse style that is malty and fruity, but fermented with a lager yeast at elevated temperatures for smoothness. It was blended with 20% barrel-aged Old Ale with Brettanamyoces, aka Billy The Mountain, which gives it some tart red wine character and funkiness and much depth without going all the way wild.

Bear Republic: Old Saint Chongo
A chocolate wheat beer that hits all the right notes for winter. Warm and creamy, just slightly roasty and chocolatey without being too sweet. I love the creaminess from the wheat and soft nuttiness. Just good drinkin’.

Elysian: Bye Bye Frost
This one is for the hopheads. Just a solid hop bomb with a sharp citrus kick and bitterness. It stands out for being a break amongst all the heavy and rich dark beers.

Ninkasi: The Little One
I wasn’t sure what to make of this Parti-Gyle style beer made from the second and third runnings of Ninkasi’s barleywine. The aroma smelled super young and fresh, like a beer smells during the boil when you are throwing green hops in. The flavor also tasted fresh but not worty, lighter but not too light, with a soft maltiness and fresh green hop finish, but not too bitter.

Oakshire: The Nutcracker
I suspect some may not like it simply for the spices (which are apparent), but it’s a big Imperial Porter that can stand up to the ginger and cinnamon spicing, which is not overly done like many. The beer is also rich and dark, but I like that it is still firmly in porter territory, not super a thick Imperial Stout, meaning you can put down a full mug of it if you want.

Breakside’s Ben Edmunds and Coalition’s Kiley Hoyt


Bison: Barry White’s Voice in a Barrel
Rich chocolate, roasted malt,s and heavy, heavy bourbon flavor and oak. A tasty beer, but probably best in small doses as it tended to be a little too harsh.

Breakside: Cranberry Biere de la Table
This extremely low abv (3.3%!) session farmhouse ale with cranberries is an exercise in subtlety. The primary flavor is the tart cranberries but it is very light, some would say watery on the palate. You really need to have this beer early on in the day and let it warm up to appreciate the complexity of the yeast and esters. I would be happy to have a pint of this at the pub sometime.

Buckman Brewery: Fruitcake
I did not expect much from Buckman Brewery, which has been one of the worst in town in my opinion, but this beer totally took us all by surprise. It did not taste at all like fruitcake, but distinctly like egg nog, so much so that I wonder if there was some mixup. Its a creamy milky stout with hints of vanilla, whipped eggs and spices. It does have some fruitiness, but far more nog than fruit bread.

Belmont Station’s Captain Neil and Ninkasi’s Morgan Miller

Burnside Brewing: Barrel-Aged Permafrost
This is a blend of barrel-aged winter warmer and fresh Permafrost, the base beer is chewy malt and fruity hops and is tasty alone. Not sure if I like the barrel-aged version as much, but it does add some vanilla tannins from the oak while the fruity hops are accentuated.

Coalition: Lost Glove
This strong ale returns from last year slightly changed to be not as sweet, but it still has a caramel maltiness and plenty of hops to back that up. Just a solid, well made strong ale/winter warmer.

Collaborator: Hallucinator
Rich and malty, butterscotch and pistachio notes, toasty and slightly strong old ale.

Columbia River: Drunken Elf Stout
I hate Columbia River Brewing, but this was just a solid chocolate stout, well made by the book.

Double Mountain: Chimney Stout
This stout is made with both oatmeal and rye and it really tastes like it, with a distinct rye spiciness and toasted oats throughout. It has a medium thick body but finishes like a dry stout.

Laurelwood: Bonaparte’s Retreat
A very tasty strong ale made with chestnuts. Can you taste the nuts? Not really, or not distinctly, at least, but regardless, it’s a balanced, not too sweet strong beer with just the right winter warmer flavors.

Lompoc: Cherry Christmas
We did a whole video on this beer. It is light and complex, oak, wine, and tart cherries come through. It has just enough tartness and funkiness to turn on sour beer lovers, but it’s subtle enough for those not ready to commit to that bold of a beer.

MacTarnahan’s: Barrel-Aged Ink Blot
This strong Baltic Porter is supririsingly light and a bit sharp, but has nice licorice and molasses notes with plenty of bourbon barrel booze and spiciness.


Fort George: Kentucky Girl
I really wanted to like this Whiskey Barrel-Aged version of Fort George’s Imperial Coffee Stout, but I found it to be a drain pour. The harshness of the barrel-aging, the alcohol, and the acidity of the coffee are not a great combo, but really it was the distinct sourness of this beer that turned me off. As it warmed up the sourness really pushed to the forefront and it was clear this beer was probably infected in the barrel. I was sad to pour it out.

Gilgamesh: Chocolate Mint
Chocolate and mint. They work great together in candy, cookies, and ice cream, but I just don’t know about beer. Beer writer Brian Yaeger attempted to compliment the attempt, but ended up making a succinct case against the beer when he said “it has a hint of beer flavor!”

Rusty Truck: Belsnickle’s Strong Ale
I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but this beer was bad, it was sharp and kind of rotten tasting. Perhaps DMS, and a little metallic flavor on the finish.

LOLA cheers and carols at Holiday Ale Fest

There are of course some beers I never got around to trying, I heard the Laht Neppur is actually good this year, the Hopworks Kentucky Christmas was delicious last year, and Bridgeport’s Old Knucklehead is usually solid to great. Then there are some that were just blah and not worth mentioning, like Rock Bottom’s Fezziwig.

What are your favorites, and what were the disappointments and drain pours?

Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding. Contact:


  1. Bill Night

    December 2, 2011 at 12:01 am

    What? I thought you didn’t like the Buckman Fruit Cake. I panned it based on the small taste of yours I had. Also I thought the Collaborator was not so good. But I didn’t notice DMS in Rusty Truck, I thought it was decent.

    Tried Laht Neppur today, it was pretty good, though Mr. Alworth smelled mine and refused to taste it.

  2. Samurai Artist

    December 2, 2011 at 12:13 am

    I was more just taken aback by the Buckman, I did not dislike it or like it a lot but I certainly think its worth a ticket for the experience.

  3. Ben

    December 2, 2011 at 2:55 am

    The Velvet Merkin was by far the best. I found the Stone Ruinatiom DDH to be disgusting! It smelled awful and was difficult to put to your lips. I drain poured. It was a huge disappointment. Good overview, thanks Ezra.


  4. Anonymous

    December 2, 2011 at 5:57 am

    Those who can, do.
    Those who can’t, blog.

  5. Samurai Artist

    December 2, 2011 at 6:01 am

    So what about those who do and also blog?

  6. Lars

    December 2, 2011 at 7:05 am

    My two favorites from the first day were the Laht Neppur Laughing Boy Stout, and Hopworks Kentucky Christmas. Second day down, Oakshire and Firestone join that list. The Upright was a nice break from the deep dark winter ales, but not sure I’d have a full pint at the pub…

  7. Jeff Alworth

    December 2, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    The Rusty Truck was wrong. I also couldn’t pinpoint the trouble(s), but there were problems. I handed the glass around and two other tasters agreed. As always, YMMV, but still.

    I thought the big winner of the day was the Ninkasi, and while I found the Firestone Walker less sublime than everyone else (I’m just not a big bourbon fan), the vanilla note was perfect with the beer.

    Lagunitas’ barley wine was also nice.

  8. Anonymous

    December 2, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    What I really like so far are ‘Strong Crue’ by New Belgium, Velvet Merkin, and the 2009 Deschutes ‘Mirror Mirror’. It was weird that this ‘Mirror Mirror’ was a barleywine. It was great though. The two I didn’t like at all were Natian and Off the Rail Brewing.

  9. Leftfielder

    December 3, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    I’m a hophead. In addition to the Elysian, I also liked the Seven Brides Drunkle and the Stone Ruination, which was my favorite.

    Best beer name: Vertigo’s Left Nut Brown Ale, which if you notice, was punctuated this way in the guide: “Left, Nut Brown Ale.”

    So then, after sampling a few at the festival, our group put together a great name for a combination of several of the beers:

    “Because of Barry White’s Voice, I’d give my Left Nut to push past the Kentucky Girl’s Velvet Merkin and achieve an Imperial Climax.”

  10. Anonymous

    December 5, 2011 at 6:22 am

    I am sorry to see that you and your buddy Mr. Alworth had such negative things to say about the beer for the Fest offered from Rusty Truck. But DMS? Seriously? You’re reaching. Too much coriander, maybe, but there is really no excessive levels of dimethyl sulfides in the Belsnickle Strong Ale. Granted, maybe us Coastal bumpkins don’t have the sophistication or pretense that you do, but our beers are pretty good and quite popular, in circles that might elude you. I invite you to drive the whole hour and fifty minutes it might take to come out to the Coast and enjoy a pint or several with us. It’s not quite as far as a plane ticket to Europe, but maybe you’ll surprise yourselves. That being said, I hope that you and all your dear ones have a great, safe, and happy Holiday Season.
    Ron Hulka, Brewer, Rusty Truck Brewing.
    ps: Mr. Samurai Artist, and Mr. Alworth: what are your credentials in re the BJCP?

  11. Samurai Artist

    December 5, 2011 at 7:09 am


    sorry that my review of your beer was not positive. However you have greatly exaggerated my comments and tried to put words in my mouth.

    Also why are you bringing up Alworth of Beervana who I have nothing to do with and as far as I can tell never wrote anything negative about your beer???? That is just bizarre.

    I never even gave the slightest suggestion that you are “coastal bumpkins” or un sophisticated and certainly do not think either of those things. You also mention your popularity, sorry but I am just commenting on my taste of one specific beer not your popularity or your coastal community. And BTW I wrote a positive article about you before you opened and tried to reach out to you and I got no response back so what do I make of that? Not to mention I actually met you at ‘Going Coastal’ at Bottles in Portland and tried your beers. If I can make one unsolicited piece of advice, do not take one not so positive review so personally, I made no judgements on you or your other beers and even the most popular of brewers are going to receive some negative reviews.

  12. Anonymous

    December 5, 2011 at 7:20 am

    Unfortunately, I did not get to meet you at Bottles. I wasn’t there. Everything else you said, alrighty then.
    Please come and visit us when you are able. It would be my honor, pleasure, and privilige to show you our stuff.
    As for taking a not so positive review personally, I can’t help it. I want everybody to love our beer. You know how it is.

  13. Anonymous

    December 5, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    “Also why are you bringing up Alworth of Beervana who I have nothing to do with and as far as I can tell never wrote anything negative about your beer???? That is just bizarre.”

    Um, not so bizarre if you read the other comments, including the one from Alworth slamming the beer.

  14. Anonymous

    February 16, 2012 at 7:02 am

    Biggest disappointment of the ‘Holiday Ale Fest’? The MANDATORY $25 FOR TWO BEERS WORTH OF TICKETS. Who wants to spend $25 for eight tastes?

    Not so much of an issue if you’re part of the inner circle of brewers, publicists, columnists, or anyone else who gets comped into this event, which used to be second favorite event only to the ‘Oregon Brewers Fest’ in July for me and my wife. Due to the brutal ongoing Recession and our dislike for all things akin to price gouging, we’re now priced out of this event.

    Oh yeah, and real classy of the event organizers to now charge designated drivers admission, plus threatening to evict their entire group if the DD so much as SIPS a friend’s brew. AMF, HAF…

  15. Anonymous

    December 6, 2012 at 12:17 am

    Don’t forget, designated drivers get FREE root beer. I’m sure I drank $5.00 worth. (Not really.) I heard from somebody that supposedly is in the know that the cost increase was because: 1) the City raised the rent on the Square, and 2) to try to hold down the size of the crowd, which has become crazy. It didn’t seem to me it is working, but your AMF indicates maybe it will next year. If not, they’re going to have to raise the price to $50, or change the location, which would be too bad. Best, The Pie Not The Guy.

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