Best and Worst of the 2016 Holiday Ale Festival


The 2016 Holiday Ale Festival kicked off yesterday in its usual spot in Pioneer Courthouse Square, under the clear and heated tents with a view of the festive lighted 75ft holiday tree. As an annual tradition, we have sampled the wares and have brought you our picks for the best and worst of the festival, which runs through this Sunday, December 4th. Also as usual, the lineup includes 50 big beers, mostly barrel-aged and high in alcohol. There are spiced beers and vintage beers, and more than a few are over-the-top, so naturally we did not get through all of them on the first day.

First off, there are a few changes. The upper pavilion level “Sky Bar” has been re-arranged and opened up for 35% more space and beers. This is a very welcome change that allows a lot more room to hang out away from the crowds below.

The other change is not so welcome. It used to be that for the high $35 entry price, you could at least look forward to the regular beers being only 1 ticket per pour. Not so anymore. A small but still noticeable amount of beers are now 2 or even 3 tickets per pour, which means the 12 tickets you get in the standard entry package could go quickly if you’re not careful.

It's Pub Night's Bill tastes the new BPA glassware for off-flavors

It’s Pub Night’s Bill tastes the new BPA glassware for off-flavors

Also, the limited release beers are scattered in among the regular beers and are double or triple tickets, though there does not seem to be much reason as to why for some of them. I was going to recommend the Against The Grain 70K, but then found out it was only a limited release for Wednesday, for example. For that reason I won’t be recommending (or not recommending) limited releases, as you likely won’t find what I had on Wednesday.


Burnside Brewing: Keg Nog

Whiskey Barrel-Aged Barley Wine • ABV: 10.0% • IBUs: 75
Sweet dark fruit aromas combine with velvety caramel and molasses on the palate of this barley wine. Smooth aged spirits then mingle with assertive hoppiness, producing a long, bittersweet finish.

It’s exactly what you want out of an American Barleywine and winter warmer without spices; chewy, creamy, fruity, but with a fine bold hoppiness comparable to Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, but more malty. The spirit barrel does not shine through, but it doesn’t matter.

Deschutes Brewery: Ginger Cookie Imperial Porter

Spiced Imperial Porter • ABV: 11.2% • IBUs: 48
This imperial porter was spiced with chocolate, ginger puree, nutmeg and cinnamon.

Tastes just like what you imagine from the name. I am not a big ginger cookie fan, but I can appreciate this beer that delivers on all fronts with the chocolate, creamy body, roasted malts, ginger, and cinnamon all coming through. Just the type of beer most will be looking for at the Holiday Ale Fest. If this were available in bottles, I think it would be huge in the winter.

Fat Heads: Master Bolt of the Solstice

Pinot Noir Barrel-Aged Belgian Golden Strong • ABV: 10.5% • IBUs: 30
The brewery took its Zeus Juice Belgian Golden Strong Ale and aged it in used Pinot Noir barrels with cranberries and cinnamon to create a beer with smooth Belgian yeast flavors of clove and banana, blended with classic holiday flavors of cranberry and cinnamon. This is a real solstice treat.

This one is not for everyone and is a welcome change of pace. It is a spiced strong ale with cranberry, the type of beer you would expect, but the cranberry mixed with strong Pinot barrel notes gives a boozy fruit juice and wine quality that’s less beer-like and almost more like a Sangria. Worth trying for sure; give it a chance and you may love it.

Finnriver: Winter Ruby Cider

Oak-Aged Cranberry Cider • ABV: 6.5%
This is a festive, bright fruit cider made to toast the season. Traditional cider apples from world-renowned Poverty Lane Orchards in N.H. impart complexity, blended with a tart, organic cranberry wine made from Starvation Alley Farms cranberries and finished with Mexican vanilla extract and aged with toasted oak. Enjoy this semi-sweet celebratory dance of apples, cranberries, vanilla and oak on the palate.

Finnriver rarely (if ever) leads me astray and this wonderfully tart and lightly spiced cider cuts the big, bold, bitter and syrupy strong ales and reminds of a mulled apple cider only cold.

Firestone Walker: F1

Double IPA • ABV: 8.1%
F1 is a big pale wheat ale with heavy-handed aromatic additions of hops. A large proportion of malted and torrified wheat in the mash gives it a full, pillowy mouthfeel and rounded flavor. Left unfiltered in the wheat beer tradition for a hazy appearance, F1 blends the hop aromatics of a double IPA with a softer bitterness and toasty malt flavor reminiscent of a freshly baked baguette.

Another safe bet every year at the HAF is whatever Firestone Walker brings. This year surprised me; it’s not a milk stout or barrel-aged barleywine, but a big juicy IPA full of delicious orange and grapefruit flavor. I could have gone for a pint.

Fremont Brewing: S’mores Bonfire Ale

Winter Ale • ABV: 6.0% • IBUs: 40
Fremont Brewing took its roasty, chocolaty and slightly smoky Bonfire Ale and infused it with Theo cacao nibs, marshmallows, graham crackers and toasted oak to create S’mores Bonfire Ale. Light a Bonfire today!

A S’mores beer done right! Creamy vanilla, soft hot cocoa notes, and subtle graham cracker in a drinkable not too-intense brown ale. Just what the doctor ordered, and it’s practically sessionable at this fest at 6% ABV.

Nectar Creek: Top Bar

Bourbon Barrel-Aged Coffee/Bourbon Mead • ABV: 8.1%
Raw wildflower honey was fermented and aged in bourbon barrels, then finished with locally roasted coffee beans and bourbon cured oak. The mead is smooth with rich notes of coffee, honey, vanilla and oak.

Most people don’t drink a lot of honeywine, aka mead, but they should give more a try. This one from Corvallis, Oregon’s Nectar Creek, is not what you should expect in a mead, though. Take a whiff of this golden amber honeycone-colored mead and you get fresh cold pressed coffee. Take a sip and it’s surprisingly tart, almost sour, with notes of vanilla and oak. Strange, unique, confusing, tasty.



Feckin Brewery: Feckin De Los Muertos

Whiskey Barrel-Aged Espresso Horchata Porter • ABV: 8.5% • IBUs: 15
This beer is a spinoff of the brewery’s \” Top ‘O The Feckin Morning \” Irish breakfast milk porter. The brewers took East Side Distillery barrels and aged their TOFM and imperial porter for several months. They then added their house made horchata along with fresh cold brew coffee from Lisa at Happy Rock Coffee.

I think I prefer the regular Top ‘O The Feckin Morning or the vanilla version, but this one is still good and different. It has a nice cinnamon note and smooth coffee, but doesn’t seem to have the luxurious creamy mouthfeel of previous non-horchata versions.

Lagunitas: Barrel-Aged Imperial Pilsner with Ginger and Quenepa

Barrel-Aged Imperial Pilsner • ABV: 9.0% • IBUs: 20
Brewed with puffed red rice, this imperial pilsner provides a saké-like base for the addition of ginger and quenepa, a melon-like fruit similar to lychee. Expect boozy melon aromatics and complex oak spiciness accentuated by ginger and touch of tart from the sour wheat barrels, all in harmonious balance.

I was not expecting to like this beer just based on the style and spices, but was pleasantly surprised. Not at all what I was expecting–the sweet tart melon like flavor gives this a completely unique flavor profile and the ginger really comes through. I have no idea what quenepa, is but apparently it’s like a lychee and is helping bring out that tart flavor. This tastes nothing like a pilsner and is not one of the flavors you would expect of a barrel-aged beer. I have a hunch many will be expecting something different and be disappointed, but if you go in without expectation, you may be pleasantly surprised.

Mazama Brewing: Kind of a Fig Deal

Aged Belgian Brown Ale • ABV: 8.7%
I’m a very important beer. I have many cocoa nibs, tart pie cherries and dried figs, and my body smells like rich mahogany. I love figs. Figgy fig figs. Here it goes down, down into my belly…

Tart fig and cherry makes for a surprisingly sourish beer and a fruity, phenolic brown base beer works well to compliment them.

No-Li Brewhouse: #WhiteRazzMocha

Coffee Stout • ABV: 6.1% • IBUs: 22
No-Li Brewhouse infused a light bodied coffee stout with flavors of raspberry and white chocolate. Freshly roasted Gemelli coffee was also used to get an authentic coffee flavor; other prevalent flavors include chocolate and toasted malt.

Another one that tastes much like it sounds, depending on your love for heavily syrup flavored mochas and lattes will be about the equal level of traction this beer gets with the drinker.


left to right: Amy Marvin, “SNOB” Ritch, Brian Yaeger, Chris Crabb, Bill “It’s Pub Night” and Bolt Minister


Heater Allen: H-E-Doppelsticke

Doppelsticke • ABV: 8.2% • IBUs: 44
Heater Allen took its well-regarded Sticke Alt recipe and amped it up with more Munich and Pilsner malt, more German Hallertauer hops, and additional lagering time. The result is Doppelsticke, a high gravity take on a Dusseldorf-style Altbier. The beer is crisp yet rich, malty and balanced; perfect for the holiday season.

I usually love Heater Allen, but this beer tasted like something happened in kegging or transit. Plasticy? Stale? Hard to say what was going on here, but no one liked it in our group.

Zoiglhaus: A Tipple for Nikolaus

Barrel-Aged Fruit and Spice Lager • ABV: 6.0% • IBUs: 40
Zoiglhaus teamed up with PINTS Brewing to create this seasonal treat. A Tipple for Nikolaus is a plum-infused gingerbread lager blended with the rarest of PINTS’ beers: an Imperial Stout aged three years in a bourbon barrel.

I am sad to pan this beer from one of my favorite new breweries, but way too much ginger in an overly cloying beer equaled one that I could not finish. To be fair, I had this later into the session and might have liked it better before my palate got blown out.

overhead shot from the KGW-TV sky-cam at Pioneer Courthouse Square.

overhead shot from the KGW-TV sky-cam at Pioneer Courthouse Square.


21st annual Holiday Ale Festival 


Pioneer Courthouse Square, 701 SW Sixth Ave., Portland, Oregon


Wednesday, Nov. 30 through Sunday, Dec. 4

11am to 10pm Wed–Sat, and 11am–5pm Sun

To avoid lengthy lines, the recommended days for attendance are Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday.


While eggnog and hot toddies are commonly associated with the holidays, it’s no surprise that in the beer Mecca of the Pacific Northwest, craft ales are the drink of choice: specifically, big, bold ales designed to fend off the cold chill of a long winter night. The 21st annual Holiday Ale Festival gathers together 53 of these winter warmers for a joyous five-day celebration. The beers and ciders featured are rich, robust and full of complex flavors.

The festival offers a varied collection of offerings, from Belgians to barley wines, porters to winter warmers, and sour ales to stouts. What makes this festival standout from other similar events is the selection: the festival works with every brewery involved to make sure they send a beer or cider that has either been made or blended specifically for their fans at this event, or is a rare or vintage product that isn’t commonly tapped in the state.

Despite being held outdoors during one of the coldest months of the year, nearly 14,000 festival attendees stay warm and dry over the five-day festival under clear-topped tents that cover the venue. Gas heaters create a cozy ambiance beneath the boughs of the region’s largest decorated Christmas tree. In addition to beer tasting, the festival also features meet the brewer events with rare beers, a soda garden, food vendors, self-guided beer pairings with cheese, event merchandise, a coat/bag check and a need not be present to win raffle that raises funds for the Children’s Cancer Association.


To enter and consume beer, the purchase of an entry package is required. Advance general admission costs $35 and includes the 2016 tasting glass and 14 taster tickets, plus expedited entry all five days with the print at home ticket. General admission at the door is the same price, but includes only 12 tickets and no expedited entry. Advance VIP packages cost $100 and include the tasting glass, 30 taster tickets, special VIP beer lines with little to no waiting, exclusive VIP only vintage beers and aged cheese, bottled water, and express entry all five days. VIP tickets are limited to 250 and are not available at the door. Advance tickets sales are available at until 10am PST on Nov. 30th.

A full mug of beer costs four taster tickets, and a taster costs one ticket. Certain limited release and special tappings may not be available in full pours, or may cost additional tickets. Additional tickets can be purchased for $1 apiece. Previous years’ mugs or glasses will not be filled.

Designated drivers in a party of two or more may purchase a Designated Driver entry for $10 (at the door only) and receive free non-alcoholic sodas courtesy of Crater Lake Sodas, or bottled water for the duration of their stay. Designated drivers are NOT allowed to drink ANY alcohol.


The event is for ages 21 and over.


@HolidayAleFest [#HAF16)

Samurai Artist
Samurai Artist

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:


  • Benjamin Kilduff
    Benjamin Kilduff
    Thu Dec 1, 2016 4:13 PM

    “For that reason I won’t be recommending or not recommending limited releases as you likely won’t find what I had on Wednesday.” I can’t thank you enough for this. I am only able to be there on the weekend and don’t want to hear about beers I will not be able to taste. This is one of my wife’s and my favorite fests of the year.