The Best and Worst of the 2017 Holiday Ale Festival

Yesterday the 22nd annual Holiday Ale Festival kicked off its 2017 run in downtown Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, and The New School team was there to try the beers and let you know the best and the worst of this year’s selection. The Holiday Ale Festival is a local classic, and arguably the most popular beer festival among beer geeks. Held outdoors under a heated and clear covered tent beneath the giant Holiday tree in the center Pioneer Courthouse Square, it’s a 21+ event that featured 55 craft beers, ciders, and meads, not including special bonus tappings. The Holiday Ale Festival runs through Sunday and is open 11am to 9:30pm on Thurs., Fri. and Sat.. and until 5pm on Sunday. Tickets are $35 and include 12 taster tickets and a 2017 tasting glass.

The beers at the Holiday Ale Festival are almost all high alcohol and barrel-aged, with many spiced and fruited beers as well. Some people complain about the festival’s high $35 entrance fee, but in this day and age when big barrel-aged beers frequently run $7-$9 for a small glass, the 3oz samples you get for each tasting ticket at the HAF can be a good deal. The entrance fee offsets the extremely cheap beer ticket/tasting fee and is easily worth it if you use all 12 drink tickets you receive for the entry pack on one ticket pours. As with any one-off and barrel-aged experimental beers, the quality can be hit and miss–revelatory deliciousness or horrible drain pour. That’s why we are here to offer you our pics with the caveat that we did not try every single beer, but made it through most of the lineup between our team.

Must Try:

Eel River Brewing: Conspiracy of Ravens

Perhaps the most buzzed about beer among the crowd this year was this Chocolate Coconot Bourbon Barrel-aged Oatmeal/Milk Stout. Brewed with a German chocolate cake in mind, you can definitely pat the brewer on the back for achieving his goals. Though it may be big and roasty at 10.5%, the booze is well hidden as are the edges, they are rounded off into smooth notes of bourbon and vanilla with the light spice to add complexity. Easy drinking and fulfilling.

Falling Sky Brewing: There Gose the Bussman

A fun take on a Gose, a style I am getting tired of, but that Falling Sky reinvigorates with natural cranberry tartness, sea salt and most importantly juniper.

Firestone Walker: Winter Merlin

A steal at only one ticket per pour, this blend of Firestone Walker’s Merlin Oatmeal Stout aged in bourbon barrels with the new Mocha Merlin with cocoa and coffee creates a creamy and complex quaffable stout. It’s only 6% ABV, so it drinks very easily and is one of the few beers I would recommend enjoying a full glass. None of the extra spices dominate, it’s just a perfect winter beer for those who go dark during the holidays.

Modern Times Beer: Black House Vanilla Macadamia Nut Latte

Everyone already lauds Modern Times coffee beers which use their own house roasted coffee. This Oatmeal Coffee Stout is blessedly only 5.8% ABV. Among all the big beers and some may not like that coupled with a cost of 2 tickets per pour, but it’s worth it for the smooth roast of coffee and fresh nuts and vanilla bean.

Nectar Creek: Top Bar

A coffee session mead that is easy drinking, nutty, smooth and has the flavor notes of a latte made with honey.

Worth Trying:

Burnside Brewing: Owd Cappy Mac

A Wee Heavy style that checks all the boxes for flavors you would expect and look for in winter warmers. As the description says, caramel, toffee, dried fruit and warming spirits. This is a malt lover’s beer.

Caldera: Pink Peppercorn, Lavender & Chocolate Imperial Stout

Dark, creamy, and smooth with layers of flavor and the peppercorn resting in the background.

Cider Riot! Winter Orchard Imperial Cider

The rare if not the first sweet cider from Cider Riot! is appropriate for the season. Sweet candied apples and notes of oaky vanilla and the rum, tequila and apple brandy barrels it was aged in. Spices are in the depths of the desserty apple cider.

Crooked Stave: 5 Golden Rings

A festive holiday sour from Crooked Stave brings the refreshing taste of a fully fermented and dry wild sour ale with just slight touches of holiday spices like mulberries, ginger, raisins and orange peel to give it some seasonal spice and a slight bitterness on the end.

Depoe Bay Brewing: Hakari nui pia

From the newly-opened coastal brewery formerly called The Horn Public House & Brewery comes the best beer I have had from them yet. A simple, clean, juicy IPA with active bittering hops and fruit juicy flavors. Just what a hop head needs.

Fremont Brewing: Winter Fuego

If you’re expecting something hot because of its name, the only hotness you will find here is in how cool the beer is. It’s an easy drinker despite its 8% ABV and dessertified with cacao nibs and vanilla in a dark winter ale base. Cinnamon provides the spicy bite, but overall this beer is surprisingly balanced for what it is in this over-the-top-fest lineup.

Gigantic Brewing: The Cat Ate My Stash & Pissed On The Christmas Tree

Winner of best beer name of the fest will win many drink tickets for that alone, but it’s also a pretty good dank IPA. For IPA lovers who miss that bold hit of bitterness and piney hop flavor. 7.5% ABV and 85 IBUs.

Golden Valley Brewing: Tickle my Dickel

An English-style Old Ale aged in George Dickel Rye barrels? Yes, please, just ignore that the name makes it sound like its a collaboration with Harvey Weinstein. Brewers used authentic Gambrinus ESB malt as well as crystal malt, chocolate malt, torrefied wheat, raw sugar, and molasses to get that slightly burnt sugar and brown malt taste you want in an Old Ale. They then used more British and German hops like Willamette and Goldings for the earthy, more flowery bitterness you want in the style before aging it in the barrels, which departs a subtle boozy, woody spice.

Hopworks: Yule Only Live Once

Another beer with a great name, and it’s a great deal at only 1 ticket for a 13% “Imperial Dessert Beer.” HUB calls it a liquid interpretation of a panettone Italian Christmas cake I don’t know what that is, but this beer checks the winter spiced ale boxes with rich malts, creamy lactose sugar, and dark and juicy fruits in a base beer you would never guess is this big.


Bear Republic: Olive the Other Reindeer

As a fan of Bear Republic, I am sad to say this is another bad miss from them. This dark sour tastes like young, extremely acetic balsamic vinegar.

Defeat River: Firry Sweater

Apparently inspired by a hot toddy made on a backpacking trip, this dark spiced brown ale tastes and smells like the B.O. that must have developed on that hike.

Lagunitas: Gin Sally

I normally enjoy gin and gin barrel-aged beer, but this one is over the top with spices and juniper. It tastes and smells like someone dropped a bowl of potpourri into my glass.

Festival Facts:

To enter and consume beer, the purchase of an entry package is required. Advance general admission costs $35 and includes the 2017 tasting glass – a flexible BPA & BPS-free polymer “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, bottled water, and express entry all five days. VIP tickets are limited to 250 and are not available at the door. Advance tickets are available at

Once inside the festival, most full pours costs four tickets, and a taster costs one ticket. Certain limited release and special tappings may not be available in full pours, or may cost extra tickets. Additional taster tickets can be purchased for $1 apiece. Previous years’ mugs or glasses will not be filled. Express re-entry requires a wristband and the 2017 tasting glass, and is subject to the festival’s capacity.

Designated drivers in a party of two or more may purchase a designated driver wristband for $10, which includes Crater Lake Soda or bottled water for the duration of the stay. Lyft is also offering new users a discount off three rides via the code HOLIDAYALE17. The Oregon Lottery will be onsite with its popular holiday photo booth.
One hundred percent of the money raised by the DD program, as well as from the onsite coat and bag check and the Crater Lake Soda Garden, is donated to the Children’s Cancer Association MyMusicRx Program, which delivers the healing power of music to the bedsides of children and teens facing cancer and other serious illnesses.

For more information, visit and follow the event @HolidayAleFest on social media, hashtag #HolidayAle.
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:


  • Jessica Rabbit
    Jessica Rabbit
    Fri Dec 1, 2017 1:03 AM

    I seriously question the judgement of the person that thought the Caldera Pink Peppercorn, Lavender & Chocolate Imperial Stout was “Worth Trying.” Unless the nomination was purely based out of some sick displaced sarcasm, I’m not sure why it didn’t make the “Avoid This Shit Like the Plague” list. I love Caldera beer but this particular brew literally made several of my friends and myself visibly gag upon consumption. I am openly asking the author of this post to please have his taste buds checked for the sake of all those who respect this online publication.

    • Samurai Artist
      Samurai Artist
      Fri Dec 1, 2017 10:53 AM

      I blame “SNOB” Ritch, he said it was good.