Best and Worst Beers of the 2018 Holiday Ale Festival

Yesterday The New School team gathered in Portland’s Living Room, Pioneer Courthouse Square, for the 23rd annual Holiday Ale Festival. The long, sordid history of the Holiday Ale Festival was chronicled in its owner’s words earlier this week, but on this visit our goal was to try the many beers, meads and ciders. Along with The New School’s ElGordo and Michael Perozzo, and I set about trying every single regularly pouring festival beer on opening day to bring you our extensive tasting notes and recommendations. The following list is our take on what you have to try and what you should avoid; if a beer or cider does not make the list, it’s probably because we didn’t have strong feelings about it either way.

The Holiday Ale Festival runs through this weekend, Wednesday, November 28th through Sunday, December 1st, 2018. Tickets are available at the gate.

Recommended:

Bauman’s Cider Co. Perry Christmas
PerryABV: 6.8%

Do you like pears? Bauman’s brings the pears in this delicious true perry (1oo% pressed from perry pears, not dessert pears). Huge nose of fresh ripe pear with a nice, juicy flavor balanced slightly by additions of vanilla and lemon. Good stuff.

Crooked Stave: 5 Golden Rings (2017)
Golden Sour AleABV: 7.6%

The first bottle pour I have ever seen at HAF and it’s a 3 ticket beer, which may disqualify it for many. That’s too bad because this sour is pretty delightful, moderately lactic, full of berry, spice, white wine, dried fruit flavors like a fruitcake.

Deschutes Brewery: The Abyss (2015)

Year after year, Deschutes hits the nail on the head with Abyss. It’s always exciting to experience a return visit to the deep darkness of yesteryear. Right off the bat, the nose tells you that you’re about to experience one of America’s most iconic barrel aged stouts. Essences of wood, molasses, campfire and nuts. Hmm… this might be those chestnuts roasting on an open fire that Nat King Cole was talking about.

Eel River Brewing: Wolves at the Door
Bourbon Cherry Pie Inspired Barleywine ABV: 11.0%

A barleywine with cherry and vanilla? I wasn’t sure it would work, but the extremely mild additions of fruit and spice are mellowed out by barrel aging for a really easy drinking barleywine, if you can call a barleywine easy drinking.

Monkless Belgian Ales: Friar’s Festivus (2017)
Winter QuadrupleABV: 10.0%

I fell in love with this beer when I discovered it while judging at the Oregon Beer Awards. I had no idea who made it, but its combo of caramel layers and Belgian yeast laden with a very unusual spice blend of cardamom and mace transfixed me. I had it again at the brewery earlier this year, and it solidified it as some kind of miracle. This is one you want to sit with a minute and sip to contemplate the flavors and spices, which border on overwhelming but somehow are just right.

Portland Cider: Humble Bumble
Spiced Imperial CiderABV: 10.0%

Like grandma’s fall spiced apple pie in a glass. Perhaps more than any other, this cider brought out the holiday spirit in me and many others. The choice to use a little bit of cayenne for a slight kick was an ingenious move; that, along with the cinnamon and cardamom, really compliments the sweet and sour apple juice flavors and whiskey barrel-aging reminiscent of a baked pie.

Riverbend Brewing Moritorus II
Barrel-Aged Imperial Milk Stout ABV: 12.0%

A barrel-aged milk stout, this is a fantastic dessert beer. The rich, velvety body holds big, sweet flavors of roasted malt and chocolate, with notes of orange and vanilla making themselves known. Even at 12%, the alcohol is well-integrated, with very little heat. If you want something that feels like it should be paired with cookies and vanilla ice cream, head right for this one.

left to right: Eel River Brewing’s Matt and Marissa Vivatson, Debbie and Jeremy of Roscoe’s

Stormbreaker Brewing: Hawaiian Christmas
Imperial Red Ale Aged on Toasted CoconutsABV: 8.0%

It seems obvious now, but when I first tried this beer without reading anything about it, I couldn’t put my finger on the coconut. I would never have thought it was an imperial red, either. I did notice the malt complexity and smooth nuttiness and toffee flavor that borders on a full malt forward beer until the hops back them up. It borders on IPA, yet falls a little short on the punch of hops but is well in the center of what you want as a chewy winter warmer. Going back to it now, its interesting to see how the milky coconut adds a smooth toastiness, but not the dry nuttiness that I often get from roasted coconut.

2 Towns: Kentucky Barrel Nice & Naughty

Imperial CiderABV: 14.0%

Of the many whiskey/bourbon barrel-aged ciders that appear annually, this may be the most whiskey-forward cider out there. If you love whiskey or bourbon, you’re going to have a hard time believing that you’re not drinking a cocktail. Treat yo’self to some of this bourbon soaked apple pie for dessert!

Upright Brewing: Rein Helles Bock
Imperial Helles BockABV: 10.0%

The rare winter lager, inspired by the legendary Samichlaus. It’s an apt comparison, a golden-bodied pilsner aged in gin barrels that lend an excellent botanical character that is considerably brighter than the typical holiday spice blend found in many of the other beers available here. A mild amount of alcohol heat, but not enough to betray the fact that this is a hefty 10% ABV.

Michael Perozzo (left) and the Zzoom Media team

Worth Trying:

Anthem Cider: Sugarplum Cider Faries
CiderABV: 6.5%

Plums galore! This tart cider is highly carbonated and is sweet enough to be served at the children’s table at Thanksgiving (but, please don’t do that). While described as having spent time in bourbon barrels, the sweetness overwhelms what barrel or bourbon character may lie deep within.

Ascendant Beer: Peachy Charro
Fruit Triple IPAABV: 11.0%

A hazy triple IPA that has the juicy hop notes you crave with more bitterness backing it up. The alcohol is surprisingly well hidden at 11% ABV and the oak aging is subtle.

Crux Fermentation Project: Holiday Brut
Brut IPAABV: 7.2%

A solid Brut IPA with lots of tropical fruit notes tempered by the dry body characteristic of champagne yeast. If you need to take refuge with an IPA, you could do worse than this one.

“SNOB” Ritch and Santa

Deschutes Brewery: Ginger Cookie Porter
Imperial Porter ABV: 9.7%

A bright and airy ginger chocolate chip cookie porter. Maybe even a little heavy on the ginger, while being surprisingly light for a sweet porter.

Ecliptic Brewing: Gravity Well
Belgian Dark Strong Ale w/ SpicesABV: 10.0%

How much you like or dislike anise will dictate what you think of this beer. I like the base concept of this beer, modeled after a Belgian Christmas-style ale with a dark Belgian strong ale base and spices layered in. As expected, it’s malty and nutty with plenty of fruit esters and some citrus and peppery notes from peppercorn and orange peel, along with vanilla to smooth it out, but it’s the anise that dominates with its strong minty flavor and aroma.

Firestone Walker: Winter Wookus
Barrel-Aged Imperial Black Rye IPAABV: 10.1%

A blend of fresh and barrel-aged Wookus, this imperial black rye IPA had all the rye spice you’d hope for and a lasting hoppy bitter finish full of old school piney hops. The lone IPA of the upstairs area of the festival.

Fort George: Cinnamon Babka
Pastry IPAABV: 8.4%

An interesting take on the Milkshake IPA that starts with a hazy IPA base and adds in lactose, vanilla and cinnamon. You definitely get the viscosity of a hazy NE-style IPA and the juiciness, it’s the cinnamon that really climbs through for a peppery and spicy character that interacts fairly well with the hops.

Fremont Brewing: Mexican Hot Chocolate Imperial Stout with coffee
Imperial Oatmeal Stout w/ CoffeeABV: 8.0%

It’s exactly what it says it is: a mocha with dark chocolate and dark roasted coffee, cinnamon & sugar sweetness. The only dislike about this beer is that the coffee flavor is perhaps burnt or over-roasted. It finishes well with a swift kick of Mexican chili spice.

Golden Valley Brewing: The Hydronym
Baltic PorterABV: 8.1%

We didn’t expect to go to church at Holiday Ale Fest, but someone broke out the Hydronym and communion commenced. Grape juice and crackers are the primary flavors of this Baltic Porter. It lands on this list as being recommended because, while it carried unexpected flavors, there wasn’t anything offensive about the beer. Hope they serve this at Christmas Eve Mass, too.

Great Notion: Double Stack
Imperial Breakfast StoutABV: 11.0%

You really must love pancake syrup and coffee to enjoy this beer. It’s like pancake syrup with coffee and whiskey mixed in, and I think that’s exactly what they were going for. This does sacrifice the beery flavors for an incredibly potent maple syrup flavor and coffee acridity, so it’s a love it or hate it.

Hopworks Urban Brewery: Straight Up Cashmere
Dessert BeerABV: 7.8%

Wonderful roasted notes of dark roasted coffee and chocolate with a slight citrus twist. Reminiscent of those chocolate orange balls you slam on the table to break open. Finishes bright and dry.

Lompoc Brewing: St. Nick’s Nightcap
Cabernet Sauvignon Barrel-Aged Bier de GardeABV: 7.2%

As drinkable a beer as you are likely to find at HAF, it’s a malt-forward French-style pale ale. Fans of Belgian beers will enjoy this for it’s light touch with the hops, fruity esters and oak and vinous notes with a touch of acidity from the wine barrel-aging.

Laurelwood Brewing The Wood Old Fashioned
Holiday-Spiced Imperial StoutABV: 9.5%

Is your go-to cocktail order an Old Fashioned? Then you’re in luck, because this beer totally nails all of the flavor notes in the classic cocktail. Orange peel, cherry, and a hint of bittering spices come through underneath the assertive oak and bourbon notes imparted during this beer’s time in a whiskey barrel.

McMenamins (Edgefield): Lord of Misrule
Imperial Gingersnap Milk StoutABV: 8.4%

At first the sickly sweet and intense buttery, sugary molasses aroma really put me off, but on second and third sips I found this to be the epitome of what people probably are looking for at HAF. It’s a deep, roasty, malty and semi-bitter imperial stout full of spices, the whiskey barrels, coffee and gingersnap are all there with the molasses making it smell much more sweet than it is.

Montavilla Brew Works: Run to the Hops
Pacific Northwest Double IPAABV: 8.0%

This beer took me back to the heyday of the early 2000s IPAs that were equal parts piney and grapefruity. This beer packs a hop punch with dankness and bittersweet citrus, the ABV is well hidden. This is a beer for hopheads for sure.

Nectar Creek: Boubon Barrel-Aged Wildflower
Barrel-Aged Session MeadABV: 7.0%

It’s important to note this is fermented honey and not a beer, thus it doesn’t have the malt and hop flavors you would expect. Instead it’s a rich, fruity and floral honey creaminess that’s accentuated by the vanilla, and then spiced up with barrel-aging and cinnamon. A nice sweet, warming, drink that would be great on a cold night by the fireplace.

Oakshire Brewing: Vintage Barleywine (2015)
English BarleywineABV: 10.0%

A pretty traditional English-style barleywine that is much more balanced and malt forward than American b’arleywines. This one is pre-cellared for you, and thus showcases some pleasant sherry-like oxidation, with dark rich fruit notes coming through the chewy malts and floral, spicy, herbal hop flavors and balanced bitterness.

Reverend Nat’s Cherry Abbey Spice
Spiced CiderABV: 7.5%

Rev. Nat’s usually brings the holiday cheer by serving a mulled cider at HAF. This year’s entry is made with cherries, raisins, and cinnamon spice. The nose is huge on sweet cherries, which can be smelled halfway across the room from the steaming jockey box of hot cider. The flavors are a bit more balanced, with the spice notes making themselves known but not overpowering the fruit. A nice change of pace in between big strong ales.

Rusty Truck Brewing: Chocolate Oyster Stout
Chocolate Oyster StoutABV: 7.1%

Rusty Truck may not exactly have a stellar track record with its entries at HAF, but this is a solid stout. A nice nose of roasted malt, with a rich and chocolatey flavor and just the slightest hint of brine on the finish.

Stoup Brewing “Why” Stock Ale
Brett Stock Ale Aged in Cognac PuncheonsABV: 11.0%

Aged in Cognac barrels with brett c., this is a very unique entry. Fairly boozy on the nose with some brett funk competing with oaky notes from the barrel. If not entirely pleasant, it’s worth trying just to see how these two elements come together in a beer.

Vanguard Brewing: Cranberry Cringle
Imperial Stout w/ FruitABV: 9.0%

I think the addition of 100lbs of clover honey really mellow and smooth out the bolder more roasty and bitter notes of this imperial stout. It adds a perceived sweetness and malt forward flavor to this beer, with the cranberry just adding a bit of sweet-tartness to the back end, which I like because the roasty bitter notes are mostly rounded off.

Widmer Bros. Brewing: No Additional Ticket Required
Wheat WineABV: 8.0%

Bonus points for the name, pointing out the wider array of beers requiring multiple tickets this year. Indeed, this entry only requires one, and it’s a solid choice. Technically called a wheatwine, though clocking in at 8%, it’s a bright number packing a big punch from Amarillo and Centennial hops that’s pretty easy drinking. If someone in your crew wants a full mug of something with a more familiar flavor, this could serve them well.

Avoid:

Bear Republic: Human Santapede
Barrel-Aged Sour StoutABV: 11.0%

I like Bear Republic, I like the name of this beer, I like barrel-aged stouts and I like sours, but, I do not like them together. While this beer does have a complexity, the bitter roasty notes of a stout don’ go well with the tart vinous notes of wine barrels, nor does the oxidation.

Elysian Brewing: Million Dollar Face
Wine Oak-Aged Baltic PorterABV: 9.8%

Aging a Baltic porter on wine oak doesn’t sound so bad, but when that “wine” is notorious bum’s choice Wild Irish Rose, you’re starting off on the wrong foot. Deep dark in color, the roasty malts yield way to huge, acrid mouthfuls of tannin towards the finish. If the name weren’t already taken, Tannin-Bomb would be very apt for this one.

Georgetown Brewing: Barrel Aged Chopper Imperial Red Ale
Imperial Red AleABV: 7.1%

Nose is of rotting fruit, like the apple core my kids left out on the counter overnight. Little is left of the hoppy Chopper Imperial Red that I’m very familiar with. While it should be expected that an aged red would lose it’s hop character, it was not replaced by anything exciting. 6 months in a barrel left only lightly roasted malt and wood; maybe a little vanilla. Reminds me of when you finish your whiskey on the rocks and let the ice melt a little, then you’re like “Hey! Second drink!”

Erin Grey Kemplin of Ecliptic Brewing and Mary Rose Walker of Maletis Beverage

Gigantic Brewing: Santa Quad Is Coming to Town
Bourbon Barrel-Aged Grand CruABV: 10.0%

One of Portland’s best breweries makes a big misfire this time around. The acrid bitterness of a coffee stout really does not go well with the sour lactic flavor that this beer has in spades. To make things worse, the whole thing seems drenched in soy sauce, which just makes the sourness metallic.

Klamath Basin: Belznickle
Red Wine Barrel-Aged Belgian StoutABV: 9.2%

Cheer or fear?
Belznickle is here.
I judge your beer.
IMPISH!

Migration Brewing: Apres
Oak-Aged Imperial Milk StoutABV: 12.0%

The official description reads: “Aged in cognac and oak barrels, then blended with French cocoa powder, this imperial milk stout is reminiscent of a hot chocolate cocktail. Rich and full-bodied, it features flavors of chocolate, toffee, dark pit fruit, and roasted coffee. A touch of lactose offers a smooth and slight sweetness to the finish.”

We tasted none of these things. Contrary to the rich and complex description, this was a light malty offering. On the plus side, it felt far too light to be 12% ABV. This beer ventured so far away from what the description read that we had to confirm with the folks behind the table that we were, in fact, drinking the correct beverage.

EDIT: As my review mentioned, it was so wildly not as described that I questioned it. Sure enough, I returned to it last night to find a beer that aptly matches what I had originally expected from Migration. Don’t know if it was a single mislabeled keg or another issue, but it wasn’t the beer I had Wednesday. – Michael Perozzo

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: SamuraiArtist@NewSchoolBeer.com

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