The Best Beers of the 2019 Holiday Ale Festival

Ecliptic Brewing crew

Yesterday The New School staff descended on the 24th annual Holiday Ale Festival in downtown Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square. Six different writers and beer experts tasted virtually all of the festival beers (around 4 dozen) between them. The HAF runs through this Sunday, December 8th so you can try the beers for yourself, and tell us if we are right or wrong.

In addition to the main festival beers, there are many special rare and vintage tappings coming and going during the 5-day festival, those beers are not included in our suggestions. As always, taste is subjective but we believe an expert palate can help guide the way, but these are not full beer reviews done under ideal settings. All beers were tasted under the clear topped tents of the HAF, with downtown Portland’s lighted tree towering above. The scent of roasting nuts and the liberal use of spices pervades the fest, provides holiday vibes and may throw off your palate.

RECOMMENDED:

Bear Republic: Mistletoe Fetish Barrel-Aged Blend • ABV: 10.0% • IBUs: 30

This beer was one of the more complex that I tried. The aroma is orange citrus and alcohol, with a bit of tartness. Its dry, slightly bitter, with a touch of stone fruit and orange. It’s a blend of three beers and each contributes a little something to this interesting beer. This is a must try.

Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider: Oatmeal Cookie Abbey Spice Cider • ABV: 7.4%

Served hot and perfect for this event. Flavors of apple and raisin combine with toasted oats for a cookie-like delight. Each of the last few years, Rev Nat’s hot hard apple cider has been a must-have at the fest, and the Reverend has delivered once again!

Montavilla Brew Works: Lupulin Symphony Imperial IPA • ABV: 8.0% • IBUs: 80

This is a hopheads delight, especially fans of the big bitterness of early aughts IPA’s, but I think anyone who enjoys the big fruity, citrusy, dank flavors of an Imperial IPA will dig it. I also appreciate that it’s light bodied, not malty, and uses new school hops in an old school way.

Eel River: Clear Christmas Barrel-Aged Hard Seltzer • ABV: 10.0%

This bubbly, crystal clear beverage is probably the most intriguing drink at the fest. The aroma has lots of vanilla with hints of holiday spice. Its very crisp with the high carbonation and the vanilla comes through strong, with just a hint of sweetness. This is very reminiscent of a cream soda. I know you didn’t go to a beer fest to drink hard seltzer, but it is interesting enough that you should definitely give it a try.

Chris Crabb and Cassidy Quinn

Fort George: Made to Order Barrel-Aged Imperial Coffee Stout • ABV: 12.5%

This has everything you want in a bourbon barreled aged imperial coffee stout. The vanilla/oak notes of bourbon are in there with the boozy, roasty, sweet flavors you expect from a good imperial stout. The coffee flavor is also there, but not overbearing like some coffee beers tend to be. This is a must try, even at three tickets.

Wolf Tree Brewing: Donker Boom Belgian Dark Strong Ale • ABV: 10.0%

Spruce beers are often love them or hate them toss-ups, this one wins the coin toss. A good Belgian-style Strong Dark ale is hard to pull off with the right level of phenolics, depth of malt and sweetness without being cloying. Wolf Tree pulls off both the base beer and the spruce, it’s a mild dark tree spicy flavor that comes in at the end of the sip. Good for Christmas Tree shopping.

West Coast Grocery: It’s the Holiday Saison Barrel-Aged Saison • ABV: 5.8% • IBUs: 15

This was one of my favorites. This dry saison has lots going on with hints of grape, oak, and clove. This well made beer was a nice break from some of the sweeter dessert like beers at the fest. If you like saisons, this is a must try.

pFriem Family Brewers: Tropical IPA IPA • ABV: 6.7% • IBUs: 30

Beautifully refreshing! Big pineapple and tropics fruits on a crisp IPA that defies its Hazy appearance.

Fremont Brewing: Orange Freak Barrel-Aged Winter Ale Blend • ABV: 11.0%

This does indeed taste like one of those whack-apart chocolate oranges you might get in your Christmas stocking. Strong orange and chocolate flavors in a creamy, decadently boozy brew. This one tasted even better as it warmed up a bit.  

Portland Cider Co.: Royal Blackberry Fruit Imperial Cider • ABV: 10.0%

The blackberry flavor in this cider is impressive, deliciously fruity without being too sweet, the color is a beautiful magenta purple hue. I really enjoyed this one, the cider seemed a little more complex than some others I have tried. 

Sunriver Brewing: Shiver Me Timbers! Caribbean-Style Export Stout • ABV: 8.2% • IBUs: 50

My favorite beer that I could go in for a full pour of, this export stout doesn’t exactly scream holiday, but it is a well made and flavorful stout. It has the roasty chocolate taste you would expect with plenty of balance from bitter coffee and hops. Try it if you are a stout fan and you won’t be disappointed. 

Rogue Ales: Whiskey Barrel-Aged Double Chocolate Stout Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout • ABV: 11.7% • IBUs: 68

Creamy and delicious! The regular Rogue Double Choc has been a fantastic standard bearer for years, and this version amps it up with some boozy depth from the whiskey barrel. Dark malt, chocolate sweetness, and some oaky whiskey notes add up to a very enjoyable imperial stout. 

Von Ebert Brewing: Oma’s Dessert Lager Dark Lager • ABV: 5.0% • IBUs: 20

Just 5% ABV, so it’s on the very low end for alcohol and the high end of drink-ability at this big, boozy festival. The name refers to Oma Von Ebert and is inspired by her lebkuchen holiday dessert with cinnamon, ginger, allspice and clove. This is a delightfully sweet dessert lager worth a full glass!

Bauman’s Cider

WORTH TRYING:

Bauman’s Cider: Nuts In Cider-I Hardly Know’er Spiced Cider • ABV: 7.1%

Lot’s of cinnamon and spice in the aroma, but not overpowering in the flavor. It basically tastes like apple pie, very good despite the horrible name.

Golden Valley Brewing: Straight to the Noggin Eggnog Milk Stout • ABV: 8.0% • IBUs: 30

Enticing aroma of dark malt and milky sweetness. Very agreeable palate – roasted malt, dark chocolate, a touch of dairy and some holiday spice. Not huge on the eggnog flavor, but enough to know that it’s there. Creamy mouthfeel from the lactose provides a lot of structure to hold the sweet flavors from beginning to finish. 

Victor-23 Craft Brewery: Dan Coopers Confession Churro Sweet Stout • ABV: 10.5%

Not certain what DB Cooper’s connection to churros is, but this beer tastes like a long bready stock of cinnamon and sugar-covered pastry. Doughy, sweet and dangerously enjoyable at 10.5%.

Everybody’s Brewing: Pinot Noir Barrel-Aged Farmhouse Ale Barrel-Aged Farmhouse Ale • ABV: 8.0% • IBUs: 12

This may be one of the most wine-forward beers that isn’t a straight-up blend. It’s amazing the wine character this farmhouse ale derived from the barrels. Beautiful ruby color and vinous depth.


54-40 Brewing Company: OH SNAP! Winter Warmer • ABV: 7.0% • IBUs: 16

A light and refreshing toffee and ginger treat among many big, deep, dark beers. It’s said there’s a half-pound per barrel of real ginger snap cookies in here and you can taste them all.

McMenamins (Edgefield): Lord of Misrule Barrel-Aged Samoa Milk Stout • ABV: 11.9% • IBUs: 23

This offering from McMenamins is different year-to-year. This year it’s a milk stout aged in Edgefield Distillery’s whiskey and rum barrels. It’s big and boozy with notes of chocolate and coconut that hearken back to Samoa Cookies.

Mad Cow Brewing: Ol’ Saint Snick Santa Doodle Spiced Cream Ale • ABV: 5.5%

Light and sweet. A clear-looking cream ale packed with cookie flavors. A snickerdoodle in a glass!

Fortside Brewing: Mullet of Krampus Belgian Dubbel • ABV: 8.0% • IBUs: 21

It’s hard to tell for sure if this is a barrel-aged beer from the festival website description, but the stated notes of char and oak make you think so. Dark fruits, roasty sweet carmel, and yes some oaky woody spice notes denote a straight up barrel-aged dark ale but then you get that vinous tartness coming through. It’s a nice sip, that you want to roll over your tongue a few times trying to grasp all that’s going on in it.

Gigantic Brewing: Stocking Stuffer Marzipan Citrus Golden Ale • ABV: 7.2% • IBUs: 18

The almond aroma is strong in this one, it smells great. It has a nice, malty sweetness with hints of marzipan, accomplishing what they set out to do. If you like your beers a little on the sweeter side, this one is a good choice.

Ninkasi Brewing: Golden Milk & Cookies Golden Milk Ale • ABV: 7.1%

It has a strong aroma of cinnamon and other spices that are more subtle in the flavor. It’s pretty balanced with a nutty malt sweetness upfront that finishes bitter. Pretty good beer.

Stoup Brewing: Raspy Angel Bourbon Barrel-Aged Stout • ABV: 11.0% • IBUs: 80

This beer seemed to replace “Tropical Blizzard” that was in the program, so there wasn’t a description. That said, this was obviously a stout, probably imperial. It is fairly sweet and has lots of vanilla and coconut going on, overall pretty delicious. The name sort of implies that there might be raspberries in it, but I didn’t detect any.

Deep Space Brewing: Imperial Session Stout Stout • ABV: 5.5%

This is a very tasty beer,with pleasant aroma,  light coconut flavor, and smooth malty finish. The name however makes no sense to me, nothing about it says imperial, but I suppose it’s a bit lighter in ABV than a traditional Irish Stout.

Gateway Brewing – Not Grandma’s Cranberry Sauce Winter Ale • ABV: 9.0%

Hoppy and Barleywine like upfront, this beer has a light cranberry taste and lots of malty, biscuity flavors in the finish. I enjoyed this one, a solid choice. 

Upright Brewing Sherry Barrel Stock Ale Stock Ale • ABV: 8.0% • IBUs: 40

Oak and sherry notes as advertised. A blend of a sherry barrel-aged beer with young beer from Level. A fireside sipper worth the 2 token asking price.

Oakshire Brewing: Nui Nui Tiki Sour American Sour Ale • ABV: 8.0%

Very orange forward, and good mixed drink flavor. I think they did a nice job in styling this beer as a fruity cocktail. You could definitely enjoy this one while wearing your Hawaiian shirt. 

Pear Up: Cranpeary Salted Caramel Perry • ABV: 5.2%

Dry, not too sweet, this was a surprise treat for me. You can taste the salted caramel without the sticky sweet mouthfeel that I was dreading when I saw the description. 

Pelican Brewing: Old Fashioned At Sea Dark Strong Ale • ABV: 7.9% • IBUs: 18

The first of the cocktail inspired beers that I tried, this one is complex and malty with hints of orange and bourbon. It does taste like the mixed drink down to a hint of soda sweetness and slightly boozy finish. 

Threshold Brewing & Blending Grandma’s Loaded Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout Blend • ABV: 10.0%

A warm and inviting boozy fruitcake-esque stout. Deep and dark, but opens up to cherries, raisins and dates if you let it warm in your hand a bit.


AVOID:

Ecliptic Brewing- Pinot Noir Barrel-Aged Ecliptic+Russian River Belgian Style Golden Ale Barrel-Aged Belgian-Style Hoppy Golden Ale • ABV: 8.5% • IBUs: 32

The wine barrel tannin characteristics were nice on this beer, and I enjoyed the fruity flavors of the belgian yeast. That said, there was a sweet/sour aroma that I just couldn’t quite put my finger on that was distracting to me. I just don’t know if this beer quite achieves the synergy that I would hope for from these two great breweries. Maybe skip it if you’re being frugal with your tickets.

Crux Fermentation Project: Clearly Confused Blonde Stout • ABV: 9.0%

You’re  confused if you think people want to drink this beer. Unpleasant bitter malt, tiny hint of vanilla, just the faintest bit of chocolate. Stop trying to make blonde stouts a thing. 

Stormbreaker Brewing: Pretty Fly for a Chai Guy Chai-Spiced Winter Warmer • ABV: 8.5% • IBUs: 22

Chai flavored beers are difficult to pull off, as evidenced by this one which has more of a harsh woody/earthy spice note than the required sweet, smooth and creaminess. Bitter beer flavors dont go well with chai spices and it’s a rare case where I think a flavoring might actually be better (softer) than actual fresh spices.

Deluxe Brewing: Deluxe Old Ale Barrel-Aged Old Ale • ABV: 9.2% • IBUs: 27

Unfortunately the sour old ale just does not work for me, especially when it overwhelms the base beer such as this one.

Boneyard Beer: Dibble Dabble with a Dubbel Belgian-Style Dubbel • ABV: 8.0% • IBUs: 20

Found this offering to be thin with a toothpaste-like flavors.

ABOUT THE FEST:

The purchase of an entry package is required to enter the venue. Advance general admission for one person costs $40 and includes the 2019 tasting glass and 12 taster tickets, plus express re-entry all five days (express re-entry requires a wristband and the 2019 tasting glass and is subject to festival capacity). A GiftPass advance general admission for two costs $80 for two tasting glasses and 28 tasting tickets (an additional four tasting tickets). 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.

General admission at the door costs $40 and includes the 2019 tasting cup and 12 taster tickets but does not allow for expedited entry. Most beers and ciders cost one ticket for a taste, or four tickets for a full pour. 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.  There are no designated driver tickets available; the festival is located along TriMet MAX Light Rail Blue and Red lines and is easily accessible to rideshare companies. Lyft has a designated drop off and pick up area at Pioneer Courthouse Square at SW Broadway St.

An onsite coat and bag check and the Crater Lake Soda Garden raises funds for 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. The Holiday Ale Festival rounds up, then doubles and matches all funds raised. The festival offers two food vendors and self-guided cheese and beer pairings. The event is for ages 21 and over.

For more information, visit www.holidayale.com and follow the event @HolidayAleFest on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using hashtag #HolidayAle.

About the Holiday Ale Festival
The Holiday Ale Festival started as the Winter Ale Festival in 1995 and continued in 1996, then took a year off in 1997. It returned as the Holiday Ale Festival in 1998 and is now regarded as presenting one of the best lineups of beers and ciders anywhere in the nation.







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

Discussion