If holiday cocktails aren't your game, there are plenty of brewers suggesting you wish Jesus a happy birthday with their own drinks this month, and Block 7 Wine Company, 720 Shepherd, was happy to get folks started last weekend with a holiday beer tasting.
We found it well worth the $5 cover, though we suspect wine operations manager Charles Kirkwood might have arranged the drinks to nudge patrons toward the pricier Belgian imports. (Having spent two weeks in Belgium a few years back, seemingly never without one of the natives' 600-odd beer offerings in my hand, I have to say it's hard to argue with the strategy.)
Most of the guests we talked to most liked the first of seven brews on offer, the DeTroch Chapeau Christmas Gueuze, among the quirkier of Belgium's beers (it runs $4.99 for a pack or $59.88 for a case, the cheapest of the Euro-booze on offer). Though Kirkwood pronounced it "Gooz," the Flemish I drank with called it "HOO-zuh." Either way, the 50 percent wheat, 50 percent barley mix, fermented with wild yeast (rather than cultures grown in labs), would be awfully sour without the brewer's effort to balance it with raisins. The raisins are surprisingly easy to taste in the glass, and they're pleasant. I suspect many Americans wouldn't even label gueuze "beer," though it is frothy and a bit bitter. But it's also sour and sweet, far sweeter than any lager. I'd simply label it worth trying.
The next offering, Delirium Noel, a Belgian Dubbel ($13.99 pack, $167.88 case), didn't really stand up after the gueuze's laundry list of flavors. Dubbels are often flavored with fruits, driving up the sugar and thus the alcohol content, and while that makes for a fun holiday party, this brew seems to have ditched the "balance" Kirkwood sought to show in the Belgian offerings. There is a small hint of fruit and spices somewhere in the back of the mouth, but it's bludgeoned by the booze. The fourth beer (St. Bernardus, another dark Belgian Christmas ale, $9.99 pack, $119.88 case) might have been too cold when tasted, but came across much the same way.
If you are set on a Belgian Christmas brew, I'd go for the gueuze or St. Feuillien Cuvee de Noel ($10.99 pack, $131.88 case) over the others listed above. The Cuvee de Noel felt more familiar to the vats of dubbels I guzzled across the pond, with a darker-colored body and a sweeter, more complex finish.
The final three beers on offer were domestics, and I have to say Kirkwood proved his point: "When Americans drink alcohol -- whether it's wine or beer -- it's meant to be consumed by itself," he said. "The beverage is meant to hit you over the head like an aluminum bat."
Similes aside, after the quirky, complex, sometimes puzzling Belgians, all three dark domestics just tasted, well, dark, thanks to the generous helpings of roasted barley that lend them their color and much of their taste.
Even the Christmas Ale from the venerable Anchor brewery in California ($10.99 pack, $43.96 case) made me feel like I'd roasted a marshmallow, eaten it, and was now gnawing on the burnt end of the stick. Despite an engaging, sweet aroma, the Hibernation Ale from Colorado's Great Divide Brewing Co. ($10.99 pack, $43.96 case) was also buried in roasted flavor. Happily, our local St. Arnold Christmas Ale ($7.49 pack, $29.06 case) presented the most balance, but it's in the same ballpark.
I'd like to try all seven again in precisely the opposite order, (and think maybe I should have in the first place). That said, if you -- like many of the pleasantly surprised guests at the tasting -- have never tried a Belgian beer, this holiday is as good an excuse as any to start.