Santa Claus might be a Dutch invention, but it’s another Low Country, Belgium, that’s provided inspiration for Christmas offerings from several of the area’s newest breweries.
If you’re interested in variations on a yeast, compare Tidings from Port City Brewing Co. in Alexandria with RhiNoel from Lost Rhino Brewing Co. in Ashburn. Lost Rhino brewer Favio Garcia borrowed the Belgian yeast strain from Port City (craft brewers are neighborly about such things) to ferment his first-ever winter seasonal: a strong, dark ale that’s “a little sweeter than traditional Belgian dubbels but not super-sweet.” Garcia added dark candy sugar, which bumped the alcohol up to 7.5 percent by volume, but no spices. RhiNoel is available in kegs and 750-milliliter bottles; the bottles are conditioned with a dollop of fresh yeast, making them suitable for cellaring.
Port City’s Tidings, slightly more potent at 7.8 percent alcohol, is a strong Belgian-style blond ale, flavored with Maryland wildflower honey, coriander, cardamom, ginger root and grains of paradise for “a gentle, warm spice character,” according to owner Bill Butcher. This multi-grain brew also contains malted oats and a little unmalted red wheat. Tidings was released in kegs and six-packs of 12-ounce bottles.
If you miss out on this limited run (only 550 cases were bottled, says Butcher), Port City will be one of the breweries featured at the second of R.F.D. Washington’s annual holiday tastings, set for Wednesday, Dec. 14.
In the District, DC Brau is working on The Citizen Noel, a pumped-up take on its Belgian-style pale ale, The Citizen. CEO Brandon Skall expected this quadruple-strength ale (patterned after “the really big Belgian Christmas beers”) to clock in at 11-12 percent alcohol. The recipe was still in the brainstorming stage as of press time, but expect “lots of malt sweetness, a lot of Belgian candy sugar and traditional Christmas spices,” notes Skall.
The draft-only Citizen Noel is slated for release the week before Christmas, unusually late for an industry that’s pretty much thrown in the towel to seasonal creep, often dropping winter beers on the market well before Thanksgiving. Skall explains that his 30-barrel batch size gets spread pretty thin, so he has to time the release carefully. “If we released it a month before Christmas, it would all be gone in a week.”
Skall, however, was expecting the imminent arrival of a couple stocking stuffers — two 60-barrel fermenters and a 60-barrel conditioning tank — that he hopes will allow him to boost production enough to return to the off-premise market and move back into the Northern Virginia suburbs.
In Rockville, Paul Rinehart of Baying Hound Aleworks was about to tap a few strong ales that, while not traditional Belgian styles, follow the Belgian philosophy of throwing anything into the brew kettle as long as it tastes good. He describes one as a “s’mores beer” containing marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate. The effect of the first two ingredients, concedes Rinehart, is “more psychological,” but the dark unsweetened chocolate and cocoa powder he adds at several points during the mash and boil are evident in the finished product.
Rinehart also will offer a sugar beet wheat beer clocking in at a hefty 14 percent alcohol, and in mid-December, he will tap an American-style barley wine aged on oak chips soaked in Bushmills. These experimental brews will be available only at the brewery, but “we do growler fills,” adds Rinehart.
Chocolate City Brewing Co., the other D.C. operation to open during the past year, is too busy filling demand for its current lineup to offer a holiday brew, says partner Jay Irizarry. But he plans to contribute a special cask version of his Cornerstone Copper Ale to a beer-and-food pairing planned for The Big Board on Dec. 7.
Also, 3 Stars Brewing Co. in Takoma Park won’t fire up its brew kettle until shortly after the New Year, says co-founder Dave Coleman. But he has another collaboration beer set for release within the next week and a half. The second installment in his B.W. Rye series, brewed in collaboration with Steve Jones of Baltimore’s Pratt Street Ale House, incorporates three types of malted rye and a little-known hop called Styrian Bobek, an offshoot of the Styrian Goldings commonly used for English-style ales. “It’s not a holiday beer,” says Coleman, “but it’s perfect for the cold weather ahead.”