First, it's worth throwing out a few links. The official website is rich with data, including a list of the beers, a downloadable program (.pdf), and a list and release schedule for the special, single-keg beers that will pour. The truth is, you will not sample all the good beer at this fest. There's way too much of it. You will also blunder and devote some stomach space to "meh" beer. Thems the facts at any fest. However, pay attention to Twitter (I think the predominant hash tag is #HolidayAleFest) and watch the blogs. I will probably not be able to make my usual Saturday run, so I'll be weighing in after evening jaunts. I probably won't be alone. [Update. It looks like #haf2010 may actually be the go-to hashtag. Stay tuned.)
Okay, now onto the picks and pans. I have stolen these reviews from the estimable bloggers at It's Pub Night, 999 Beers, The New School, Portland Beer and Music, The Not So Professional Beer Blog, and Brewpublic. Since I am not fully reproducing all their wisdom, I strongly encourage you to click through and read their posts yourself.
Although we have a pool of six blogs, it actually results in nine reviews, thanks to the New School's group approach. Two beers were cited by eight reviewers as standouts; the next highest-grossing beers rang in at five. In other words, these are absolute musts:
- Cascade Brewing Sang Noir. "5/5, Booyah!" (999 Beers). "A real sour-lover's beer" (Samurai Artist, The New School).
- Lompoc Franc'ly Brewdolph. "Think aged Jubelale, with a Belgian nose and a hint of red wine." (It's Pub Night). "Aged in Cabernet Franc barrels for 13 months and then blended with Brewdolph" (Not So Professional beer Blog). "A brilliant winter beer all around." (Ben Edmunds, New School).
The next duo garnered love from about half the reviewers (five citing them as must-tries). That means there's a fifty-fifty chance you'll love these beers--not bad.
- Columbia River Paddler's Porter. This is the new brewery that took over the Laurelwood Pizza House location. They make a surprisingly impressive debut. "A big, rich chocolate and vanilla porter with a roasty aroma," (Jacob Grier, New School). "A deep chewy seven-malted lager," (Brewpublic).
- Alameda Papa Noel's Midnight Reserve. ""A nice whiskey oak nose, earthy hop flavor, caramel malt sweetness, and lingering bitterness." (Ritch Marvin, New School). "Like a slightly richer Full Sail Wassail." (It's Pub Night).
Finally, our last pairing seemed to really divide the group. They got mostly positive notices (four called them must-tries), but they also got singled out for opprobrium. In other words, your mileage may vary:
- Block 15 Figgy Pudding, Olde Stock. Raves: "This version is aged with a wild yeast strain that provides a bit of earthiness and funk (good funk) that’s not present in the bottle version," (Not So Professional Beer blog). "Huge raisin-y, figgy thing going on; must try," (999 Beers). Rant: "Too boozy, and surprisingly bitter," (It's Pub Night).
- Natian Old Grogham IPA. Raves: "Very rich, creamy and chewy, but with tons of grassy and spicy hops," (Samurai Artist, New School). "Rum-soaked Oregon oak spires were added during the final stages of fermentation to compliment this high alpha 8.5% ABV 86 IBU lupulin bomb," (Brewpublic). Rant: "The only IPA at the fest. I didn't like it," (Portland beer and Music.)
Pig in a Poke
The media preview was pre-selected by Preston Weesner, the fest's beer-wrangler, to illustrate the range of beers available. That means he left out lots of beers that might otherwise have been rated must-tries by the Brotherhood of Bloggers. Which are those must tries? Here are my best guesses:
- Boneyard Femme Fatale. A raspberry/cranberry sour ale from a brewery about which I am totally ignorant. But a fruit sour--nice beer to debut with!
- Breakside Belge d'Hiver. Mainly because I'm a sucker for beers with French-language titles.
- Collaborator Aegir's Cauldron. A barrel-aged Baltic Porter.
- Double Mountain Bockus. Apparently a dark doppelbock (schwarzbock?)--and one of the few lagers at the fest.
- Fort George North the Fourth. North III was one of the best last year, so I look forward to this year's editkion--made with candy canes, spruce tips, and cranberries.
- Hopworks Kentucky Christmas. The amazing Abominable Ale aged in bourbon casks.
- Lucky Lab Pavlov's. Not so many stouts this year, but this imperial was aged in pinot barrels.
- Widmer Black Dynamite. Brewer Scott Kacek added chocolate nibs, lemon zest, and peppercorns to this Baltic Porter.
Almost every beer pouring in limited release looks fantastic. No matter when you go, be sure to check the website to see what will be pouring then. But, if like me you arrange your fest-going around the release times of these beers, you might consider:
- Wednesday, 2pm. New Belgium Love (2009). The base beer for the brewery's sour line.
- Thursday, 2pm. Deschutes Oak-aged Jubel (2000). I don't know if this was a stronger batch than usual, so it may be a bit gone, but I'm willing to try.
- Friday, 2pm. BridgePort Old Knucklehead (2003). Hair of the Dog JIM (2009). Seven-year old barleywine is just hitting its adolescence, and the JIM '09 was the best since '07.
- Saturday, 2pm. Fort George North III. As I mentioned, this was a fantastic beer, and a year later, it should be fantasticker.