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The Twelve Beers of Christmas

Andrew Nagy
Posted: December 21, 2012

It's the final weekend before Christmas. The lights are strung, the tree is trimmed, and aside from a few last-minute tasks, you finally have the time to light up a few premium cigars, relax with a soul-warming beer, and reflect.

Perhaps you're thankful to be a craft beer drinker in the United States right now, and for good reason: there's a lot of good beers on the shelves nowadays. Impact Databank numbers show craft brewers saw 13 percent by volume industry growth in 2011. Additionally, the Brewers Assocation, which represents 99 percent of the beer brewed in the U.S., reports an additional 12 percent growth for the first half of 2012.

To satisfy your thirst for craft beer, we thought it natural to find some of the best options for winter that not only are delicious, but pair well with cigars.

You won't find any leaping lords or milking maids on this list. What you will find, though, are a couple of barley wines, some beers from Canada, a 28 percent alcohol liquid that defies normal beer standards, and a brew based on a 2,800 year old recipe.

Hop City's Barking Squirrel Lager
(5 percent alcohol by volume, $7.99 for four-pack of 16 oz. cans)

Hailing from Ontario as the flagship beer of Hop City Brewing, Barking Squirrel recently debuted in the United States market (lucky us). A combination of malts—Canadian Pale 2 Row, Crystal and Munich—provide a backbone that is balanced by traditional Hallertau Mittelfrüh and Saaz hops.

While not high in alcohol, this red lager remains flavorful, sessionable and surprisingly warming.

APPEARANCE: Clear amber color with a surprisingly foamy white head. Sticky lacing.

AROMA: A crisp and clean hop smell dominates, with just a touch of cereal, herbal and floral notes.

PALATE: The slightly spicy beginning turns to biscuit and grassy notes, followed by a hint of nuts. Mouthfeel is light and finish is crisp, but leaves the tongue tingling with the same spice note from the start.

CIGAR: Quesada Oktoberfest Kurz (Not yet rated) The dry smoke softens the spice of the lager and brings out some earth flavors in the liquid as well as a caramel note in the cigar.

Samuel Adams' Stony Brook Red (9 percent a.b.v, $9.99 for 750 ml)

In the world of wine, brettanomyces yeasts and lactobacillus are considered undesirable, but in the hands of a skilled brewmaster, magic can happen. Inspired by the tartness of Belgian Reds and Flemish Oud Bruin, the folks at Sam Adams began with a unique "starter" ale of sorts called Kosmic Mother Funk (KMF), then added brett and lactobacillus to create a liquid that was then aged in Hungarian oak tuns, before emerging as Stony Red. It is one of four barrel-aged beers that make up the brewery's Barrel Room Collection, which all feature KMF in their respective blends.

Stony Brook is by far the most sour of the four Barrel Room creations, and since it's been bottle-conditioned like the other three, it's a great candidate for aging.

APPEARANCE: Pours a ruddy, reddish brown with a nice beige head that sticks to the glass and remains throughout the life of the beer.

NOSE: Strong sour fruit smell, with a touch of esters, earth and meat that culminate into a note that is reminiscent of a McDonald's chicken nugget (no joke).

PALATE: Tart flavors, particularly sour apple, hit the tongue and then at midpalate, a delicate earthy-oak flavor emerges until the sour and floral finish. The liquid is lively throughout.

CIGAR: Romeo y Julieta Petit Churchill (91 points) The saltiness of the cigar adds wonderful balance to the tart juice, and it brings out more of the oak quality of the beer.

Shmaltz's He'Brew Jewbelation Sweet 16 (16 percent a.b.v, $10 for a 750 ml bottle)

You didn't think I overlooked Chanakuh, did you? Shmaltz Brewing, a proudly Judaic-inspired brewery started in San Francisco, used 16 different hops and 16 different malts in this high-alcohol brew, which is the eighth expression in Shmaltz Brewing's acclaimed Jewbelation series. This barrel-aged, limited-edition brew's high a.b.v. and flavor profile make it a great one to cellar.

APPEARANCE: Pours nearly pitch black with almost no head, save for a thin layer of dark tan foam that sticks nicely to the glass.

NOSE: A boozy, complex bouquet that offers hints of chocolate, licorice, pumpernickel bread and dates.

PALATE: Strong alcohol anchors this full-bodied brew before it turns to caramel and crème brûlée at the midpoint. The finale is a complex array of toffee, anise and boozy coffee.

CIGAR: Alec Bradley Prensado Torpedo (92 points) The leather, toast and chocolate notes of the cigar play off the complexity of the beer, balancing as well as enhancing flavors. Pleasant bursts of chocolate are especially evident.

Redhook's Double Black Stout (7 percent a.b.v, $3.99)

First brewed 17 years ago, Redhook brought Double Black Stout back to the market, due to popular demand, as part of the brewery's famed Blueline Series in 2008. Since then, the brew has been released annually on a limited basis.

This year, the brewery worked with Seattle's Caffe Vita Coffee Roasting Co. to really ramp up the java taste.

APPEARANCE: Dark brown fades to black with a wonderful cappuccino-colored head.

NOSE: A bouquet of strong, dark-roasted coffee, caramel and toffee notes.

PALATE: Definitive coffee flavors become a bit more caramel at mid-sip, with delicate floral, mocha and chocolate nib notes emerging on the end. Solid medium body throughout.

CIGAR: La Reloba Selección Sumatra Torpedo (94 points) The coffee notes of the smoke ramp up the coffee in the beer while the cigar's vanilla quality rounds out the caramel and nibs flavors.

Widmer Brothers' Old Embalmer '12 (10.2 percent a.b.v, $12.99 for a 22 oz. bottle)

A member of the Widmer Brothers Brewing Alchemy Project, which started in 2011, Old Embalmer is the third expression in the series and the first barley wine. Each of the beers has been brewed to be cellared, and all use the brewery's Alchemy hops, which is a blend of Horizon and Warrior made just for Widmer.

APPEARANCE: Pours a translucent, polished amber with sticky, off-white lacing.

NOSE: A thick pine scent is rounded out by delicate notes of grapefruit, lemon, biscuit and a hint of rose water.

PALATE: Bold spice up front leads this effervescent liquid with a silky mouthfeel to a toffee, vanilla, sweet caramel, and chewy finish.

CIGAR: L'Atelier LAT52 (92 points) The wood and leather notes play well with the vanilla in the beer while the nuts and salty taffy quality of the smoke balance the sweet caramel. A joyous pair.

Dogfish Head's Birra Etrusca (8.5 percent a.b.v, $14.99 for a 750 ml bottle)

The newest addition to Dogfish Head's Ancient Ales series, Birra Etrusca's recipe can be traced back 2,800 years. Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione visited the tombs with a molecular biologist, analyzed old drinking vessels and with the help of brewers from Italian breweries Birra del Borgo and Baladin, tracked down some of the specialty ingredients, which include Italian chestnut honey, gentian root and myrrh resin. The liquid was then fermented in bronze. There are also two other version of the liquid brewed by the partnering Italian breweries. Those liquids were aged in wood and terra cotta.

APPEARANCE: Semitransparent copper on the pour, much like an Amontillado sherry, with a green tinge on the surface. Lacing at first, but fades during the drink.

NOSE: Heavy honey note on the first whiff, with boozy raisins and an apple-like acidity added.

PALATE: A bright, bubbly liquid that starts off with sweet apples and pomegranate flavors soon brings in a background of nutmeg and nuts, with a nice and long tart apple finish.

CIGAR: Cuba Aliados Capa Habano Cabinet Reserva Robusto (93 points) The hints of red wine from the smoke coax more fruit from the beer, creating a near-apricot taste  on the tongue. The bodies of the smoke and liquid balance each other well.

Firestone Walker's XVI Anniversary Ale
(13 percent a.b.v., $23 for a 650 ml bottle)

Since 2006, Firestone Walker has released a limited-edition anniversary ale. The unique aspect of this beer is its a blend of multiple barrel-aged beers that the company brews on a regular basis. All total, 226 oak barrels and eight different beers have found it's way into XVI, giving the beer a complexity that is out of this world. This year's blend includes 42 percent stout and liquid that has seen time in barrels that housed tequila.

APPEARANCE: Comes out of the bottle a dark brown, nearly cola color that, when held up to light, shows olive green and red tinge. Thin coat of espresso-colored lacing revive with a swirl of the glass.

NOSE: A complex, boozy fragrance settles to offer mocha, licorice, bubblegum, cacao and vanilla notes.

PALATE: A lovely, smooth mouthfeel, trace bourbon and brandy notes hit the tip of the tongue and release a ton of flavor: spiced cacao, roasted cocoa bean. The drying alcohol and caramel finish begs for smoke.

CIGAR: Arturo Fuente Ańejo No. 77 (93 points) The cigar's salty notes grab a hold of the malts and balance the ride to a sweet conclusion, elongating the cacao and mocha flavors.

Hangar 24's Hullabaloo Winter Beer (6.5 percent a.b.v., $9 for a four-pack of 12 oz. bottles)

A Scottish-style ale, this brew is a true winter warmer, as the hops are downplayed by the European and American malts.

APPEARANCE: Pours a burnt, reddish-brown with a decent, off-white head.

NOSE: Roasted malts bordering on smoky become toasty and bready.

PALATE: The faint smoke smell translates to a slighty spicy start, followed by malty notes of coffee and toffee before a pleasant, though faint, hazelnut finish.

CIGAR: Room 101 Daruma Mutante (Not yet rated) The muddled chocolate and spice notes of the cigar mesh well with the beer, bringing out the hazelnut finish and easing the coffee notes into more of a mocha.

Innis & Gunn's Winter Beer 2012 (7.4 percent a.b.v., $10.99 for a four-pack of 12 oz. bottles)

The fourth limited-edition beer to hit the United States from Innis & Gunn, Winter Beer can also fall into the winter warmer category.

Using a 19th century beer recipe, brewmaster Dougal Sharp started with molasses and aged the liquid in oak to let it mature, just like all beers he creates.

APPEARANCE: Pours an almost ruby red color with a creamy white head. Fairly sticky lacing

NOSE: Boozy up front followed by notes of chocolate nibs, herbal spice, wood and a touch of vanilla.

PALATE: A sweet beginning of molasses, figs and chocolate culminate in a pleasant, oaky finish that leaves a chewy mouthfeel and lingering vanilla notes.

CIGAR: San Lotano Oval Robusto (90 points) The creamy smoke matches the body of this beer well, making a nice base for the flavors to meld. The smoke coaxes more spice from the beer and turns the vanilla a bit more toasty.

Unibroue's Trois Pistoles (9 percent a.b.v., $8.99 for 750 ml bottle)

First brewed in 1997, this abbey style strong dark ale is the second Canadian beer on the list. This brew uses a Belgian top-fermenting yeast, and another yeast is added just before the liquid is bottled. This bottle-conditioning triggers a natural fermentation in the liquid and protects it from oxygen, meaning it can be aged for up to eight years.

APPEARANCE: Pours a cloudy brown with a fluffy beige head and lacing to match.

NOSE: Floral bouquet of grapes, berries and zest with a hint of banana, chocolate and dark rum.

PALATE: The effervescent liquid starts out with immense notes of dried plums and sour apricot before the smooth roasted chocolate, fig and oak finish.

CIGAR: Romeo y Julieta Exhibición No. 4 (91 points) The salty cigar notes keep the dried fruit notes at bay, allowing the cigar's woodiness to bring out the pleasant oak and fig finish.

Grand Teton's Coming Home 2012 (10 percent a.b.v., $14.99 for a 750 ml bottle)

Part of Grand Teton's Cellar Reserve Series, which started in 2010, Coming Home is another bottle-conditioned beer. Two-row pale barley from Idaho, as well as German and Belgian specialty malts, are used in the brew. To balance the malts, five pounds of American hops, Chinook and Galena, were added, along with Bravos grown in Idaho.

APPEARANCE: Pours translucent copper with a green tinge. Head is creamy white with sticky lacing.

NOSE: Strong notes of wood, pine and grass are complemented by floral and grapefruit notes.

PALATE: Opens with a burst of grapefruit before changing pace at the midpoint and offering fig, date and raisin notes. A malty, yet pleasantly bitter aftertaste means a complex finish.

CIGAR: Illusione Epernay Le Taureau (94 points) The number three cigar of 2011 doesn't disappoint as its chocolate sweetness plays well with the dried fruit flavors of the beer.

Samuel Adams' Utopias 10th Anniversary Batch (28 percent a.b.v., $160 per bottle)

Probably the most unique beer, and the most sought after, on the market, Utopias was introduced in 2002. The beer is normally released every two years (the last batch was 2011), but for the 10th anniversary of the program, an exception was made. The laborious process to create Utopias takes place entirely at the company's Boston Brewery and is arguably akin to the methodology the Belgians use to create their lambics. Jim Koch, founder of Samuel Adams, and the other brewers start with a malt that has been sweetened with maple syrup. The sweet wort is then balanced by the noble hops Spalt Spalter, Hallertau Mittelfrüh and Tettnang Tettnanger—varieties considered by brewmasters to be the only hops suitable for traditional German lager. To further balance the wort, ale yeasts are then pitched in, as well as yeast strains that are typically reserved for wine and Champagne.

APPEARANCE: Pours an opaque dark brown with no carbonation. Sturdy legs, reminiscent of a dark spirit like brandy or rum.

NOSE: A boozy, complex fragrance of alcohol with dark fruit, rum, Cognac, maple syrup and tawny port notes.

PALATE: Loads of molasses, raisins and dark berries hit the mouth before this heavy liquid's distinct Cognac, vanilla and cocoa notes come in at the midpoint. The finish is malty and long.

CIGAR: Partagás Short (91 points) The nutmeg flavors of this smoke bring a nice spice quotient to this complex beer, while the saltiness balances out the liquid's sweetness. True bliss.

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