Cigar Aficionado

The Winter Warmer Holiday 12-Pack

If you're like most lovers of the leaf, you'll most certainly be spending New Year's enjoying a number of your favorite cigars. Maybe a Padrón here or a Fuente there, or how about one of those tasty-looking Cubans you have stashed away in the bottom of your humidor?

It also means you'll be pairing those cigars with libations, and it's likely those potent potables will include a few measures of Bourbon, a dram or two of Scotch or perhaps even a stick of rum splashed into your eggnog. And why not? The winter months are upon us and we all need the occasional spirit to warm up our insides.

But say you're a beer drinker. Or, let's put it another way: aren't we all beer drinkers? What happens then? Brown spirits have always gotten the nod as the best drinks to pair with cigars because they're complex, full-bodied and they taste so damn good. But aren't there any beers out there that are up to the challenge?

Well, 'tis the season. If you take a look in your local beer stores around this time of year, you'll find a number of hearty brews that will not only warm the paunch, but will also hold their own with a cigar. Many breweries have released their winter seasonals and others have given special attention to fuller-bodied beers that are heavy in character and, usually, higher in alcohol. Traditionally, these include such styles as India Pale Ale, strong ale and barley wine, stout and porter.

With so many beers on the market today, it can be difficult for a consumer to select one that he'll not only like, but that will also pair well with a cigar. Trial and error can be a good thing -- and is necessary in a lot of circumstances -- but it's always good to have an idea of what your palate is looking for, while keeping in mind the cigars that you normally like to smoke.

To help you on your way, we did a tasting of winter brews, winnowing the list down to 12 fine brews. We're only scratching the surface, but these 12 beers offer a good starting point for any beer drinker looking for a few brews to suck on during the holidays. We tasted each beer on its own, then again with two cigars: a medium-bodied C.A.O. Criollo Bomba from Nicaragua and a fuller-flavored Cuban El Rey del Mundo Choix Supreme.

Here are the results.

Allagash Grand Cru
(Allagash Brewing Co., Portland, Maine)
Since it opened in 1995, the Allagash Brewing Co. has dedicated itself to crafting Belgian-style ales and the classic brewing methods first practiced by monks in Belgium during the Middle Ages. This dedication has won the company gold medals at the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival.

Allagash Grand Cru is the brewery's winter seasonal, and rightly so. Grand Cru tastes like the holidays. It has a cinnamon and spice aroma, with a light trace of citrus and fruit. Spice flavors abound, with notes of malt and nutmeg, and it is bright, balanced and not too sweet or heavy.

Both the C.A.O. Criollo and the El Rey Del Mundo Choix Supreme paired well with the Grand Cru, as each reacted splendidly to the spices in the ale.

Brother Adam's Bragget Ale
(Atlantic Brewing Co., Bar Harbor, Maine)
Dating back 1,000 years ago, bragget was a style of barley wine popular in Wales. It was brewed with equal parts honey and barley, and aged in cellars during the winter months.

Brother Adam's matches that style. It's aged for up to a year before being bottled (the ones we sampled were marked 2001) and is very complex, not to mention high in alcohol (11.8% Alcohol By Volume). The addition of 2,000 pounds of Maine wildflower honey during the boil gives it sweetness and a dark, golden color. Honey flavors are obvious, and there's a creamy, vanilla finish.

Brother Adam's fared the best of the 12 in terms of pairing with the C.A.O., giving the cigar a distinctive honey character. The El Rey del Mundo also paired well, but we found that the honey didn't come through as well and that the finish on the Cuban cigar became slightly muddled.

Dogfish Head 60 Minute I.P.A.
(Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Milton, Delaware)
One of the fastest growing craft breweries in the United States, Dogfish Head brews its family of India Pale Ales for the unabashed hops lover. All three of their I.P.A.s -- 60 Minute, 90 Minute, and 120 Minute -- are intensely hoppy, full in character and excellent winter warmers.

The 60 Minute gets its name from the single hops addition that is infused continuously during the hour-long boil. (The boiling process occurs prior to fermentation when the wort -- a term for the malt and water mash that becomes beer -- is boiled in a large kettle and hops are added.) The result is a complex, hoppy beer that's pleasantly bitter. It is chewy, with pronounced fruit and citrus notes, and a touch of black coffee.

While the 60 Minute I.P.A. was an excellent beer standing alone, it seemed to clash with both cigars. The hops and its overall heavy character seemed to fight against the smokes.

Edmund Fitzgerald Porter
(Great Lakes Brewing Co., Cleveland, Ohio)
Taking its name from the bulk freighter that sank in Lake Superior in 1975 and was immortalized by musician Gordon Lightfoot, the Edmund Fitzgerald Porter is a classic representation of a style that originated among railroad workers in Great Britain in the 1800s. Similar to a stout with its black color and heavy body, porter is characteristically bitter, with lots of roasted coffee and chocolate flavors.

The Edmund Fitzgerald is just that. It is loaded with roasted malt flavors, and plenty of coffee, caramel and cocoa notes come to the fore. It was a decent pairing with the C.A.O., though it made the cigar spike a bit, and we found it to be a neutral pairing with the El Rey del Mundo.

Long Trail Double Bag
(Long Trail Brewing Co., Bridgewater Corners, Vermont)
From the Green Mountain State, Long Trail Double Bag is ale that is complex and flavorful, and one that will knock you on your rear if you aren't careful. At 7.2% ABV, you won't have a hard time getting your bag on, or even two bags for that matter.

It is pleasantly rich, with an apple aroma and flavor notes of wheat, vanilla and bread. It has a hoppy aftertaste, but the bitterness has an elegant edge to it. This bitterness didn't work with the C.A.O., giving the cigar it's own bitter quality, but with the El Rey del Mundo, it was superb. The pairing took away a lot of the ale's bitterness and produced a burst of leather and wood flavors.

Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale
(Anchor Brewing Co., San Francisco)
Barley wine, or strong ale as it is sometimes called, has risen in popularity over the last several years. More and more beer lovers have become familiar with this form of brew, and subsequently, more and more breweries are releasing interpretations of the style.

First bottled in 1975, Old Foghorn was the first of its kind in the United States and has set the standard for barley wine in this country. Recommended as a post prandial, it is high in alcohol (8.8% ABV) with a sweet caramel and maple nose. Warm, fruit flavors are abundant, with notes of spice, alcohol and hops.

This beer matched very well with the C.A.O. Criollo, enhancing it with honey sweetness. It also worked nicely with the El Rey del Mundo, with the cigar becoming increasingly leathery.

Pike XXXXX Stout
(Pike Brewing Co., Seattle)
When most people think of stout, the name that immediately comes to mind is Guinness, also known as the Genius or Black Gold. However, while Guinness sets the standard for Irish stout, along with lesser brands like Murphy's and Beamish, its popularity is by no means confined to the Emerald Isle; a majority of breweries this side of the broad Atlantic have released a stout at one time or another.

Pike 5X is itself a dry stout brewed in the Irish style and may draw some comparisons to a classic draught like Guinness. It is rich and heavy, black in color, and has many of the characteristics so familiar to stout. In Pike 5X, we found lots of roasted flavors and loads of cocoa and coffee notes. The finish was dominated by espresso, along with a slight bitterness common to the style.

This stout matched best with the El Rey del Mundo. The cigar gave the stout a spike of sweetness, while the roasted coffee flavors brought out distinct leather and espresso flavors in the cigar.

Samuel Adams Chocolate Bock
(Boston Brewing Co., Boston)
While bock beer is historically considered a springtime tradition, this dark brew from Samuel Adams has a winter feeling to it. Brewed with a blend of Scharffen Berger chocolate and cocoa beans, along with caramel and chocolate malts, it's easy to guess what the taste is.

This beer is all chocolate, with a slight bitterness that lingers on the palate. With the C.A.O. Criollo, this beer worked very well, primarily because the cigar softened the intense chocolate flavor that dominates the brew. With the El Rey del Mundo, the pairing was questionable and one of our tasters was quick to ask, "Why mix a cigar like the Choix Supreme with a chocolate beer?"

Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome Ale
(Samuel Smith's, Tadcaster, England)
It is no secret that breweries around the globe traditionally offer stronger beer with a heavier character during the holidays. Samuel Smith's brewery is no different.

Winter Welcome Ale, though not as strong as some others, weighs in at 6% ABV. It has a floral aroma and a light amber color, and we found it to be heavy and rich in character with lots of malt. We also noted a sweet quality and a walnut flavor that stood out.

This ale worked well with both the C.A.O. Criollo and the El Rey del Mundo. The C.A.O. and the ale contained similar flavor notes and were equal to each another. With the El Rey del Mundo, we found the beer actually mellowed the full-bodied cigar.

Santa's Private Reserve
(Rogue Ales, Newport, Oregon)
Anyone familiar with Rogue Ale Brewery is sure to have tasted the St. Rogue Red Ale. It is a high-octane brew loaded with hops. A variation of Rogue Red is Santa's Private Reserve. The main difference is that Santa's Private Reserve is brewed with double the amount of hops as its brother.

Needless to say, this ale is brimming with hops and hoppy flavors. It has a dark, caramel color with a cheesy, slightly citrus aroma. There are layers of roasted malt flavors, with notes of cocoa and coffee. And, as might be expected, the finish is extremely hoppy and bittersweet.

Santa's Private Reserve was a superb pairing with the El Rey del Mundo. It produced strong leather flavors and also brought a lot of meatiness out of the cigar. The ale didn't perform as well with the C.A.O. The intense hoppy flavors didn't quite hold up to the taste of the cigar.

Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale
(Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico, California)
Being a huge fan of Sierra Nevada's regular I.P.A., I had great expectations for this holiday brew, especially after tasting it and enjoying it on draught in Boston a few weeks back. I was somewhat disappointed with its performance in this tasting.

This ale has many of the same characteristics as Sierra's flagship ale. It is heavy with notable charred wood and roasted flavors, and extremely hoppy and bitter. However, unlike Sierra's flagship ale, which has more depth and balance, this ale is one-dimensional, likely from the over-the-top use of hops.

Celebration Ale fared better next to the two cigars. The C.A.O. gave the beer a wider taste spectrum and took away some of the charred hoppiness. The same thing occurred with the El Rey del Mundo and the beer became a lot less bitter.

Traquair House Ale
(Traquair House, Peebleshire, Scotland)
Traquair's strong ale dates back to 1566 and the time of Mary Queen of Scots, but the brewery had lapsed operation in the 200 years prior to 1965. It was in that year that Peter Maxwell Stuart, the 20th Laird of Traquair, discovered the eighteeth-century recipe for Traquair's barley wine-style Scotch ale and, lucky for us, he quickly set to restoring the brand.

This was by far one of the best performances in the tasting, both alone and with the cigars. At 7.2% ABV, the ale is strong, but the high-alcohol content does not take away from its flavor. It has a toasty nose and a roasted malt body. We also found heavy notes of cocoa and coffee, and the overall balance is excellent.

As mentioned before, Traquair House Ale worked well with both cigars. Although it didn't totally enhance the C.A.O., the cigar mellowed the ale by taking off its intense malty edge. With the El Rey del Mundo, the pairing was great. The full-bodied qualities of the cigar and ale produced additional flavor while both were able to maintain their balance.