This week’s Canada’s Craft Beer post comes from our Ontario and Quebec craft beer guy, David Ort. Today explores beers that celebrate the traditional flavours of Christmas, from Nickel Brook and Unibroue.
If I write that something tastes like "Christmas spices" or has the same flavour profile as “Christmas pudding” very few people will be confused by what I mean. It’s a set of flavours tied to a time of year by experience and they're most welcome in my beer glass this December.
There aren't (yet) many Ontario or Quebec breweries making a special Christmas beer. Europeans have been brewing them for long enough to be grandfathered under our society's current unwritten rule against mentioning religion. And, just as pumpkin beers wither on the proverbial vine starting November 1, breweries would be at the mercy of our archaic system for retailing beer to get any potential Christmas beer in customers' hands before Boxing Day.
Instead, we'll make do with two excellent beers that might as well be Christmas ales — and, really, the quality bar is exceptionally high and no one needs to complain.
I should take care to note that these are not beers for the Christmas table. They have a fully formed set of flavours that would probably clash with anything more than a piece of aged Stilton or a few walnuts straight from the shell.
Nickel Brook — Cuvee
For several years, Burlington-based Nickel Brook Brewery has had one of the strongest lineups of winter special releases. Bolshevik Bastard, their imperial stout, and all of its offspring (Old Kentucky Bastard is aged in bourbon barrels and Ontario wine barrels are used for Winey Bastard) tend to steal the spotlight. Especially over the holidays, I think Cuvee deserves attention as a dark horse favourite.
To create the yearly edition of Cuvee, brewers at Nickel Brook blend a spiced ale (that includes Demerara sugar, dried figs, orange peel, raisins, vanilla beans, cardamom, black pepper, allspice and cinnamon) with one that has been aged in bourbon barrels.
The medium auburn-brown body topped with a beige, pillowy head announces Cuvee’s winter leanings. Chocolate, figs, nutmeg and an oaky vanilla note set it up as a contemplative sipper. I added coconut, cinnamon and a subtly boozy hum to my tasting notes after a first sip. There's enough weight to the mouthfeel and moderate carbonation to easily hold your interest over an entire goblet.
ABV 7.7%, available in ON
Unibroue — Grande Reserve 17
Next year might be a confusing time for this Unibroue special release. It was first made in 2007, the brewery’s 17th anniversary, and carries a year statement (the beer equivalent of a wine’s vintage) but well before 2017 it was known as “17” to mark that auspicious anniversary.
Grande Reserve 17 is dark brown beer that shades to gold at the edges. In true Unibroue style, it’s off-white foam cap hangs around for ages. The young beer is sweet with brown sugar, figs and dates. I found a touch of licorice on the palate as well as strong carbonation and a detectable alcohol glow on the finish.
If we are making a list of the five best Canadian beers for the cellar, Grande Reserve 17 is an easy one to include without too much debate. With a couple years of age the fruit flavours will dry out, the hop flavour will dim, and the already minimal edge on the alcohol notes will soften further.
ABV 10%, available in QC, ON
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David Ort writes about food, travel, and craft beer for various online and print publications. His first book, The Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook, is in bookstores and available for purchase online. For more of his thoughts on all things edible and potable follow him on Twitter or get in touch with him at [email protected]