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Susan Axelrod

Susan Axelrod's food writing career began in the kitchen; she owned a restaurant and catering business for 15 years before turning to journalism. By day, she is the social media editor for Portland Press Herald. To relax, she bakes, gardens and hikes with her husband and their two dogs, preferably followed by a cocktail or a Maine beer. Susan can be contacted at 791-6310 or On Twitter: @susansaxelrod

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Posted: December 9, 2013

Brews of the season: Tasting seven winter beers available in Portland

Written by: Susan Axelrod

Photo: Shutterstock

The dizzying array of beers at beverage retailers and even in the supermarket proves that there’s a bottle or can for every taste preference. Light, dark, strong, mild, citrusy, spicy, hoppy, malty, infused with blueberries or cocoa nibs, or aged in bourbon  barrels: there appear to be nearly endless ways to influence the flavor, weight and alcohol content of beer.

Rich dark stouts, porters and strong ales with hints of chocolate, caramel and spice seem to go with colder weather and the holiday season; many breweries produce special beers just for this time of the year. Inspired by Shipyard’s latest release — Chocolate Mint Stout — we conducted an informal tasting of six winter/holiday brews. We’re far from experts, but we know what we like, and with some of the beers, we enlisted some extra tasters. Here are the results.

Scaldis Noel

Dubuisson, Belgium
Beer type: Belgian Strong Ale
ABV: 12 percent

What the brewery says: This is a sweet beer with a pleasant flavour of hops. Indeed, for Bush de Noel, the brewer uses a traditional process which consists in placing hops flowers in the vats where the beer rests for four to six weeks by which time it will have reached full maturity, giving it a very distinctive taste.

What the taster says: I could smell the spices in this red amber Belgian ale as soon as I popped the top – even with the Thanksgiving turkey cooking in the background. With a rich, dark color the beer looks pretty good in the glass and goes done with a smooth finish. Those spices hit the belly with a warmth that also heats up the rest of you pretty quickly … Or maybe that was the 12-percent ABV kicking in. The spices aren’t so heavy that they make this a one-and-done brew but go heavy on the apps because it’s strong enough that you may find yourself wearing reindeer antlers before the party even gets started.

Where to buy: Bier Cellar and RSVP, Portland

Black Chocolate Stout

Brooklyn Brewery, New York
Beer type: Russian Imperial Stout
ABV: 10 percent

What the brewery says:
Our award-winning rendition of the Imperial Stout style, once made exclusively for Catherine the Great. We use three mashes to brew each batch of this beer, achieving a luscious deep dark chocolate flavor through a blend of specially roasted malts.

What the taster said:
You’d usually expect a stout to be smooth – not so with this one. It’s best described as heavy – heavy on the bitter (one who dared to sip a bit said eloquently, “It’s bitter on the back end” but I thought it was bitter in the front and middle, too) and heavy on the chocolate. Think dark chocolate. Unsweetened. As far from your favorite bon-bon as you can get. One observer likened the aroma to molasses, which might be fine in a cookie, but you wouldn’t want to chug it. The learning here? Maybe chocolate doesn’t belong in beer.

Where to buy:
Available at most supermarkets and beverage retailers.


Winterkoninkske (Winter King)

Bink Brouwerij Kerkom, Belgium
Beer type: Belgian Strong Ale
ABV: 8.3 percent

What the brewery says: The ingredients are: seven types of malt (including rolled oats), two types of Belgian hops, brewing water and yeast. Our winter beer is a dark and heartwarming beer with a full pure, slightly sweet taste and long soft bittery aftertaste.

What the tasters said: Like a liquid molasses spice cookie. Slightly smoky and peaty, like scotch, and has that same warming effect as it goes down, with a spicy finish. Thinner than I thought it would be, considering the dark color and intense flavor. No juniper berry flavor, despite what it says on the label about including them. Has a bitter aftertaste.

Where to buy: Bier Cellar, Portland.

Taste 12 Beers of Christmas

Have a beer with Santa at the annual 12 Beers of Christmas gathering at The Great Lost Bear, 5-9 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5. Sample local seasonal brews, as well as some from away.

// event details

Jule Maelk (Christmas Milk)

To0L, Denmark
Beer type: Imperial Milk Stout
ABV: 15 percent

What Bier Cellar says: A sweet/roasted malt note, flavors of brown sugar and caramel.

What the tasters said: Sweet with a definite chocolate quality. This is a powerful beer!
You can absolutely tell it’s an imperial milk stout because of the creaminess, but I would be hard pressed to say it’s milk chocolate as opposed to a dark, bitter chocolate. Has a butterscotch/caramel undertone that smooths it out a bit. Packs an alcoholic wallop; glad we’re drinking it in small glasses. Would be delicious with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, like a float. I would drink this again, with dessert, but only for a special occasion at $15 a bottle!

Where to buy: Bier Cellar and RSVP, Portland

Phantom Punch Winter Stout

Baxter Brewing Co., Maine
Beer type: Foreign Extra Stout
ABV: 6.8 percent

What the brewery says: Its deep black hue and rich tan head compliment the full, but not overly-heavy body. Roasted and toasted malts dominate the flavor, with hints of caramel and strong notes of chocolate. Meanwhile, roasted organic cocoa nibs reinforce the malty chocolate flavors, while real vanilla beans suggest a touch of sweetness without weighing down the brew.

What the tasters said:
Very stouty. The vanilla bean is notable, but not too forward.
I’m not getting much of the cocoa while sipping, although there’s a pleasant after-taste that hints at cocoa. I’m not sure I’d really notice it if I hadn’t read it on the can.
After a few more sips, the cocoa overtones. But subtle. Not overbearing. This is a good beer. Very drinkable, albeit heavier than some of the others in this roundup. And there’s not a lingering spice as in some of the others. You’re drinking a stout, not drinking a pie. Also like a few of the others, it has hints of licorice in the smell, but I’m not picking up any of that in the taste. I’d definitely recommended this beer.

Where to buy: Available at supermarkets and most beverage retailers.

Merry Christmas Happy New Year

Anchor Brewing, California
Beer type: Ale
ABV: 5.5 percent

What the brewery says:
Each year our Christmas Ale gets a unique label and a unique recipe. Different nuances emerge as the flavor mellows slightly, much like the memories of great holiday seasons past.

What the tasters said: Definite spice, reminds me of pumpkin pie. It’s not as heavy as I expected, Lovers of Pumpkinhead would probably love this. I don’t even really like Pumpkinhead, but I like this. It hints at the same warm spices, but is much lighter. Very drinkable. The spice lasts for a while on the tongue. I like it! I’d absolutely drink this again.
Where to buy: Available at most supermarkets and beverage retailers

Shipyard Mint Chocolate Stout

Shipyard Brewing, Maine
Beer type: American Stout
ABV: 9 percent

What the brewery says: A dark, silky beer with aromas of chocolate and licorice. Smooth chocolate and coffee flavors upfront lead to a subtle spearmint finish.

What the tasters said:
I taste root beer. And Anise. It’s not what I expected. Tastes like licorice. The alcohol is not well hidden. I taste it too much. It’s more of a liquor for sipping. Very dry. The mint lingers.  We’ll be burping mint in like 10 minutes.  It’s not stouty enough. Feels a bit light. I think the description on the bottle is a very accurate description. It’s licorice with a hint of coffee. Thumbs down. You’re throwing the rest away? I’ll finish it!

Where to buy: Available at most beverage retailers.

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