Beer: Local holiday brews will warm you on a cold night

I don't think anyone ever complained about Pittsburgh's premier Christmas beer being too weak.

Penn Brewery's seasonal St. Nikolaus Bock always has a warming effect at 7 percent alcohol (by volume).

But this year, the North Side brewery has made a special stronger version and bottled it in big 25-ounce (750-milliliter, or champagne-size) bottles with a decorative foil neck and a red velvet embroidered bag for gift-giving.

The limited release -- 12,000 bottles for Pennsylvania and five other states -- is the last in this year's big-bottle series. At 8 percent alcohol (by volume), it's too strong to be sold in West Virginia. It sells at the brewery for $10 a bottle, which is the suggested retail price, and is "flying out of here," says brewery founder Tom Pastorius.

"It's very malty and smooth," he says. "Same dark ruby/black color as last year's St. Nikolaus Bock, with a hint of burnt flavor, but just more alcohol."

Regular St. Nik already is available in 12-ounce bottles and on draft around town. At 7 p.m. tomorrow at the brewery, St. Nikolaus himself will tap the ceremonial first keg and kick off the brewpub's holiday season, which will include a Yuletide menu and music tomorrow and Saturday.

Another holiday beer to be available this weekend is the "Biere de Noel" at the Church Brew Works in Lawrenceville.

It's 7.5 percent alcohol and "was our fastest-selling high-gravity beer last year," says brewer Brant Dubovick, who describes it as "a Northern French ale brewed in the farmhouse style using a European ale yeast. It is smooth and malty and finishes with a taste of toffee and raisins and a slight alcohol burn."

He notes that the week before Christmas, they'll be tapping a traditional British-style (7 percent alcohol) Winter Warmer, which he describes as "rich and chocolatey with a nice finish that will warm you up on a cold winter's night."

Also festive and on tap now: Mole Stout, brewed with 25 pounds of unsweetened chocolate, 8 pounds of assorted chili peppers from the Church garden and 30 sticks of cinnamon.

Holiday brews abound, from Yummy Figgy Pudding (from British brewery named 3 Rivers) to He'Brew Jewbelation Eleven. Sharp Edge restaurants carry four dozen of them. The Pine beer store 3 Sons Dogs & Suds will offer free tastings from 6 to 8 p.m. the next two Thursdays.

Look for seasonal offerings from other local and regional brewers. The East End Brewing Co. in Homewood is once again selling its draft-only Snow Melt at watering holes around the region and in to-go jugs or growlers. Brewer Scott Smith describes it on his Web site as "a rich malty, deep ruby-red ... winter ale, best used for frost removal, holiday toasting, and guaranteed to clear the fog off your glasses." It's 7 percent alcohol, with a light spiciness that results from the combination of malts, hops and yeast.

Monroeville's Rivertowne Pour House, says brewer Andrew Maxwell, is celebrating the holidays with Rudolph's Red (a 5.7 percent-alcohol medium body red warmer) and Winter White Out (a higher-gravity Belgian with complex spicing).

Is there Christmas Ale at Greensburg's Red Star Brewery & Grill? "Oh yeah," says brewer Jeff Guidos, who finally came up with one he wanted to make, one "fashioned after no other." He describes it as "a strong (7.9 percent alcohol), dark wheat ale brewed with juniper berries, fermented with dried cranberries, finished with dried sweet orange peel, and carbonated up to German (pushing Belgian) levels of carbonation." For Christmas, he'll also unwrap a big barleywine.

At North Country Brewing in Slippery Rock, Butler County, they've just put on tap their malty, hoppy Jack Frost winter ale, which might not last until Christmas. Christmas week the cozy place will serve up its Russian Imperial Stout, with an alcohol content of 9 percent and a "malty, roasty with a hint of chocolate" flavor.

Erie's The Brewerie has Ebenezer's Dunkel Weizen, Emanu-ale Hazelnut Brew and a small batch of Christmas Raisin Ale, served rimmed with cinnamon and sugar.

Send beer news and tips to Bob Batz Jr. at or 412-263-1930.


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