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Holiday Brews, Part Three

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When it came to holiday brews in the past, I'd always been something of a Scrooge. With few exceptions, I found most of them to be painfully out of balance. Too many were packed with cloyingly sweet malt and fruitcake flavors, or tricked up with excess spice and pine needles. Well, either my taste buds have adapted or the seasonal lineup has improved. Since drinkability and balance appear to be the goal of more and more offerings, I'm sticking with the latter. Good news for all but the most masochistic among us. Here are three new entries deserving of your attention:

Anchor Christmas (Our Special) Ale 2009

This was first brewed in 1975, but the 2009 is the darkest pour I remember from this holiday classic. The flavors are on the dark side as well, with smooth, toasty malt, coffee and bittersweet chocolate. The traditional spice is there, but it lurks in the background, adding complexity and interest. Anchor really hit the mark this time around.

Hair of the Dog, Doggie Claws 2009

Pour this one with caution--it throws one of the thickest, gusher-like heads I've ever encountered. Drink this one with caution--it weighs in at a hefty 11.5 percent alcohol, and being unfiltered, that last swallow is filled with yeast detritus. That said, this is a completely worthy, seriously hedonistic barley wine. With its layers of flavor including orange, caramel, herb and sweet apple, it is almost irresistible now, but should age beautifully as well.

Jolly Pumpkin Noel de Calabaza Special Ale

If you're fond of Flanders farmhouse ales, you will love this barrel-aged brew. It's on the tart side with sour cherry and apple fruit up front, light cocoa and soft tannins in the middle and smooth oak throughout. To be honest, this is not my style, but I appreciate and recognize the quality of this ale.