Holiday Ale Festival 2012

Hoppy Trails Beer News rolled into the PDX AMTRAK station in downtown Portland just as the Friday session of the 17th Annual Holiday Ale Festival opened to the public. It was a windy, chilly walk up to the Pioneer Square Courthouse plaza, but the heated clear plastic tents offered sanctuary from all that and any rain that might potentially befall us.

For my money, this is the best of the three big beer festivals that Portland hosts each year. The summer festival gets all the press – but the Holiday Ale Festival has the best beers. The festival runs for five days, Wednesday through Sunday for one admission price. They give you a healthy set of starter tickets and if you run out you just buy more tickets. This lets you come in and try a few samples, go home and come back the next day and have a few more; very handy if you live in town, or are planning to visit for a few days. It is also in the best interest of responsible beverage consumption.

The drawback is that folks from the breweries are not there every day so you do not get to chat about how they actually make these wonderful concoctions. It also makes it tough to taste all of the 50 different beers, and you know you want to. As it was, having 17 of them certainly gave me a great overview of what is happening in Portland this winter.

Upon arrival, it was pretty empty; virtually no lines at any of the brew stations (yay). More folks showed up as the afternoon wore on and by 4:00 it was the normal crush of happy Portlanders in their beards, knit caps and flannel shirts whom I have grown to love over the years here.


The venue is very well thought out with lots of places to sit or stand and rest an elbow, or set down a mug while you make notes in your program about the last beer you had. There was a coat check area, some great roasted nuts from the Family Tree Nut Company and other exhibits to tweak your social conscience.

I really liked a lot of the beers – so don’t ask which one I liked BEST. My “favorite” thing is being able to find so much good beer in one place that I have never had before. It was a wonderful day – finished off with dinner at the Rock Bottom Restaurant – and lots of water – before catching the AMTRAK RIDE FROM HELL on the way back home.

BEERS OF NOTE (not an all-inclusive list)

Blenshee Blizzard • Strong Scotch Ale

  • McMenamins Concordia Brewery • Portland, OR •
  • OG 19.4 • FG 3.9 • 8.5% ABV • 7 IBU

Ward off the winter cold with the warming malty cheer of this strong scotch ale. Very lightly hopped with a hint of smokiness from the peat smoked malt, this big beer is designed to showcase the wonders of the grain. The deep reddish hue and high alcohol content is like a cozy hearth fire.

Spiced Payback Porter • Robust Porter

  • Speakeasy Ales & Lagers • San Francisco, CA •
  • OG 17.5 • FG 4 • 7.5% ABV • 38 IBU

Speakeasy opted for a twist on its perennial favorite, Payback Porter. The brewers took inspiration from the traditional Masala Chai tea, brewing the dark porter with a combination of vanilla bean, ginger, cardamom, clove and black pepper.

Frosty’s Revenge • Belgian Noel Ale

  • 10 Barrel Brewing Co • Bend, OR •
  • OG 17.3 • FG 4.1 • 7% ABV • 40 IBU

The malt bill of this Belgian Christmas beer is based around a milk stout, with notes of molasses, toasted bread and raisins. The hops deliver hints of pine and bubblegum. The main character of this beer is contributed by the Belgian Abbey yeast with its essence of candied fruit. To take this over the top, the brewers also wove in caramelized dates and raisins, cinnamon sticks in the hop back and cocoa nibs in the boil, then conditioned it on raisins and figs.

Prepare to be Boarded • Barrel Aged Spiced Stout

  • Bear Republic Brewing Co • Cloverdale, CA •
  • OG 20.5 • FG 5 • 8.1% ABV • 50 IBU

This barrel aged stout is rich with the flavors of molasses and spices of the East Indies and the Caribbean, the same spices that enriched the coffers of empires (and pirates) during the 17th and 18th centuries. Including allspice, black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and mace, this true “pirate stout” is as black as coal and will put you in the right holiday spirit. Avast, matey, and a ho ho ho!

The Three Wisemen • Barrel Aged Imperial Oatmeal Stout

  • Fort George Brewery • Astoria, OR •
  • OG 23.2 • FG 5 • 9.9% ABV • scant IBU

The Three Wisemen honor the holiday tradition of gifting: in this case, gifting your liver an Imperial oatmeal stout that has been lovingly conditioned in Bourbon, Tequila and Rum barrels, then brought back together to form a wonderfully warming, cunningly complex and graciously gratifying Yuletide elixir.

Milk and Cookies • Spiced Milk Stout

  • Lucky Labrador Brewing • Portland, OR •
  • OG 15.5 • FG 3.2 • 6.4% ABV • 20 IBU

A treat for Santa or yourself, this smooth milk stout was brewed with chocolate black and roast malts for a nutty flavor that’s complemented by the addition of rum soaked raisins.

Figgy Pudding • Barrel Aged Fruit Beer

  • MacTarnahan’s Brewing Co • Portland, OR •
  • OG 16.5 • FG 4.2 • 7.1% ABV • 34 IBU

The brewers filled brandy and Bourbon barrels with a wheat beer brewed with fig concentrate. They then added fig puree to the barrels to kick up the fruitiness another notch. After six months, those barrels were blended with year-old barrel aged porter and a touch of fresh Imperial stout. Layers of fruit, brandy, caramel, cocoa and coffee make this an ideal beverage to enjoy on a cold winter’s night.

Boysen • Dark Belgian Ale

  • The Commons Brewery • Portland, OR •
  • OG 21.6 • FG 3.6 • 10.5% ABV • 25 IBU

Boysen is a dark, strong, malt forward Belgian ale with dark fruits added during maturation. Chocolate notes create a foundation for the boysenberries and yeast esters to ride on.

Brrrbon Vanilla – Cask Strength • Barrel Aged Imperial Red IPA

  • Widmer Brothers Brewing • Portland, OR •
  • OG 20 • FG 3.5 • 10.5% ABV • 55 IBU

Rich oak and vanilla aromas dominate this Imperial red IPA with hints of dark chocolate and caramel. The Bourbon flavors accentuate the subtle sweetness from the vanilla, giving this beer a deep complexity and balance. An earthy fullness makes this beer the perfect winter warmer.


Photography and content by Bob Shoemaker (
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