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Guest Column: From Colorado to Puerto Rico and back

So when does the holiday season arrive, anyway? For me, the season begins when I can order a winter beer at the neighborhood tavern, or pick up a limited-edition six-pack at the liquor store. The season starts in early November, and picks up momentum through December, as breweries roll out some of their best sellers of the year.

I had my first taste of seasonal beer in the late '80s, when the Coors family decided to begin packaging and selling what traditionally had only been shared with friends and employees. Winterfest was a creamy, malty, amber ale, a not-too-heavy winter warmer that quickly made a lot of fans in Colorado - the only place where it was first offered.

Over the years, as the craft beer revolution took hold, most every brewery seemed to offer its own version of a winter-only brew. That led to the rise of seasonals, which has become one of the most popular craft-beer segments. In that crowded market, Winterfest's profile dipped, even after getting to the point where it was sold across the country.

One year, Winterfest was sold only in bomber bottles, looking nothing like the six-packs that preceded it. Then, two years ago, Coors' Blue Moon line introduced its own winter beer - and Winterfest was gone. It was absent last year, too, at least around here.

It turns out Coors still was brewing Winterfest in very limited quantities, mainly as a way of protecting the trademark. It showed up on bar taps, but never in stores. One year, Puerto Rico was the only place on the planet where Winterfest was sold.

This year, Winterfest is back where it belongs. It's only available in 12-ounce bottles, and only sold in Colorado. A six-pack runs about $9.

Glenn Knippenberg, president of AC Golden Brewing Co., gets credit for the return. This summer he asked colleagues at MillerCoors what their plans were for the brand. None, he was told - they were going to focus on core brands such as Coors Light and Miller Genuine Draft.

"I asked, ‘Would you mind if I did it?' They said, ‘Have at it,'" Knippenberg said. "You wouldn't believe the following there is for Winterfest in Colorado."

It makes sense that AC Golden, a craft-style Coors enterprise whose only other product so far is Herman Joseph's Private Reserve, would recognize beer drinkers' thirst for rare beer in rarefied air. But even the Boston Beer Co., brewer of Samuel Adams, targeted Colorado as its only non-New England market for the rollout of a new line of beers.

Though technically not a seasonal product, the Samuel Adams Barrel Room Collection practically sings "holidays" - three styles of barrel-aged beers sold in bomber bottles with elegant printed-on labels (about $10 each). The brews inside range between 7 percent and 10 percent alcohol by volume, suggested for serving in tulip-shaped glasses. My pick of the three is the American Kriek, brewed with black cherries.

The arrival of these high-end beers at the holidays is no coincidence. Nor is the return of Samuel Adams Utopias, the world's strongest beer thanks to its 25 percent alcohol by volume (the average beer is around 5 percent). It's uncarbonated and meant to be savored in a 2-ounce pour from a snifter. Samuel Adams brewer Grant Wood brought some with him to a recent beer-pairing dinner at Denver's Table 6 restaurant, and normally jaded media types were suitably impressed by the sherry-like elixir. It retails for $150 a bottle.

The price is as eye-opening as the liquid, but trading up at the holidays is a consumer habit that brewers count on. Knippenberg even has launched a small rollout of his other low-volume product, Herman Joseph's, in six-packs at stores this season; previously, it was only available at a short list of Colorado restaurants.

I'm just glad I don't have to hop a sleigh to Puerto Rico for a Winterfest.

Here are my picks for Colorado's other top winter seasonal beers:

Hibernation Ale, from Great Divide
Old Jubilation Ale, from Avery
Christmas Ale, from Breckenridge
Isolation Ale, from Odell
2 Below Ale, from New Belgium

The list is based on tasty memories from Christmases past. How do the state's winter brews compare this year? Watch for a video of our holiday taste test coming up at cobizmag.com.

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Jay Dedrick

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