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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Gone are the days when only a bottle of wine _ or maybe a bottle of the hard stuff _ would suffice as a gift to bring your holiday party host.
Today, craft beers have the respect they deserve, opening up tons of fresh ways to share the cheer this season. But there is a drawback, too. The number of producers and styles available even in small shops _ never mind larger grocers and specialty stores _ has proliferated almost ridiculously. Making sense of them all can be enough to leave you with a hangover before you even open a bottle (or an increasingly hip can).
So with gift-giving and revelry in mind, we've sorted through the options to suss out a few beers that are sure to bring holiday cheer.
DRAGON'S MILK (from New Holland Brewing Co. in Holland, Mich.)
Style: Barrel-aged stout
Alcohol: 10 percent
Named after special ale made exclusively for royalty and served at great 17th century feasts, Dragon's Milk is a strong ale aged in oak for more than 90 days. Dark in color, this barrel-aged stout has flavors of vanilla, coffee, chocolate and dried fruit. The aging process imparts bourbon and wood notes that blend with the roasted malt.
The beer was first released in 2001 as a seasonal beer, but gained a following and became a year-round offering around 2009. Its popularity led New Holland Brewing to double production of the beer last year and expand their facility. Dragon's Milk is best paired with red meat, smoked foods, rich cheese and dark chocolate.
Price: $9 per 22-ounce bottle, $16 for four-pack of 12-ounce bottles, or $110 for a 3-liter bottle.
SANTA'S PRIVATE RESERVE (from Rogue Ales in Newport, Oregon)
Style: Red ale
Alcohol: 6 percent
Rouge Ale's annual holiday offering is a double-hopped red ale made with hops and barley from the brewery's own farm. The brewery and distillery founded in 1988 even malted the grain in the beer themselves. The result is a two-time World Beer Championship gold medal-winning amber beer with a roasted caramel malt flavor and a hoppy pine finish. The bottle itself features snowflakes that glow, err, glisten in the dark. Enjoy it with pork, beef, spicy foods and potent cheeses.
Price: $7 for a 22-ounce bottle, or $25 for a gift box with a bottle and a glass.
VICARIS GENERAAL (from Brouwerij Dilewyns in Belgium)
Style: Belgian abbey dubbel
Alcohol: 8.8 percent
The family-owned brewery opened in 2011 to much fanfare because new breweries in Belgium are few and far between. But brewer Anne-Catherine Dilewyns has a family brewing history. Her great-great grandmother turned a former benzene oil factory into a brewery in 1875 that operated until World War II, when the brew kettles were confiscated.
Dilewyns' Vicaris Generaal is a head-scratcher of a strong ale brewed in the tradition of Trappist monks. It's also brewed in three stages: a warm fermentation, lagering, and then a secondary fermentation in the bottle. The careful combination of water, malt, sugar, hops and yeast (no spices) yields a deep mahogany beer with the lightly sweet flavors of dried fruit, licorice, chocolate and caramel with a twinge of hop bitterness and spicy notes from the yeast. Enjoy with holiday ham, duck and hard aged cheeses.
Price: $12 for a 750-mililiter bottle
XVII ANNIVERSARY ALE (from Firestone Walker Brewing Co. in Paso Robles, Calif.)
Style: Barrel-aged blend
Alcohol: 13.3 percent
Firestone Walker, which earned the title of mid-size brewing company and brewer of the year at the Great American Beer Festival in October, has worked to create a yearly offering that pushes the envelope ever since its inaugural anniversary release called "Ten" in 2006. For this year's release, brew master Matt Brynildson again enlisted winemakers from the area to help come up with the latest blend to create its anniversary ale.
During the blending process, the winemakers are divided into pairs and tasked with concocting the best blend. Votes then are cast for the winning blend during a blind taste test. This year's winner blended together 220 oak barrels and seven different beers _ including imperial brown ale, imperial stout, barleywine and black rye India pale ale.
With a list like that it goes without saying that the end product is incredibly complex with a balance of toasted coconut, bourbon and chocolate flavors along with a bit of spice. This is a good beer to store in a cool place to allow the beer to age and develop. When you do open it, it should be allowed to warm to 55 degrees F to enjoy all of its flavors and aroma. Enjoy this beer with bowl of rich French onion soup or pumpkin pie.
Price: $24 for a 22-ounce bottle.
BOURBON COUNTY BRAND STOUT (from Goose Island Beer Co. in Chicago)
Style: Barrel-aged imperial stout
Alcohol: 14.5 percent (differs by variant)
Goose Island's former brew master Greg Hall began producing Bourbon County Brand Stout in 1992 in honor of the 1,000th beer batch at its brewpub. At first, no one was sure what to make of the beer _ sort of like cavemen creating the wheel, said current brew master Brett Porter. But it has since become a favorite and coveted craft beer for its intense mix of smoky, chocolate, vanilla, caramel and, of course, bourbon flavors.
Last year more than 400 people lined up in Chicago on Black Friday for a chance to purchase Bourbon County Brand Stout and its variants. The imperial stout is aged in bourbon barrels for various periods of time, enduring both the hottest Chicago summer days and coldest winter nights lulling a layer of flavors out of the barrels and into the beer. Pair it with flourless chocolate cake.
Price: Around $25 for a 22-ounce bottle, but can differ by market and variety.
SAMUEL ADAMS UTOPIAS (from The Boston Beer Co. in Boston)
Style: Barrel-aged blend
Alcohol: 28 percent
First introduced by Sam Adams founder Jim Koch in 2002, Utopias begins its evolution as malt and hops fermented with several yeast strains, including one normally used for sparkling wine. The beer then is blended with a few different brews, some of which have been aged in different wood barrels for more than 20 years.
For the first time, this year's Utopias was blended with Kosmic Mother Funk, a barrel-aged ale that adds fruit notes like cherry and a bit of sourness. A portion of the beer also is aged in bourbon casks as well as Port casks from Portugal. The result is a strong, complex concoction that evokes the flavors of Port and cognac mixed with hints of cinnamon, vanilla, cocoa and toffee, as well as notes of fig and maple syrup.
Fewer than 15,000 bottles were brewed this year. Because its alcohol content exceeds the legal limit for beer, its sale is prohibited in 13 states. Of course, that tends to make us want it even more.
Price: $200 per bottle.
Michael Felberbaum can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/MLFelberbaum.
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