Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries


Beer Reviews

Holiday Spice

Lakefront Brewery, Inc.
Milwaukee, WI

Style: Spice/Herb/Vegetable

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (Outstanding within its style.)

Pair With:
• Goulash
Ah yes … it’s that time of year. Like it or not, the holiday season is upon us, and a slew of “Christmas” brews are hitting the shelves of good beer retailers everywhere. Granted there’s really no such thing as a Christmas beer, as none of them are brewed with balsam branches, mistletoe, poinsettia leaves, or reindeer scat; holiday brews are just another way of marketing for the Christmas season. Craft brewers are like anyone else trying to make a buck this time of year, which is to exploit the masses by making a standard product and putting a nice, pretty, festive label on it, making you think you must have it or that it would make a great gift. It’s the Chia Pet mentality: there’s no good reason to want one, yet you’re inexplicably drawn to them when the snow begins to fly.

Christmas beers don’t even fall under a certain style criteria; each brewery simply makes a brew that it feels best suits the season. The best known national craft release is Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale, which is an IPA (god bless their hoppy souls). Goose Island’s Christmas Ale is an English brown ale, and is strikingly similar to their flagship Honker’s Ale (they simply put a Santa hat on the goose). Rogue’s Santa’s Private Reserve is a nice amber offering and Great Lakes Christmas Ale is a winter warmer. On the import side, England’s Ridgeway Brewing has found a niche with their holiday-themed brews, which include Bad Elf (an IPA), Very Bad Elf (a pale ale), Seriously Bad Elf (a strong ale), Criminally Bad Elf (a barley wine), and Santa’s Butt (a porter). The biggest constant with Christmas brews is that they tend to be of the dark, high ABV variety, though this has everything to do with the cold winter season and little to do with the fact that it’s Christmas. Give me a beer that makes me say “Wow, this tastes like Christmas!” and I’ll give you a three-armed elf named Sven who will brew unlimited amounts of your favorite beer right in your home.

On second thought, scratch that offer … I just found one. I’m not one for “spiced” beers, but Milwaukee-based Lakefront Brewery has hit the jackpot. Not only is their Holiday Spice Lager Beer (yes, it’s a “lager beer,” not to be confused with a “lager kool-aid”) dark and powerful (a whopping 9.5 percent ABV), but it tastes EXACTLY what Nigel thinks Christmas tastes like. Granted, I’ve never actually licked my Christmas tree or drank poinsettia milk, but I did eat a lot of tinsel as a child, and for some reason I’m having fond flashbacks.

Now, it’s not like I’m totally shocked that Lakefront came out with a quintessential holiday beer. Lakefront is a solid brewery with a number of good, if not spectacular, offerings and some nice seasonals. Their Märzens (Oktoberfest and Focktoberfest) are of good quality, their Pumpkin Lager is considered by many to be a very good pumpkin ale (Nigel dislikes the idea of pumpkin in beer, so I have no comment on this), and they have a decent spring-release Cherry Lager. So, not only does Lakefront have some seasonal experience, they also have some familiarity working with fruit and spices.

What blew me away is the fact that this is a BIG beer: as I said, it checks in at 9.5 percent and is loaded with spice. Back in October I reviewed Lakefront’s IPA, which was a very good beer, though only available at a few Milwaukee-area pubs and the brewery. In that review, I stated the case for Lakefront experimenting more with “extreme beer,” which seems to be so popular right now among craft brewers and connoisseurs alike. In response, a representative from Lakefront sent me a nice, detailed e-mail explaining their brewing ethos and why they don’t get caught up in the “extreme beer” craze. In essence, he said Lakefront’s main concern is brewing quality, well-balanced beer that can be enjoyed in a number of circumstances as tasty session brews for a wide variety of beer drinkers. “Extreme beers” (I use quotes because I personally dislike that description) are not necessarily designed to be enjoyed as social brews or paired with meals, and they appeal to only the most diehard craft beer junkies (like Nigel). The rep’s statement that Lakefront considers it far more important to be “extremely good” rather than just “extreme” made me realize that I myself was unwittingly caught up in the “extreme beer” frenzy.

That having been said, Lakefront did alert me to some releases that may be considered more “extreme” by current standards, a few of which are local brews available only at certain Milwaukee-area establishments. However, two wider releases caught my attention: Beer Line, a barley wine that’s being re-released (not sure when exactly) after a hiatus, and Holiday Spice, a spiced winter warmer that’s released around the holidays. I had noticed Holiday Spice the past few years prior to moving to Milwaukee, as Lakefront’s brews continue to gain distribution throughout the Midwest. I had avoided it, however, since I tend to steer clear of any beer that claims to be heavily spiced. However, after being alerted to it by Lakefront and seeing how powerful it was, I had to give it a shot this year. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised … check that, I was SHOCKED … that I found it so appealing.

Holiday Spice Lager Beer Ale Drink pours a fiery amber color, with a mild head on the pour that dissipates quickly, leaving only a slight lace at the edge of the glass. The translucent hue is livened up a bit with some carbonation and slight sedimentation. The aroma is powerful, pleasant, and unique; it captures the season perfectly. Lakefront says it’s brewed with honey, orange, and spices, and its clear from the aroma that this is in fact the case. Sweet honey and sugary malt combine with a nice orange zest and a large amount of mixed spices that are somewhat hard to pinpoint (Lakefront hasn’t shared the recipe with us but I’m smelling nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger). Sweet and spicy, it has a warming aroma that is perfect for a frigid evening in front of the fire or swearing at those damn Christmas lights that don’t ever seem to cooperate.

The taste is also perfect for the season, though it may be a bit much for some drinkers. It’s both potent and unique, with a decent balance that I often find lacking in many spiced beers. Yes, spice dominates, but I don’t think it goes to the extreme. Orange zest, nutmeg, cinnamon, and a hint of ginger and allspice dominate the spiciness. It’s got a fruity zip that may remind you of a cider without the heavy apple flavor (the fruit here is mostly citrus, particularly orange). The sweetness comes not only from the large addition of honey, but also from a sugary, caramel malt that gives it a nice, earthy touch. There is the slightest tinge of hops, which works well with the overall spiciness of the brew. While the ABV is high, the alcohol comes through only slightly, making it surprisingly drinkable. On the heavier end of the medium-bodied spectrum, it goes down with only a slight burning sensation, making it a tolerable session brew, though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as such. After all, drinking a whole sixer of a 9.5 percent ABV monster could cause delusions, such as thinking the snowman you made is in fact your wife, or that if you put reindeer antlers on your dog, you can safely fly on his back off of the fifth-floor balcony.

Maybe it’s just me. We all have different tastes, smells, and sounds that strike a chord during this time of year, rekindling fond memories and helping us briefly ignore the chaos and commercialization of the season. This does it for me, for whatever reason (perhaps it’s because I’m loaded). It’s an excellent beer, though I’d be surprised if I enjoyed it as much outside of the Thanksgiving to New Years period. If you’re looking for a nice brew to warm up with on these cold, snowy nights, or to compliment the 85th viewing of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Holiday Spice Lager Beer may be your cup of tea. Finally you have an option that doesn’t require spiking the eggnog.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on December 7, 2007.
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