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Christmas spirits – Isthmus | Madison, Wisconsin

Elves are not known to be big beer drinkers, but have you ever wondered how they might run a brewery, especially during the Christmas season? That’s what is happening at the Grumpy Troll in Mount Horeb. From now through the end of the month, the brew pub has turned over its upstairs bar to Buddy the Elf, the innocent, naive and optimistic character from the 2003 movie Elf, starring Will Farrell. Owner Robin Pharo jokes that the second floor of the restaurant has become “Buddy’s Brew Pub,” which sports the look of an old time department store at Christmas, complete with hanging snowflakes, paper chains, wreaths, evergreen trees and lights. Pharo has also come up with a Buddy-approved menu that covers the four main food groups for elves: candy, candy canes, candy corn and syrup. More than a half-dozen special dishes, including Buddy’s breakfast pasta (with spaghetti covered in maple syrup and bacon), the Nutty Elf Pizza (with Nutella, apple pie filling, caramel sauce and sprinkles), and a decorate-your-own cookie kit. The latter is ideal for kids, who get a sugar cookie and can add their own choice of toppings like frosting, sprinkles and maple syrup. There are also regular food items for those not looking for the sugar-high. Buddy’s Brewpub (aka the upstairs bar) is open on weekends for both walk-ins and reservations. Mondays through Thursdays, reservations are required.

In addition to alcoholic and non-alcoholic cocktails, there’s a Christmas beer list at the Grumpy Troll. Brewmaster Mark Knoebl will be releasing a bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout fermented with Montmorency cherries. The beer is called Koselig, a Norwegian word that translates to being cozy and comforting. Koselig does indeed offer a welcoming warmth for a winter night with its roasted chocolate maltiness and 11 percent ABV. Koselig will be on tap starting Dec. 15.

Why not make every day a holiday? That’s the slogan for Potosi Brewing Company’s Holiday Beer, once a staple product of the southwestern Wisconsin brewery. Potosi has just re-released the beer for the end of 2022. 

Holiday Beer was brewed from 1937 until the brewery closed in 1972. It was so popular that it became a year-round beer and was marketed with the phrase “Every day is a holiday with Potosi.” Current head brewer Jon Gentry says the old recipe was lost. To re-create it, he asked former brewery employees to help in taste testing pilot batches until he achieved what they thought was most authentic based on their memories. 

Current craft brewers often use “holiday beer” to describe a beer rich in “Christmas spice” flavors — cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. This one is not a spiced beer. It’s a throwback to Potosi’s heyday: a clean, well-balanced deep golden ale, made with Brewer’s Gold, a Wisconsin-grown hop. It finishes at 5 percent ABV and sells for $11.50/six-pack of 12-ounce cans.

The yuletide season has Karben4 Brewing of Madison and Awildan Distilling of Sun Prairie collaborating on a special release that blends the character of beer with spirits. Awildan Juleøl is an oatmeal milk stout fermented with toasted Mongolian oak staves previously used by the distiller to make rum. Vanilla beans, cinnamon and cardamom were added after fermentation for flavor and aroma. Distillery owner Jeff Olson, who also brews part-time at Karben4, created the recipe. It is a rich, full-bodied stout with rum sweetness and lingering vanilla notes. The cardamom lends hints of eucalyptus and mint, which blend well with the dark roasted chocolate malts. It finishes with warm spirit character at 7.7 percent ABV. This is a complex beer, great for dessert or a nightcap from a snifter. Allow it to slowly warm to appreciate all the flavors and aromas. Find it at Karben4 in four-packs of 16-ounce cans, $20.

There is no better time to enjoy barleywines than in deep winter cold. The style can top 10 percent ABV, approaching wine-like strength, and it’s often easy to feel the warmth of the alcohol. If you’re keen to distinguish among styles of barleywines, American versions will emphasize hops, while the British take on the style is usually malty and balanced. 

Madison’s Giant Jones Brewery is undoubtedly the premier local barleywine maker having specifically designed its brewhouse to make such big beers. Even though these bold brews are commonly thought of as winter beers, brewmaster Jessica Jones has been known to say “I want barleywine every day.” There is almost always some version of one on tap at the brewery’s taproom. Her standard-bearer, an American barleywine, is currently available, with the assertive piney bitterness of Centennial hops. 

By the end of the month Jones will release her British barleywine, which showcases European First Gold hops. The British version is a bit more balanced than the American, full of malty flavor and alcohol warmth. Both beers are sold in 500 mL bottles, $7. Giant Jones has already started to stockpile barleywines from other area breweries; these will be tapped during the brewery’s barleywine festival that happens on the fourth Saturday in March.

Among my favorite barleywines of the season so far has been one from Full Mile Beer Company and Kitchen in Sun Prairie, which released its Ol’ Slap & Tickle right after Thanksgiving. The beer was aged in Four Roses bourbon barrels for a year. Balanced with spirit-sweetness that lingers, this beer is deceptively smooth at 11.7 percent ABV. If you’re tempted to order a second, I’d suggest taking that next one home in a 16-ounce crowler. Ol’ Slap & Tickle sells for $9/glass and $20 for two crowlers; it should be around into January.

Keep an eye out for the release of a few other local barleywines, too. A new beer from Capital Brewery and brewmaster Tanner Brethorst is on tap in the brewery’s Middleton Bier Stube for $8/12-ounce glass. It’s in the malty English style with a fruity nose and notes of nuts and raisins. The beer is smooth, almost mellow, but don’t overlook that this is a big beer at nearly 11 percent ABV. 

Karben4’s annual barleywine called Priest, Prophet and King is expected to be available by the end of the month in 16-ounce cans selling for $20/four-pack of 12-ounce cans. This year’s version is a blended barleywine aged in eight types of barrels, including port wine, two brandies, rum, and rye whiskey. The beer finishes at 9.7 percent ABV.

Finally one to look forward to in the new year. Starkweather Brewing plans to tap a British barleywine in early January ($7.50/12-ounce glass). I got an early uncarbonated taste of it from the fermenter last weekend and I’m looking forward to drinking it after it mellows with a little more conditioning time. It has inviting touches of toasted caramel sweetness balanced by the bitterness of Nugget hops, and ends up around 8.5 percent ABV. 

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