Mountain Media: Books #185

“Path of Beauty: Photographic Adventures in the Grand Canyon,” by Christopher Brown

Path of BeautyWhen you read a biography of a person, you hope that the writer has done his or her research enough to really know the subject of the book, the person he or she is telling you about. If you want to read the biography of a place, especially a monumental place like the Grand Canyon, you want someone like Chris Brown to write it: More than 30 years of hiking, rafting and guiding in the canyon, totaling 35 trips through the canyon on a boat, with a camera at his side all the time. His 115-page book is a love letter, filled with 75 photos and five essays on Encountering the Canyon, Adventure, Beauty and First Sight, Photography, and Reflection — my favorite of which is Adventure, about a mistake Brown made as a raft guide, requiring the rescue of everyone in his boat from a rock in the middle of a rapidly rising Colorado River, and his subsequent redemption. The photographs are stunning, and many of the scenes and colors will surprise anyone not intimately familiar with all the corners of the canyon. Brown is no slouch as an essayist and storyteller, and his passion for a very special place shows in his writing: “While it is always impressive, it is typically spectacular only for a few moments each day when the light is right and then it is sublime.”

“100 Years Up High: Colorado’s Mountains & Mountaineers,” by Janet Neuhoff Robertson, James E. Fell Jr., David Hite, Christopher J. Case and Walter R. Borneman

100 Years Up HighIf you ever forget how much you love Colorado’s mountains, pick up a copy of this book. “100 Years Up High” is a photo-filled history of the Centennial State’s High Country, and the human involvement in it — from early exploration to later conservation, the fun of climbing and skiing and the hard work that resulted in our national parks and national monuments. Each of the bylined authors take on a topic or two in this six-chapter book: Creating a New Club and a New National Park, Reaching Higher, Climbing Harder, Borrowing from Our Children, Carving the Snow and Painting the Peaks. The book, partially funded by the Colorado Mountain Club and published on the CMC’s 100th anniversary, intertwines the story of the club with the history of Colorado’s mountains — a natural combination, given the club’s involvement in all aspects of Colorado’s outdoor legacy, including the 1915 establishment of Rocky Mountain National Park, and finding the original Arapaho names of many of the geographic features in and around the Park. The book’s 176 pages are filled with historic and scenic photos, making the reading very easy on the eyes.

“All That Glitters,” by Margo Talbot

All That GlittersMargo Talbot didn’t take a typical path to becoming a renowned ice climber and guide: childhood abuse, depression and drug addiction, drug smuggling and drug dealing, jail and finally sobriety and therapy. I’m a sucker for a good climbing story that’s more about life than it is about climbing, and Talbot tells her climbing and life stories with unflinching honesty in “All That Glitters.” Beginning with an emotionally abusive and traumatic childhood that led her into substance abuse, and following her into the Canadian Rockies, where she eventually discovered ice climbing, Talbot literally climbs out of the darkness of her depression over the course of several years. But not without a few bumps in the road — during her years of partying, then addiction, she found herself making bad choices, dabbling in drug smuggling and selling, until she finally hit rock bottom in a jail cell after one particularly serious mistake. Talbot eventually begins to find redemption through climbing and her friendship with climber Karen McNeill, whose 2006 death on Alaska’s Mount Foraker dealt a tremendous, traumatic blow to Talbot, but led to the writing of the material that formed the basis of “All That Glitters.” Her writing is without self-judgment, as she lets the reader interpret the events that form the arc of the story.

Regrooving Country in the Rockies

Country music lyrics in action on the bar at Kochevar's in Crested Butte. Photo: Dawne Belloise
Country music lyrics in action on the bar at Kochevar's in Crested Butte. Photo: Dawne Belloise

You won’t admit it, even though your bluegrass friends might be more understanding, but you are secretly amused by the emoto-schlock lyrics served up by classic country music. Country music vocalists are basically soul singers, but what is it that makes country lament in ways that are deeply rooted in the same stuff as the blues? Hardship …  hard luck in life, love and unfulfilled expectations. Traditional country is a romance novel rolled into a reality show and set to music. Clever, vengeful, heartfelt and notoriously comical, the lyrics span content ranging from d-i-v-o-r-c-e and the habitually jilted to countrified patriotism and redneck validation. There are love songs about pickup trucks, philosophy for raising children, memorials for grandmothers and odes to dogs.

No other music genre does love songs, splitsville and misery better than country, except maybe Italian opera, where someone is always betrayed, lied to, murdered or foreclosed on, with spectacular flair. La Scala’s country cousin is in Nashville and called the Grand Ole Opry. Achy-Breaky as it is for diehards, the old genre morphed into mainstream Americana acoustic rock and the lyric writers of the three-minute joke became noticeably more poetic a decade or so ago.

Craig McManus, a knowledgeable country DJ of both camps, explains the transformation of the music. “What you’re not hearing anymore are the silly lyrics that country music was known for. It wasn’t catchy, it was just silly and contrived. Most of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson stuff was that way during that time. What it’s evolved into is from the real heart of soul.” Craig still sees two factions. “It’s almost split into one wing that’s God, country and family and the other has gone into actual human feelings that are more honest, more down to earth. What they used to call down to earth back then was a little lofty and not down to earth at all. In country, folk and rock today, some of the music is so similar, you can segue between all of those styles. The genres have blended so much that alternative root is alternative country, which is now a combo of folk country and acoustic rock.”

This month, you can witness the contrast of both modern and classic country up at the end of the road in Crested Butte. Although they’re calling it an inaugural event and even changed its name to the Crested Butte Songwriters Festival, the town hosted the wild hootenanny called Country in the Rockies for well over a decade. In 2008, during a remodel of the main accommodations for the performers, the hoedown was moved to the champagne snow slopes of Steamboat Springs and then to Nashville for 2009. However, by 2010, the clamoring arose to bring it back to CB with much of the hooting coming from the musicians themselves … perhaps it was all the local ladies unabashedly gyrating on the bar tops, coaxing donations into their collective cleavage to help the stars raise upwards of $50k in a single evening for the fundraising breast cancer research sponsor T.J. Martell. The newly renamed Crested Butte Songwriters Festival will stir up the sequins and glitter in a sea of cowboy hats, January 13 and 14, 2012, and build on the popularity of its former self without sacrificing the caliber of talent or fun, and still continue to raise big bucks for breast cancer research.

Country in the Rockies brought hundreds of visiting big spenders and jovial locals out to cruise the many different acts throughout the liver of Crested Butte. There were songwriting seminars with the stars, celebrity bartenders and concerts in the round for almost a full week. The stars got to shred the slopes alongside the town clan. The new event is starting out smaller for its first year, but will undoubtedly expand back into a party of extended workshops and concerts in the coming years as it gets rolling again.

This year’s raucous soiree has an impressive roster that includes some heavy hitters, all BMI-affiliated artists, like Texas roots country hero Robert Earl Keen (; veteran troubadour Dean Dillon (; country icon, hit writer and actor Mac Davis ( and Marti Frederiksen (, who has penned songs for the likes of Ozzy to Mick and Sheryl Crow to Pink. There are newer talents being showcased, like Jake Owen (, who happened to nail one of the coveted People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive slots; Kristen Kelly (; Nicolle Galyon (; Emily Shackelton (; Kristy Lee Cook (; and modern country hit songwriter Rodney Clawson ( They’ve thrown some local music into the mix, with Tyler Hansen (, Steve Snyder and David Paulik  — aka Dobro Dave (

The entourage starts at 8 p.m. on Friday the 13th at the rowdy Kochevar’s bar and moves to the Eldo Brewery at 10 p.m., with the admission a reasonable pay-what-you-can. If you prefer the less boisterous, Saturday night will feature a real concert ($50, It’s just fine if you only have a few bucks to toss into Friday’s kitty because others will toss several thousand into the hat. So get on up and take an honest look at the real country music of dirt roads and hollow body guitars through its singers and songwriters. And the locals will even invite you up to dance on the bar.

For more info head to:

Dawne Belloise is a freelance writer, photographer, traveler and musician living in Crested Butte. She can infamously shake it dancing on the bar. A feature writer for the Crested Butte News-Weekly, her musings and photography have been published in numerous mags and rags around the planet. Contact 

Bob Chamberlain’s Mountain Vision #185

Mica Creek, BC Canada, 1974Mica Creek BC Canada, 1974

After this picture was taken, Narcisse had the misfortune of skiing into a crevasse-like chasm created by creep of the entire snowpack. He fell eight feet onto the wet grass at the bottom of the crevasse. He landed on the point of his shoulder, which separated, and had to be reduced on the spot by one of the guides, who, in his turn, had to churn uphill, sidestepping rapidly through the deep snow to reach him.

I, for my part, skied too close to a tree-well, collapsed the shoulder of the well, and tumbled out of sight and head first into the snow-free column of air next to the trunk, one ski below, with a twist in one ankle. With a teeth-clenched lunge I was able to reach one binding and release it, only to find myself hanging upside-down from the ski above me, dangling by an Arlberg strap and the full length of the front-throw cable, which had come free of its side-hitches.

I was able to pull myself upward slowly and carefully, hand over hand, until I could reach the ski itself. Then I hauled the other ski up from below, and began to build a platform using both skis, which might be able to support my full weight. I could hear the sounds of  the second group skiing past, but realized that I would never be able to make myself heard through the thickness of the snowpack, even though I could hear them.

As I thrashed around with my skis, I was suddenly inundated by a cascade from above which threatened to choke off both air and light. At first I thought it must have been some sort of slide set off by passing skiers, but when it finally stopped, I could tell it was caused by one of those enormous, snow-burdened branches above me, unloading its full weight all at once. Coughing and spitting, I first knelt, then stood up on my shaky skis, and began to climb out of the hole.

I knew that the first group, of which I had been a member, was long-gone down the hill, and that the second group, although they had just been here, was also not waiting for anyone. If I could follow just the right set of tracks, at least I could hope to get to where the helicopter had been, even if it in fact was not still there.

It was there, alright, with everybody aboard except for a couple of the guides. I had been in the fast group, and then the slow group, and then the fast group again. Now they took me aside and told me that they had decided that, if I wanted to continue to ski the way that I skied, on the skis that I skied on, that I should get my own helicopter, and my own ski guide.

Not such a bad idea.

Senior correspondent Bob Chamberlain lives with his dog at 8,000 feet in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. 


In Pursuit of the Gnar

 Five generations of Pagosa Brewing Co.’s Nipple Mountain Nip barleywine style ale are served up at a “vertical tasting” for their 5th anniversary celebration on 11.11.11
Five generations of Pagosa Brewing Co.’s Nipple Mountain Nip barleywine style ale are served up at a “vertical tasting” for their 5th anniversary celebration on 11.11.11

Style. It’s how we define ourselves. It is also a fine method of establishing a common ground on which to meaningfully discuss beer. Tucked under the category of Strong Ales* lie three of the most beguiling and gnarly of all the creations in brewdom — the elusive Strong Ale (discussed in MG #184) and the fraternal twins of British- and American-style barleywine. As the name implies, these concoctions are created using an enormous amount of malted barley, which allows the final product to finish with an alcohol level akin to beverages produced from the fruit of the vine. British-style varieties feature an intense malt body and bready sweetness, with extended aging leaving a characteristic dried fruit signature on the palate. American varieties add piles of high-test domestic hops to the equation, aiming for a full-throttle mix of heat from the booze, sweet from the malt and a citrus hop rip to finish. Born brash and bold, subtlety of flavor comes with age for barleywine. The high level of alcohol and heavy hopping rates allow the potion to weather the ravages of time. Where a lesser brew will lose body and flavor complexity, the slow magick that yeast and malt begat in barleywine evolves over time, changing the flavor in a strange and persistent manner. Sharp hop notes and cloying sweetness may dominate a young brew, but the same bottle a few years later may exhibit sherry or port-like notes, with a moderate sweetness balanced by a subdued dryness from the hops. Barleywine is meant to be savored, and is best served on a cold winter evening where the stars shine hard and bright like diamond nails hammered into the midnight of heaven, and the icy light of the full moon echoes from the stellar blue blanket of snow covering the peaks around you.

A celebration of all things barleywine occurs in Vail on the 5th of January when the 12th Annual Big Beers, Belgians, and Barleywine Festival takes place at the Vail Cascade Resort and Spa. Featuring the “A” list of commercially produced beer over 7% ABV, paired with dinners, seminars, tastings and a home-brewing competition, this event is the festival to attend to experience all that is happening with high-gravity brewing today.

If you are lucky enough to ride at Wolf Creek this winter, do not miss the chance to stop at Pagosa Brewing Co. in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Doing this prior to or après soaking in the hot springs is your choice, but either way, a glass of the gold-medal-winning Nipple Mountain Nip barleywine ale is required. Brewed each year, the 2011 release is in the American-style and comes in at 10.5% ABV. To celebrate its 5th anniversary, brewer and owner Tony Simmons tapped kegs of the “Nip” from each of the five years he has produced it as a commercial brewer, and offered this side-by-side in a vertical tasting event that was a privilege to attend. Some of these prior-year releases may survive through ski season and should be asked for at the bar. Tawny, dry flavors of raisins and fig came through in some, with toffee and sweetness lingering in others. The 2008 was particularly well rounded, with each year exhibiting remarkable vitality in body and flavor complexity despite their age.

On a larger craft-brewed scale, the wizards at Full Sail Brewing Co. in Hood River, OR, have released the 2011 batch of Old Boardhead Barleywine Ale. Prominently featuring a bold palate of Pacific Northwest hops, the Old Boardhead is a heady hop treat to pour in the glass now, and should develop nicely if stashed in the cellar. In particular, the bright, faintly metallic notes from centennial hops accent the caramel flavor of the malts, and while tasting it, the thought of examining the changes that occur in the bottle to be opened next year is intriguing.

Head brewer Alan Simmons (no relation to Tony) at the Backcountry Brewery in Frisco also brews an American-style barleywine, which he named after the “beater” van that has proudly served as the Backcountry Brewery distribution workhorse since its inception. The Olde Beerwagon Barleywine is modeled after a West-Coast-style brew and features big-hop notes to balance the 10% ABV. Alan also has 50 gallons of the ’wine aging in an oak bourbon barrel and set for release during the ski season this winter. Aging in bourbon barrels imparts a lot of character to a beer, rendering vanilla and smoke components from the toasted oak itself, along with a solid dose of bourbon esters from the liquor remaining in the wood.

*All style references in this column are based on the Beer Judges Certification Program (BJCP) Style Guidelines found here:

Erich Hennig lives in Durango, CO. He is an avid home brewer, a hobby for which he was recently awarded  “Area Man” status by the local newspaper. Further musings about all things beer in and around the San Juan’s can be found at 

Far Out! Pass the Wassail and Crank Up John Denver

John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together“I’m not religious, but church music is the shit,” a friend whispered in a confessional tone over his beer. “The chord changes are intricately complex and it’s timeless. That’s why there have been Christmas carols since Henry the VIII. He even wrote some of them, or his court musicians did. That’s where ‘Greensleeves’ came from. The biggest problem I have is that it starts too early … like the week before Thanksgiving and then it’s like January 14th and you’re still fucking hearing it in grocery stores. That sucks. But when you hear the bell choir and you hear the ‘falalalala,’ it’s good cheer. I love it. Dylan came out with a Christmas album (‘Christmas in the Heart’). It’s terrible.” He made a face like he had just eaten blood pudding thinking it was chocolate. Yes, ’tis the season for that irksome, repetitive, mind-deadening holiday music, endless Christmas canticles blared across the loudspeakers at ski resorts and pouring out of restaurants and shops, permeating the streets and oozing up from the powdery whiteness of an otherwise perfect day.

It may be somewhat of a Scrooge attitude, but as hard as some of us try to ignore it, Christmas music won’t go away. If you ever actually liked Christmas music, by the time the celebrated Eve rolls around, you loathe hearing another verse of what has become insipid muzak droning out seasonal cheeriness. Call it the Christmas creep — whereas the assault used to start in early December but has now slipped into the day after Halloween. It is why many of us pay homage to Saint Steve for bringing us the iPod and the choice of a night silent of the inanity of granny getting run over by reindeer, or the looping of high-pitched androgynous voices, of sleigh bells ringing or little drummer boys who have nothing to do with rock-and-roll or Christmas for that matter. Even though Billy Idol oddly snarled out an album of traditional Christmas carols, The Boss electrified Santa Claus coming to town and plenty of indie and alternative bands startled new life into old hymns, there are actually a few holiday scores that especially warm the cockles … the ones you find yourself inexplicably whistling in July on a deep wilderness hike. The Grinch. Charlie Brown. But most notably, John Denver and the Muppets.

With just one song, John Denver did more to uplift the Yuletide spirit of more folk all over the country than a bowl full of wassail; he opened his nationally broadcast show in 1988, “Christmas in Aspen,” with one of his favorite Christmas songs, “Rocky Mountain High,” the tune capable of invoking euphoric mountain pride and responsible for relocating generations of happiness seekers to the beauty of the Rockies. The seasonal show was the highest-rated show for the ABC network at that time, watched by more than 60 million people.

John’s voice had the perfect cadence for traditional carols and his broad smile was the epitome of kid on Christmas morning. Although he made his “Rocky Mountain Christmas” album in 1975, which included the non-traditional “Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas),” “Aspenglow” and “Christmas for Cowboys,” the collaboration with Jim Henson’s Muppets in the 1979 “A Christmas Together” is truly the playful stuff that transcends the holiday season drollery. Nothing is more exhilarating than Animal screaming, “Run run, reindeer!” in “Little Saint Nick,” written and originally recorded by the Beach Boys (Wilson/Love) in 1963 and played by the Muppets’ band, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. There’s a couple of John’s originals as well, such as “A Baby Just Like You,” in which his son Zachary is woven into the lyrics but the song was written for Frank Sinatra, and “Alfie The Christmas Tree,” which he said was inspired largely by the Muppets.

The cast of Muppets harmonizes well with John, who naturally fits right in with a diva pig, frogs, long-snouted creatures and feather-headed sax players. The album was re-released in 1996, but was sorely missing three integral songs — “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “When the River Meets the Sea” and “Little Saint Nick” — much to the disappointment of fans. Luckily, the faux pas was corrected in 2006 when the CD was again released in its platinum-certified original version with all 13 songs. Even though the CD and digital download have been available through Windstar Records, the vinyl had been out of print for a long time when John Denver’s estate decided to release a Kermit green edition in vinyl this year. Yes, this album is enhanced in frog green (and available exclusively from Urban Outfitters). The original LP inspired the exceedingly popular TV production of the same name in 1979, which, for some reason, has never been available in VHS or DVD to the public (but can be viewed in segments on In 1990, John also recorded the album “Christmas Like a Lullaby,” with more religious tunes. And just in case you were thinking you’ve heard all of John’s recordings before his fatal plane crash of 1997, this past October, John’s estate announced a series of previously unreleased live recordings. The first is digitally mastered from a 1990 concert in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and available as digital downloads from

John’s penchant for introducing people to his adopted Aspen paradise extended to Muppets and, in 1983, he brought his close friend Jim Henson and his eclectic clan of creatures westward to film a campout under the gaze of the Maroon Bells (John: “The mosquitoes aren’t bad.” Kermit: “Aren’t bad? They’re delicious!”). The bedazzled gang donned classic plaid flannel shirts and puffy down vests for the 50-minute TV musical special, “Rocky Mountain Holiday” (still available on DVD).

John once said, “There’s one piece of advice my dad gave me when he dropped me off at college. He said, ‘You’ve got the talent. You can sing and play guitar. That doesn’t make you any better than anyone else.’” What made John more admirable than many though was how he used his well earned fame, calling attention to environmental issues, sustainable living, fighting homelessness and world hunger, especially where it concerned children, a supporter of space exploration and NASA and, of course, he testified in front of Congress in 1985 to protest the Washington Wives’ attempt at censorship in music. Earlier, he had been forced to defend “Rocky Mountain High” as a song about the natural bliss of being in the wilderness with friends around a campfire as opposed to a drug-induced high. The song was granted legislative status as Colorado’s second state song in 2007, after the 1915 “Where Columbines Grow.”

If you dread the Christmas musical inundation, but want to pump up the holiday spirit, John Denver and the Muppets “Christmas Together” is the one album to have for dancing around Yule fire … far out!

Dawne Belloise is a freelance writer, photographer, traveler and vocalist whose huge Italian family sang the entire score of “Guys and Dolls” and “Westside Story” on Christmas Eve. After hearing “Rocky Mountain High,” she moved to a garage on a back alley in Crested Butte. 

Greensky Bluegrass Becomes Bearish on the Green Room

Greensky Bluegrass
Greensky Bluegrass

Greensky Bluegrass brings all the grit and attitude of a whiskey-soaked card game to its bluegrass-spiked-with-rock-‘n’-roll sound. The Michigan crew has been carting its dobro, banjo, guitar, bass and mandolin around the country for 11 years and counting, but the guys didn’t get bearish on green rooms until a gig in Crested Butte.

Aside from the usual terror anyone would face driving over Red Mountain Pass in a van towing a trailer amidst a storm that dumped three feet of snow — the worst part being they survived but couldn’t ski it due to their demanding tour schedule — Greensky Bluegrass got an unexpected dose of Colorado’s wild nature once they reached their venue.

After a killer first set at The Eldo, the boys headed down to the ground-level green room “to do everything you think bands do at set break,” said dobro player Anders Beck.

Twenty minutes later, the band sauntered toward the door with beers and instruments in hand — none of which could immediately help them with what they encountered next.

Seems a black bear wanted in on the green-room action.

Banjo player Mike Bont was the first to open the door and realize he was “literally face to face with a very large black bear — who wanted to come in for tequila shots, I assume,” Beck said. “Though the bear looked about as freaked out as us at the moment, you’ve probably never seen Greensky Bluegrass move so quickly in one direction. Drinks spilled, instruments clanked together in strange dissonant harmonies and the door slammed shut — quickly.”

But the bear wasn’t shushed away easily; the boys had to conjure up a heap of noise, and to this day they’re pretty sure it was the banjo that ultimately made the curious bear scuttle down the river path so the musicians could head upstairs and continue the show.

“I don’t remember what we played that night, but I certainly remember that set break,” Beck said. “(It was) the biggest bear we had ever seen, and it was pretty damn scary.”

Kimberly Nicoletti hasn’t encountered a bear in her yard since 2004, but her otherwise intelligent American Eskimo ran up to the moose that frequented her yard this May. Needless to say, human intervention was required when the moose lowered its antlers in response to the barking dog, and she could’ve really used a banjo. While not busy protecting her two little dogs from moose and coyotes, Kimberly acts as the A&E editor at the Summit Daily News.

Mountain Vision #184

Mountain Vision by Bob Chamberlain: San Francisco Ski Show, 1966

Death of GLM San Francisco ski Show, 1966

These are last year’s rental skis, dumped on the ski show market to clear current stock, a precursor event to the modern disposable ski. Santa, please don’t send me any 150s or 165s, even if they’re shaped, fat, mid-fat, wide, double-ended, reverse-cambered, with duck-foot tips, and split-tails. The Graduated Length Method died because no one ever graduated. Why bother to go to First Grade when Kindergarten is so much fun?

I once demo’d a pair of 205 Miller Softs, and my first turn was a 360. Gymnastics and stunts do not skiing make. I finally got a pair of 207 VR-7s, but just for teaching. The Luddites did have a point, you know. Long skis, wooden boats and B&W film, that’s my bumpersticker. A Jeep is my vehicle, and a stick-shift is my drive.

Senior correspondent Bob Chamberlain lives with his dog at 8,000 feet in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. 

Oh Christmas Brew, Oh Christmas Brew!

Old Saint Nick enjoys a pint of the proper.
Old Saint Nick enjoys a pint of the proper.

Understanding beer style is important to understanding the craft brewing industry. Amongst other things, defining the style of beer that a bottle contains helps consumers to choose products that meet their fancy, and allows breweries track sales and trends. In mid-2008, a report published by the Brewers Association found that, for the first time in the craft brewing industry, sales of pale ale were eclipsed by sales of seasonal releases. This was seen as evidence that, as consumers have become more beer-savvy and adventurous in their tastes, they increasingly look for a wider variety of beer to enjoy.

Recognizing this, brewers have jumped at the opportunity to broaden their style portfolio and to bolster their sales with small-batch brews of limited release ales and lagers designed to fit the season. While many smaller breweries will release a uniquely named seasonal, increasingly, the larger production brew houses have gone to a more generic format named for the season. Many varieties of “summer ale” abound, with increasing examples of “spring” and “fall” suds slowly making their appearance on the shelf each year. But by far the most ubiquitous and varied seasonal in the brewing calendar is the enigmatic Christmas Brew.

With roots stretching back to the time of legend and days of yore, these brews routinely defy classification, blending styles, bending rules and pushing boundaries (going higher?). The most laced-down of the group describe themselves as porters or brown ales, with most calling the murky realms of olde ale and strong ale home, or simply defying traditional classification altogether by claiming the bastard title of winter warmer. In general, Christmas brews start life with a high gravity (sugar content) and are then fermented with an ale yeast, finishing out heavier in body, darker in color, sweeter on the tongue and containing more alcohol than the average beer. They are the kind of thing you might want to savor on a cold evening after a day on the slopes, and tend to display their full flavor profile when consumed slightly warm. Some contain spices, herbs or fruit, with spruce-tips, juniper berries, holiday spices, chocolate and raspberry being fairly common additions. With all this variety, the only means of better understanding this phenomenon is to try them out. For reference, a few personal favorites that should be widely available across the West are listed here.

In the olde ale style, Avery Old Jubilation, produced by Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder has been a seasonal favorite of mine for over ten years. It presents a bold toffee flavor, blended with a note of currant from the hops. Mahogany in the glass, this one comes in at 8.3% abv. Though brewed since 1995, Hibernation Ale, from Great Divide Brewing Co. in Denver only crossed my radar last year. Perhaps a better example of the Olde Ale style than Avery’s offering, one gulp of this elixir presents a complex series of flavors in the mouth, with a good degree of warmth from the alcohol (8.7% abv) and a solid hop finish. Adding a completely different twist, Alaskan Brewing Co. tapped into tradition dating back to the 1700s and brews their Winter Ale with the addition of Sitka Spruce tips. The result is an invigorating boost to the piney flavors from the hops, balanced by the dark and sweet character of the underlying beer.

In the marketing material for their Christmas Ale, Breckenridge Brewing Co. states that “The chill of a Colorado high-country winter calls for a beer with extra flavor and strength.” (Fuckin-A to that!) This perennially impressive release in the strong ale category heeds this call, weighing in at a hefty 7.4% abv with a luscious malt backbone to support all that delicious alcohol. Wassail Ale, brewed by Full Sail Brewing Co. in Hood River, OR, is a pleasantly hoppy experience, and would be a good choice if you prefer Pale Ales or IPA-style beer. They have also released a new offering this season, Session Fest, which will be packaged in the same 11-oz. stubby bottles the other Session styles come in. Also new for 2011 is Snow Day, from New Belgium Brewing Co. I initially assumed that this was a rebranding of the 2 Below seasonal from years past, and was happy to learn that it is, in fact, a new recipe based on a malt known as “Midnight Wheat.” 2 Below nearly saved my life while stranded at Denver International over the holidaze a few years ago, (the New Belgium bar sits at the end of the concourse that handles regional flights to the mountains of Colorado), and hopefully Snow Day is a worthy replacement.

Erich Hennig lives and works in Durango, CO, where he generally rocks it. Got a Christmas Brew that we should know about? Drop a note to