It's easy enough for a thing to smell the way Christmas is supposed to taste.
Products spiked and sprayed with chemical facsimiles that insta-tap the holiday feels abound this time of year. Nostalgia, it seems, can be a pretty cheap date.
But what I want from a cinnamon eggnog mood candle and a cinnamon eggnog beer are (very much) not the same.
When Chris Wright, of Monument's Pikes Peak Brewing Co., describes his AdAmAn Ale as "Christmas in a glass," for example, he does not mean that in a scented-candle kind of way.
"I think spice is the key with a holiday beer," said Wright, whose winter warmer is named after the local mountaineering group responsible for the New Year's Eve fireworks display atop Pikes Peak. "We cook so much around Christmas, and the scent of spice hangs in the air. Cold weather releases have to be comforting to the drinker with bold warm flavors."
Thankfully, when craft brewers go bold with the season's signature tastes and smells, the outcome is a more intimate, fireworks-on-the-inside affair, even in a recipe that aims for sensory overload.
"I think that a 'festive' approach is the best path. For us, that equates to spices that are reminiscent of Christmas - cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves and even some molasses to add some body," said Mike Bristol, of Bristol Brewing Co. "It should be a beer that screams 'good friends and holiday cheer.'"
Flavor isn't the only voice it uses, either.
"I think that in winter, we crave darker beers with more body and, quite often, a bit higher alcohol for that 'warming' effect," said Bristol, whose brewery now is pouring a limited-release spiced Christmas ale ("a cheery winter carnival in every pint") and will premiere its Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout at a "Star Wars"-themed party Thursday. "I think it's a natural human instinct as the days get shorter, the temperature drops, and we spend more time inside. "It's similar to the way we gravitate towards heartier food in the winter."
At Nano 108 Brewing Co., a key quality in cold-weather beer is "depth," said Keith Altemose, whose seasonal taps feature an array of heartier, Old World and barrel-aged styles. Nano's Belgian Tripel, made using only Belgian and German ingredients, has developed something of a wintertime cult following.
"We use a very old abbey yeast from Belgium, leaving you with aromas and flavors of clove and banana," Altemose said. "Drink this one slowly to enjoy the complexities of a long-aged Belgian-style beer."
Holiday beers also are about the context in which they are imbibed (say, in a room full of rosy-cheeked people wearing ugly Christmas sweaters).
Great Storm Brewing's festive atmosphere is fueled, in part, by friendly competition. Each year, the brewery challenges employees - brewers and servers - to create, and see to fruition, a seasonally resonant recipe.
"We buy the ingredients, and everyone comes in and brews their own brainchild," said Lynn Jacobs, whose brewery will tap all five employee-created beers Saturday at its Christmas party-slash-ugly pajama contest. Evocatively titled entries include "Treacle Biscuit Wee Heavy" Scottish-style heavy ale, "Baby It's Cold Outside" hot chocolate stout, and "Partridge In A Pear Tree" caramelized pear saison.
"We have a lot of good-natured competitiveness going on with this, and we track whose beer sells best and they enjoy bragging rights all year," Jacobs said.
Altruism also can be a powerful beer ingredient in this season of giving.
Through Dec. 31, $1 of every pint of Fieldhouse Brewing Co.'s Blackberry Paws sold at the South Tejon Street taproom or Oskar Blues Downtown, and $2 from every six-pack, benefit The Gazette-El Pomar Foundation Empty Stocking Fund. The 34-year-old philanthropic campaign has raised more than $18 million for health and human services agencies in the Pikes Peak region.
Fieldhouse owner Travis Fields premiered the beer, a riff on his popular Sticky Paws honey wheat flagship, as a promising one-off last year.
"People keep asking, 'When are you bringing Blackberry Paws back?' Now I can say, 'Here it is,' and it's for a good cause," Fields said.
Because, especially at Christmas, nothing tastes as good as it feels not to be a Scrooge.