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A BREW CHRISTMAS 

Winter ales light up the dark season

Yuletide joys come no tastier than Great Lakes Brewing Co.'s Christmas Ale. It's the alcoholic sweater for the winter, zymurgy's fireplace, a Cleveland cultural phenomenon with few equals or competitors, a rite of passage, a regret and quite possibly the only beer angels would drink if angels drank beer.

A little much? Nah. They don't call it Christmas Crack for nothing. People don't haul it back to their homes after visiting family in town because the label's festive. It doesn't give rookies and vets alike the morning-after feeling of Death's bongo band playing a five-hour concert in their heads because it's just another beer.

Great Lakes Brewing has once again upped production of the Forest City's favorite winter indulgence due to outrageously increasing demand: 115,500 cases will go out this year, and even though that's a 28.5-percent increase over last year's output, Great Lakes is already receiving calls from distributors saying they need more. You and me both, brother. They're running production six days a week, and when all is said and done, GLBC is on pace to sell 70,000 more six packs of Christmas Ale in just a couple of months than they sell of Dortmunder Gold all year long. Perspective: They'll use $220,000 worth of honey to brew it. Yeah, people dig Christmas Ale.

You don't need any guide for where to find it. You already know the bars and grocery stores and corner shops that sell out of it with regularity. You know every bar wants it on tap. Which is why we'll celebrate Great Lakes Christmas Ale with the little ode above, but move on to other local breweries and their winter offerings below. There are more spiced, dark winter beers than Great Lakes'. And expanding your horizons isn't a bad thing, especially when the adventures are this delicious.

Since winter beers are by far the best (in our humble opinion) of the yearly seasonal selections — a perfect accompaniment to the heavy comfort foods of the holiday season — there's no reason not to try as many as possible. Every local brewery will be or is already producing some variant of a seasonal beer.

If you're out east, stop by Willoughby Brewing Co. (4057 Erie St., Willoughby, 440.975.0202, willoughbybrewing.com) and take in their version of Christmas Ale: A spiced red ale with juniper berry, cinnamon, nutmeg and a little allspice, coming in at 7 to 9 percent alcohol. Willoughby will also be bottling the Christmas Ale this year in champagne bottle baskets.

The Brew Kettle (8377 Pearl Rd, 440.239.8788, thebrewkettle.com) in Strongsville will also roll out their Christmas Ale in late November.

Newcomer Indigo Imp (indigoimpbrewery.com) already has bottles of its Winter Solstice in select stores. They describe it thusly: "A deep amber, full-bodied ale, brewed with four different malts, Cascade hops and just enough orange peel and cinnamon to be Impishly delicious."

Rocky River Brewing Co. (21290 Center Ridge Rd., Rocky River, 440.895.2739, rrbc.squarespace.com) just tapped their Christmas Ale, a chestnut spiced red ale with a blend of honey, clove, ginger and a hint of coriander and orange peel.

Rock Bottom Brewery (2000 Sycamore St., 216.623.1555, rockbottom.com) will release a holiday Belgian strong ale on December 10.

If you're looking to go outside the local offerings and sample some bottled Christmas cheer at your house or a party, there are loads of options. Your local grocery store is probably the best bet for finding some wintery concoctions from your favorite microbreweries around the country. On a recent stop by Heinen's (heinens.com), we found a stunning selection already in the cooler, including Samuel Adams Winter Lager, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale and Leinenkugel's Fireside Nut Brown.

Want something that's not being distributed in bottles to the area? Prefer your winter warmers by the draft? We humbly submit the following drinking establishments that are sure to have a wide selection of Christmas/winter ales from all over the country on tap (and in bottles). For example, Bier Markt (1948 W. 25th St., 216.274.1010, bier-markt.com) is currently pouring Corsendonk Christmas, St. Bernardus, Delirium Noël and Breckenridge Christmas, in addition to the Great Lakes variety, of course.

Others to check out: Melt (14718 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216.226.3699, meltbarandgrilled.com) and Tremont Taphouse (2572 Scranton Rd., 216.298.4451, tremonttaphouse.com).

Drink up, be careful, be merry and enjoy a tall pour of some Christmas Ale this winter. And if you still don't know what to get us for Christmas by now, let's just be clear: We'll take a case. Or three.

vgrzegorek@clevescene.com

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