To many of us who grew up in the second half of the twentieth century, there are few things more nostalgic about childhood than baseball cards. For me personally, the pinnacle of my childhood baseball card collection was my ever-growing binder containing every Howard Johnson card ever manufactured. I can still vividly picture them: the elusive ’83 Fleer featuring a steely-eyed Johnson with hopes of sticking in the big leagues; the ’88 Donruss with HoJo rocking peak fu manchu; the 1990 Topps All-Star showcasing his home-run pose.
However, my goal of keeping up a complete collection quickly spiraled out of hand in the early 90s, as brands like Upper Deck, Stadium Club, Leaf, Pinnacle, and Bowman joined an already crowded trading card market. At the same time, venerable companies like Topps began introducing specialty cards, like their Gold and Black Gold series, that were much rarer and more difficult to find. In the past, particular cards would become hyped (and valuable) for natural reasons, most prominently for being rookie cards of players who went on to become superstars. Now card companies were intentionally trying to create hyped cards via manufactured scarcity. Topps Gold and Donruss Elite paved the way for even rarer inserts like autograph and jersey cards, and it soon became impossible to collect every HoJo card ever made. Once it became impossible to collect them all, I quickly lost interest in collecting any.
Compared to the early 90s, as a culture today we seem to be kicking the material collection habit. How many people actively collect something anymore, be it baseball cards, stamps, rocks, or anything else that could go in a box in the closet? Now, more than ever, we collect experiences instead. We curate bucket lists and document our activities on social media. This could be seen as freeing ourselves from the grip of materialism, but looked at another way we’ve only succeeded in commodifying experiences themselves. Experiences have become just another thing to collect, only the collection resides on our instagram instead of in a shoebox. Beer is a prime example of this phenomenon. As craft beer drinkers, we often have an innate desire to try every beer. And, of course, to then record it in our account on Untappd or Beer Advocate.
Beer as a hobby today approximates where baseball cards were in the mid 90s. There are so, so many options for craft beer now, and breweries actively try to create hyped beers. Nearly everything is a one-off, special release, with bottle limits (and a premium price tag of course). A few of these beers are spectacular; many are merely good. How is a beer drinker supposed to navigate all this? There comes a point when the sheer number of options and the amount of manufactured hype is overwhelming. But don’t give up like I did with my collection of HoJo cards – there’s still hope and it’s on the shelf of your local bottle shop.
It’s a turning point in a craft beer drinkers life when you realize you really don’t need to chase hyped beers – there are amazing beers sitting on the shelf at this very moment, only a short drive from where you’re sitting. They take practically no effort to acquire and they taste fantastic. As an example, we only have to look at one of the original hyped beers, Westvleteren 12. Westy 12 is a trappist ale, made by the monks of the Saint Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren, Belgium. It is only sold at the monestary itself. Craft beer drinkers today still spend hundreds of dollars to have six packs of Westy shipped to them across the Atlantic by Belgium in a Box. But sitting on the shelf of their local store is St. Bernardus Abt. 12, and it’s practically the same beer.
Westy 12 was brewed by the monks of Saint Sixtus from 1838 until the end of the World War II, when they outsourced production to the St. Bernardus brewery in nearby Watou. In 1992, the monks took production back over, due to changes in the requirements of what could be labeled “Trappist” ale. With the loss of their client, St. Bernardus began making its own beer, using pretty much same recipe. St. Bernardus and Westvleteren use different water sources, and the house yeasts have developed independently over the last 20 years, so they aren’t identical… but it’s damn close.
Since this is December, let’s pop open a bottle of the Abt. 12’s festive cousin, St. Bernardus Christmas Ale, and see what’s inside. Christmas Ale checks in at a 10% abv, the same as Abt. 12, and the beer is very similar but with a bit of a holiday twist. The bottle is a corked and caged 750, featuring the St. Bernardus monk getting festive with a Santa hat. The beer itself is impressive looking, pouring a deep, murky rich brown color, with a thick, dense head that looks to be as long-lasting as an ancient monastery. This certainly looks like something that came out of a dark, mysterious abbey made by chanting monks. In the glass, the smell is full of intoxicating Belgian yeast, dark fruits, and spice cake. It tastes like raisins, figs, and the yeasty banana flavor of Abt 12, but with an extra layer of orange peel and spices. Fittingly for Christmas, the beer is wrapped with a rich brown sugar sweetness. It’s pretty similar to Abt. 12, but with some noticeable spices on the finish that can’t exactly be placed.
Scouting Report (20-80 scale)
St. Bernardus Christmas Ale is a strong candidate for the title of best Christmas beer on the market today. While it may be overshadowed by its teammate Abt. 12 (a true all-time great), this is without a doubt an excellent beer. Comp: Jerry Koosman.