CLEVELAND — It may not yet be Halloween but for Northeast Ohio beer lovers, the Christmas season is now upon us with today’s first pours of Great Lakes Christmas Ale and Market Garden’s Festivus and the earlier release of Thirsty Dog’s 12 Dogs of Christmas.
“Ohio's a hot bed of Christmas Ales,” said John Najeway, co-owner of Akron’s Thirsty Dog Brewing Co. “If you looked at a store shelf seven years ago there were a handful of us with Christmas Ales in Ohio and if you go in the next couple of weeks and look, you're overwhelmed because you'll see 20+ Christmas Ales,” he said of the beers often infused with a mix of ginger, cinnamon and honey, along with other spices unique to each breweries secret recipes.
“If you look nationally at seasonal beers, the data from last year shows that "seasonals" continue to go down in sale numbers, but in Ohio they're up,” he said.
While there is competition among Northeast Ohio brewers, there is also camaraderie and a tip of the cap to Great Lakes for wetting the region’s collective whistle in 1992 when they first brewed Christmas Ale.
“Dan and Pat Conway (founders of Great Lakes) were on the forefront of being the first craft brewery in Ohio since Prohibition and when they came up with this recipe it definitely started kind of a title wave if you will of great beer in Ohio City,” said Sam McNulty co-founder of Market Garden Brewery.
In 2011 when Market Garden first opened its Brew Pub, it didn’t take McNulty and his partners to realize the holiday brew world was something they needed to get in on.
“We were kind of working on recipes and we knew we needed a holiday ale that was different from the pack, kind of set itself apart and we devised this recipe eight years ago.”
In that time Festivus has grown to be one of the brewery’s biggest year-round sellers despite only being available for part of the year.
“One of our biggest challenges with Festivus is keeping up with production. So even as we speak, we're bottling, we're working multiple shifts a day just to keep up with demand and the minute we have a series of pallets stacked up in our coolers they are hauled away in semi-trucks and we re-fill the cooler and it's like a constant process.”
For Thirsty Dog’s 12 Dogs of Christmas it’s the same thing. “It's a seasonal but it's always our number one,” said Najeway. “It's amazing, it's a beer that's only out there for 10 or 11 weeks, people are waiting for it.”
As a result, they haven’t tinkered with the original recipe but rather added other variations of it.
“We've been making that since 2007, in 2011 we started making 12 Dogs and bourbon barrel aging it for 11 months. That's now available in 4-packs as well,” he said. “Last year we did some 12 Dogs and we aged it in rum barrels so this year we've got it again in Rum barrels, it's very limited.”
In Ohio City McNulty has found with the opening of the Market Garden Brewery building a short walk away from Great Lakes the two have become a holiday destination.
“People come from out of state, they'll book hotels for an entire weekend and this is their plan,” he said raising a pint of Festivus.
At Great Lakes those festivities begin each year on the day of the first pour, an event that has a growing cult following where lovers of all things Christmas Ale start lining up around 8 a.m. for the brewery’s doors to open at 11 a.m. and the first pour of the first pint at 11:30 a.m.
“It’s an un-official holiday of Cleveland,” said Great Lakes Communications Coordinator Adam Ritterspach. “Christmas Ale is definitely kind of considered to be the OG of the Christmas Ales that you find today.”
Last year the brewery poured 7,533 pints of Christmas Ale on the first day of availability, that comes to about a pint every five seconds over a 12-hour period.
And if you’re looking for a two-fer McNulty is quick to point out their first pour of Festivus at Market Garden will be at 11 a.m. “I won’t tell anybody if you skive off work early and come down and enjoy a few,” McNulty said.
Enjoy a little of his, a little of Great Lakes’, a little of Thirsty Dog’s and all of the others said Najeway.
“Try all of the Christmas Ales of Northeast Ohio, there's plenty of them.”