Ugly Sweaters, Barry White’s Voice & Sparkle Parties: A Recap of Portland’s 16th Annual Holiday Ale Fest 4

This past weekend, I attended the 16th Annual Holiday Ale Fest in Portland, OR. The 5-day winter beer fest took place under a large tent equipped with heat lamps in the heart Pioneer Courthouse Square, underneath the city’s largest Christmas tree. More than 50 winter ales were poured this year.

The Holiday Ale Fest is unlike any other winter beer fest that I’ve been to or even heard of. The organizers of the fest have extremely strict requirements — any beer poured must either be of a rare vintage or it must be brewed exclusively for the Holiday Ale Fest. Essentially, this fest is a heaven for beer geeks, boasting dozens of the rarest beers in the world.


Sadly, my trip to Portland was short and sweet, spanning exactly 48 hours. The only days of the fest that I was able to attend were Friday and Saturday — the two busiest and craziest days of the event. Luckily, I arrived early enough on Friday and was able to make some rounds before the insanity started. Unfortunately, I was unable to taste every single beer at the event. However, I relied heavily on the palate of one of Portland’s most beloved beer bloggers and beer experts, Angelo De Ieso of BREWPUBLIC, to guide me to the best beers in the fest. Here are my top 5 picks of the weekend:

1. Sang Noir 09′

Cascade Brewing Barrel House
Barrel Aged Sour AleABV: 9.3% • IBUs: 9 • O.G.: 20.0° • F.G.: 3.5°
Description: This NW-style sour ale is a blend of red and double red beers that were aged in Pinot Noir and Bourbon barrels for 12-24 months. Look for sharp dark cherry and slight Bourbon notes in the nose and the first sip, where tart cherries and oak will soon take over and take you on a wine-like journey ending with a dry, tart fruit finish.

Wench’s Notes: I was extremely lucky to catch the special release of this vintage barrel-aged sour. Deep ruby brown in color, medium-bodied with excellent carbonation, Sang Noir boasts flavors of dark sour cherries, blackberries, balsamic vinegar and sherry wine with hints of oak and vanilla with a touch of earthy funk. Wine-like with a notable viscosity, Sang Noir finishes tart and dry leaving the palate craving more.

Can’t lie, I’ve never had a bad beer from Cascade. In fact, every beer I’ve had from them has not only been good, but extraordinary, and the Sang Noir is no exception.

2. Sang Noir

Cascade Brewing Barrel House
Barrel Aged Sour AleABV: 9.3% • IBUs: 9 • O.G.: 20.0° • F.G.: 3.5°
Description: This deep, dark double red was aged over a year in Pinot and Whiskey barrels, then blended with a barrel of Bing cherries. This deep and rich NW double red is one of our most complex winter offerings.

Wench’s Notes: The current vintage is considerably more tart than it’s 09′ sibling, but excellent nonetheless. Lots of sour cherry and lactic flavors with a touch of oak and vanilla. Filled up an entire mug twice with it — and probably would have been satisfied drinking it the entire time.

3. 100% Bourbon Barrel Aged Velvet Merkin

Firestone Walker Brewing Co.
Oatmeal StoutABV: 8.6% • IBUs: 33 • O.G.: 15.0° • F.G.: 5.5°
This small batch traditional oatmeal stout is brewed with 15% oats, 31% Maris Otter malt and a portion of roasted barley and hopped with US-grown Fuggles. The combination produces a smooth and creamy mouthfeel, accompanied by a mild bitterness and a roasted caramel finish. This batch was aged on 100% Bourbon barrels, most from Heaven Hill.

Wench’s Notes: Not my first time tasting this beer, however it was the first time tasting this vintage. Deep brown in color with a creamy off-white head, Velvet Merkin seduces the senses with rich aromas and flavors of chocolate, espresso, vanilla, oak, and roasted malts. Addition of oats gives it a creamy mouth feel. Notable alcohol warmth from the Bourbon barrel aging, yet still smooth and drinkable. Velvet Merkin is one of the sexiest beers I’ve ever had.

4. Tangerine Trees & Marmalade Skies

Bison Brewing
Bourbon barrel-aged Belgian Tripel brewed with Marmalade
A first in its history, Bison Brewing aged its special draft-only release Belgian Tripel brewed with locally-sourced navel orange marmalade into Evan Williams Bourbon barrels for 5 months. The result is a full-bodied ale boasting rich notes of toasted oak, vanilla, sugar cookie and burnt caramel with hints of orange zest and a slight alcohol warmth.

Wench’s Notes: “Picture yourself in a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly, a girl with kaleidoscope eyes.” – That is the state of mind this beer will put you in — a psychedelic state of euphoria. Tangerine Trees & Marmalade Skies reminds me of a classic Sidecar cocktail — boozy with hints of citrus, vanilla, oak and caramel.

Obviously, I’m very partial to this beer since I work for Bison Brewing and I got to name the beer — but that doesn’t mean that it really wasn’t the 4th best beer I tasted at the event. I was extremely impressed by it, and drank my fair share of it.

5. The Nutcracker

Oakshire Brewing
Gingerbread Imperial PorterABV: 8.0% • IBUs: 30 • O.G.: 19.7° • F.G.: 4.7°
The Nutcracker is a rich imperial porter with notes of aromatic ginger and cinnamon, perfect sustenance for those chilly damp holiday nights.

Wench’s Notes: Even though I’ve sworn off The Nutcracker forever (my parents danced in it for nearly 15 years and I’ve seen the ballet more times than I’d like to admit), I made an exception for this beer though. Deep brown in color, with solid carbonation and a medium-heavy body, The Nutcracker boasted rich aromas and flavors of roasted malt, chocolate, cinnamon and ginger. It was notably spicy from the use of raw ginger, yet not overwhelmingly so. For an 8% alcohol beer, The Nutcracker was entirely way too smooth and drinkable for its own good and I can see it getting me into some serious trouble.



I would love to be modest about this one, but since the majority of festival goers thought it was the best name, I can’t deny it.

“Barry White’s Voice in a Barrel is a dark, slow-pouring aphrodisiac of the smoothest proportions; rich roast, luscious oak, bittersweet and oh so sexy.” – Dan Del Grande, Bison’s Brewmaster & Owner

This is the first time in its 23-year history that Bison Brewing has aged its flagship beer, the iconic Chocolate Stout (often referred to as “Barry White’s Voice in a Bottle”), in Bourbon barrels. Taking into consideration the base beer’s moderately low alcohol content and medium body, Bison’s brewmaster Dan Del Grande decided to age the Chocolate Stout for  8 months in second use Four Roses Bourbon barrels. The result is a delicately balanced, medium-bodied ale boasting notes of toasted oak, vanilla, dark chocolate and espresso with hints of molasses and caramel.


Outside of the actual beers at the fest, there were a lot of additional highlights. The top highlight of the entire weekend, for me, was meeting Angelo of BREWPUBLIC, a fellow beer blogger for whom I have tremendous respect and adoration. Angelo was kind enough to help a first timer navigate the fest like a seasoned pro.

Photo Credit: BREWPUBLIC

Portland’s Yelp team was also in the house, with a “Roving Photo Booth” (designed by local artist: Pete Soloway) near the entrance gates. Not exactly being the most camera shy person, I spent quite a good deal of time hanging out with the Yelp boys, striking a few poses and even starting a spontaneous German Sparkle Dance Party.

Photo Source: Portland Yelp

The Oregon Lottery also had a photo booth set up inside the fest, with an ugly sweater theme. Festival goers were promoted to deck themselves out in a selection of ugly xmas sweaters and pose with tacky holiday props. Sadly, I only did it once (pics still aren’t up, though)

Angelo and his friend Dean

I was delightfully surprised to reunite with my friends Brad and Maeve from the Chicago based video podcast, Hop Cast, at the Holiday Ale fest. The beer industry never ceases to amaze me. It is so awesome that I can be visiting a different city at the same time as friends from another region in the country, and just randomly attend the same beer event. Sooooo cool.

Also had the opportunity to meet many new friends, as well as see some old friends. Was really exciting to meet Preston, one of the fest founders who also works as a blender for Cascade Barrel House. Learned all about a new blackberry blend the brewery just did which, unfortunately, was such a small batch that we won’t see it outside of the brewery.

Moral of the story, the Holiday Ale Fest was a really fun event. Fantastic beers with fantastic people in a fantastic city, how could you go wrong?


About The Beer Wench

Ashley is a self-proclaimed craft beer evangelist & social media maven on a mission to advance the craft beer industry through education, inspiration and advocacy. She is currently the “Director of Awesomeness” at Bison Brewing in Berkeley, CA — where her responsibilities include everything from marketing, sales, PR, social media & events. Ashley is also a freelance consultant and professional speaker on the subjects of social media, beer mixology, food & beverage pairings. She is the founder of & as well as a regular contributor to

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4 thoughts on “Ugly Sweaters, Barry White’s Voice & Sparkle Parties: A Recap of Portland’s 16th Annual Holiday Ale Fest

  • Angelo

    Ashley, thanks for including me in your HAF adventures. It was an especially good year at the fest this year. It was a pleasure to meet Dan at Bison and your other friends. Hope to see you again soon!

  • Lee Shepard

    HAF2012 is a must-attend event for me now! After reading this and seeing all the Twitter posts, I will be in the house next year even if I have to hitchhike from Paso!