In contrast to recent write-up subjects, namely, Sierra Nevada's Celebration Ale and Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Ale, Port's Santa's Little Helper is much closer to what you expect out of a Christmas beer: it's dark. It's got a modestly sized mocha colored head. It's also rich and more malt-dominated than hops-dominated. But it's not just a heavy malt affair dressed up in nutmeg, ginger, orange peel, pumpkin spice, and whatever Christmas baking ingredients were lying around the brewery.
As is their nature, Port lays the groundwork for this beer in hops, and there must be a lot of them. I didn't find the IBU for this beer but I'll bet it's north of 70. This is a 10% beer. With that kind of alcohol level going on, there's a lot of room for excess everything. The hops express themselves as a rough, grainy favor with a bit of pine. Massive dark roasted malts largely mask any citrus and resin flavors the hops are lending.
What impressed me most about this beer is how it all hangs together despite threatening to crumble. I ate a piece of flourless chocolate cake the other day with my friend Hilary. We're each taking bites out of this deliciously dark dessert and it's disintegrating under our forks, crumbling into little pieces that can only be salvaged through shoveling them off the plate. Much is the same with how Santa's Little Helper operates. It seems stable enough in the 8 oz. snifter glass they bring you. But it's not.
One moment it threatens runaway sweetness. Then the hops quickly corral it. Suddenly it's headed the other way and threatening to build up too much graininess on your tongue. For a moment you're thinking that you're drinking a black IPA. Molasses-like flavors along with a bit of currants quickly rebalance things. A muddy coffee-grounds flavor dips in and out. Nothing in this beer ever stays stationary. The only constant is the rich creaminess that sustains through the last drop.
Overall it's a grand drinking experience given its dense and diverse flavors. This certainly would have topped my Christmas beers list had I gotten access to it at publishing time.
4.4 of 5 stars.