The Hophead: New Beers Eve

Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends. --Francis Bacon (whose friends may have liked him more if he'd offered beer instead)

If you like the nut-to-butt proximity of strangers in lines for Six Flags rides but don't like roller coasters, I highly recommend Central Market on the afternoon of a major drinking holiday.

That's where Lady Hophead and I went beer shopping just after lunchtime on New Year's Eve. The barely navigable upscale grocery store was so packed that maneuvering a grocery cart stacked with brew through the crowd was like...well, like...um, nothing similar comes to mind. It took no small amount of willpower not to crack open a couple bottles before we even made it to the checkout line, though.

Champagne will do in a pinch, but we'd decided to toast the coming year with beer. Our personal tastes aside, it seemed a more appropriately frugal way to usher out a year of economic turmoil: For about $8 you can choke down a 750 ml bottle of lousy sparkling wine or, for the same price, pop the cork on a 750 ml bottle of high-gravity top-shelf beer. And while we're not above cheap beer, for this occasion we decided against The Champagne of Beers.

But splurging on pricier beer than usual didn't stop me from choosing a Terrible beer. By which I mean La Terrible, a Belgian-style strong (10.5 percent ABV, bitch!), black ale from Quebec's Unibroue--strong, dark, flavorful and malty. I also picked up a six-pack of Trois Pistoles, also from Unibrioue. The satanic winged horse on the label--and the beer's 9.5 percent ABV--seemed appropriately apocalyptic.

Trois Pistoles is a monstrously complex beer, black and nearly opaque, showing just a hint of caramel coloring when held to the light. The label speaks of its ripe fruit aroma and port wine aftertaste. I guess. All I remember about the two or three cheap ports I've sampled is nasty sweetness and alcohol warmth. But this beer was excellent.

As the midnight countdown approached, we popped open the Terrible. Our glasses (OK, plastic party cups) full of viscous black beer drew some double takes as we toasted the year with bubbly-drinking friends. The beer had a seriously thick head, spicy and sweet and fruity aroma, and a long-lingering sweet finish. Very interesting.

We ended the night with Blanche De Chambly, a lighter (5 percent ABV) white ale from you-know-who. The few sips I had proved yeasty, sharp with citrus and very satisfying. Unfortunately, the nearly full bottle was knocked off a table and shattered--damn Champagne drinkers. I just hope that heartbreaking moment of alcohol abuse wasn't an omen. If I begin the year full of promise and end it a broken man, I'm pretty sure beer will be to blame, and that I won't be looking back at the night so fondly. But if 2009 is anything short of disastrous, I'll make beer toasts a New Year's Eve tradition. -Jesse Hughey

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