Beer of the month: Port Brewing Santa's Little Helper Imperial Stout 2009

We've come to think of Christmas beer as a tradition, but for American brewers, it's really a chance to show off their originality. Some make sweet, malty ales, perhaps splashed with fruitcake spices (Anchor typically goes this route), while others may make a richer, more alcoholic version of the brewery's flagship beer. (Rogue's winter seasonal is more or less an India Pale Ale, bitter as sin, enriched with a roasty note.)

Port Brewing in San Marcos makes its Christmas beer in the style of an imperial stout. It's opaque, nearly black, with a tan head and a nose of espresso with a bit of caramel; think coffee candy in overdrive. There's more caramel and coffee on the palate, and a little bit of dark chocolate as well, though relatively little sweetness. A little early bite of hops fades and then comes back in the finish.

This is a strong ale, 10.5% alcohol by volume, designed for slow sipping. As a food beer, it might go best with New York cheesecake.

-- Charles Perry

Style: Espresso, caramel and a good jolt of alcohol to deal with somber winter weather.

Price: $5.49 to $5.99 for 22 ounces.

Where you find it: Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, (949) 650-8463,; and Wades Wines in Westlake Village, (818) 597-9463,