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Ben Franklin's 300th Birthday

Yuletide party hosts just love to serve creamy, nutmeggy egg nog and Champagne or other sparkling wines. What about beer? The major brewers offer seasonal beers that can add spice to your table. To help choose among them, we assembled a group of experienced Chicago drinkers -- not hard to find -- for a blind taste test.

Pumpkin brews make a nice complement to many seasonal dishes. The cinnamon aroma of Michelob (BUD) Pumpkin Spice Ale evokes winter festivities. You can also buy the brew in a sampler pack with Michelob Marzen and Pale Ale, good alternatives for revelers who find the spicy, flavored beers to be "overpowering." Blue Moon Pumpkin Ale, which smelled of canned pumpkin, got a thumbs-down from the group.

The Samuel Adams Winter Classics Pack -- with six varieties of beer -- featured a number of crowd pleasers. Sam's Holiday Porter had a pleasing toffee flavor that one tester said was "like Guinness, but better." It had a similar aroma to the Irish stout but wasn't nearly as heavy. My favorite was Sam's Cranberry Lambic, even though hard-core beer drinkers turned up their noses at the touch of sweetness that gave it an almost fruity flavor.

By far the biggest winner was Celebrate by Michelob, a brew that's aged in bourbon-barrel oak. One tester called it "a dessert and beer in one." Another said it "smells like frosting" with vanilla and caramel flavors. Indeed, an Anheuser-Busch brewmaster says it goes well with chocolate desserts. Now, if only there were a beer that made fruitcake taste better.

Reports of the demise of the "January effect" may have been greatly exaggerated. Academic researchers discovered 30 years ago that stocks typically go up in January. Subsequent research was less definitive, and concerns grew that so many investors were trying to profit from the anomaly that it might no longer hold true. So University of Kansas Business School professors Mark Haug and Mark Hirschey crunched data (going back to 1802 for large-cap stocks) to determine whether the effect is real or imagined. In a paper to be published in an upcoming issue of the Financial Analysts Journal, they found large caps showed a somewhat elevated performance in January -- about a half a percentage point better than in other months.

But small-cap stocks logged an average monthly gain of 6.1% in January (since 1927 when the data begin) -- far better than the 0.9% average for the other 11 months. And they have gone up in January 82% of the time, says Hirschey. A way to make the January play is to buy iShares S&P Smallcap 600 Index and Vanguard Small Cap VIPERS, both exchange-traded funds.

Who's having a big 2006 birthday besides baby boomers turning 60? Ben Franklin: It's his 300th. In honor of the statesman, founding father, and inventor (bifocals, swim flippers), "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World" opens at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center on Dec. 15. The exhibit features original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution signed by Franklin as well as over 250 artifacts ( The show will travel to St. Louis, Houston, Denver, and Atlanta before ending in Paris in 2008.

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