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Now reading A Guide to Christmas Beer

A Guide to Christmas Beer

13 varieties to drink this season.

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Like inflatable yard Santas and seasonal sweaters, Christmas beers come in endless styles, shapes, colors and sizes. The category defies formal classification, but one common theme is heavy-handed spicing with the likes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove. Another is the addition of fermentable sugar, usually honey or the candi sugar used in strong Belgian beer, which ratchets up the alcohol content.

Yet not all Christmas seasonals are spicy booze bombs. For every tarted-up porter there’s at least one wet-hopped India pale ale, dry-hopped barleywine, or sessionable saison.

Here’s our guide to the crush of Christmas beers crowding the shelves this holiday season.

CLASSICS

De Dolle Stille Nacht

Belgian Strong Pale Ale

12 percent ABV

Our favorite Christmas beer is something of an outlier. De Dolle’s Stille Nacht is a rust-colored, slightly tart ale brewed with pale malt and white Belgian candi sugar. Like most holiday beers it’s boozy and sweet upfront but unusual in that it’s balanced on the backend with a prickly vinous acidity and an exceedingly dry finish. It isn’t for everyone. Amid a dizzying blizzard of flavors, it can prevail as unexpectedly sour as the initial sugary tastes of malt and grain give way to tart cherries, green apples and lemon. Its impressions are complex and manifold, and it comes off in turns as cloying and bizarre. But stick with it and you’ll find an exceptionally multifaceted beer unlike any other you’re likely to try this season. A Special Reserva edition, aged for 18 months in Bordeaux casks and released every few years, is even more intense.

Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale

India Pale Ale

6.8 percent ABV

In 1981, when it came time to make a holiday beer, rather than making a Christmas cookie in a bottle, Sierra Nevada did what they do best and made an exceptional hopped-up pale ale. Thirty-five years on and Celebration Ale is still one of the most loved seasonal releases. Despite its wintery, snow-covered log cabin-scene label, Celebration is a bright, citrusy IPA brewed with fresh hops freshly harvested in early fall. (Wet hops are those that haven’t undergone typical drying or processing.) These lend intense, ephemeral aromas of citrus and fresh cut pine: perfect smells for the holiday season.

Harvey’s Christmas Ale

Winter Warmer/Barley Wine

8.1 percent ABV

With its simple red-and-white two-tone label depicting an exceptionally cheery St. Nick, Harvey’s Christmas Ale is one of the most iconic holiday beers in the world. The style is nominally a “winter warmer”—a sweet, full-bodied, lightly spiced beer—but many consider it a barleywine, albeit one that’s considerably lower in alcohol than many other modern examples of the genre. It’s quite hoppy and bitter, the result of dry-hopping with English Fuggle and Golding hops harvested from near Harvey’s East Sussex brewery.

Anchor Christmas Ale 2016

Winter Warmer

6.5 percent ABV

Each year since 1975 San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing has changed the recipe for its classic Christmas beer. The 2016 iteration is a dark brown, medium-bodied ale with rich aromas of molasses, spiced rum, and fresh-cut pine. Not only does the beer change every year; the artwork does too. This year’s label features an ethereal sketch of the Thousand Mile Tree, a lone pine located in Weber Canyon, Utah, along the first transcontinental railroad, a thousand miles east of Omaha, Nebraska. It was designed by artist James Stitt, who has drawn nearly every Anchor Christmas Ale label over the last forty years.

St. Bernardus Christmas Ale

Belgian Strong Ale

10 percent ABV

This iconic Christmas Quad comes from St. Bernardus Brewery in Belgium’s West Flanders region. The brewery is best-known for making beer under the St. Sixtus name for the Trappist monastic brewery in Westvleteren from 1946 until 1992.  Since then, St. Bernardus has continued making the beer with the same recipes, and their Christmas Ale is closely related to the highly coveted—and nearly unobtainable—Westvleteren 12. Year in and year out, it’s one of the highlights of the Belgian Christmas beer rush, with aromas of plums, mint, and molasses and hints of dried apricot and almond on the finish.

Great Lakes Christmas Ale

Winter Warmer/Spiced Ale

7.5 percent ABV

Clevelanders are fanatical about their Great Lakes Christmas Ale. It has inspired photo and poetry contests; the 2015 winner Steve Ormiston encapsulating the beer’s uplifting spirit in rhyme: If Scrooge had had a Christmas Ale / he’d not have needed ghosts / would have written bonus checks / and led the Christmas toasts. Yet for all its hype, the beer is remarkably routine for a Christmas seasonal with the usual notes of ginger and cinnamon on the nose and flavors of caramel, honey and cocoa. A bourbon barrel-aged version of the beer was first released in 2015 adding some interesting hints of vanilla, tobacco, and char to the beer.

Corsendonk Christmas Ale

Belgian Strong Dark Ale

8.5 percent ABV

Another Belgian Christmas classic comes from Brouwerij Corsendonk near Antwerp. Though only brewed since 1998, it’s quickly become an archetype of the Belgian holiday ale—boozy and heavily spiced, with aromas of dried figs and black pepper. One particularly cool feature: the beer is sold in three-liter jeroboam bottles which are guaranteed to take any holiday party from ho-hum to eleven faster than a speeding reindeer.

Tröegs The Mad Elf Holiday Ale 

American Strong Ale

11 percent ABV

This brilliantly ruby-hued ale from Pennsylvania’s Tröegs Brewing debuted in 2002, and it’s now one of the most anticipated East Coast winter seasonals. Packed with ripe cherries and sweetened with local raw honey, Mad Elf’s flavors are all chocolate-covered fruit and subtle peppery spice. Despite its bright, smooth profile, the beer’s eleven percent ABV well exceeds many other more assertively spiced winter warmers. One recent twist is a spinoff called Wild Elf consisting of the same base recipe but oak-aged with local Balaton cherries and made sour and funky with a mix of Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus yeast.

NEW & UNUSUAL

Hardywood Park Christmas Morning

Imperial Stout

9.2 percent ABV

Richmond, Virginia’s Hardywood Park aims to distill the flavors of Christmas morning into a single beverage with this ginger, honey, and coffee-infused stout. It starts out as Hardywood’s Gingerbread Stout—an imperial milk stout made with local baby ginger and wildflower honey, with an enthusiastic local following—before undergoing an infusion of beans from Black Hand Coffee Co. The flavors are pretty much what you’d expect: freshly baked gingerbread dunked in a mug of coffee with a chaser of Irish cream. A barrel-aged version called Hardywood Kentucky Christmas Morning is aged in Bourbon barrels for an extra oomph of booze.

Fantôme De Noel

Saison

10 percent ABV

This holiday saison from the Wallonia region of Belgium is also one of the more unusual beers in this guide, made by the Dany Prignon, a notorious tinkerer who reputedly changes recipes based on nothing more than impulse, mood, and notion. Prignon is also secretive, rarely divulging what exactly goes into his beers, but it’s said that this one contains a potpourri of holiday spices including coriander, honey, and black pepper. A couple things about it are certain: it’s always worth tasting every year to guess at what he’s done and, at 10% ABV, it’s sure to pack a punch.

Prairie Artisan Ales Christmas Bomb! 2016

Imperial Stout

11.5 percent ABV

From Oklahoma comes this bombshell of a stout laced with coffee, smoky Ancho chile peppers, vanilla beans, chocolate, and cinnamon. This is the third year that Prairie has made a Christmas version of their flagship Bomb! imperial stout and like previous editions, its absurdist label features a cast of bizarro Santas, reindeer, and elves. The 2016 vintage is smoother and more coffee-forward than previous iterations making this possibly the best version yet.

De la Senne Winter Mess

Belgian Strong Ale

8.5 percent ABV

This new winter beer from Brussels’s Brasserie de la Senne is a revamp of the brewery’s X-Mas Zinnebir. The copper colored ale fittingly offers aromas of orange peel and fruitcake and flavors of caramel, plums, and even some marzipan. The finish is rich, smooth and unexpectedly hoppy—an exceptionally chuggable winter ale.

Stone Xocoveza

Mocha Stout

8.1 percent ABV

Stone’s Xocoveza makes its second annual return with a beguiling mix of nutmeg, cinnamon, and smoky pasilla peppers against a backdrop of milk chocolate stout. The rich, creamy beer was originally a one-off brewed with San Diego-native homebrewer Chris Banker and Tijuana brewery Insurgente. But it was such a hit, especially during the holidays, that Stone brought it back as a perennial seasonal release. Pair with churros, mole, or a cup of thick champurrado.