Originally from Houston, Texas, Jacob Grier is the lead bartender at Metrovino in Portland, Oregon. He writes the drink-and-policy weblog Liquidity Preference.

Holiday brews

Seven beers to savor right now

By
December 9, 2010

There’s something about the winter holidays that brings out creativity in brewers. A walk down the beer aisle this time of year reveals everything from the cheekily named Santa’s Butt porter to imposing magnums of rich Belgian ale. It’s a lot to choose from, but as the days get shorter and the nights get colder, there’s no better time to sit and relax with a special brew.

Though people often associate winter spices with holiday ales, these seasonal brews are more a tradition than a style. They may be spiced like the wassails of old, or they could be made of nothing but the usual grains, hops, water, and yeasts.

As a rule, holiday beers tend to be maltier and higher in alcohol than other seasonal beers, giving them a warming quality and allowing them to be served at higher temperatures than more bitter beers. The lighter styles pair wonderfully with winter’s roasted meals, while the heavier ones can be perfect with fruits, cheeses, and dessert.

Many brewers’ holiday ales change annually, so what’s great one year may fall flat the next. Others are made in such small quantities that they’re never bottled, or are available only in small areas. Thus some of the most fun to be had with holiday ales is in breweries’ tasting rooms, or at gatherings like Portland’s Holiday Ale Festival, held in early December, which features many rare and one-off brews.

Holiday sips.

However, there are plenty of exceptional beers in wider distribution. Here are seven notable holiday ales worth seeking out.

Anchor Brewing "Christmas Ale" (California): Also known as Our Special Ale, this beer is often credited with reviving the holiday ale tradition in the U.S. First brewed in 1975, the secret recipe varies every year. The 2010 edition is delicious, with big notes of Christmas spice reminiscent of nutmeg and gingerbread in the aroma and taste. It’s sweet and malty, but at only 5.5 percent alcohol by volume (abv), it’s easy to have more than one.

Samuel Smith "Winter Welcome" (England): One of the consolations of winter’s onset is the appearance of Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome on store shelves. This winter warmer is one of my favorite beers, a smooth ale with a perfect balance of malty sweetness and mildly bitter hops. It’s more restrained than the other beers on this list, but it’s always a pleasant pint. (6 percent abv.)

Full Sail "Wreck the Halls" (Oregon): Described as a hybrid of an American IPA and a winter warmer, this is a very Northwest-style holiday ale that gives greater prominence to the hops than does any other beer on this list. It has a citrusy hop aroma and a mildly sweet taste that gives way to a lingering bitterness. If you’re more into hops than malt, this is a beer to try. (6.5 percent abv.)

Nøgne Ø, Jolly Pumpkin, and Stone Brewing Company "Special Holiday Ale" (Norway): This unusual beer is a collaboration among three breweries featuring ingredients native to each one’s home: juniper berries from Norway, chestnuts from Michigan, and white sage from southern California. The first edition was brewed at Stone in San Diego; for review I picked up the Norwegian version, and it’s excellent. It’s remarkably complex with a juniper aroma, roasted malts, spice, and hops, and a slightly savory finish. (8.5 percent abv.)

HaandBryggeriet “Bestefar” (Norway): “Bestefar” is Norwegian for “grandfather,” in this case referring to Father Christmas. The photo on the label boasts a beard that would put Santa to shame. The beer has an amazing aroma of roasted malts, spice, and perhaps spruce. A crisp bitterness fades on the finish. An intriguing, serious beer at 9 percent abv.

Brewery Dubuisson “Scaldis Noël” (Belgium): Belgian holiday ales tend to be big, malty, high-alcohol delights. It’s hard to pick just one for this column, but since there are limits on space and my own consumption, I’m highlighting Scaldis Noël as a consistent favorite (known as Bush de Noël in Europe). It’s very rich and malty, with a heavy mouthfeel lifted slightly by carbonation. The beer tastes of figs and dark fruit, with a long finish. At 12 percent abv, it’s good that it comes in diminutive 8.5-ounce bottles. This is a fantastic beer to warm up with on a cold night.

Castle Brewery Eggenberg “Samichlaus” (Austria): No list of holiday beers would be complete without Samichlaus, a beer whose name means “Santa Claus” in Swiss German and which is brewed only once a year, on December 6. Though most holiday beers are ales, this one is a lager; in fact, it’s one of the strongest lagers in the world at 14 percent abv. The fermentation and aging of such a strong lager takes about 10 months. It’s extremely rich, sweet, and smooth, with very little carbonation and a long finish. It’s not the most complex beer on this list, but it’s a unique classic worth seeking out.

Subscribe
Comments
There are 2 comments on this item
Add a comment
1. by Matthew Smith on Dec 14, 2010 at 4:43 PM PST

Great article. These special beers are one of the things I love about this season. Too bad many of those won’t be available here in Houston.

Have you had Mikkeller’s Red/White Christmas? A blend of a red and a wit sounds interesting; if anyone can pull it off its Mikkeller.

My favorite holiday brew is St. Bernardus’ Christmas Ale. Nothing like a Quadrupel on a dreary winter night.

2. by Culinary School Guide on Jan 24, 2011 at 3:43 PM PST

The only thing more delightful about the taste of Wreck The Halls is its name. Best Winter ale ever!

Add a comment

Think before you type

Culinate welcomes comments that are on-topic, clean, and courteous. For the benefit of the community we reserve the right to delete comments that contain advertising, personal attacks, profanity, or which are thinly disguised attempts to promote another website.

Please enter your comment

Format: Bare URLs are automatically linked; use this style: [http://www.example.com "place text to be linked here"] for prettier links. You may specify *bold* or _italic_ text. No HTML please.

Please identify yourself

Not a member? Sign up!

Please prove that you’re not a computer


Advertisement
Our Table

The Joy of Cooking app

A new tool for the kitchen

The latest in our collection of cooking apps.

Subscribe
Graze: Bites from the Site
First Person

The secret sharer

A father’s legacy

The Culinate Interview

Mollie Katzen

The vegetarian-cooking pioneer

Reviews

Down South

Barbecue, tamales, cocktails, and more

Local Flavors

A winter romesco sauce

Good on everything

Editor’s Choice