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.
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.
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