Published December 14, 2011
Sometimes it seems as if the Christmas spirit of generosity and goodwill toward fellow man can sometimes be replaced by crass commercialism and greed --even when it comes to holiday beers.
Sure, some these brews are just a way to capitalize on the season of spending. But some of them are proof that the true meaning of the season hasn't been lost – that there still are brave and generous men and women giving back to their fellow man; brave and generous men and women who know how to make amazing beer.
Holiday beers start hitting shelves around mid-November, after the pumpkin ales are cleared off shelves – making these heavier and richer brews are exactly what's called for to recapture the Christmas spirit.
These beers evoke the holidays in a variety of ways – from flavor profiles featuring chocolate, cinnamon and even winter fruits to cozy styles like porters, doppelbocks and stouts that are tailor made to curling up in front of a roaring fire with someone special by the light of the Christmas tree.
In fact, they're something of a long-standing holiday tradition. Scandinavian countries once upon a time would brew stronger and heavier beers to prepare for a December festival celebrating the Norse god Jolner, with the beers becoming known as Julöl. When England bought into the tradition, they named the brews Yule Ale.
After all these years there have been significant changes, of course. The beers have significantly more varied, with a wider range of styles represented in the holiday beer spectrum. Different fruits and spices ended up in the mix too – ginger and cranberries and other ingredients neither man nor beast would've imagined in a brewer's repertoire just a decade or two ago.
But as they say, variety is the spice of life, and few can argue with the pleasures of kicking back with a bottle or two of delicious and unique suds emblazoned with a smiling Santa on the label. It's experiences like those that give us all hope that one day there truly will be peace on earth.
So keep an eye out for a few of these bottles to help inspire just a little more goodwill toward man this holiday season.
Great Lakes Christmas Ale: Great Lakes Brewing's offering for the Christmas season is a great winter warmer, bringing rich ginger, cinnamon, honey and clove to the table. Pouring a rusty reddish amber, the bottle is nicely festive, the sweetly warm spice masking a relatively hefty dose of alcohol at 7.5 percent ABV. Served cold it's a bit tight, with the ginger biting back more than one might prefer, but allowed to warm to cellar temperature it's smooth and warming, with all the rich flavors of the holiday. The medium-bodied brew goes down all too easy, making it the perfect draught to decorate the tree with.
Corsendonk Christmas Ale: Belgians know their beer, and that simple fact doesn't change around the holidays. This Christmas brew may be a bit tough to dig up, but it's far more worthy of the hunt than Skylander action figures or PS3 games, and likely to bring even more joy. It's a beautifully rich beer, positively brimming with chocolate and cherry flavors mingled with cinnamon, clove, gingerbread and molasses that rolls around around the tongue and mouth like Santa's proverbial bowl full of jelly. At 8.5 percent ABV it's no lightweight, but perfect for a long languid evening wrapping presents for those you love.
Anchor Christmas Ale: One of the granddaddies of the American craft brewing movement, Anchor has been making a Christmas Ale every year since 1975. Each year the formula is a little different, but the results are generally the same – a rich, delicious and nigh-perfectly balanced seasonal beer that's worth having on hand throughout the holiday season. On the pour it's a deep ruby red, the head reflecting a creamy pinkish hue and releasing huge wafts of prunes, brown sugar and chocolate into the air as it effervesces. It drinks hotter than its 5.5 percent alcohol content might suggest, with a slightly more syrupy texture and heavier body than might be ideal. It's a spectacular winter warmer though, with pine and hops to spare and a palate cleansing citrus rush that makes Anchor Christmas Ale a wonderful companion for Christmas dinner.
21st Century Brewing Fireside Chat: In this politically charged holiday season, how can one pass up the opportunity to drink out of a beer can decorated festively with Franklin Delano Roosevelt chatting up an elf? Lighter bodied than most holiday offerings, this brew breaks out the caramel and nutmeg for its version of holiday greetings. And it works well, hiding a nearly 8 percent alcohol content and featuring a sweet and almost smoky aftertaste that's strangely addictive. A can or two of Fireside Chat would be more than welcome after a bout with the shovel or snowblower, though breaking it out beforehand seems like a recipe for disaster given how much of a wallop those cans carry.
Shiner Holiday Cheer: Texas' approach tends to be go big or go home, and holiday brew from one of the state's largest and best known breweries is no exception. This dunkelweizen is a deep mahogany and tastes a deep and rich as it looks. Despite its winter provenance, peaches are by far the biggest flavor in the mix here, though they're backed by a touch of brown sugar and toasted nuts. It's a Texas take on drinkable fruitcake. Similar to a lambic but without quite the same sour notes that balance the Belgians out so well, the Shiner is well worth a drink, but can be a little cloying over time. It's a welcome respite from lousy eggnog though.