Christmas is a special time. People are just a little bit nicer. Food tastes a little better. To mark this hallowed season, each year brewers around the world create a special breed of brew – Christmas beers. Whether ale, doppelbock or stout these brews tend to be warming draughts, rich with spice and heady with deep flavors. They're made for sipping by the fire with friends and family rather than shotgunning, guzzling, or even quaffing at tailgates and in man caves.
Brewing a special beer for Christmas started hundreds of years ago, before there ever was Christmas as we know it. Most accounts seem to agree that in Scandinavian countries they would start brewing stronger and heavier beers in preparation for a mid-December festival to celebrate Jolner (a Norse god). These beers were known as Julöl. When the tradition was brought over to England, the pronunciation changed and became Yule Ale.
Like their ancient ancestors, Christmas brews are heavier and richer than beers meant for drinking in warmer times. But that’s where the similarities end. As usual, Christmas beers brewed in different styles will display dramatically different characteristics. But there are some traits common to all of them – flavors like cinnamon and chocolate that evoke the holidays. And like the holidays, they last a short time and are made in limited quantities. But when made right, they're well worth seeking out and stocking up on for the long winter ahead.
Here are a few that'll go a long way toward ensuring a holiday season to remember:
Anchor Steam Christmas Ale – The gold standard for American Christmas Ales, Anchor brewing was one of the first American breweries to bring forth a Christmas beer. After 36 years. Anchor Christmas Ale is still eagerly awaited by beer drinkers from throughout the country every year. Available in relatively small quantities from mid-November to midway through January, Anchor Brewing switches up the recipe slightly each year. This year's edition is a nearly coal black with a creamy tan head and smooth carbonation. It's redolent of ginger cookies and cinnamon with a faint juniper undertone and cuts those flavors, preventing them from becoming cloying with solid yeasty aromas and a slight bitter tang. This is Christmas in a limited edition bottle.
Bush de Noel – Pouring a deep reddish brown from a gorgeously labeled 250mL bottle, this Belgian strong dark ale is intense. With heavy malt and yeast aromas mingling with a buttery, almost fruit cake aroma, this is a beer to be savored. The light carbonation sets off a sweet cinnamon and clove flavor that gives way to dried candied fruit. It’s a sweet beer, but not overly so, with a nutty richness that belies the hefty dose of boozy heat it delivers at the back of the palate. Plus, at 12 percent ABV a few of these are better for calming holiday stress than any milk and cookies.
Santa's Little Helper Imperial Stout – Like most imperial stouts, Santa’s Little Helper is nearly black as the coal you try to avoid getting in your stocking. Deep dark chocolate aromas come wafting out of the glass with a toasty malt overtone that adds some serious heft to the beer. These are huge flavors that stick with you long after you swallow, but the hoppy bite characteristic to most imperial stouts cuts through just enough to keep you reaching for another sip. It’s a slow-drinking beer well-suited for the umpteenth showing of “It’s a Wonderful Life” or a leisurely evening spent attempting to put together the kids’ Christmas presents.
Santa's Private Reserve – Rogue Brewery’s annual Christmas offering is a double hopped red ale that’s a definite change of pace from the heavier seasonal brews. Santa’s Private Reserve is a ruddy coppery color in the glass, giving off a nice dose of malts and plum into the air as it’s poured. It’s far less sweet than some of its holiday brethren, with a heavy-duty bite from the hops that’s washed away by a refreshing tartness that’s almost witbier-like. The easiest drinking beer of the bunch, but it works surprisingly well as a lighter choice for a holiday ale.
Great Lakes Christmas Ale – Great Lakes Brewing Company is one of the few things people around the country are willing to admit Cleveland has going for it now that Lebron has skipped town, and the company's Christmas Ale is no exception. A rich coppery color in a pint glass, a thin pale white head tops the brew, which gives off caramel, orange and malty aromas as the bubbles slowly rise to the surface. All the holiday flavors are here in spades – gingerbread, cinnamon and nutmeg, all overlaid with a peppery note that keeps the palate from getting overwhelmed. The aftertaste is predominantly honey, with slight bitterness clearing the way for another mouthful. It's all too easy to forgo the eggnog with a bottle like this at hand and at 7.5 percent ABV it's not the booziest of the bunch, but it drinks so easily that overdoing it can happen in a hurry. If you're not careful you'll wake up on the 26th in a haze, having pawned all your presents for your own set of reindeer and a rental Santa suit.