Playing the seasonal beer game can be a daunting and pricey proposition. Holiday beers are as pervasive and unpredictable as Christmas music. Choosing one that you and your comrades will enjoy can be as difficult as rigging up the lights. I gathered a few of these beers, adhering only to the policy that the beer must explicitly champion Christmas, or “the holidays” in some way on the packaging.
The definition of a “holiday” beer has certainly expanded. Hoppy offerings are now just as plentiful as winter warmers and spiced ales. It’s well known that Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale is not to be missed, year in and out, and the relentlessly hoppy and fruity Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Ale by Lagunitas Brewing Company has rightfully created quite a buzz in its first year. But there’s adventure to be had as well. Full Sail Brewing Company even went so far as to merge styles. Their Wreck The Halls IPA merges the brisk bitterness of Centennial hops with plenty of robust malt, making for a war between citrusy hops and the sweet breadiness of a winter warmer. Everyone wins in this case. The aroma is an undefinable mix of citrus and bread, while the taste balances malty alcohol warmth with bright hops and low carbonation. It’s a smooth sip fit for Santa. From Brouwerij De Ranke in Wevelgem, Belgium comes the “Hoppy Christmas Ale” Pere Noel, named for a legendary French gift-giver. Hop aroma leaps out of the bottle, but upon pouring, the smell transforms into sweet, funky and yeasty. The taste is remarkably subtle, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. I was hoping for some funk and a big hop flourish, but everything about this beer is sort of muted. Alcohol and bitterness come across, but not much else. There’s nothing muted about Ridgeway Brewing’s Reindeer Droppings, which has the hoppiest finish of them all and a superbly fruity presence from scent to sip.
The country of Belgium is certainly not to be ignored in the holiday beer conversation. There are some truly exquisite offerings to be had, and the strong dark ale Gouden Carolus Noel by Brouwerij Het Anker may be the most beautiful of them all. But the taste can’t stand up to something as delectable as St. Bernardus Christmas Ale, which I consider to be the best Belgian holiday beer I’ve had. Bush de Noel from Brasserie Dubuisson Freres is also a strong, dark ale seen in the United States as Scaldis Noel. Most beer lovers are familiar with the glittering blue foil wrapper that adorns the 8.5 ounce bottles, which are pricey but wholly worth it. This is a beer to be savored, to stand on its own as an experience or as an indulgent nightcap. The smell is full of typical Belgian elements – bubblegum, banana, alcohol – with an extra layer of nutty spice. The mouthfeel and carbonation are perfect, and a warming alcohol rush announces the beer’s 12% ABV with gusto. It is quickly replaced by a sugary, candied fruit taste that produces a brief moment of delectable cinnamon sweetness followed by a warm, spicy, boozy finish. Lost Abbey’s Gift of the Magi is an American-made Biere de Garde produced with Belgium firmly in mind, but it is too sweet and laden with alcohol taste, falling well short of the examples named above. The Bruery’s 4 Calling Birds is a better result of an American brewery gone Belgian. It’s strong, dark, and delicious – a dangerous combination. it’s as drinkable as any high alcohol beer I’ve encountered. The alcohol warmth is countered by a thick sweetness. It’s not syrupy, but maple and molasses definitely come to mind among a fantastic forest of flavors like cinnamon, cherry, chocolate, and sweet bread.
Among the many UK, Belgium, and Belgian-influenced offerings, the U.S. certainly has its own cache of diverse holiday beers. Abita Brewing Company changes the recipe for their Christmas Ale every year. The 2011 edition was my first experience with the beer, so I can’t compare past versions. It’s a fairly thick brown ale that comes across as a porter in some ways. Coffee is present in every aspect of this beer, and it doesn’t really strike me as a Christmas Ale in that respect, but that is the brewery’s take on the style and that’s fine. It’s a pretty involved beer with many nuances to consider. By contrast, I found Goose Island Christmas Ale 2011, which is also slightly different each year, to be somewhat heavy, sweet and bitter all at once. All of Goose Island’s beers do better with a little time on them, and I bet Christmas Ale would benefit at least a little. As it is, having recently returned to shelves after a brief hiatus, it’s a fairly standard brown ale with the requisite ambiance of caramel, brown sugar, raisin, and vanilla, but with an unpleasant finish. Shiner Holiday Cheer is similar, though fruitier and perhaps too sweet. Even sweeter but better balanced is New Belgium Brewing’s Frambozen, which borders on lambic due to its tartness, carbonation, and mouthfeel. Deep within the beer’s world of raspberry lies a coy sweetness that is quite enjoyable to seek out as the beer warms. Great Lakes Christmas Ale is one of the more balanced examples of the style, and Olde Hickory Christmas Ale brings to mind the bready spice of a Christmas cookie.
Some of these beers might outrank other that weren’t part of this group, but here’s how I’d rank this random selection of beers on taste preference alone:
1. St. Bernardus Christmas Ale
2. Full Sail Wreck the Halls IPA
3. Brasserie Dubuisson Freres Scaldis Noel
4. The Bruery 4 Calling Birds
5. Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale
6. Brouwerij Het Anker Gouden Carolus Noel
7. Lagunitas Brewing Company Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Ale
8. Ridgeway Brewing Reindeer Droppings
9. Olde Hickory Christmas Ale
10. Great Lakes Christmas Ale
11. New Belgium Frambozen
12. Lost Abbey Gift of the Magi
13. Abita Christmas Ale 2011
14. Shiner Holiday Cheer
15. Goose Island Christmas Ale
16. Brouwerij De Ranke Pere Noel