Whether for augmenting the merriment or blunting some shopping anxiety, for many revelers the holiday season involves a select amount of potables. While spirits frequently join with the spirit of the season (e.g., egg nog amplification), Christmas is a perfect time for exploring some unique labels new to craft beer.
In recent years, as microbreweries have mushroomed in scope they have brought in a wide assortment of selections bearing a holiday theme. Sure, many are merely adorned with seasonal packaging to draw some holiday dollars, but many limited-edition products are worth the palette exploration.
Despite a variety of styles, there is commonality with the selections this time of year. Most you will find are rich in color, complex in flavor, and more potent in strength. Many of the spices from the dinner tables this time of year find their way into beer recipes—cinnamon, honey, nutmeg, and cloves are not hard to come by. These are great selections for pairing with rich meals, warming wet boots by a fire, and taking along to holiday parties. Of course, that all depends on your ability to share.
1. Sierra Nevada’s Celebration
An ideal start is Sierra Nevada’s Celebration. Considering the beer landscape in recent years, this is a necessity. They have been brewing this seasonal long before the current market was flooded with India pale ales. Unlike brewers who currently try to outdo others with the bite and bitterness of hops, this stalwart focuses on the hops without the stalker obsessiveness. This means the beer is not all bitterness and pine, like most IPAs; you can actually enjoy some malt and grain.
2. Goose Island Festivity Ale
Like most of the larger craft brewers, Goose Island produces numerous seasonal and limited-run varieties. Some of these can be more pedestrian than others, and this includes their Christmas Ale. If you search more extensively, however, another holiday offering delivers more. It’s dubbed Festivity Ale. This is a far more complex brew, giving off an almost cedar aroma. It delivers rich plum or raisin flavors, followed by separate spice features. It is not just the layered tastes that is inviting more casual sipping—it weighs in with a robust 7.7 percent ABV.
3. Breckenridge Brewery Christmas Ale
Of similar strength is Breckenridge Brewery Christmas Ale. A more straightforward drink lacking spice, it starts with some caramel sweetness with additional roasted nut and cashew components. It’s a hearty 7.1 percent, and would be ideal coming in from the snow, or after unloading the haul from the mall.
4. New Belgium’s Salted Caramel Brownie Ale
Want more caramel? In a partnership I’m sure few anticipated, Colorado’s New Belgium Brewery teamed up with Vermont ice cream mavens Ben and Jerry’s to offer up a Salted Caramel Brownie Ale. A big presence of caramel in the aroma gives way to a rich and sweet ale that almost approaches a milk stout in terms of character, though lighter in body, with a decent 6.2 percent alcohol kick.
Added bonus: Since both companies have an activist history, this beer has proceeds going to the environmental charity P.O.W. (Protect Our Winters). So hang on to that cash register receipt in order to claim charitable donation tax deductions next April!
5. Sam Adams Winter Lager
Sam Adams may be releasing the most holiday samples under its brand umbrella. Most are uniformly drinkable, as expected, and if you are pressed to find something for a party and have to dash to a grocer, the Winter Sampler Pack works fine. Out of the brewery’s offerings, the Winter Lager is compelling, since it bridges categories. It is labeled a lager, dubbed a bock, brewed similar to a wit, and presents like a hearty ale. Cinnamon is present but subtle, and the wheat delivers the expected citrus character. These flavors present themselves separately, so you have to actually pay attention while drinking. (Focus!)
6. Blue Moon Gingerbread Ale
Some may consider it heretical towards zymurgy to include a major brewer such as Blue Moon among the smaller players, but honestly I despise that exclusionary mindset. That producer’s Gingerbread Ale is another acceptable grocery decision for the holiday. While falling shy of the namesake flavor, it does present a sweet base and other faint spices for a potable choice.
Of note: If you find yourself in a setting with a cigar, this is a worthy companion. It carries enough flavor to accompany the smoke while not so complex that notes are lost to the tobacco.
7. Fat Head’s Holly Jolly Christmas Ale
All is not lost if you want an after-dinner sip, as another label actually nails that gingerbread taste (without the claim). Fat Head Brewery out of Ohio has Holly Jolly Christmas Ale, a thick brew that is practically a cookie in a bottle. Rich molasses and nutmeg carry that unmistakable flavor, but it is not a novelty product. A robust 8.0 percent ABV makes this a noteworthy choice, as well.
8. Shiner Holiday Cheer Ale
For more of a desert selection, there is a seasonal from the famed Shiner brewery of Texas. This curiosity called Shiner Holiday Cheer is a dark wheat ale brewed with peaches and roasted pecans. The fruit is unmistakable, so I’d say crack these open over pies and cookies. It also makes for a good transition if you have been imbibing, as it qualifies as more of a session beer at 5.4 percent. Call it a “Shiner Bock Bellini.”
9. Magic Hat Winter Mingle Stout
Magic Hat is another outlet with varied winter season releases. Their Snow Roller, coppery brown with drinkability, is a decent pre-meal selection. There are notable hops at first, but when poured into glassware and allowed warm slightly while drinking it takes on new characteristics. The grains come out, giving it a bread or toast element.
Another option is the Magic Hat Winter Mingle, replete with tacky Christmas sweater labeling. At a reserved 5.8 percent ABV, this is a vanilla stout that is light in body, as well as light on the vanilla. Coffee is more present here but with sweetness, so more like cappuccino.
10. Leinenkugel’s Snowdrift Vanilla Porter
As far as getting a truer vanilla profile in a porter, seek out Leinenkugel’s Snowdrift Vanilla Porter. Carrying a very creamy texture, the flavor is prominent due to being aged directly on the seed pods. That vanilla soon gives way to other components like chocolate or mocha. If you were disposed to do any cooking or baking with beer, this is a great choice—if you could part from drinking it.
For even more complexity, there is Winter’s Bite, a black lager. The Wisconsin brewery bolsters this one with some chocolate and spices. The result is similar to cocoa (sweet) with softer spice flavors like coriander. This is joy in a bottle.
11. Shelton Brothers Lump of Coal Stout
Keeping with the dark variants, here’s an offering away from the domestic providers. A search for an import will reward you with a bomb of a stout from Ridgeway, England. Their Lump Of Coal is no punishment, but it could lead you into trouble. This will rip the bottom of your stocking with 8 percent ABV. Giving off the sensation of bittersweet baker’s chocolate over roasted malts, you could be excused if you drank this with a spoon.
12. Thirsty Dog’s 12 Dogs of Christmas Ale
After all the fun, it only follows that hair-of-the-dog is in order. Thirsty Dog Brewing Company out of Akron has their 12 Dogs Of Christmas Ale to chase off that hangover. This comes at you with a sharp bite of nutmeg and heavy dose of honey to lend enough sweetness to counter the 8.3 percent ABV. This would complement a stack of waffles nicely while watching a bowl game after crawling out of bed from a long winters’—well, doubtful it would be called a “nap” after all the fun.