We all have holiday traditions. Every December I watch Die Hard and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, spend hours driving across Missouri to visit family and friends, and then spend many more hours sharing big Christmas beers with said family and friends. This year I'm sharing my 8 top Christmas beers here. Are they among your favorites, too?
'12 days of Christmas beer' on Serious Eats
Warm spices are amplified by the rich body and high alcohol of this Christmas Ale from Schlafly in St. Louis. The addition of fragrant orange peel is quite apparent, along with an ample serving of clove and cardamom. This cold-weather beer would work nicely with barbecue, especially with a tangy vinegar-based sauce.
Great Lakes Christmas Ale smells spicy and packs a gingery punch, but isn't sweet or syrupy, and has enough crispness and piney-hop bitterness to remain refreshing. It's like a more sophisticated version of Old Fezziwig, with more subtle spicing and a grainier body.
Am I the only one who isn't that interested in spiced beers? So often, there's a dried-spice flavor that just makes me want to cough. This English-Style Old Ale from Great Divide in Colorado is pretty much exactly what I want in a winter beer: it's full, malty, and rich without being oversweet; it's warming without tasting harsh; and it's the perfect partner for winter stews and roasts.
If you're looking for a classic Christmas beer, you're probably thinking spices: cloves, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg. But the ideal version shouldn't feel dusty or overloaded with seasoning; the flavors should be integrated. The Christmas Ale from Sly Fox is close to what we hope for in this sort of beer—the spice (the whole kaboodle of ginger, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and clove) is flavorful but not overwhelming, and fits nicely into the caramel-malt and figgy flavors of the beer.
Only in San Diego do you expect a Christmas beer to have a hoppy blast of grapefruit on the nose—but that's what you get from AleSmith Brewing Company's holiday Imperial red ale.
Of course this is a gimmick, meant as an impulse-buy to be tucked in the toe of a Christmas stocking, but the beer's not bad. A savory, roasty stout with a meaty side, Ridgeway's Lump of Coal Dark Holiday Stout reminded us of coffee-rubbed ribs, and in a good way.
This Christmas beer from Brouwerij Slaapmutske tells you pretty much all you need to know in the scent: toffee pudding, sticky prunes and dates, hints of mulling spice and orange zest. Let it warm up a bit—it is a nightcap, after all—and you'll be wrapped in rich molasses and toffee flavors and hints of brown bread with raisins. This beer is brewed without spices; it doesn't need them, since there's plenty of fruity yeast esters and deep tones from the malt.
Peaches and pecans don't scream holiday to me, but then again, I'm not from Texas. Spoetzl Brewery's Shiner Holiday Cheer is a Dunkleweizen-style dark wheat ale with the unusual addition of fruit and nuts. The aroma is rich and peachy, so you expect a blast of sweetness, but this beer is pretty crisp, with a tea-like bitterness, slight sourness on first sip and a bit more sweet roasted-peach flavor lingering on the finish.
Goose Island Mild Winter is malty and creamy, with rye for a touch of spice. The crisp finish may be a little sour and bitter for some, but there's enough dry-cocoa and toffee richness to balance it. I'm glad this beer doesn't veer toward sweetness; it's ideal for pairing with a grilled steak or lentil soup (especially if you've made it with a meaty ham hock). Have you tried Goose Island's Mild Winter? What do you think of Goose Island beers in general these days?
With a pudgy Santa embracing a forthy glass of beer on the label, you might expect De Ranke Père Noël to go all-out winter spices on you, but it's really a Belgian strong pale ale—a creamy, hoppy beer for lovers of Belgian IPAs. It clocks in at 7% ABV, and we like it quite a bit.
Here in New York, we can't buy Bell's beer. So every time I visit my in-laws in Virginia, I find some excuse to go beer shopping and pick up a Two Hearted or six. But on a recent trip, I was drawn to Bell's Christmas Ale, a malty winter seasonal from the Michigan brewery.