While the recent history of Christmas beers is rather marketing-driven, both in the US and around the world, the tradition of brewing special beers for this time of year draws on a number of deeper traditions.
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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.
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.
When it comes to homebrewing, I am a procrastinator. I tend to brew the beer that I want to drink today, not the one I want to drink two months from now, when it will actually be ready for sipping. But today is different.