Editor's Note: On the 12th day of Christmas beers, we asked Serious Beer columnist Jonathan Moxey to pick his 8 top Christmas beers. Take it away, Jonathan!
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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. I've tried countless bottles over the years, but I always come back to my favorites. Most don't stray far from the big Belgian-style beers I enjoy during the other 11 months of the year. Subtle levels of spices usually set them apart, and "subtle" is the key word. (If a beer approaches mulled territory, I'll stick to eggnog.)
This year I'm sharing my 8 top Christmas beers here. Are they among your favorites, too?
De Struise Brouwers Tsjeeses
De Struise Tsjeeses (10.0% ABV) is the Christmas beer I'm most likely to drink year-round. There's a little baking spice in the aroma, but otherwise it's just as seasonally appropriate in late March as it is in mid-December. I love the candied orange, plum, and boozy aromas. The first sip brings sweet maltiness and ripe fruit, but it finishes so dry. This year I also picked up the darker-hued, barrel-aged Reserva version, which adds a layer of oak, earth and pepper. It's tasty as well, but it doesn't finish as dry and the wood obscures the fruit a bit. I'll probably stick with the original.
Karl Strauss Brewing Co. Two Tortugas Holiday Quadruple Ale
Karl Strauss' Two Tortugas Holiday Quadruple Ale (11.1% ABV) is a new addition for me this year. I'd heard plenty of friends rave about last year's Parrot in a Palm Tree, the brewery's first installment in its "12 Days of Christmas San Diego Style" series, so this one was on my wish list even before I found out it took bronze at GABF this year. The beer is massive in the glass, with aromas of rich dark chocolate, prune, fig and other dark fruit. There's a subtle layer of spice over Belgian Candi sugar and plenty of warming alcohol. It tastes stellar now, but there's plenty packed into each bottle to unwind over time. It's sure to get better and mellower for Christmases to come.
The Bruery 4 Calling Birds
I missed the boat on The Bruery's Partridge in a Pear Tree, the initial beer in their "12 Days/Years of Christmas" series, but the follow-ups have been staples in my yuletide drinking. This year's 4 Calling Birds (11.0% ABV) opens up with big aromas of Candi sugar, banana bread and chocolate. As the beer warms, ginger becomes pronounced in the aroma. Molasses and alcohol come first in flavor, with ginger and cinnamon following the booze. Grab one to try now and some to stash away in the cellar.
Tröegs Brewing Co. Mad Elf
My nostalgic Christmas choice is Tröegs Mad Elf (11.0% ABV). The aroma reminds me of the cherry-flavored candy canes we hung on the tree growing up. Brewed with Pennsylvania honey, a sack full of sweet and sour cherries, and a spicy Belgian yeast, Mad Elf is best enjoyed from a magnum shared with friends.
Brasserie Fantôme De Noel
For me, opening a bottle of Fantôme is a lot like opening a plain-looking package only to find something beautiful and unexpected inside. Regardless of what's on the label, what's in the glass is a surprise. And it's almost always wonderful. The bottle of Fantôme de Noel (10.0% ABV) I opened this year revealed a hazy, blush-tinged amber beer that smelled like cranberries and Sweet Tarts. It has a pleasant level of sourness over a sweet, rich caramel and slightly oxidized malt. This bottle was a couple of years old, and any spices have all but faded. The roast I'd noticed in previous bottles was subdued.
Anchor Brewing Co. Our Special Ale
Anchor Brewing's Our Special Ale (5.5% ABV) is the most sessionable of my winter favorites. Anchor has put out a different version of Our Special Ale every year for 37 years running. The unique recipe is always a secret, though at least one has made a comeback. (The first installment became Liberty Ale.) This year's goes lighter on the spices than others in recent years past, which is just fine by me. It smells like molasses cookies sprinkled with ginger. It's well balanced and perfect for nights you don't have the time or the inclination to commit to bigger bottles or ABVs.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Celebration Ale
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale (6.8% ABV) is something completely different for this time of year. Assertively hopped with the first Chinook, Cascade, and Centennial hops of the season, Celebration is a bright blast of citrus and pine. But to call it a hophead's Christmas beer would only tell half of the story. Equally terrific is the beer's bready English caramel malt frame. It's a perfect example of the hop-malt balance Sierra Nevada does so well.
St. Bernardus Christmas Ale
If I were forced to narrow it down just one favorite, forsaking all others, what would it be? St. Bernardus Christmas Ale (10.0% ABV)—The mother of all Christmas beers. The subtle blend of spices and flavors create complexity, and no single element dominates. It smells of banana, orange peel, a bit of coriander. In the sip, there's a bit of cherry with lively carbonation and a very dry finish. The alcohol is so well-incorporated, it's difficult to determine its strength. For me, it's near perfect.
What Christmas beers are on your wish list this year?
Karl Strauss, The Bruery, and Anchor Steam provided samples for review.