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The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder, and the end of the year is fast approaching. The holidays are stressful enough without having to worry about finding the perfect beer for your Christmas party (or simply a night next to the fireplace), so we did the work for you. After a blind tasting of 25 well-regarded winter warmers and Christmas ales, we've compiled a list of our favorites.
Christmas beers have their own cult-like following but often cover a broad range of styles. Winter warmers are the most common, followed by old ales, and the occasional odd-ball like Scotch ales, brown ales, dubbels, and Belgian strong dark ales. The spice additions are as varied as the styles themselves—we tried brews with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, and spruce tips One thing they do have in common? Alcohol... and lots of it. With the average beer in this tasting weighing in at 7.5% ABV, these beers earn their warming titles.
Hoppin' Frog Frosted Frog Christmas Ale
Though none of the beers came out a unanimous winner (11 people just can't agree), this was ultimately the highest-scoring brew—we love Frosted Frog. An 8.6% Winter Warmer brewed with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, this beer smelled and tasted like Christmas morning.
Great Lakes Brewing Company Christmas Ale
Another strong offering from the Midwest, this beer lived up to its cultlike following. Honey, ginger, and cinnamon work well to complement a slightly bready malt profile. Like a spiced cookie in a glass!
Anderson Valley Winter Solstice
This holiday offering just might convince those who don't believe good beer comes in cans. Winter Solstice has fantastic spice and malt balance in the aroma and flavor—cinnamon, vanilla, and caramel meld together without a hitch.
Highland Brewing Company - Cold Mountain Winter Ale
Named after a North Carolina mountain peak, Cold Mountain was one of the lowest-alcohol beers we sampled at 5.2%. It proves that you can produce an incredibly robust and flavorful winter ale while keeping the beer sessionable. It starts sweet with a huge hit of vanilla and hazelnut, but finishes clean and dry, readying the palate for the next sip.
Schlafly Brewing Company Christmas Ale
Schlafly, who recently won our pumpkin beer blind tasting, didn't hesitate to throw the kitchen sink into their Christmas Ale. Brewed with honey, orange peel, juniper berries, ginger root, cardamom, and cloves, this 8.0% seasonal beer is unlike any other. The orange peel and cloves are especially prevalent on the nose, and the flavors manage to pull off a delicate balance of caramel and biscuit malts.
Sweet Water Brewing Company Festive Ale
Though Atlanta may have milder winter weather than, say, Minnesota, this big boy is ready for a bitterly cold evening by the fire. At 8.5%, Festive Ale did just enough of the 'warming' of the back of our throats without going straight to our heads. This brew stands out with dominant chocolate and coffee notes, plus a hint of vanilla, ginger, and spices.
Laurelwood Brewing Company Vinter Varmer
Laurelwood (of Portland, Oregon) is an organic brewery, and their Vinter Varmer is world-class (literally... it owns the rare perfect 100 rating on BeerAdvocate). In typical Pacific Northwest fashion this Winter Warmer is loaded with hops, giving it an earthy and nutty nose while balancing the sweet malt profile.
And here are a few suggestions for those who like a little whiskey in their beer. These were our favorite barrel-aged Christmas beers.
Hoppin' Frog Barrel Aged Frosted Frog
This was our favorite barrel-aged offering—a brief stay in first-use bourbon barrels added a pleasant booziness along with notes of vanilla and oak to a beer we already loved. Not too big on bourbon? Then try their Extended Aged Frosted Frog which sat in second use bourbon barrels for a year. Less bourbon, more oak, still delicious.
Great Divide Brewing Company Barrel Aged Hibernation
This beast is the product of aging Hibernation Old Ale in Stranahan's Whiskey barrels for 9 months. A beautiful medley of caramel malts, toffee, dark fruit, brown sugar and whiskey. At 12.4% ABV, this bottle is meant to be shared on a cold night with close friends.
Of course, everyone's palate is different—which was the best Christmas beer you've tried in 2012? Which winter ales should we check out in the future?
About the Author: Sean Buchan covers the Denver craft beer scene for Denver off the Wagon in addition to doing freelance photography for Colorado breweries. You can also view his beer photography on his blog, Beertographer, here.
All beers tasted: Anchor Our Special Ale (sample provided for review consideration), Cigar City Winter Warmer Winter Warmer (sample), Fullsteam First Frost 2011 (sample), Highland Cold Mountain Winter Ale (sample), Laurelwood Vinter Varmer (sample), Great Lakes Christmas Ale, Widmer Brothers Brrr and Barrel Aged Brrrbon '12 (samples), Hoppin Frog Frosted Frog, Barrel Aged Frosted Frog, and Extended Barrel Aged Frosted Frog (samples), Upslope Christmas Ale (sample), Fort Collins Big Shot (sample), Breckenridge Christmas Ale (sample), Great Divide Hibernation and Barrel Aged Hibernation (samples), Anderson Valley Winter Solstice (sample), Goose Island Christmas Ale (sample), Full Sail Wassail (sample), Fat Heads Holly Jolly (sample), Deschutes Jubelale (sample), Troegs Mad Elf (sample), 21st Amendment Fireside Chat (sample), Avery Old Jubilation, Schlafly Christmas Ale (sample), Thirsty Dog 12 Dogs of Christmas (sample), Bells Christmas Ale (sample), Odell Isolation, Sweet Water Festive Ale (sample).