The holidays are a good time for beer drinkers, with seasonal brews showing up on shelves and plenty of parties to bring them to. But these beers can be fraught with peril: Many go overboard with holiday spices like clove and spruce, and end up bearing an unpleasant resemblance to scented candles. Or they are so cloyingly sweet and high-alcohol that you can barely finish one. We tasted 15 winter/holiday American craft brews, and here are our top six picks.
For People Who Hate Scented Candles: Full Sail Wassail
Hood River, Oregon's Full Sail brewery has been brewing Wassail since 1988, and it’s not a holiday ale that relies on spices for its winter vibe. It pours a dark mahogany color, with the creamy body and texture of a stout and an assertive hit of hops that IPA fans will enjoy. (On the flip side, this beer may be too hoppy for people who like mild-flavored brews.) We thought the strong malt and hops flavors were balanced enough that we'd drink this year-round if it were available. And with a high 7 percent ABV (alcohol by volume), it helps numb the pain of annoying relatives.
To Pair with Gingerbread: Summit Winter Ale
St. Paul-based Summit is known locally for its rock-solid and easy-drinking Extra Pale Ale, but the brewery really shines with its fussily perfect seasonal and limited-release brews. The aroma of Summit's Winter Ale is chocolaty, and it tastes like satsumas, cinnamon, and nutmeg. It's pleasantly sweet and mellow without being syrupy, and the spice flavors linger in the finish.
Easiest Drinking: Anderson Valley Winter Solstice
Safe and balanced, Anderson Valley Brewing Company's Winter Solstice Seasonal Ale even has a nondenominational holiday name, so as not to offend. It's mild—hell, it only scores six on the International Bittering Units scale, around what a can of macro American lager does—but that's not to say it's flavorless. You can taste a little bit of vanilla and some baking-spice flavors (maybe cinnamon and citrus peel?) that blend nicely with the mellow beer. Surprisingly, it packs a 6.9 percent ABV.
Rogue's winter beer smells and tastes like apple, spruce, pine, and hops. It's a red ale (a.k.a. an American amber ale) but has double the hops of the normal Rogue red. Still, it's balanced, and avoids being a one-note hop-bomb. Six percent ABV, light carbonation, medium body, almost nonexistent head.
Best Canned Holiday Beer: 21st Amendment Fireside Chat
The first thing you'll notice about this San Francisco beer in a can is its killer label: an old-timey illustration of FDR by a garland-bedecked fireplace. The beer, which 21st Amendment says is based on an English-style strong ale, is dark and malty, lightly sweet, and restrained enough in its spicing (which includes cocoa nibs) to make you want another. The only real gripe we have is that the aftertaste seemed a tad ashy, but at 7.9 percent ABV, no one is going to notice for long.
Lowest Alcohol Level: Magic Hat Howl Black-As-Night Winter Lager
Flavored with roasty coffee and toffee but smooth-drinking, Magic Hat's black lager is dark in color but light in body, and has a lower ABV than our other selections at 4.6 percent. It's a nice change to find a black lager for a holiday beer, but given the Vermont-based brewery's reputation for funky, unconventional brews it's not too surprising.