From colorful lights to radio carols, many holiday traditions delight both young and old, but Christmas beer is a seasonal treat strictly for adults. Its advent on store shelves in November and December makes many of us as giddy as kids checking out that old five-inch-thick Toys “R” Us catalog. There are so many options, it’s hard to pick your favorites. This guide, like a certain red-nosed reindeer, will attempt to help steer you through the fog. But first, a brief bit of history so we know how we got here.
The Early Years: From Viking Yule Ale to Miller Christmas Special Beer
The first thing to know is that “Christmas beer” is not a specific style, and not even just a marketing gimmick. There’s a long tradition of brewing special beers for the holiday season, dating all the way back to the Vikings, who made strong, malty brews for their Jul celebrations in late December. They feasted and drank to honor the old Norse gods, and to persuade them to return the sun (they also lit proto-Christmas-wreaths on fire and rolled them down hills to the same end, which sounds pretty fun, but probably best not mixed with the drinking). Just as other pagan traditions gradually morphed into Christian practices and holidays, Christmas brewing remained/became a custom and was even written into law in ancient Norway, when King Haakon I decreed that every household must brew juleøl (“Yule ale”) or face fines. Three strikes and you could be out—expelled from the country, or at least made to forfeit your farm.
These farmhouse brews varied in flavor according to personal taste and region where they were brewed, but they were meant to be strong and hearty and were based on malt and sugar, plus flavorings like spices, juniper, and even tobacco. There was also emphasis on using the highest quality ingredients possible, and brewing the best beer you could.
The tradition of brewing special holiday-season beer held and spread throughout Europe. Scandinavian immigrants to early America probably first brought the tradition to our shores. Certainly, American Christmas beer was produced in various localities both before and after Prohibition; see an early 1910s advertisement from an upstate New York bar peddling its seasonal specialty here. And for a wonderfully retro example of a big name brand that’s still around but now sticks to ugly Christmas sweaters instead of seasonal releases, check out this 1930s Miller label:
No word on what it tasted like, but that’s certainly a cozy scene. It evokes a warm, glowing feeling, just as modern Christmas beers are generally meant to do.
With so many craft breweries offering holiday specials, and even Big Beer getting in on the game, the flavor profiles of Christmas beers still vary greatly—as do the styles, particularly in America. Here, Christmas beers (which overlap with the broader winter beer category) can be IPAs, stouts, porters, Belgians, sours, wits, barleywines, pilsners, altbiers, Scotch ales…pretty much anything, really.
The vast majority of Christmas and winter brews, however, are darker ales, and share some degree of warm spice character, but even within those parameters, some are more hoppy, some more bitter, some more sweet. Some have actual spices added to them, while others rely on specific strains of yeasts and malts to develop those flavors. Some even add fir and pine; you can eat your Christmas tree, after all, so why not drink it too? All Christmas and winter beers are usually heavier, at least 5% ABV, if not considerably higher in alcohol. The good news about having such a wide range of options is, you’re bound to find something to brighten your spirits.
Winter Warmers: Sweet and Malty (and Sometimes Spicy)
Anchor Brewing’s Christmas Ale is one of the best-known American holiday specials, and the one that really kicked off the explosion of seasonal Christmas releases in the US. It’s been brewed with a slightly different recipe every year, not to mention a different tree on the label each time, since 1975. They’re calling 2017’s batch a “smooth and creamy winter warmer with rich flavors of cacao, toffee and roasted nuts, and subtle hints of honey and herbal spice.” A six pack is always appreciated at a holiday party, but you can also pick up a full magnum of this, which is obviously way more fun (and festive).
“Winter warmer” is a term you’ll see on lots of bottles, but it’s another catch-all denomination of sorts, and you could probably justify placing a huge range of winter/Christmas beer in the category. Some generally shared characteristics are slightly higher alcohol content, more malty-sweetness than bitter flavors (in fact, some have added sugars like honey, molasses, brown sugar, or maple syrup), dark caramel and fruity raisin notes, and at least some subtle spice, whether brewed with actual spices or not. As a category, these tend to be low in hop flavor, without much astringent bite. Many of them are classed as English Strong Ales, which aren’t traditionally spiced. The spice-heavy warmers hearken back to wassail, a 19th century hot beer punch with roasted apples, sugar, and spices. It was often served to carolers (as in the song, “Here We Come A-wassailing”), who would come to the door equipped with a bowl to receive their liquid payment. Free beer sure sounds good, though hot beer, maybe not so much.
Somewhat ironically, the Wassail Winter Ale from Full Sail Brewing is actually not terribly spicy, but one of the hoppier examples of this type, while balancing the slight bite with rich malt.
Another popular pick is Deschutes Brewery’s Jubelale, which has notes of warm spices, cocoa, dried fruit, and toffee, with a fairly gentle hop presence.
A winter warmer with honey added, Great Lakes Brewing Co’s Christmas Ale does display lots of holiday spice, primarily from the added cinnamon and ginger.
For contrast, Avery Old Jubilation is a slightly nutty American warmer with no spices at all, just malts (5 kinds, to be exact), which tastes of molasses, toffee, and plum, and isn’t too strong, though it’ll definitely impart a glow.
For something a bit more rare—and boozy—Samichlaus Bier is a beloved Christmas ale from Austria’s Eggenberg Brewery, made only once a year on St. Nicholas Day (December 6), and aged for 10 months before being bottled. It’s a heavy-hitter at 14% ABV, and quite sweet with winey or brandy-like raisin and fig notes, smooth and virtually free of any hop flavor. It’s a doppelbock, but it fits into the broadly defined winter warmer category for sure. It’s also a great candidate for aging, if you can bear to cellar it for a year, or several.
Some other solid winter beers to seek out, whether or not you call them winter warmers, are 21st Amendment Fireside Chat (bittersweet spices), Odell Isolation Ale (if you want a hoppier one), Schlafly Christmas Ale (lots of orange peel and clove), Harpoon Winter Warmer (cinnamon and nutmeg with a lighter body), Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig Ale (ginger, cinnamon, and orange peel), Great Divide Hibernation Ale (hearty and malty), Anderson Valley Brewing Company’s Winter Solstice Seasonal Ale (toffee, caramel, and spice), and Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome Ale (another European gem with creamy caramel-fruit flavors).
Edible Christmas History
Brawny and Funky: Belgian Noël Beers
Many Belgian Christmas beers are quite strong, and many also have spicy, fruity, sweet flavors, though they’re often expressed differently than the Christmas pudding type tastes (raisins, toffee, plums or prunes) common to many so-called winter warmers (particularly the American spiced ones). Of course, there are always exceptions, but fairly often, Belgian Christmas brews have brighter fruit—think banana, pineapple, and peach—and more yeasty flavors, more funk. Ingredients-wise, two hallmarks of Belgian beers are candi sugar, derived from beets and imparting a richer flavor, and wild yeasts, which is where those funkier tastes originate. Many Belgian beers are also bottle conditioned, meaning a small amount of yeast is included in the bottle to promote further fermentation and natural carbonation.
Possibly the most beloved Belgian Christmas import in the US is St. Bernardus Christmas Ale, an abbey-style Quadrupel which is spicy with nutmeg and cloves and carries some anise/licorice flavor, but is more bready and balanced than others in this category.
Other Belgian Christmas beers to seek out incude De Dolle’s Stille Nacht (a Belgian strong pale ale that features fruity orange peel and peach, plenty of sugar and hops, plus caramelized pastry notes, and has some alcohol heat from its 12% ABV); Brasserie d’Achouffe N’Ice Chouffe (rich and sweet, malty and fruity, spicy, brewed with thyme and coming in at 10%); Corsendonk Christmas Ale (quite spicy, with some chocolate notes, and “only” 8.5% ABV); Delirium Noël (spicy, fruity, and sweet like many Belgians, slightly bitter, and with an awesome label sporting Santa-hatted pink elephants); Scaldis Noël (also known as Bush de Noël, 12% ABV with dark sugar, clove, nutmeg, and toasty toffee notes, but also banana and dark berries); and Fantôme de Noël (a saison style with deep chocolate malt and lots of spice, including black pepper and coriander, with a wild yeast sourness).
You can also find American takes on the Belgian Christmas style, like Goose Island Noël (dried apricot and dark cherry meet toasted bread and deep caramel, at 9.5% ABV); Troegs Mad Elf (more ripe cherries and yeast, plus banana and cloves, with a sweet syrupy booze note and 11% ABV); and Rogue’s Santa’s Private Reserve (cherries and raspberries in the 2017 batch, plus Belgian candi sugar and “Imperial Gnome Yeast”).
Drinking Your Tree: Citrus and Pine Flavors
If you prefer less sugar and more bright astringency, you can look for extra-hoppy winter beers with more juicy citrus and bitter resin flavors—beers that smell and even sometimes taste a little like a Christmas tree. Some (like Alaskan Winter Ale) are actually brewed with spruce tips, and there’s Scandinavian precedence for this practice, too; beer brewed from Norway spruce was thought to confer many blessings, like virility, strength in battle, and the prevention of scurvy during ocean voyages. The British Navy even brewed spruce beer for scurvy prevention in the 1700s, although modern science casts doubt on its effectiveness. This style of beer still existed in colonial America, but faded from prominence with the rise of large breweries.
However, everything eventually gets resurrected, and since scurvy is no longer a worry, clearly, some people still enjoy the taste. Case in point: Dogfish Head’s Pennsylvania Tuxedo, a citrusy pale ale brewed with spruce tips, which do impart a clear resinous flavor that’s quite refreshing, yet perfect for winter sipping.
No spruce tips in this one, but Sierra Nevada’s Celebration IPA is another bright, piney beer with fresh bitter hops and citrus aromas.
Full Sails’s Wreck the Halls is, in their words, “a sublime hybrid of an American-style IPA and a winter warmer.” There’s plenty of pine and citrus in the nose and on the palate, but balanced by bready caramel malts, so you get the best of two styles.
Although they may not be labeled as Christmas beers, lots of other IPAs, particularly ones that use certain hops (like Simcoe and Chinook), will have that fragrant piney character if that’s what you’re after rather than more traditional winter flavors.
Nice and Toasty: Roasty Porters and Stouts
Rich porters and stouts are often full of dark, bittersweet chocolate and roasty coffee aromas and flavors, plus thick, velvety textures, which are all obviously especially welcome during colder weather. Come winter, they’re often augmented with warm spices and/or barrel aged to impart extra richness and flavor.
Prairie Artisan Ales‘ Christmas Bomb! is an inky imperial stout brewed with cocoa nibs, vanilla, coffee, ancho chiles, and cinnamon. It’s a big beer—13% ABV and clearly heavily spiced—but it’s quickly become a seasonal release many look forward to, not least of all because there’s a totally new eye-catching label every year.
A more traditional but still rich and warming imperial stout, Port Brewing’s Santa’s Little Helper is big on dark cocoa and roasted coffee flavors, with just a touch of hops.
Another imperial, but in the milk stout style, Hardywood Gingerbread Stout is a bit less roasty and more sweet and creamy, due to the lactose added to the beer. It tastes more of milk chocolate, vanilla, warm spices, and honey (it’s brewed with both honey and ginger).
If you can find Santa’s Butt Winter Porter, it’s decently rich and warming, but most importantly, it makes a fantastic stocking stuffer for those with a certain juvenile sense of humor. In 2006, the ACLU successfully fought for the distributor’s right to sell this beer in Maine, which deemed the label “undignified or improper”—though the “butt” in the name refers to a storage cask, combined with the image, it is a little cheeky. Coincidentally, following the repeal of Prohibition, American brewers were prohibited from using any images or references to Old St. Nick to sell their beers for a time. Oh, how far we’ve come.
Outliers: Candy Canes, Frankincense, and 3,500-year-old Danish Ale
Clearly, there are way too many individual Christmas beers to classify them all, and tons of variation even within specific styles—not to mention, many of these beers change from year to year, and some seasonal releases only appear once. Goose Island’s Candy Cane Cthulhu (and several other candy cane imperial stouts they brewed in previous years); Full Steam’s Fruitcake…The Beer; Jekyll Brewing’s Redneck Christmas Stout—these are just a few of the bottles we wish we could get our hands on now. But brewers love to experiment, and interesting new options are always coming to market, especially around the turn of seasons, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled. Here are a couple current idiosyncratic examples you might just find on shelves near you:
The Lost Abbey’s Gift of the Magi tastes right at home with the Belgians, but the unusual additions of frankincense and a touch of myrrh make it an extra-special Christmas brew with a bit of bitter herbal character. The gold comes into play in the color.
Dogfish Head’s Kvasir, while not marketed as a Christmas beer, is based on an ancient Scandinavian brew and made from winter wheat, so it more or less fits in with the Viking origins of Christmas and Christmas ales…right? And the cranberry, lemon, and herbal flavors are reminiscent of mulled wine, always popular this time of year. At the very least, this would make an interesting present for your favorite beer nerd.
But don’t neglect yourself! Go out and acquire some of your own liquid Christmas cheer if you’re feeling thirsty. Your best bet, of course, is always to find your highest-quality, most passionate local beer and wine stores and scour their shelves for whatever looks interesting—and ask the employees for suggestions, too. Chances are they’ll be delighted to give you recommendations and tips, and isn’t sharing knowledge one of the greatest gifts of all? Right up there next to a good bottle of beer.
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.