What should a “Christmas beer” taste like? Is it piney? Or spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, or even citrus and coriander? Or is it just blatantly what we indulge in over the holidays: chocolate, gingerbread, fruitcake and even candy canes? The inexactitude of what the holiday season tastes like is perhaps what makes Christmas beer so fun, and so vexing.
“To us, ‘Christmas beer’ means a fantastic Belgian base beer that is warming, malt-forward, complex, dark and a little sweet,” says Brady Barlow, the co-founder of West Sixth Brewing. “That sturdiness creates the perfect platform for those characteristic holiday spices, like orange peel and cinnamon, that invoke a sensory experience that is both nostalgic and satisfying.”
Sometimes known as “winter warmers,” Christmas beers may seem a little frivolous in the U.S., but they’re surprisingly big business in Belgium. Each December, standard tap handles are replaced with ones glistening with Christmas iconography; even the monks on the Trappist bottles don Santa hats. While that seems silly, it was these monks, in fact, who first started brewing this pseudo-style centuries ago. Today, there are a number of world-class Belgian Christmas beers, like De Dolle Stille Nacht (Silent Night) and St. Bernardus Christmas Ale.
American craft beer got into the game starting with Anchor Christmas Ale in 1975. (Still a seasonal mainstay 43 years in, the San Francisco brewery claims a secret recipe of “wintry” spices, and mostly tastes like its Belgian brethren, if not a tad lighter in body and booziness.) It was an immediate hit upon release, though it didn’t exactly create a template for future stateside attempts at the style. Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale would come six years later—an IPA with a snow-caked scene on the label—followed by hits like Great Lakes Christmas Ale (1992) and Tröegs The Mad Elf (2002). While all these beers were popular, they had no real similarities stylistically besides having a seasonal “something-or-other” thrown in.
This would all change in the late-aughts, right around the time big, boozy imperial stouts were undergoing a sea change themselves. While these stouts once had flavor profiles built on the subtle roasty, chocolatey notes inherent in their malts, they became ever more baroque, with a number of adjuncts thrown directly into the brew kettle.
If “strong ales” were once the base for Belgian Christmas ales, imperial stouts quickly became the base for today’s American Christmas beers. In fact, “Christmas beer” is now largely synonymous with imperial stouts PSL-ified for the season. But they don’t represent the entire category. There are still plenty of Belgian-inspired offerings, the aforementioned standard-bearers of the past and more experimental breweries slapping the Christmas label on everything from brown ales to IPAs to bière de gardes and even sours, like The Rare Barrel Home, Sour Home, a winter wild ale made with peaches, cinnamon and vanilla.
It’s hard to track just how many Christmas beers are currently on the market, but BeerAdvocate lists around 1,100 “winter warmers,” while RateBeer has over 1,400 entries with a Christmas tag on them. To get a sense of the range of styles on offer this year, and the beers actually worth seeking out, we tasted through 23 Christmas (and Hanukkah) bottlings.
For the tasting, I was joined by PUNCH’s Editor in Chief, Talia Baiocchi; Managing Editor, Bianca Prum; Senior Editor, Lizzie Munro; Assistant Editor, Chloe Frechette; and Social Media Editor, Allison Hamlin. We were looking for beers that were great on their own merits, but also managed to channel something beyond a mere suggestion of seasonal “flavor.” Here are our favorites.
Anchor Our Special Ale 2017
The standard-bearer for American Christmas beer remains a worthy icon—at least partly because it’s so restrained compared to its modern Yuletide brethren. Each year, Anchor slightly tweaks their brown malt recipe and, while other breweries are still stepping on the gas, Anchor now claims to have “peeled back” a bit on their spices. An orangey, allspice-laced nose leads into a rich, malty mouthfeel with notes of mocha, pecan and vanilla. Anchor’s strategy has clearly worked, as this is the rare American Christmas beer you could drink an entire bottle of—and perhaps even want a second.
- ABV: 6.7 percent
Mikkeller Hoppy Lovin’ Christmas
On initial sip, the panel proclaimed: “This is a delicious beer… but how is it a Christmas beer?” It gradually revealed subtle notes of pine, which one taster lovingly described as a “whisper of Christmas.” Indeed, we later learned this Danish gypsy brew is in fact produced with pine needles, which meld nicely with the resinous piney notes in its particular hops. Likewise, the inclusion of ginger bolstered the seasonal aroma while adding a slightly earthy, spicy snap to the finish.
- ABV: 7.8 percent
The Bruery 10 Lords-A-Leaping
The tenth entry in The Bruery’s ongoing 12 Beers of Christmas series, this robust dark imperial wit has a pleasant familiarity to Belgian Christmas beer fans. Its wheated grain bill makes it a tad less cloying, with flavors of dark fruits like plums and raisins, which are bolstered by ten different spices (coriander, orange peel, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, mace, anise, dried apples and cloves) that are remarkably discernible. While strong banana esters signal a ton of sweetness on the nose, it’s well-balanced on the palate, with the spices as well as spicy yeast notes rounding things out.
- ABV: 10.5 percent
Hardywood Rum Barrel GBS
One of four Gingerbread Stout variants in this tasting, the panel was torn between anointing this or its Apple Brandy Barrelru sister offering. If the latter was a tad more cohesive and nuanced, this one was far more brash and intriguing. A nose of coconut and rum raisin leads into a rich, saccharine mouthfeel with notes of chocolate, cinnamon and bitter orange peel. One taster likened it to “baba au rhum” while another insisted it tasted like “Malibu [Rum] had been dumped in… but, like, good Malibu.”
- ABV: 10.6 percent
Prairie Artisan Ales Barrel-Aged Christmas Bomb
For such a high-ABV beer you might think this would be an absolute bruiser. While it’s hardly hot, it demands to be sipped slowly, like an after-dinner glass of amaro. An imperial stout brewed with ancho chilies, chocolate, cinnamon and coffee and aged in whiskey barrels, the beer actually presented most prominently with what can only be described as a cross between a Junior Mint and a Mounds bar. A truly decadent stout that is the definition of a dessert replacement.
- ABV: 13 percent