'Tis the season for cheer, celebration and merriment, and holiday spirits are no doubt one of the key ingredients to a festive evening. While a good bottle of wine, a nice mixed drink, or a glass of spiked eggnog are among the top choices to fill your glass, Christmas beers have taken on a tradition of their own over the years. Being one who has come to appreciate the complexity and craftsmanship of a good beer, I get to enjoy this time of year as much as I did when I was a kid playing with my new toys.
Before we go any further, I would like to say that I am not by any means a beer connoisseur. I just enjoy certain styles of beers that I have come to appreciate, and am able to b.s. my way through a beer conversation if needed. So to help make the most of this post, which I have been looking forward to writing for a while now, I will be referring to two of my most trusted sources. First, my good friend Matt Pesotski has offered some great words of wisdom. Matt not only has a great appreciation for all things beer, but is also partially responsible for introducing me to better beer. Second is one of my favorite books, Christmas Beer: The Cheeriest, Tastiest, and Most Unusual Holiday Brews, by Don Russell (aka Joe Sixpack). Mr. Russell is an award winning writer who has traveled the world in search of great beers and great stories. He is also a helluva a nice guy! His book is phenomenal, loaded with great stories, recipes and photos of every beer mentioned. The photos really comes in handy when you are searching a library bookcase-sized shelf at a specialty store for a specific bottle. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in Christmas beers.
What is Christmas Beer?
From the wassails and solstice celebration ales of years past to wee heavies and barleywines of today, winter seasonals represent a huge category of beer. Winter warmers, also known as Christmas beer or holiday beer, are brewed with the intentions of celebrating both the holidays and the winter season. They are quite often laced with flavors and spices such as citrus, nutmeg, cloves, honey, extra hops and sweet malts. They also tend to have a higher alcohol content, which helps keep you warm on those blustery cold nights!
As Mr. Russle states in his book, Christmas beer is technically not a style. Unlike other recognizable beer styles such as a pilsner, bock or brown ale, the Christmas beer/winter warmer/holiday seasonal beers can't be defined by color, alcohol content, or flavor. There are no rules, no brewing guielines. They are whatever the brewer wants to make. The only criteria is that the beer must be special. It must be produced specifically for the holiday season and its packaging must reflect this. In essence, they are like little gifts, just waiting to be opened!
Here's what Matt had to offer, regarding the style of winter warmers: "Overall, winter is the beer season to go big. We’re not sitting in the back yard pounding crisp pilsners while listening to the Phillies on the radio or cooling off at a BBQ. It’s about sitting, sipping, and savoring. Hopefully, you’re not going anywhere, because we’re often talking about some high-octane stuff, and with the sweet flavors that are prevalent this time of year, it’s easy to go past your normal threshold, and in a hurry. Perhaps more than any other beer season, winter/holiday is the perfect time to stock up with variety. You won’t want a whole case of a lot of these if you’re just trying to fill your fridge, rather than plan for a party, so I like to get a few sixers, a variety case, or find someone to split a case with since it’s hard to get beer in bulk without getting 24 of the same beer."
These are some of my favorite beers....
If you are like me and you get caught up in presentation and labels, you will also have a lot of fun checking out the fun packaging, labels and bottles that fill up the shelves this time of year. Many of your holiday beers are packaged with catchy holiday-related names and characters. Elves have a reputation of being mischievous little buggers, so it is no surprise that the elf character has overtaken many a Christmas beer. There's the Rude Elf, the Bad Elf, the Really Bad Elf and the Criminally Bad Elf to name a few. But the elf that reigns supreme in my opinion is The Mad Elf, by Tröegs Brewing Company. It's a ruby colored Belgian strong dark ale, flavored with cherries, honey, ginger and clove spiciness. It also packs a walloping 11% alcohol volume...no wonder why the elf is so mad! Being that it has such a unique, flavorful taste, this is definitely one that sneaks up on you, very quickly. This may also explain why this is one of the most sought after beers in the northeast, as it moves very quickly off the shelves during this season. I suggest you share one of these with your friends, or plan to nestle in for the night if you are drinking alone!
As expected, Santa himself plays a major role in much of the holiday beer packaging. From classic Dickens-type images to cartoonish comical situations, Old Saint Nick is very well represented. One of my favorite Santa beers is St. Nikolaus Bock Bier, a malty, smooth, dark Munich-style lager by Pennsylvania Brewing Company. Though not as strong as Mad Elf, it does have a heavier alcohol content than your everyday beer, and serves well with a hearty winter's meal.
One of my seasonal stand-by's is anything by Samuel Adams. They've actually gained more of a reputation as of late for their seasonal offering as opposed to their flagship Boston Lager. The holiday season offers a nice variety of Sammy Adams brews. From their Winter Lager with wheat and spices and their Holiday Porter to their cinnamon and ginger spiced Old Fezziwig Ale, there is something for everyone to try. All three of these beers, along with a few other interesting offerings are available in a nice mixed case.
Another winter's beer that I enjoy is Winter's Bourbon Cask Ale, a spiced winter warmer brewed with vanilla beans and aged in oak bourbon casks. Right off the bat, this beer gets some unnecessary flack because it's an Anheuser-Busch product, and not a craft brew. How in the world can one of the big beer companies make anything that tastes good? Well, give it a try and see for yourself...it's a nice, flavorful beer. Blue Moon gets a pass, right?
The last main holiday beer that I tend to enjoy most is Anchor Brewing's Our Special Ale, which is a spiced winter warmer that changes up both its label and recipe each year. Flavors such as ginger, evergreen, licorice and cooked fruit have all been part of past years recipes.
I realize that I have only scratched the surface of the vast variety of holiday and winter beers. There are countless incredible offerings from all over the United States and all over the world. So what I have done is set up a special discussion board on the Cucina Domenico facebook page. I encourage you to visit the board and offer up your favorite holiday beers, comments and suggestions. You can visit the board by clicking here.
To my friends who have helped me understand that there is more to life than Bud Light and Rolling Rock: Matt, John, Evan, Elisa, Deanna, Zack, Andrea, Abby, Alice, Conni, Steve, Paul, Brian, Barb, Craig, Tony, Dan, Jeff, Carl, Charlie (Cholly), Neumann, my brother Anthony, and of course Mr. Joe Sixpack....I raise a glass to you this season. And to all of my readers...Salute e la felicità!
For more information on these beers, you can visit beeradvocate.com