Last weekend, after recovering from my Thanksgiving Day food coma and then my Black Beer Friday beer session, I woke up to my neighbor hanging Christmas lights. It’s official, I thought, ’tis the season for winter warmers and holiday beers.
As the pumpkin beers, fresh hop beers and other seasonal offerings fade from our attention, we turn our palates toward winter seasonals.
While there are many interpretations, “winter warmers” tend to be high in alcohol, malt forward and unspiced, and they are typically released from late fall through the winter. “Christmas” beers, also known as “holiday” beers, are usually spiced, and they often have a much shorter lifespan on the shelves. Christmas ales are brewed with all sorts of spices reminiscent of the season, including cinnamon, allspice, clove, nutmeg and ginger, and sometimes they even contain fruit, orange peel, spruce tips and other festive ingredients.
Most craft breweries release a winter warmer or a Christmas beer to celebrate the season. Below are many international, regional and local suggestions.
Belgians love Christmas ales, and St. Bernardus Christmas Ale is one of my all-time favorites. This “Quadrupel” style Abbey Ale is rich and wholesome with notes of molasses, brown sugar, dates and raisins, and it has a throat-warming amount of alcohol (10% ABV) that soothes the soul. A subtle, estery spiciness in the background adds to its depth.
Corsendonk Christmas Ale is another great one. It pours deep burgundy with a frothy beige head, and it is loaded with spicy esters, acidic citrus and a hard-candy-like sweetness. I even taste a note of gingersnap cookies, which is my favorite part about this beer.
Other Belgian holiday ales to look out for: Affligem Noel, N’ice Chouffe, De Dolle Stille Nacht, and the funky Fantome Hiver.
The Winter Ale by pFriem Family Brewers is yet another delicious beer from one of my favorite Oregon breweries. It has a beautiful, light copper hue, and it’s proof that not all winter ales are dark in color. Don’t let it fool you, though, it’s rich with malt flavors that make me think of multigrain bread and caramel, and it’s well balanced with spicy hops, zesty rind and hints of spruce tips.
Old Jubilation by Avery Brewing is a classic winter beer. Brewed without any spices, this English-style strong ale has a complex malt profile that offers rich flavors of toffee, dried fruit and nuts.
Jubelale by Deschutes Brewing is another classic holiday release with sugary, toasty malt flavors and enough hop bitterness to balance things out perfectly.
Christmas is never complete without tasting the year’s Our Special Ale by Anchor Brewing, which has been brewed annually for 41 years. The recipe (and the tree artwork on the label) changes every year, so it’s always fun to taste what they’ve brewed up. This year’s beer is surprisingly light-bodied and only 5.5% ABV, but it’s loaded with flavor, including elements of toast, tobacco, nuts and molasses. The spices are more subdued than many previous years, but I detected hints of cinnamon and allspice, and possibly even a little nutmeg. It’s always a guess because they never divulge their recipes.
Santa’s Private Reserve by Rogue is one of the rare, hop-forward Christmas ales out there, and it’s delicious. This red ale is fruity, nutty, spicy, sweet (caramel) and boldly hopped, leaving behind notes of citrus, grass and pine. If you need a break from the sweet and malty beers of the season, this is a great option.
By the way, if you’re a fan of hop-forward holiday beers, also give these classics a try: Wreck the Halls by Full Sail, Celebration Ale by Sierra Nevada, and Brrr by Widmer Brothers. Also explore other flavors of the season from the Seattle area, such as Hoppy Holidays by Schooner Exact, Jolly Roger Christmas Ale by Maritime Pacific Brewing, and Bellevue Brewing’s Winter Ale.
Royal Tannenbaum Christmas Ale by Kulshan Brewing is a unique winter wonder that was actually brewed with four different types of Christmas trees from the Fullner Christmas Tree Farm. This is a beefy one, with 9.4% ABV, but it drinks really well and its biscuity malts are balanced by a big dose of piney hops. Of course, Kulshan’s Kitten Mittens Winter Warmer is also a great seasonal, and now it is packaged in cans.
Barley Humbug Winter Ale by Wander Brewing is now on tap at Wander’s Brew Hall. Mahogany in color, this smooth and luscious beer is slightly roasted with notes of caramel, rum-soaked raisins and a subtle spiciness.
542 Winter Warmer by Aslan Brewing is a richly flavored, full-bodied imperial alt style ale with hints of blackstrap molasses. 542 is fermented cold, which contributes to its smoothness and depth.
Chuckanut Brewery doesn’t necessarily offer a holiday beer, but it did just release some aged kegs of its Baltic Porter, which makes for the perfect winter sipper. This burly lager is roasty and complex with notes of dark sugar and fruit. It has an ABV of 7.7%, but it is dangerously easy to drink. Chuckanut Alt would be another good one to drink this season. It’s a malty and zesty brew with a mahogany hue.
Cabin Fever by Boundary Bay Brewery is a perennial favorite. This winter warmer has a deep red-brown hue and rich malt flavors. Even though it’s 8.5% ABV, it’s easy to drink and very smooth thanks to an extra-long cold conditioning.
Black Saison by Structures Brewing may not be a holiday ale, per se, but this beer is a great choice for this time of year. It’s a pleasant saison with subtle hints of dark grains and funky brett, and at only 5.3% ABV it’s a bit more sessionable than your average winter ale. Structures opens today (Dec. 2) at 3 p.m.!
Menace Brewing will be releasing its Ugly Sweater Winter Warmer at its Ugly Sweater Party at The Local on Thursday, Dec. 17, at 7 p.m. There will be prizes for the best (i.e., ugliest) holiday sweaters, so prepare to drink and be ugly.
Speaking of holiday parties, Elizabeth Station will be having a Sinterklaas Bierfeast Christmas Party on Dec. 8 from 5 to 11 p.m. The Station will have an amazing tap list, some special present-toting brewery guests, holiday history trivia, and maybe even a bit of wassailing. There will also be a Santa Costume Contest, so dust off your red suit.