Although Christmas beers have been on the shelves for months now, as we come to the winter solstice I thought it would be appropriate to do a post on holiday beers. Last weekend I asked my friends Ralph, Nick and Mark to come over, taste a bunch of holiday beers and help me choose the best of the bunch. The night got off to an auspicious start when our water pitcher decided to commit suicide while I was holding it and I had to go to the ER to get 6 stitches in my left middle finger, but the show must go on and we soldiered on through a dozen holiday beers (and had a great time doing it).
Like Pumpkin beers, Christmas beers don’t really conform to a single style category. The most prevalent style (in Ohio anyway) is the Winter Warmer, a malty English winter seasonal. Winter Warmers brewed in the US are typically laced with various spices. However, not all beers marketed as Christmas Beers are winter warmers. Beers of any style that are released around this time of the year are often labeled as Christmas/Holiday/Winter beers. Many Belgian breweries release a Christmas/Noël beer where spices are added to what was already a strong, fruity, malt forward beer. Consequently, I’ve grouped the beers into three categories (a) spiced winter warmers, (b) Belgian style Christmas/Noël beers, (c) winter releases that don’t fit into either of the above categories.
Below I summarize our thoughts on eight holiday beers that span a wide gamut of tastes. In the end we reached unanimous agreement for the best beer in each category—4-Elf by Dark Horse Brewing was our favorite spiced winter warmer, Mad Elf by Tröegs was our favorite Belgian-style beer, and Celebration Ale by Sierra Nevada was the best of the rest.
Spiced Winter Warmers
This is the largest group of beers that we sampled. Great Lakes Christmas Ale has something of a cult status in Ohio, although that is diminished somewhat now that it is more readily available. So it is not too surprising that many breweries in this area have emulated that beer. Here are our two favorites.
4-Elf (Dark Horse) – To the eye this beer is completely opaque with a deep, dark walnut brown color and 1 finger of mocha colored head. Although it is classified as a winter warmer, the base beer here seems close to a chocolate stout, whereas the other winter warmers we sampled all seemed to be spiced versions of a strong ale. The nose is chocolate, cloves, nutmeg, with dark fruits and alcohol in the background. The smell reminds me of a spiced chocolate rum cake. The taste follows the nose pretty closely. The cloves go well with the dark chocolate malt flavors. The mouthfeel is thick and chewy. To put it succinctly 4-Elf has the chocolaty goodness of a Founders Porter nicely accented with spices. All four of us preferred it by a wide margin over the other winter warmers, including the Great Lakes Christmas Ale. For me this was the best beer of the night. Choose 4-Elf if you like chocolate stouts accented with spices.
Christmas Ale (Great Lakes) – Pours a clear reddish-copper color with a small head of white foam that quickly settles out to a scrim. The aroma is dominated by the spices used in brewing, cinnamon being the most prevalent. The taste is also spice-forward with cinnamon hitting you first, but the ginger comes on in the mid palate and is much more apparent in the taste than the smell. The honey used in the brewing adds a thickness to the mouthfeel and perhaps a bit of sweetness (this improves as it warms). Hops dry things up at the finish and the spices linger on your tongue for a while. This beer is designed to showcase the spices and it does it well. We tried a number of beers that imitated this style (see below), and while they were similar none was quite as balanced as the original. Choose Great Lakes Christmas Ale If you are looking for a beer where spices are the main attraction.
Just about all of the others that we tried in this category were brewed with spices similar to the Great Lakes Christmas Ale, but with some variations in the spice additions. Since spices are the in the spotlight I describe each beer simply by the spices added. In our opinion most would benefit by dialing back the spices just a little.
Southern Tier 2Xmas – Figs, orange peel, cardamom, cinnamon, clove and ginger root. This one was best after the Great Lakes.
Elevator Winter Warmer – Nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon and allspice. Less cinnamon than the others, but a pretty big dose of nutmeg.
The Brew Kettle Winter Warmer – Cinnamon, ginger, orange and lemon peel and a sleigh load of Ohio honey.
Fathead’s Holly Jolly – Cinammon, ginger, nutmeg, coriander and Ohio honey.
There is apparently a divide located somewhere between Columbus and Cleveland above which it is mandatory to put honey in your winter warmer, as that is the recipe followed by Great Lakes, Thirsty Dog, The Brew Kettle and Fathead’s. Presumably this is an attempt of the other breweries to compete with Great Lakes.
Belgian Style Christmas/Noël Beers
We tried three beers that fall into this category. All three were big beers with alcohol contents of 10-11%. These are great beers for sipping by a warm fire on a cold winter night. Unlike the winter warmers here the taste profile of the three beers are all markedly different.
Mad Elf (Tröegs) – Like many of the winter warmers honey is used in this recipe, along with sweet and sour cherries, but no spices. It pours a translucent, deep ruby red color with a small head that quickly settles out. The smell is very inviting. It conjures up what I would call dried yeast with a hint of cherries. The taste is a well-rounded mix of cherry fruitiness, alcohol and honey sweetness, with no one taste dominant. The sweetness is just about right, not cloying. I have to say this is a more complex, sophisticated beer than the St. Bernardus. With the high ABV (11%) and the cherry accents I was fearing something that tasted like cough syrup, but those fears were totally unfounded. We unanimously felt this was the best of the three Belgian style beers we sampled (Editors note: It was also the cheapest so this pick is winner for the budget, although it still runs about $3.50 per bottle.). Choose Mad Elf if you are looking for an after dinner/late night sipper reminiscent of port wine with cherry accents.
St. Bernardus Christmas Ale – When you open one of the 11 oz bottles the carbonation is high enough that a stream of foam immediately starts snaking out of the bottle. Once you get it in a glass it is a mahogany brown, very cloudy to the point of being nearly opaque, with a tan head that initially fills 75% of the glass. The head gives way reasonably quickly so that after a few minutes I was able to pour the entire bottle into the glass. The aroma on this beer reminds me of a plum pudding in the best possible way— bready with massive raisins and plums overtones and a hint of booze. The taste is similar with the main actors being raisins, chalky Belgian yeast, Xmas spices, and bready malts. Although brown sugar sweetness is present this beer finishes reasonably dry and the 10% abv is exquisitely hidden. The mouthfeel is thick and chewy. It’s a great beer, but for my tastes the raisins are just a little too dominant, a view that was shared by my tasting colleagues. Choose St. Bernardus Christmas Ale if you looking for a beer that is the liquid version of plum pudding. In writing this article I learned that in pre-Victorian times the word “plums” actually meant “raisins”, a fitting bit of linguistic juxtaposition for this raisin-forward beer.
Fântome de Noël – Pours with a massive head from the bottle conditioning. It’s a very cloudy brownish-orange color. I find it hard to properly describe this beer. The yeast and their byproducts are the main players as you would expect for a Belgian ale, but this is no fruity trippel. Brown sugar is the easiest taste to identify, and there are some dark fruits (cherries?) in the background, but unlike the St. Bernardus at the end sour funkiness comes out and linters on the tongue, making for a dry finish. This is a complex beer that is pretty unique. I can appreciate it but I’m not sure I can say I like it. For $18 a bottle I was hoping for something that was mind blowing. Choose Fântome de Noël if you like a beer that is complex mix between a Belgian Abbey Ale and a sour.
Miscellaneous Christmas beers
We also sampled three beers that did not fall into one of the above categories. All three were very nice beers that were a nice contrast to the onslaught of cinnamon and honey that we faced throughout the night.
Celebration Ale (Sierra Nevada) – This was definitely one of our favorites of the night. A showcase for the west coast American hops (Cascade, Centennial and Chinook). Pours a hazy dark amber color with a nice 2 finger head. The fresh hopping gives it a big hoppy nose with a nice blend of grapefruit, freshly picked green hops, and pine. The taste follows the nose. While it is definitely a hop-forward beer, the malts support the hops nicely with just the right level of bitterness on the finish. IPA lovers look forward to the release of this beer all year and I can see why. Choose Celebration Ale if you like your beers aromatic with a ton of fresh hop character.
Bell’s Christmas Ale (Bell’s) – A 180° turn from the Celebration Ale. Here malts are the star of the show. Made with 100% Michigan grown 2-row barley malt and a mixture of Michigan and Pacific Northwest hops, this beer is a deep amber color (undoubtedly from the amber waves of grain used in the brewing). There is quite a bit of haze that never quite goes away, presumably from suspended proteins from the malts. The nose is toasty and with some sweetness, it reminds me a little of a Dortmunder lager. While toasty, biscuity malt flavors are front and center in the taste there’s no missing the hops that add earthy and citrus highlights and enough bitterness to completely counterbalance the sweetness of the malts. There’s a little peppery spiciness on the finish. No cinnamon or coriander in sight. Choose Bell’s Christmas Ale if you want a nicely balanced malt-forward beer that steers wide of the spice cabinet.
Santa’s Private Reserve (Rogue) – This is a hopped up version of Rogue’s Amber Ale, St. Rogue Red. While similar in appearance and style to the Celebration Ale, it can’t match the hoppy aroma of the Celebration Ale. There are some hard to pin down herbal flavors in the background. Although the base beer is an amber ale this is definitely a hop-forward beer. We all agreed it was solid but not as good (and more expensive) than Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale. It does have a great label though.