Ohio Beer Treks Part 2 – The Christmas Ale Trail

Arguably no beer substyle is more closely associated with Ohio than the spiced Christmas Ale. While Anchor Christmas Ale is the oldest surviving example of the style, dating to 1975, I think it’s fair to say that the Christmas Ale tradition is a bigger phenomenon in Ohio than it is in California, and Great Lakes Christmas Ale is largely responsible for that phenomenon. If you open up the BJCP guidelines and turn to substyle 30C (Winter Seasonal Beer) the first two examples are the Christmas Ales from Anchor and Great Lakes.

Great Lakes Christmas Ale debuted in 1992, which means that 2022 marks its 30th anniversary. Despite its age, thousands of people still flock to Great Lakes in late October for the first pour of the season. In 2019 the brewery poured over 7000 pints at the brewpub on the first pour day. How many craft beers from the 1990s do people still get excited about today? While the Barley’s Christmas Ale also goes back to the early 1990s (see my post on the origins of this style in a post from 2020), there’s no denying that the influence of Great Lakes Christmas Ale dwarfs any of its Midwest rivals. Yet, here in Columbus there seems to be less buzz about this beer than there would have been a decade ago. I’d chalk that up to a hearty increase in production levels, but it’s possible that Ohioans love affair with Christmas Ales is waning. The best way to find out is to head up to the shores of Lake Erie, into the Christmas Ale heartland, for another report from the road. When carrying out this kind of journey it’s best not to travel alone, and for this expedition my fun-loving, vivacious wife Laurinda has graciously agreed to be my companion.

When I hatched the idea of an Ohio Beer Trek based around Christmas Ales, I knew I had to involve my longtime friend Rick Armon. Rick, who lives in Akron, has written two books about Ohio beer (Ohio Breweries, and 50 Must Try Craft Beers of Ohio), and knows more about Ohio beer than anyone I know. He is also an avowed fan of Christmas Ales, so it didn’t take much convincing to get him on board.  We agree to meet at Hoppin’ Frog on the first Friday of December.

Hoppin’ Frog

Established in 2006, Akron’s Hoppin’ Frog has a reputation that extends far beyond the borders of the Buckeye state. Not only are they perennially ranked in the world’s top 100 breweries by the crowd rating site RateBeer.com (#26 in the 2020 rankings), their resume includes 8 medals from the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) and 2 from the World Beer Cup. It’s a brewery I’ve been wanting to visit for a long time, a splendid place to start the Christmas Ale Trail.

For such an acclaimed brewery its location in a nondescript strip of industrial buildings just off highway 224 is rather incognito. So much so that on our first approach we drive right past it and are forced to double back. I know we’ve found the right place when I see a sliding garage door with a painting of a frog in mid jump holding a mug of beer. When we arrive at 5:30 pm there are only a few open tables left. Rick and his wife Wendy are already here and have saved us seats in the unpretentious taproom. While making our way to the table I notice a DJ spinning vinyl records in the front corner, something you don’t see everyday. I later learn that the DJ is none other than owner and founder Fred Karm.

The beer list is extensive and populated primarily by high abv beers, the kind of beers you bring to a bottle share or crack open on special occasions. Arguably their most celebrated beer is B.O.R.I.S. The Crusher Oatmeal Stout, a two-time GABF gold medalist. However, if you are the kind of person who is not content with a mere 9.4% abv stout, you can opt for the 13.7% triple oatmeal stout (T.O.R.I.S) or the 15.7% Quadruple Oatmeal Stout (Q.O.R.I.S.). Whereas most breweries who dabble in Belgian beers would be content to make a triple or quadruple, to stop there would not be the Hoppin’ Frog way. So, they’ve brewed a 15.1% Belgian golden ale they call a pentuple. A beer that has twice medaled at the GABF. I could go on, but the fact that the Berliner Weisse clocks in at 9% and the shandy at 7% tells you all you need to know about Hoppin’ Frog’s love for strong beers. Given the heft of the beers it’s nice to see that every beer on tap can be ordered as either a 5 oz ($3−5) or an 8 oz ($4−7) pour. There are a handful of beers that dip down into the 5-6% abv range and are sold in 16 oz pints.

On Rick’s sage advice we get a flight of 5 oz pours. Given the nature of our mission I start with the Frosted Frog Christmas Ale. Visually it’s on the darker end of the spectrum for this style and at 8.6% abv packs more gravitas than your standard Christmas ale. The exact spices used are not disclosed, but there is nothing subtle about the spice additions. If you like your Christmas Ales with all the dials turned to 11, this is a beer for you.

For my second beer I opt for the Frogichlaus Swiss-Style Celebration Lager, a 14.1% doppelbock/eisbock that is an homage to Samichlaus, the most iconic of strong lagers. Technically I’m still in keeping with the Christmas spirit because Samichlaus, which is the Swiss-German term for Santa Claus, is only brewed once a year, on St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6), then aged for 10 months before being released. With medals from both the GABF (Bronze, 2021) and the World Beer Cup (Silver, 2022), Frogichlaus is a fitting contemporary to Samichlaus. Visually the beer is dark chestnut in color, with ruby highlights, good clarity and minimal head. The taste is redolent with the flavors of rich, toffee-forward malts, with some vanilla and dark fruit accents tucked in the background. It’s boozy as one would expect, which helps to balance the maltiness, but the alcohol doesn’t come across as hot, at least to my palate (Laurinda might disagree). It’s the perfect fireside sipper for the long, cold nights of winter that stretch out ahead of us. With that in mind I order a 4-pack of Frogichlaus cans for further research when I get back home.

As we leave Rick introduces me to Fred Karm, who has taken a break from his DJ responsibilities and is conversing with patrons. When the conversation turns to Frogichlaus, he tells me that it took 7-8 years to learn the tricks of getting a lager yeast to ferment cleanly up to 14%. When I try to steer the conversation toward the special techniques that go into making this beer, further details are not forthcoming. I suppose that’s fair enough, I’m just glad that a brewery in Ohio is making this challenging but rewarding style.

Hoppin’ Frog is a must visit for anyone who loves high gravity beers. Don’t forget to bring a shandy-sipping companion to drive you home.

Thirsty Dog

Our next stop is the venerable Thirsty Dog. With roots that go back to 1997 when it opened as a brewpub in Canton, Thirsty Dog is one of the oldest breweries in Ohio. In fact, Fred Karm brewed at Thirsty Dog prior to opening Hoppin’ Frog in 2006. The production brewery is located in a large brick complex that housed Burkhart Brewing from the mid nineteenth century until their demise in 1973. In 2018 the tasting room moved from the historic brewery complex to a windowless cinder block building not too far from the University of Akron. Four years on, Rick is still bemoaning the move, but there’s something to be said for climate control and a kitchen. The vibe at the “new” taphouse is very much in the vein of a neighborhood watering hole. The walls are adorned with posters of Thirsty Dog beer labels, some of which haven’t aged gracefully. Two stops into the journey I have to conclude that updating your branding to meet modern-day tastes is not a priority in the Akron market. Our party has now expanded to six as we meet Rick’s friend Duane and his wife Stephanie. Duane used to brew at Thirsty Dog and has a lot to add to the conversation.  

On the list of Ohio’s best known Christmas Ales, Thirsty Dog’s 12 Dogs of Christmas holds down the number two position, behind the much beloved Great Lakes Christmas Ale. For some time there were stories that Thirsty Dog acquired the Great Lakes recipe by somewhat questionable means. It is true that the brewer responsible for the recipe, the now retired Tim Rastetter, brewed at Great Lakes in the early 1990’s. A comparison of the specifics of the two beers also invites comparisons as both beers are strong, darkish ales that feature ginger, cinnamon, and honey. I guess the only way to find out is to order up a pint and see for myself.

The first thing I notice is that 12 Dogs is quite dark in color, darker than the Great Lakes Christmas Ale.  The taste is malt forward, with a rich sweetness that has just enough bitterness to stop short of cloying. The spice additions (cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger) are background notes that accent rather than overshadow the malt flavors. The 8.0% abv is well hidden. The similarities between the two beers are substantial, but 12 Dogs of Christmas is a bit darker, stronger (8.0% vs 7.5%), and a touch sweeter. I think it’s fair to say that it was inspired by the Great Lakes Christmas Ale, but it’s no clone. What the two beers do share is a measured hand with the spice additions. If you want to get the story of straight from the source, I would direct you toward a short interview with Tim Rastetter that appeared some years back in Cleveland Magazine.

By this time of the evening food is becoming a priority. Our companions for the evening tell us that sauerkraut balls originated in Akron, and the menu does say they are an Akron favorite. That seems like a good place to start, but unfortunately our waitress forgets to turn in the food order, and by the time we get to the second round something heartier is in order. I go for a sausage sandwich, piled high with sauerkraut and banana peppers, and Laurinda gets the pulled pork. It’s good, hearty comfort food that pairs perfectly with beer.

To cap off the night Laurinda and I split a flight of four beers (the flights come in dog bone shaped tasting paddles). The barrel-aged beers at Thirsty Dog are generally excellent, somewhat underrated in my opinion. So, I go full on dessert mode and get small pours of the Rum Barrel Aged 12 Dogs of Christmas and the Wulver Latte. I’ve long been a fan of Wulver, a potent, decadently delicious barrel aged Wee Heavy. The latte version adds cold brewed coffee and lactose for something that blends caramel, bourbon, cream, and coffee. I’m not going to say it’s better than the original, but it’s pretty good way to finish the evening. Laurinda’s choices are more sensible.

It’s always a treat to hang out with Rick (right) a veritable fountain of Ohio beer knowledge and all around good guy.

The Arcade, Antiques, Tacos and World Cup Football

We say goodnight to Rick and Wendy and head north to Cleveland, with Laurinda at the wheel. We’re staying downtown at an apartment hotel called ROOST, which is located about halfway between the public square and Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. Unfortunately, our arrival is perfectly timed to coincide with the end of a Cavs home game. To make matters worse I realize that parking isn’t included with the hotel about 15 minutes before we get there. It’s not a good combination, but eventually we get into the parking facility associated with the building and get checked into our spacious 1 bedroom apartment in the historic May Building.

In the morning I make my way over to The Arcade, an ornate indoor shopping center that dates back to 1890. It’s an absolutely gorgeous building that is aptly referred to as Cleveland’s Crystal Palace. If you find yourself on Euclid Avenue with a few minutes to spare, it’s definitely worthwhile to walk through just for the view. At 8:30 am on a Saturday the only business open is a coffee shop on the north side, which happens to be just what I’m looking for. A few minutes later I’m back at the apartment with coffees and croissants in hand. The apartment has a huge flat screen TV so we decide to watch the USA v Netherlands World Cup match from the comfort of our couch.  

As you undoubtedly know by now, let down by some defensive lapses the match ends in defeat for team USA. It’s disappointing but not enough to damper my enthusiasm for the day that awaits us. Before jumping back on the Christmas Ale Trail, we decide to get some food and do a little shopping. Laurinda expressed an interest in visiting some antique stores. Some internet research suggests that Larchmere Boulevard would be a good place to go shopping for things that other people have discarded. I won’t bore you with the details here, but if you are in the market for artsy, eclectic items or mid-century kitchenware you’ll enjoy Larchmere. For me the best part of this leg of the trip was a visit to Hola Tacos. The food at this upscale taqueria is delicious. You can also try beers from Pulpo Beer Company, a Latin-themed brewery located in Willoughby. Look for the pink octopus tap handles. The brewery and restaurant are both owned by the same people.

The Arcade resplendent with holiday decorations.

Ohio City Breweries

With the preliminary activities out of the way it’s time to get serious about our Christmas Ale quest, and that means a trip to Ohio City. This now trendy neighborhood is located just west of the Cuyahoga River and anchored by the West Side Market and Great Lakes Brewing. It’s home to a seriously dense concentration of breweries that include Market Garden, Nano Brew (an offshoot of Market Garden), Bookhouse, Forest City, Hansa, Saucy Brew Works, an outlet of North High Brewing, and of course Great Lakes. To make the full rounds of the Ohio City breweries seems far too ambitious for a reasonable person, and lately I’ve been impersonating one of those, so we must pick our stops carefully.

After securing a parking spot in the Great Lakes lot at a cost of $8, we start by strolling through the West Side Market. There’s all manner of food including meats, cheeses, seafood, baked goods, produce, olives, hot sauces, and balsamic vinegars. If I wasn’t still digesting tacos and guacamole I would have been tempted by the baclava, strudel, cannoli, or row upon row of brightly colored macaroons, but as it is we’re here strictly as observers. After making a lap or two around the market we head next door for our first beer of the day.

Market Garden occupies a substantial chunk of real estate in this part of Ohio City. There’s a large restaurant and brewpub right next to the market, across a parking lot there’s an even larger production brewery and store, down the block there’s restaurant/brewery called Nanobrew. More out of coincidence than choice we come across the brewpub first and head in for a beer. The place is busy and we have to go to the back bar to find a seat.

The beer list features a bit of something for everyone. There’s multiple lagers and IPAs; a stout, a saison, a shandy, and a cider or two. The Yorkshire IPA, double dry hopped with fuggles and goldings, piques my interest. The pilsner and hefeweizen have won GABF medals and are undoubtedly good, but we’re on the hunt for Christmas ales, so the obvious choice is a pint of Festivus. Named after the fictional Seinfeld holiday, Festivus goes a bit off script by adding allspice, vanilla bean, and brown sugar, in addition to the mandatory cinnamon and ginger. It’s got a nice malt base, but when it comes to the spices more is not always better. Let’s just say that you don’t have to go hunting for the cinnamon and to my palate the mouthfeel comes across as spicy, perhaps from the ginger. Different strokes for different folks, but if I lived in Cleveland, I’d be inclined to postpone my next visit until either Airing of Grievances (a red rye IPA) or the Feats of Strength (a Belgian dark strong) hit the taps.

Our next destination is Bookhouse Brewing, which is a 10-minute walk northwest on 25th street. After walking through an entry way, you come to the main tasting room. The walls are exposed brick and the floor is covered with attractive black and white tiles. There are no TVs to distract you or speakers playing music, just the quiet conversation of a dozen or so patrons. It’s very laid back, almost the complete opposite of the scene we left at Market Garden. The centerpiece of the room is a handsome oak bar with seats on either side. After some conversation with the bartender I learn the building housed Baehr Brewing for the last three decades of the 19th century, followed by a brief stint as Cleveland and Sandusky Brewing, before being converted to a metalworks in 1907.

I think it would be safe to call the beer selection eclectic. There are traditional styles like rauchbier, altbier, English mild, and pilsner side by side with a juicy IPA, a Belgian golden strong, a barrel aged stout, and a 10% fruited golden ale inspired by something called a Cassata cake. The holiday beer, Stocking Smacker, falls outside of the standard northeast Ohio paradigm. It’s a standard strength stout with orange flavor added in an undisclosed manner. I don’t know how you feel about those candies that feature chocolate on the outside and orange-flavored jelly on the inside, but I have a soft spot for them. The combination of the chocolate and roasty flavors from the malts and the orange works pretty well in this beer. The balance seems just about perfect at the beginning of the glass, but for some reason the orange seems less integrated by the end. I’m glad I tried it, but for the next beer I opt for the English mild. It seems to pair better with the surroundings, and with further stops still ahead of us the 3.7% abv is welcome.

Great Lakes

No journey to the heart of Christmas Ale country would be complete with a visit to Great Lakes for a pint of the beer that put Christmas Ales on the map. So we bid adieu to the cozy confines of Bookhouse Brewing and make our way back down W 25th Street. It’s only 4 pm but twilight is rapidly approaching. Though to be fair the sun struggled to make any kind of impact on this gray, windy December day. As we walk past the Old Angle Tavern a small contingent of Argentina fans are cheering as a man draped in a rather small Argentinian flag does a lap on his scooter to celebrate their victory over Australia.

Great Lakes is the both the oldest (founded in 1988) and largest craft brewery in Ohio. According to statistics released by the Brewers Association they are the 22nd largest craft brewery in the US. They can also take more than a little credit for revitalizing the Ohio City neighborhood. The brewpub is located in an old brick building down the block from the Westside Market and across 26th street from the production brewery. The interior is broken up into a series of relatively small rooms, which gives it a feel not unlike a large pub you might find in London or Manchester. However, any notions of grabbing a cozy nook or even snagging a seat at the main bar are dashed by the throng of people who have descended on the taproom with the same idea in mind.

They’ve opened up the basement bar for the holidays, so we head down there to see if that might lead to a more expedient pint, but the lone bartender is obviously struggling to keep up with the crowd, so we head back to the main bar on the ground level. After 5-10 minutes we finally have two pints of Christmas Ale in hand. Still looking for a place to relax and enjoy the object of our quest, we head upstairs, where we find a small bar with empty seats.

Before diving in my pint, I pause to take in the visuals. It’s garnet hued and crystal clear, topped with two fingers of creamy white head. A handsome beer to be sure. With a rich malt character and spicing that is subtle, but not imperceptible, it leans strongly toward the British winter warmer tradition. At 7.6% abv and 30 IBU, the alcohol and bitterness are not consciously apparent, but they provide the perfect counterpoint to the rich sweetness of the malts. The combination makes for a very quaffable pint. It would be very easy to have an extended session of Christmas ales. Though that impulse might seem like a better idea in the moment than it would in hindsight. (I read on the internet that the earliest versions of this iconic beer were about 1% stronger and were half-jokingly referred to by the patrons as Christmas Jail.)

While a pint of fresh Christmas Ale enjoyed at its source is a real treat, those looking for a variety of pub exclusive beers might be disappointed by a visit to Great Lakes. With a few exceptions—a cold IPA, Edmund Fitzgerald on nitro—the tap list is filled with beers you can pick up in the grocery store. The website says that Barrel Aged Christmas Ale is on tap, but if it was available during our visit I missed it. To the left of the entrance there is a gift shop, selling all manner of branded clothing, keychains, books, various beer-derived sauces, and other paraphernalia. There is also packaged beer for sale, but the beer selection here is more or less the same as you’ll find at the grocery store. I guess it drives home the point that Great Lakes is a production brewery first and foremost. Given the crowd at the brewpub that strategy seems to be working for them.    

The O.G. of Ohio Christmas Ales at the source.

Butcher and the Brewer

Feeling satisfied after completing our quest at Great Lakes we head back to our apartment hotel. It’s still pretty early so we decide walk around the corner to check out Butcher and the Brewer. After all it’s not every day that you come across a brewery where you can pick up a pork loin or a rib steak. Since we have no intention of cooking dinner we just pop our heads in to see the butcher side of the business, and then veer to the right where the much larger brew hall is located. We are seated at a communal table and instructed to order drinks and food through our phones from a menu activated by a QR code. Although it seems somewhat impersonal, the food and drinks came out quickly once we placed our order. For a bustling beer hall it seems like a pretty efficient system.

For the sake of variety we finish the tour like we started it and order a flight. For the sake of this story, I’m contractually obligated to order the Christmas Ale, which here is called Spice Spice Baby. At 6% it’s a bit more sessionable than most of the others we’ve come across, but the lower abv comes with a scaling back of the malt richness and as a result the spices (surprise, ginger and cinnamon) are more prominent. It’s also possible that that my palate is suffering from cinnamon fatigue and should not be entirely trusted at this point in the day. The other beer on my side of the flight is the Albino Stout. From what I’ve read this is a house specialty. There’s something about the disconnect between a glass of beer that looks like a pale ale but tastes like a mixture of chocolate, coffee, and vanilla that attracts me to this style of beer. If you like this style of beer this one will not disappoint.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the food menu which features an impressive selection of sharable plates. I’m excited to see corn dogs on the menu. If more breweries served corn dogs the world would be a happier place. There’s also a dish called kimchini, which appear to be somewhat in the vein of sauerkraut balls with kimchi (Cleveland kimchi no less) taking the place of sauerkraut. The butcher side of the operation comes into play with items like the charcuterie board, meatballs puttanesca, and Korean sticky fried chicken. For true carnivores there’s a dish simply called bone marrow. The menu describes this as “two half pipes charred in the josper.” I have no idea what that means, but it does lead me to believe that the butcher part of the operation is legitimate. In the end we only had the corn dogs and the pulled pork on cornbread, but they were both great. If you visit Butcher and the Brewer my advice is to come with an appetite.

With full bellies and the lingering aroma of cinnamon on our breath we decided to end the quest here. It was fun to sample some great beer and food and get a glimpse of what the Cleveland metro area has to offer. In the final verdict I would say the quality and popularity of the spiced Christmas ale is alive and well. Thanks to Rick and Wendy Armon for taking time out of a Friday evening to show us around Akron. I promised Rick I would come back for another one of these treks that focuses exclusively on Akron and Canton area breweries at some point in the future.

If you enjoyed this story (and if you are still reading at this point that seems plausible) and would like more of the same, check out the first post in the Ohio Beer Trek series – Cleveland Rocks – for the inside scoop on Fat Head’s, Terrestrial, Noble Beast, and Masthead. If you feel the need to air any grievances, feel free to leave a comment here or on social media.

Located on a pedestrian stretch of E. 4th street, the butcher shop is on the left and the larger beer hall on the right. Photo courtesy of Dimit Architects.

One thought on “Ohio Beer Treks Part 2 – The Christmas Ale Trail

Add yours

  1. As a fan of NEO Christmas Ales, thanks for the introduction to some I may have missed. I’m in the West Market area fairly frequently, so glad to hear about some options in addition to Market Garden and GLBC. And you’re spot on about the GLBC taproom. If you’re going in hopes of finding something not available elsewhere, you’re probably going to be disappointed (although I really like almost everything they make). I feel like they could learn a bit from CBC here (but, as you say, it seems to be working for them). And getting “charred in the josper” sounds like a euphemism for a very unpleasant experience.

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