Sunday, December 20, 2009

Hit and Miss Christmas Beers

'Tis the season for Holiday Ales, and the big day is almost upon us. This month I've been drinking Christmas seasonal beers almost exclusively... trying to get into the spirit of Christmas by loading my belly full of malty beers and nutmeg spice. What I've found is that "Christmas Beer" is a term that means different things to different brewers. To me, the ideal Christmas beer is a Winter Warmer, a malty beer that's sweet in flavor and red in color. Spices like nutmeg and cinnamon are welcome but I want my beer to taste like beer above anything else. I'll be the first to admit that drinking 25 Winter Warmers can get a little... boring. So it's nice to see variations on this theme.

I've come up with a list of my favorite (and least favorite) Christmas Beers from this season:

Don't Miss:

Dundee Festive Ale - This is a traditional Winter Warmer with a great flavor. It's got nutmeg, cinnamon, caramel and little oak. Despite keeping your palate busy with all the flavors, this beer is very easy to drink and at 6.2% it'll warm you right up.

Odell Isolation Ale - Similar to Dundee's Festive Ale but less complex. The Isolation Ale has a more noticeable hop component that leaves you with a slightly bitter finish. This beer has a great "New Cabin" smell thanks to those Pine-y hops. If you're looking for a traditional style Winter Warmer that has a nice bitter hop kick to it, this is your beer.

Breckenridge Christmas Ale - By far my favorite packaging, Breckenridge's Christmas Ale tastes like a handful of toasted nuts that have been dipped in caramel and dusted with nutmeg. This a deceptively easy drinking beer that'll sneak up on you at 7.4% ABV as you keep going back for more.

Boulevard Nutcracker Ale - Chances are you've already had a Nutcracker Ale... This, like the Isolation Ale, is a hoppier Winter Warmer. The Nutcracker is a more strongly hopped than the Isolation Ale and it's apparent from your first sip. The Nutcracker has a sweet malty flavor that is spiked with light, floral hops.

Worth the trouble:

New Belgium Frambozen - Raspberry beer doesn't strike me as being particularly festive... The Frambozen is a Brown Ale with a strong, but not overpowering, Raspberry tartness that works really well. This a great sweet and sour beer that is worth the trouble of tracking down, even if it doesn't come off as all that Christmasy...

Schlafly Christmas Ale - This is one of my favorite Christmas seasonals, but it comes with a caveat... When you buy a six pack of this from the store you'll get a solid, but spicy, Christmas beer. If you can find this on tap, you'll get a different experience. On tap, this beer is much less spicy which allows the other flavors come through a bit more. Definitely worth the trouble of finding on tap.

Sprecher Winter Brew - This caramel and vanilla flavored Bock has a great roasted flavor and has a hint of smokiness that I really enjoyed. This beer isn't as sweet or malty as other Winter seasonals, but it is creamy and finishes with a crisp hoppy bite.

Rogue Yellow Snow - IPAs don't fill me with the Christmas spirit. Rogue's Yellow Snow is a hoppy IPA that has a lot of tart citrus flavor that cuts through the bitter hops, leaving a mild finish. The flavor combination is great, much sweeter and more tart than other IPAs. Still not very festive, but a good beer nonetheless.

Don't Bother:

New Belgium 2 Below - Beware of any beer that is best served at temperatures near freezing... I didn't think too highly of the 2 Below, it was bitter and hoppier than I like my beers to be. Sure, this is an ESB but even after it warmed up there just wasn't any flavor other than bitter in here.

BridgePort Ebenezer - Bah Humbug! This beer smells like caramel but tastes like water... It looks delicious though, for what it's worth...

Sierra Nevada Celebration - My least favorite Christmas seasonal, Sierra Nevada's Celebration is a hoppy hopped hop bomb that strips the taste buds off of your tongue with an excessive level of bitterness.

Saranac Season's Best - Tastes almost like a Nut Brown should, but ended but tasting too dry with the added spices. Sadly, this is Saranac's best effort this season, and it's a miserable failure.

Have you tried any remarkable Holiday Seasonals this year?


  1. I really liked Shipyard's Prelude. I haven't been a huge fan of Shipyard to date, but this one was fantastic.

    As for your "Don't Bother" list - Yellow Snow IPA is hoppier than Celebration, you know. ;) (and it's not Rogue's seasonal; Santa's Private Reserve is, but it's still a good beer. In fact, it's really hoppy and I'm surprised you enjoyed it, knowing you're not a fan of hoppy beer. ). Did you have 2 Below with a fatigued palate? It's hardly bland or bitter; maybe try it again without having had anything before it.

    Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome (an old ale) is probably one of my absolute favorite winter beers; you should try it. Good & malty. No spices, but still a great beer.

  2. My must try list would include Great Divide Hibernation. Huge malt bomb. Anchor Our Special Ale is the beer that means Christmas to me. The Stone/Jolly Pumpkin/Nogne collaboration is pretty interesting. Lots of Juniper. It might not be for everyone, and a little pricey, but you've probably already blown plenty of money for the Holidays, what's a little more!

    As far as don't bother. For me it would be the "Winter Warmers" that are just a bigger version of an Amber Ale. Goose Island Christmas, Breckenridge, Jubilation, Bridgeport, etc.

  3. I agree on Anchor Our Special Ale. That, to me, is the quintessential Christmas beer. Winter Welcome is also lovely.

    And if you want a big, assertive-yet-delicious holiday beer, try Hebrew's Jewbelation! It's their 13th anniversary (Bar Mitzvah).

  4. I actually like Sam Adam's Winter Lager. I know it's a bit cliche, but it's really the only Sam Adams that I buy.

    I like the Goose Island Mild Winter. It is a glorified amber no doubt, but GI's base ales are so damn good that any tinkering they do with it is fine by me ( I list their Harvest Ale as my Top 5 beers).

    Red Hook has a really good winter ale as well.

    For the record, I do not like Breckenridge Christmas Ale at all. But I'm not into the spicy malty brews.

  5. I almost forgot - I'm normally a big fan of Bell's, but don't bother with their Christmas Ale. Big disappointment. Totally bland. Grab a sixer of their Rye Stout instead, and thank me later.

  6. Just tried the Schlafly's. Not bad, but didn't blow me away. Would have much preferred Nutcracker, but can't find any up here in the Northland!

  7. Are you guys finding the Hebrew Jewbelation here around KC? I found it in Columbia about a month ago but never locally. Excellent stuff.

  8. Bean - They had plenty of Jewbelation at Gomer's Lenexa. Also, Tank 7 is on sale for $6.99.

  9. I found Jewbilation at Beer Cave in OP for $6.

    However, I thought it was terrible.

  10. Love Free State Santa's Helper. You don't find Belgian IPAs very often. Amazing!!

  11. I'd like to endorse Anchor's Our Special Ale 09 as well. The whole idea of that beer is incredible, as its like getting yourself a christmas present every year. You truly don't know whats inside (as long as you don't cheat and head online to search out reviews) until you pour it and then drink it. I remember the 07 was pretty hearty, so when I poured this year's almost black/plum tinted beer into my glass, I was expecting an early sleep that night. It was an amazingly spicy and refreshing beer -- a combination I haven't found often at all. It just screamed Holidays in every way.