It's late November and the pumpkin ales, Oktoberfest lagers, and wet-hopped IPAs are already starting to disappear from the shelf. You know what happens next.
They sneak into our bottle shops in the dead of night, revealed under fluorescent light to an unwelcome and premature soundtrack of soft-rock renditions of Jingle Bells and Silent Night. They're coming: Christmas beers, spiced to the hilt with nutmeg, cloves, and ginger.
To some, these bottles are a welcome sight. "It's cold outside and it's time for nutmeg in our drinks," they say. And the truth is, these beers are not just some recent trick to get your holiday dollars: malty, strong, and heavily spiced beers have been a winter mainstay for hundreds of years, with a history stemming back at least as far as the Middle Ages. Back in those days, heating up a beer with spices and sugar wasn't seen as all that crazy—there's an old English Christmas tradition known as "wassail" where celebrating folks did just that.
You may not see hot mugs of steaming beer often these days, but spiced beers have continued the tradition. So if you hate nutmeggy Christmas beers, winter warmers, and modern wassails, I get it, but they probably aren't going anywhere soon. Personally, I'm usually good for precisely one magnum of Anchor's Christmas Ale a year before I'm looking for other forms of liquid blanket to keep me warm.
Mercifully, there are options beyond Grandma's brandy. The world of holiday-themed beers extends far beyond the descriptors "spiced," "amber," and "sweet." If you are not a fan of this classic style of Christmas beer, you've got quite a few options that will still have you feeling merry and bright.
Hoppy Holiday Beers
If you're an IPA drinker trying to avoid the gingerbready stuff, try asking if your local shop has any hoppy holiday beers. A list like this would not be complete without mentioning Sierra Nevada's Celebration Ale. I'd consider this iconic beer to be an essential part of any winter lineup.
On first pour, it looks like any other old Christmas beer—bright and reddish, tumbling out of a bottle displaying poinsettias and snow-capped mountaintops. But as soon as your glass is raised to your lips, you'll know you've got something different. This is an intensely hoppy beverage brewed with hops picked, dried, and tossed in a brew-kettle just after harvest, lending the beer a fresh, pungent aroma. It's firmly bitter stuff, with a toasty, caramelized maltiness providing some balance aside intensely orange peel-like and pine-like hop flavors. It has enough alcohol (just under 7% ABV) to keep you warm, and its bitterness allows it to taste great with even the richest holiday cheese plate.
Other hoppy holiday beers to try: Mikkeller Red/White Christmas/Hoppy Lovin' Christmas* Alesmith Winter Yulesmith
My favorite part of winter beer drinkin' is definitely the influx of rich, seasonal malt-bombs; there are more imperial stouts and doppelbocks on the shelves right now than you'll see at any other time of the year, and it's worth taking advantage. I'm talking about beers that are intense, rich, and strong, emphasizing the range of caramelly, toffee-like, dark fruity, and roasty flavors that can be coaxed from roasted and deeply kilned barley. I look for malt complexity and balance—characteristics that are fairly common individually, but are rarely found together.
If you're able to get your hands on it, Port Brewing's Santa's Little Helper is an easy imperial stout pick. It's full-bodied and satisfying: hugely chocolatey with big-time raisin, licorice, and burnt caramel flavors as well, clocking in at a warming 10% ABV. Pour yourself a glass when you've settled into the couch after a big meal or when your aunt brings out her famous cheesecake.
Can't find Port's beers where you live? New York's Evil Twin Brewing makes a pair of Christmas-themed imperial stouts that are similarly big and tasty. Their Christmas Eve at a New York City Hotel Room is, like Port's take, roasty, bitter, and aggressive, and their Imperial Biscotti Break Natale Pretty Please With A Cherry On Top (you don't have to like the names) offers a sweeter, even richer take. That one's perked up with the tart fruitiness of sour cherries, and will taste even better with Aunt Linda's cheesecake.
Ninkasi's Sleigh'r is another wonderful seasonal that always finds its way into my shopping cart. It's a double altbier—an Americanized take on a smooth dark ale from Germany. Expect caramelized malt flavors alongside those of cherries, burnt toast, and dark chocolate. It would make fast friends with a Christmas goose or rib roast.
Other malt-bombs to try: Anchor Winter Wheat Haandbryggeriet Bestefar/Nissefar* Avery Old Jubilation Great Divide Hibernation
Belgian Holiday Beers:
If you don't enjoy the excessive spices and cloying sweetness of many Christmas beers brewed in the US, consider looking to Belgium. Belgian beers offer up a different set of flavors thanks to the distinctive yeasts used in their production, and there are a number of killer Belgian holiday beers to try.
My favorite is Brasserie Dupont's Avec les Bons Voeux, a strong, seemingly unspiced (they're pretty secretive about the recipe), pale, and highly carbonated beer initially brewed as a Christmas gift to loyal customers (the name translates to "With Best Wishes"). Citrus, clove, and pineapple flavors abound in this dry and bracing beer. Gift a couple bottles to a friend this winter—it comes packaged in a beautiful, 750 ml cork-and-cage bottle with a retro-cool label—it looks great all wrapped up. Drink one with the recipient now, and taste it again in a year or two—you can expect the beer to become less tropical and more spicy and dry-tasting over time.
Other Belgian holiday beers to try: St. Bernardus Christmas Ale (nutmeg trigger warning: this one is spiced!) De Ranke Père Noël* (note: also qualifies as a hoppy pick!) De Struise Tsjeeses*
If you're more into the tart stuff, there are still some seasonal beers out there that might be up your alley. Jolly Pumpkin's Noel de Calabaza* is ridiculously good—a 9% ABV force of a beer based on a Belgian strong dark ale recipe. Like all of Jolly Pumpkin's beers, this one is aged in oak barrels that are home to a whole bunch of funkifying organisms. The wild yeast and bacteria in these barrels impart a lively acidity to the beer, leaving behind a dark and intense sipper with flavors akin to raisins, black currants, sour cherries, and red wine.
Are you a holiday beer hater? What's in your fridge this season?
Note: Starred beers are distributed in the state of California by the author's employer.