I love the last six weeks of the year, with a different holiday almost every week: Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s Eve! It’s a blur of warming Hot Toddies, festive punches and new whiskey releases. Best of all are the old friends who show up to make the season bright: holiday beers!
As early as the 1970s, American craft brewers seized on the English brewers’ custom of creating an annual special beer, a so-called winter warmer, brewed as a kind of thanks to regular customers. These special releases were usually stronger, out of the ordinary, and very limited.
It’s now become a favorite tradition in the U.S, too. Some brewers make the same beer every year, some make something different. Here are 20 of my favorites to look out for this holiday season.
Anchor Christmas Ale In 1975, Anchor brewed the first winter beer in America, since Prohibition. This year’s edition of Christmas Ale is its 44th. As always, the recipe is a tightly held secret, and the label features a different tree—2018 is the Korean Pine.
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale My wife’s favorite winter beer; more than 30 years old and still a classic. It has a big malt body, rambunctious pine and citrus hops: an IPA muscle car, revving and roaring, the way we used to drink them.
Deschutes Jubelale Local artists create a new label every year for the Deschutes Jubelale, and there’s a work of art inside the bottle as well. Took me a while to understand this malty masterpiece, but once I dug the earthy English hops, I was a solid fan.
Full Sail Wassail This is a big amber beer with plenty of caramel malt and gobs of Pacific Northwest hops that warms you right through. Full Sail may not be the landmark brewery it once was, but this beer rocks.
Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome This Yorkshire brewery’s beautifully packaged winter warmer bulges with biscuity malts and classic English yeast aromas. “Blessings of your heart; you brew good ale,” quoth Shakespeare on the label. Forsooth!
Harpoon Winter Warmer One of the few spiced ales I do like is the Harpoon Winter Warmer. It drops the pumpkin pie spices in a different direction, and you wind up with a glass of gingerbread. I love it—it’s so homey.
Great Lakes Christmas Ale The other spiced ale I like is Great Lakes Christmas Ale! Its brewers keep it simple: a big sweet beer brewed with local honey, and spiced with ginger and cinnamon. Just the thing to drink while watching other people shovel snow.
Dupont Avec Les Bons Voeux The Belgian Dupont Avec definitely comes “with our good wishes.” This super-saison is spicy, full-bodied, touched with citrus, and never even hints at its 9.5-percent ABV. Simply marvelous.
Scaldis Noel A magisterial beer, which is a full 12-percent ABV, Scaldis Noel is richly layered with baking spices, dried and fully ripe fruit, and a wink of freshness that’s amazing to find in a beer this size. A snifter of it is just the thing to drink before retiring on Christmas Eve.
De Dolle Stille Nacht The character of De Dolle is truly unique: sweet as sunshine, like an aged dandelion wine, but crisp around the edges with a hint of acidic Forelle pear. Drinking it lights me up like star shine.
Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig Be warned: You have to buy the Samuel Adams Winter Variety Pack to get a bottle of its Old Fezziwig filled with orange-gingerbread goodness but it’s totally worth it. And the tasty Holiday Porter is an added bonus.
Penn St. Nikolaus Bock An old favorite from an early Pittsburgh brand: Penn begins releasing this rich, malty beauty at its brewery on December 6 A.K.A St. Nikolaus’s Day. I made it once, and wound up singing Christmas carols on the 14th Street bridge.
Samichlaus The Schloss Eggenberg brewery in Austria brews this immense lager once a year, on St. Nikolaus’s Day, and ages it up to 10 months. That aging smooths and rounds it, but at 14-percent ABV, it’s a smooth, rounded battering ram.
He’Brew Chanukah Hanukkah, Pass The Beer Yes, Hanukkah is over, but you can still buy this tasty beer: it’s a miracle! The rich dark ale is brewed with chocolate, and, naturally, eight malts and eight hops. Such symbolism!
Port Brewing Santa’s Little Helper If Santa gets too much help from this 10-percent ABV imperial stout, he’ll never get back up the chimney. Huge, plum pudding-rich with a proper burnt-bitter edge; not just fun, it’s damned well-done.
Tröegs Mad Elf Honey, tart cherries, and spicy Belgian yeast character make this friendly monster a perennial favorite. There’s also a Grand Cru version (“the director’s cut”), and a big three-liter magnum package.
Hardywood Gingerbread Stout This festive stout put Richmond on the beer map. Thick, toasty, and sweet, with the tingling spice of gingerbread laced throughout. Buy a few bottles, it ages well, too.
Ninkasi Sleigh’r Heavy metal plays in nearly every craft brewhouse that I visit these days and beers, like this killer amped-up altbier are the result. More hops, more malt! But more East Coast distribution would be a great holiday gift…
That Local Beer While I love perennial holiday releases, it’s also fun to see what else is out there! Go check out the new guys in the industrial park who are making positively kick-ass beer. One of my local examples is Tomfoolery Brewing in Hammonton, New Jersey, which gets clippings from a local Christmas tree farm to make a Spruce Tip Ale. Now that’s seasonal!
Miller High Life Magnums Okay, maybe Miller High Life is not a favorite, but I’m a beer-inclusive kind of guy, and everyone should have a chance to join in the holiday fun. And if nothing else, this 750-ml bottle of High Life, complete with gold foil and a red ribbon, is certainly fun.
Cheers & happy holidays!