Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What's your Christmas beer of choice?

Great Lakes Christmas AleI often find it odd that there are so many Christmas-themed beers since Christmas isn’t a holiday you would associate with drinking and revelry. I also find it odd that there are so many Oktoberfest beers, yet I can’t think of a single beer that is specifically St. Patrick’s Day or Mardi Gras-themed. You’d think there would be a slew of Thanksgiving-themed beers since it’s an event that involves pairing the right beer with the right food.

Is it just me?

Still, the Christmas time of year is one of my favorite seasons for beer since Christmas beers come in a variety of styles and flavors (whereas Oktoberfests seem to be pretty much the same). Sure, a lot of them tend to be of the “Winter Warmer” style, but even that’s an umbrella term as brewers tend to use it as an excuse to throw any combination of spices into any style of beer. Some work and are great, others… not so much. But not all Christmas beers are limited to that style. They can range from wheat beers to Belgian Specialty Ales to fruit beers to India Pale Ales.

A cynical way of looking at it would be that Christmas enables any brewery to release any beer of any style and market it as “Christmas-y” as long as they slap Santa Claus or a Christmas tree or the word “Winter” on the label somewhere. I suppose beers that are heavy and spicy tend to “feel” more appropriate for the holiday than something like an imperial lager. Still, some of my favorite Christmas beers don’t conform to the usual convention of being a dark, spicy, full-bodied, high gravity brew (or at least not all those criteria together).

Southern Tier KrampusHere’s a quick look at some of my favorite Christmas-themed beers

Great Lakes Christmas Ale: It begins with immediate sensation of spice: ginger being the most prominent, followed by a fiery cinnamon bite and a sweet honey taste to round it all out. Vanilla and the taste of shortbread seems to be lurking somewhere in the palette, too. It does live up to its reputation of being a liquid Christmas cookie.

Southern Tier Krampus: An imperial lager that tastes and drinks exactly like a double IPA. One of Southern Tier’s brewers told me that this beer is brewed with more hops than anything else in their entire lineup! The Chinook hops create for a sticky, pine resin taste and texture across the beginning and middle of the palette. The beer culminates with a strong, dry bitterness, while at the same time delivering a subtle malty sweetness of caramel and butterscotch.

Corsendonk Christmas Ale: A classic Belgian Christmas brew with clove, fruit and spice with some chocolate and caramel malts playing a significant role as well. This beer has a soft, mild mouthfeel that’s not an assault on the palate despite the full body.

Fegley's Brew Works Rude Elf's ReserveFegley’s Brew Works Rude Elf’s Reserve: Usually, I dislike “spice rack bombs” that are so many Christmas beers, but for whatever reason, this is a shining exception. It does have the usual flavors of ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and clove, but they’re in the “proper” ratio here (whatever that may be). The beer is also brewed using three Belgian yeast strains which definitely impart a classic banana and dark fruit flavor.

Goose Island Christmas Ale: A medium-bodied brown ale with big notes of rich syrupy gooiness from start to finish. Caramel and toffee and extremely prominent with a refined sweetness that’s genuinely tasty and not cloying. What’s amazing is the beer never wears out its welcome. Each swig is a robust as the one before it. The palate doesn’t grow that much more complex, but the sweetness never becomes cloying.
  1. What’s your favorite Christmas and/or winter-themed beer?
  2. Is there a difference between a Christmas beer and a winter beer?
  3. Do you prefer your Christmas beers to be standard winter warmers and Belgian strong ales, or do you like having a variety of styles to chose from during the holiday?
  4. What is it about spices like ginger, cardamom, grains of paradise, cinnamon, clove, etc., that make them complement the season?
  5. Do you have any beer-specific traditions during the holiday season?
  6. When does the Christmas/winter beer season begin and end for you?

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