Monday, December 22, 2014

Top 10 Best Christmas Beers

The colder months tend to be beer geeks’ favorite time of year for the simple fact that breweries tend to release bigger, bolder, and more experimental beers – many under the guise of Christmas and winter-themed brews. Christmas beers are nothing new, as they historically fall under the umbrella style of “Winter Warmer.” But in recent years, breweries have been releasing brews of any and every style and marketing it as a Christmas and/or winter beer simply by slapping on the label a reindeer, Christmas tree, Santa Claus, or some other figure representative of the holiday/winter season.

Personally, I prefer my Christmas beers to be somewhat traditional, even if the Winter Warmer style is indeed a “catch-all” style (read the BJCP 21B guidelines; it’s one of the few styles that allows for experimentation and variety). An IPA with a wintery scene on the label – even if it’s a fantastic IPA – isn’t what I consider to be a Christmas beer. And with that in mind, I present the Top 10 Best Christmas Beers (according to me, obviously).
The criteria:
  • The beer must be either a fairly traditional winter warmer or similar style (by either American or Belgian standards); or be a traditional Christmas or winter-themed beer (“traditional” meaning going back more than just a few years).
  • Brews that vary greatly from year to year are not eligible. The brew should be more or less consistent every year.
  • Beers I used to like and rated highly, but do not anymore (even if I never re-reviewed them) are not eligible.
Samichlaus Helles 2007 vintage10. Samichlaus
This is probably one of the most popular Christmas beers in the world, and for good reason. It’s a bit of a novelty as it weighs in at a hefty 14% ABV and is only brewed once a year. In fact, there are two editions of the brew: a Helles Bock (red label) and a doppelbock (black label). Both are sickly sweet malt bombs with the alcohol being quite prominent as well.

Aside from the name and the label (an Austrian homage to their incarnation of Santa Claus), there really isn’t anything specifically Christmas-y about these brews. I’ve had variation vintages of both brews and I find they definitely change with age (not necessarily improve, though). Both are interesting beers to say the least and any good craft beer enthusiast should definitely try these beers at least once.

Here’s my review of a 2009 vintage of the “Classic” (black label) edition I reviewed in the summer of 2012:

9. St. Bernardus Christmas Ale
As soon as the beer hits the tongue, the entire mouth is engulfed in classic Belgian spice. Perhaps “spice” isn’t the appropriate description since I can’t pick out any flavors akin to ginger, cinnamon, etc. Rather, it’s closer to table black pepper, but in liquid form. The beer seems to swell up and occupy the mouth with a foamy texture and intense peppery sensation. Once you get used to it you begin to taste the classic Belgian flavors of dark fruit and confectionary (especially caramel) sweetness Alcohol imparts a subtle warmth in the aftertaste, but otherwise it’s remarkably clean. Tasty and satisfy to be sure, but nothing in the ballpark of genuinely amazing. Perhaps a vintage would be, though.

8. Sly Fox Christmas Ale
It seems like all Christmas beers use essentially the same spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice and ginger. I’m not sure what’s the right amount of each that satisfies my palate, but in the case of Sly Fox Christmas Ale they seem to be proportioned correctly. I actually can distinguish all these individual flavors while at the same time appreciating their homogeneity. The balance is perfect as none seem to overshadow the other, while the intensity is kept low enough that it doesn’t feel overwhelming.Sly Fox Christmas Ale 2012
Slightly mild up front with a shortbread cookie-like sweetness, followed by a quick hoppy bitterness, which is then outshined by the collective spices. Each swig I concentrate on a different spice and it’s amazing how well each one works on its own and how well they work as a team. The aftertaste is akin to that of a gingersnap, but I wouldn’t call it cloying at all.

7. Anderson Valley Winter Solstice
The thing about winter warmers is they tend to be cliché. Take a fairly strong dark beer base, throw in a bunch of spices and you’ve got a beer suited for the Christmas season and colder months of the year. Of course, cliché doesn’t necessarily mean bad, in fact, in the case of Anderson Valley Winter Solstice Seasonal Ale the result is a pretty darn good beer.Anderson Valley Winter Solstice Seasonal Ale 001
I’ll bet the base recipe for this beer is a Scotch Ale as it has a lot of same malty characteristics. Strong notes of toffee, shortbread, and a hint of smoky astringency on the back end. Though the added spices and flavors are the stars of the show; there are notes of ginger, nutmeg, cardamom and other lightly dry spices. There’s a subtle alcohol component to the palette as well, imparting some sweet vanilla or even rum-like flavor. Little bitterness per se (it is only 6 IBUs after all), but that’s because the seasonings overpower the hops. Definitely an interesting and tasty combination of flavors and exactly what you’d expect out of a beer of the style.

Prarie Christmas Bomb! 0026. Prairie Christmas Bomb!
There are three major flavor components to this palette: chocolate, coffee, and spices (in that order, too). Up front there’s a slightly sweet chocolate sensation, though not quite to the rich sweetness of a milk chocolate candy. More like dark Belgian chocolate, but without the abrasive bitterness. Through the middle, a strong coffee flavor emerges which complements the chocolate well and makes for a tasty mocha sensation. On the finish is a mild spice character; part cinnamon and ginger and part chile pepper of some sort. There’s a warming sensation right as it goes down, which is the logical conclusion.

A heavily spiced beer that weighs in at 11.5% ABV, Prairie Christmas Bomb! is surprisingly drinkable. The mouthfeel is soft and comfortable with a smooth texture and finish to match. There’s a gentle warming sensation from the alcohol, but at no point does this ever come across as a boozy or obese beer. It leaves a slightly dry lingering aftertaste, but it’s easily tolerable.

5. Fegley’s Brew Works Rude Elf’s Reserve
Fegley's Brew Works Rude Elf's ReserveRight away there’s a strong warmth of ginger and cinnamon as soon as it hits the tongue. Followed by spicy clove, nutmeg, hot apple cider, and a banana sweetness towards the end. Because it’s such a big beer, the alcohol is a major flavor component but it works wonderfully with the palette. Slightly spiced rum with a hint of vanilla complement the natural Belgian character well. It finishes with a cinnamon bread or gingersnap cookie malty aftertaste, though it’s not cloying. This is a spicy palate I can really get behind.

4. Great Lakes Christmas Ale
The palette begins with immediate sensation of spice: ginger being the most prominent, followed by a fiery cinnamon bite and a sweet, rich honey taste to round it all out. Vanilla and the taste of shortbread seems to be lurking somewhere in the palate, too. Thus it does live up to its reputation of being a liquid Christmas cookie. The actual beer components of hops and malts seem to take a backseat to the spices, though. There’s a biscuity maltiness holding up this palette and only minor hop presence, since the cinnamon and ginger account for the bitterness here.

This is one of those rare beers that’s overtly spicy that doesn’t tear you up. It’s easy to drink considering its palate that just about anyone can enjoy and has a smooth finish with only a slightly doughy aftertaste. Weighing in at 7.5% ABV, Great Lakes Christmas Ale drinks like something much lower than the numbers would indicate. There’s no alcohol presence, but you definitely feel the potency afterwards. A great beer to have with pumpkin, pecan, or mincemeat pie or with homemade Christmas cookies.

Dark Horse 4 Elf 0013. Dark Horse 4 Elf
The spices dominate the palette, and there’s not much distinctiveness in the way of malts and hops. That being said, the actual taste of the beer is so delectable that I don’t even really care if it’s simplistic. There’s a Snickerdoodle-like sweetness right away. Akin to gingerbread cookies, pumpkin bread or zucchini bread. Light spice character tap dances on the tongue. It’s not until the second half when a rush of even stronger, spicier, almost herbal-like seasonings emerge that you realize how gentle the initial spice character is. An intense, almost smokey flavor creates for a dry spicy astringency. It’s so potent, in fact, that it can be felt in the sinuses afterwards (not unlike horseradish – but not to that extent). There’s a mild chocolate flavor lurking in the background as well as some mild dark fruits or fruit cake taste as well. These flavor combinations repeat after every swig and it never grows old. That’s what makes for an excellent brew.

Ommegang Adoration 0012. Ommegang Adoration
When I think of what a Belgian-style Christmas beer should be, Ommegang Adoration is what comes to mind. Belgian Strong Dark Ales tend to be great beers (depending on the brewery), but to brew one with the right combination of winter spices makes them all the more festive. This is a rich, complex, and delectable beer.

The first thing I notice is its inherent Belgian character. A strong bouquet of banana and cloves stands out prominently. It continues with additional sweetness of vanilla and orange, plus spiciness of cardamom, coriander and other seasonings to create for a tasty mélange. It’s difficult to marry confectionery-style sweetness with zesty Belgian spices, but they work well here. Alcohol is a fairly major player, boosting the overall intensity of the palette, but also imparting some dryness and astringency. I’d imagine a vintage bottle would be pretty amazing.

Corsendonk Christmas Ale 0011. Corsendonk Christmas Ale
I first had Corsendonk Christmas Ale back in 2008 and even though I never had a beer like that before, I still enjoyed it. It’s been five years since then and my palate has obviously grown over that time. When I took my first sip of the 2013 edition I was floored by how delicious the beer was. Though it wasn’t exactly as I remember, I can honestly say it was better.

This seems to be brewed in the Belgian Dubbel or Belgian Strong Dark Ale style as it has all the characteristics of those types of beers without any additional spices. The Belgian yeast esters are quite strong and have profound effect on the taste, though the malt base and the candi syrup probably has a lot to do with it. Huge notes of raisins, plums, figs, cherry and an assortment of dark fruit are prominent right away. They are complemented by an even stronger, sweeter taste of caramel and toffee with even a touch of dark chocolate right as it finishes. That could be due to a bit of roasted malt along with a touch of hops. There’s a slightly spicy, lightly dry aftertaste from the yeast, though it fades (maybe a bit too quickly, actually). Overall, this is a delicious Belgian beer that doesn’t need to be confined just to the holiday season.

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