Seasonal winter beers have a long history; brewers across Europe often relied upon stronger recipes to help get through the coldest, darkest part of the year, and early American settlers continued in those traditions, which might be very broadly broken up into British Isles, Belgian, Scandinavian and central European categories.
British beers brewed for the winter season tended to be stronger than their year-round counterparts, but there was not necessarily a set ‘style’ as we divide up beers today – it might be classified as an old ale, a strong ale or something even less specific. Spices were rarely part of the equation; that was usually reserved for mulled wine, which was also traditionally served around the holidays. But even commercial Christmas beers are nothing new – British breweries had begun the practice as early as the 18th century. Eventually, some of those stronger, sweeter styles previous enjoyed anytime evolved into ‘winter’ beers, and some of the more well-known British beers we think of as Christmas beers fall into that category.
Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome fits the bill. Dark and malty, this one has a pleasant sweetness and a distinctively English fruity yeast character. There is no suggestion of the pine needles, berries or spices that you often find in American or Scandinavian holiday beers – it’s a straightforward classic.
While the crown for Belgium’s most successful Christmas beer must go to Stella Artois – originally brewed as a holiday beer in 1926 – there is, of course, a much deeper tradition of monastic and family breweries creating a wide range of complex and often unique beers. While the real explosion of Christmas-specific beers can only be directly traced to the 20th century, many of today’s offerings draw on past traditions and recipes – and there is no fear of using whatever ingredients seem to be appropriate, so a Belgian Christmas beer may be anything from simply a strong beer with a distinctive yeast character to one that includes specialty grains and spices, as well as much in between. Among the best is Scaldis de Noël, which pours a cloudy copper – there’s a lot of yeast here, and that’s no bad thing. It’s a very ‘Belgian’ Belgian beer with a lot of alcohol sweetness and malt flavors. It does not in any way hide its strength, which is probably for the best, given its 12% ABV punch; it’s a lovely beer for sipping in front of a fireplace.
Another Belgian favorite is Delirium Noel, from Ghent’s Huyge Brewery. A bright gold with a foamy, off-white head, it immediately brings to mind fruit such as pineapple, all courtesy of the three yeasts working together to help bring this potent brew to life. There is a definite alcohol warmth (hardly surprising, given the strength) and the sweet maltiness makes it an ideal dessert beer for this time of year.
But perhaps the best Christmas beer overall is St. Bernardus Christmas Ale, which is simply as close to perfect as a holiday beer should be. Cloudy, with a malty nose and fruity and spicy aroma from the yeast, this tastes as amazing as it smells. A strong reddish-brown color and a thick head suggest good things to come, and this beer delivers. It’s loaded with complex flavors – dark malts, hints of fruit and spices, but it’s incredibly well-balanced. Dangerously drinkable, but still crisp, it’s absolutely ideal for a cold winter’s night.
You might say Scandinavia invented the notion of Christmas beers during the Viking era – though their often spiced and heady beverages were originally brewed for Jul, a midwinter observance that lasted several weeks. These beers were typically brewed on a household scale, and as early as the 10th century, there were legal penalties in some areas for failing to prepare for the drinking festivities. Strong, dark beers often included additions like spices and berries, and some of the earliest Swedish immigrants to the US brought this tradition with them to the Delaware Valley in the 17th century – but more on American beers in a moment. Commercial production of Scandinavian holiday beers really only kicked off in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and recent years have seen a revival of interest in these older styles. Two outstanding examples of Scandinavian beers include offerings from Norway’s NØGNE Ø and Denmark-based Mikkeller.
NØGNE Ø, Norway’s craft beer rock stars make a lot of very strong, often strange, usually successful beers. Coming in at 6.5% ABV, Peculiar Yule is almost low-key for them – but there’s nothing low-key about how good this beer is. Known as Underlig Jul in its Scandinavian homeland and very loosely modeled on Christmastime gløgg, there’s a bit of everything in this beer – a variety of malts, spices and a number of hop varieties. The appearances is quite cloudy and a burnished copper color, and there is an immediate scent of pine, juniper and generally northern plants – very cleanly layered over a chocolate malt and ginger aroma. It sounds like it would be overkill, but the beauty of this beer is that it all works. It almost tastes like a modern version of a medieval gruit, despite the hops (which would have been absent in the original beers); it’s absolutely unique, and absolutely tasty.
We then move south to Denmark for Mikkeller’s Santa’s LIttle Helper, a 2011 edition. This pours a dark brown – nearly black – and has a bitter chocolate aroma. While the dark malts are at the forefront, there are scents of dark fruit as well. When it comes to tasting, alcohol warmth is evident, but its strength is a bit deceptive; it’s almost too easy-drinking. But complex flavors abound – the aforementioned dark fruit, chewy malts, a bit of tobacco, but never too sweet – it has definitely benefitted from being cellared for a year, and it certainly hearkens back to earlier beers from the region.
Finally, we turn to America – and we’re lucky enough to have all of the above traditions (and then some) to draw on for the holidays. Christmas beers might be spiced, or not; they might be stronger, or not; they could require a premium price, or be quite reasonable. With so many possible permutations, it can be tricky to know whether a holiday beer is worth trying, or whether it’s simply packaged in seasonally-appropriate cans or bottles. And while some beers get a great deal of hype at this time of year, others stand out just on sheer quality. One of the best beers sampled in our panel was one of the least-heraled, but it is well worth seeking out – Avery’s Old Jubilation Ale. This beer was quite a surprise: a deep brown color, lots of toasty and grainy malt aromas, but this time absolutely backed up by the flavor. It was (without getting too pretentious) “chewy” and wine-like, even heading toward a (good) leathery taste. It was eminently sippable, and perfect for curling up with next to a roaring fireplace. It’s one of the most affordable Christmas beers available, leaving plenty of cash left over for presents.
Happy holiday drinking!