Come December, beer store shelves don the guise of a holiday market. Poinsettias and pine boughs adorn labels, giving the rows of bottles a festive air. Promises of honey and spice infusions arouse the senses to the tastes and smells of gingerbread and Christmas cookies.
There is no one thing that makes a beer a “holiday” beer. They come in all shapes and sizes. They may be heavy, medium or light in body. Some come spiced with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, but many do not. Warming alcohol tends to be the norm, though a number of lightweight quaffs also earn that special, seasonal title. Truth be told, a holiday beer is mostly that because the brewer says it is.
The tradition of making special brews around the winter solstice is probably as old as beer itself. There is ample archaeological evidence of beer brewing in ancient cultures from Persia to Britain. For many of them, the solstice marked an important transition — the return of the sun after the long, dark night of winter. It’s not a stretch to believe that beer would have been a part of these celebrations.
Norwegian farmers were once required under penalty of forfeiture of land to brew a holiday juleøl. More recently the wassail tradition of singing songs in exchange for strong, spiced ale was popular both in England and the American colonies. The governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned the practice in 1659 to defend their parishioners against debauchery. But by the late 1700s, it was again the custom to brew a “right strong Christmas beer” to enhance the holiday cheer.
The granddaddy of modern holiday beers is Our Special Ale from Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco. Known by most simply as Christmas Ale, it’s been brewed since 1975, with a new recipe every year. This year’s iteration is a lightweight tipple that seems even less strong than its already moderate 5.5 percent alcohol. It leads with chocolaty roasted malt character that glides smoothly into spicy notes of nutmeg and cinnamon. Background notes of toasted bread, dried cherries and raisins fill out the profile. This is one of the tastiest versions yet.
Another seasonal favorite with a recipe that changes year to year is Schell’s Snowstorm. Grand Cru is what the brewery is calling this year’s brew. The term “grand cru” is often applied to medium-strength, spiced Belgian ales, which is exactly what this beer delivers. Fermentation and spice are the drivers, with the green-banana and white pepper of Belgian yeast going head to head with the floral taste of coriander. The coriander comes on a bit strong for my palate, somewhat overwhelming the subtler flavors. Orange and lemon peel add citrusy high notes to complement deeper fruit tones of candied peaches. Hints of milk chocolate linger in the finish.
Christmas Ale from Great Lakes Brewing Co. follows in a more traditional line. Its bones are an English old ale, a malty, strongish brew that features comforting caramel and toasty flavors. Honey gives this one an elevated sweetness. Cinnamon is the dominant spice note. Ginger starts in the background, but becomes stronger the longer you sip. Hints of raisin finish out the impression of toasted cinnamon bread.
If you prefer something with brighter flavors try Winter Cheers from Victory Brewing Co. This wintry take on the Belgian witbier style clocks in at nearly 7 percent alcohol, but manages to retain a brisk, refreshing palate. Fermentation-derived flavors of banana and peppery spice are the highlight, supported by underlying notes of lemon-lime hops and ginger. It’s light and crisp, but wheat and oats give it a fullness that feels appropriate to the season.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.