Holidays got you down? No Gingerbread Stout or any of its variants available? Not to worry. There’s a whole host of warming, bold, and flavorful brews made specially for Christmas.
Holidays got you down? No Gingerbread Stout or any of its variants available? Not to worry. There’s a whole host of warming, bold, and flavorful brews made specially for Christmas. Belgian breweries, many associated with monasteries, have a grand tradition of making specialty ales for the holiest of Christian holidays, and many American breweries model winter seasonals and holiday releases after those classic beers. While Belgian beers are always worth exploring, there are plenty of Christmas beers worth drinking from the states and elsewhere. Here are a few worth checking out:
Bières de Chimay S.A. (Baileux (Chimay), Belgium) – Chimay Grande Réserve (Chimay Blue) – Belgian Strong Dark Ale
Starting this list off is a classic. Although this beer was originally brewed for Christmas, it became the brewery’s most popular beer, and is now produced year-round. Since 1862, the monks of Scourmont Abbey have been brewing beer using their own specialty yeast and well water. Speaking of that abbey, it is worth noting that Chimay is an authentic Trappist product, a claim that can only be made by nine other breweries in the world currently. In order to be an authentic Trappist product, a beer has to be brewed within the walls of an abbey, or close by, either by the monks themselves, or brewed under their direct supervision. Though quality is important, the beer must not be a priority in the lives of the monks, and all revenue produced by beer purchases must be either invested in maintaining the abbey, or donated to a reliable charity.
That the beer is an authentic Trappist product is also a mark of quality; every beer bearing that mark is well-known by connoisseurs and rated highly on sites like BeerAdvocate and RateBeer. Just from the appearance, one knows that they are in for a treat: the beer pours a dark chestnut color, with a beautifully fluffy off-white head. Varied aromas of caramel, brandied cherry, vegetal hops, vanilla, and a bit of booze flow from the glass. The taste follows with rich banana, toffee, fig, pungent baking spices like clove and ginger (flavors produced by yeast, not spices), and subtle hints of plum, cola, vanilla, and chocolate. The feel of the beer is luxurious and creamy, though highly carbonated, and somewhat boozy, ensuring that the drinker doesn’t feel like he or she is drinking candy.
Remarkably complex and nuanced in some ways, yet very assertive in others, this is a beer to sit with for at least half an hour, and at nine percent ABV, you will probably feel compelled to do so. Chimay products are fairly easy to find, and usually not overly expensive, so pick up two 750 milliliter bottles and put one in a dark space with fairly regular temperatures (the adorable 11.2 ounce bottles aren’t supposed to age as well). The beer will evolve over time, as the live yeast used for the bottle re-fermentation will likely decrease the alcohol character (but not content) and enhance any subtleties already detectable in a fresh bottle.
The Bruery (Placentia, CA) – 7 Swans-A-Swimming – Quadrupel Ale
The seventh in a series of annual “12 Days of Christmas”-themed beers finds The Bruery treading familiar ground for a holiday seasonal: a Belgian-style quadrupel ale. Though quadrupels, or quads, are a classic Belgian beer style, such a stylistic classification was ascribed to the beers only when they became internationally famous, so it’s understandable if one gets confused between the tastes of dubbels, quads, and Belgian strong darks (such as Chimay Blue). Beers classified as such were never really supposed to fit into rigid stylistic guidelines. That said, American interpretations of such beers have helped to outline some styles. A quad, such as 7 Swans-A-Swimming, is basically a more robust dubbel: heavy on malt and residual sugars, with dark fruit flavors provided by yeast. Belgian strong darks are very similar, but tend to have more of a spice-like yeast profile (sometimes boosted by the addition of spices).
This beer is faithful to tradition, not subbing in any extra themed ingredients like previous entries in this series — what food ingredient could be construed as swan-themed anyway? This just goes to show that The Bruery can knock traditional styles out of the park, as this beer is as decadent and complex as many Belgians. The beer pours a dark reddish brown, with a large, custardy light brown head. What emerges from the glass are aromas of cola, plum, vanilla, toasted nuts, grape, fruitcake, and a savory umami character. The taste follows with fruit flavors like plum, fig, cherry, and tastes reminiscent of holiday deserts like vanilla, chocolate, caramel, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, as well as a smooth undercurrent of cola. The mouthfeel is appropriately opulent: thick and creamy with a slight alcohol burn.
As noted on the back of the 750 milliliter bottle, this beer is great now, but is also suitable for aging up to and past the release of the twelfth beer in the series, 12 Drummers Drumming. Past beers in the series have featured a similar note, and future additions will likely include it as well, so, theoretically, December of 2019 will hold some pleasant surprises for those patient enough.
Mikkeller (Copenhagen, Denmark) – Hoppy Lovin’ Christmas – Double IPA
Although Mikkeller makes several Christmas beers, and all are likely very good, Hoppy Lovin’ Christmas is their most unique: an incredibly clever take on both the India Pale Ale style and Christmas beer. Though Mikkeller is a Danish brewery, this beer was brewed and bottled in Belgium — Mikkeller is a “phantom” or “gyspy” brewery, meaning anyone involved in the brewing process will take their recipes to other breweries, and use those breweries’ equipment to brew and bottle beer. Considering the strange concept for this beer, it all makes sense: a Christmas ale fits with Belgium, and an eccentric traveling brewer fits with an IPA made with pine needles and ginger.
Yes, pine needles and ginger. Although that combination sounds like a “weird for the sake of weird” recipe for disaster, both of those ingredients perfectly highlight and compliment traditional aspects of the IPA style. After observing the appetizing cloudy golden appearance, and big, soapy off-white head, one might note — yup, the smell of pine, a typical aroma for an IPA, joined by more herbal and dank (almost like high-grade bud) hop notes. The taste follows with a decently sweet malt profile, contrasted by robust notes of pine, ginger, citrus, mint, yogurt, and a slight spicy yeast character. All of this is complimented by the beer’s full body, high carbonation, and residual warming feel, likely caused by the ginger. This colorfully-labeled 750 ml bottle is the ultimate hop-head’s Christmas eve treat.
Anchor Brewing Company (San Francisco, CA) – Our Special Ale (Anchor Christmas Ale) – Winter Warmer
While Anchor is not necessarily one of the most well-known or well-loved breweries to the American drinking public, it is to most of the American brewing public. Opened in San Francisco in 1896 by a German immigrant, Anchor has persevered through over a century of turmoil: multiple fires, prohibition, multiple relocations, going out of business, and being reopened. Though it has changed hands many times, the brewery still maintains a sense of integrity and individual spirit: brewers such as Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada cite Anchor as an influence, and its flagship beer is still Anchor Steam, a recipe based on “steam beer,” or the California common lager, a style that dates back to the mid-1800s. Also in Anchor’s lineup is Our Special Ale, which has been brewed for forty years as of this year’s edition.
Though this beer is the odd man out on this list with the lowest ABV of five point five percent, and having pretty much nothing to do with Belgium, that in no way diminishes its quality. The label and recipe change a bit with each year, but the style is the same every year: a winter warmer, a richly flavored, yet session-friendly English style that is more often than not spiced (Anchor’s is).
This year’s edition is a dark, reddish brown ale with a minimal tan head. The spices are abundant, yet pleasant in the aroma. Clove, cardamom, nutmeg and cinnamon all clearly stand out, alongside notes of citrus and chocolate. The taste incorporates all of those spices, plus anise, accompanied by hop bitterness, espresso, cola, banana bread, and a hint of booze. The medium-thin body and high carbonation keep this beer from being too rich. One point five liter magnum bottles are available, as well as puny, boring twelve ounce bottles that come in human hand-friendly six packs.
Blue Mountain Barrel House (Afton, VA) – Blitzen – Belgian Strong Dark Ale
Rounding off this list is another Belgian strong dark, albeit a local one. Though largely known for German-style and American brews, Blue Mountain has a great track record with Belgian styles–their dubbel, Evil 8 (which desperately needs to become easier to find), their tripel, Mandolin, and the excellent Local Species. Blitzen only serves to add to that reputation of excellence.
Dark brown with a beige head; it certainly looks like a Belgian strong dark. The aroma presents some expected spice in the form of cardamom and clove, joined by some mild hop aroma, vanilla, and biscuit-like malt. The taste is a bit more complex. Caramel, chocolate, grape, cherry, coffee, baking spices, and a hard-to-place acidic component yield to a slightly dry and bitter finish in which an American touch of hoppiness is revealed. The aftertaste is slightly woody.
The medium body and high carbonation keep the beer from being sticky sweet, an interesting and refreshing break from Belgian tradition. A 750 milliliter cork-and-cage bottle will serve as an excellent centerpiece for Christmas dinner — while you’re at it, pick up some Dark Hollow for dessert.