I’m a beer guy. And for 10 months of the year, I am first and foremost a hops man. Go bitter or go home is my pint-tipping motto, and there’s not a Hop Wallop, Hopsecutioner, Hopslam, Smooth Hoperator, Tricerahops, Hoptimus Prime or Hoppy Ending I won’t suck down with face-tweaking glee. And the hotter it gets, the hoppier I like it.
But once the calendar flips and there’s a December nip in the air, my brain switches into full-on Holiday Beer Mode, and flavors in my brew that I’d have scrunched my nose at a month prior—spices, berries, smoke—suddenly make me salivate.
This isn’t so odd. There are three cultural, seasonal and biological factors that combine to make winter beers perfectly logical, even for hop jockeys. Our ancestors used spices to replace less available hops. They used special ingredients as a means of celebration. And they fully got on board with the wisdom of hunkering down with a real strong beer and waiting out blizzard season with a buzz on.
Keeping in the spirit, last year in our own homebrewing efforts, my girlfriend and I concocted a chocolate stout fermented with figs (Figgy Pudding) and this year we’ve got a juniper-infused Finnish sahti-style beer—Smells Like Gin Spirit—bottle conditioning as I speak. We’re hooked.
With flavors of sugar plums (and nutmeg!) dancing in my glass, I got to making lists. For your consideration, my very selective, very unscientific 12 beers of Christmas/Yule/Hannukah/Kwanza/Winter Solstice/etc. Your results may vary.
12. Weyerbacher Fireside Ale: It won’t be available until January, but this Easton, Pa., brew is worth the wait. It’s a German smoked beer (rauchbier) that gets its distinctive fireplace-in-a-glass taste from malt dried over an open flame. Yes, it tastes like smoke, which rubs some people wrong; rise above.
11. 21st Amendment Fireside Chat: No smoke in this dark spiced ale from San Francisco, which nods to FDR’s famous radio pep talks. A soothing, drinkable quaff, though at 7.9 percent ABV, it’s a sneaky velvet hammer as well. Oh, and the sixer packaging is nothing to fear.
10. Philadelphia Brewing Company’s Winter Wünder: Though I miss their Feliz/Philly’z Navidad, PBC’s current holiday offering is a tasty, approachable spiced ale packed with plums, dates, cinnamon, allspice, clove and ginger, without any one ingredient overwhelming.
9. The Bruery’s 12 Days of Christmas Series: The innovative California brewery is on year four of its limited-run 12 Days series, which means we’re at Four Calling Birds. Though this installment (I’ve yet to crack the bottle in my fridge) doesn’t take any ingredient inspiration from its title, 2010’s Three French Hens was aged in French oak barrels and 2009’s Two Turtle Doves was inspired by turtle candy.
8. Delirium Noël: This Belgian strong ale is the Christmas version of the classic Delirium Tremens. With its foil label, faux ceramic bottle and Santa-hatted pink elephants, Delirium Noël may be the bottle to have in hand while a-wassailing.
7. Great Divide Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout: Not technically a holiday beer, since Denver’s Great Divide brews this year-round, but winter is the best time to consume this big, dark, burly-but-complex beer whose oak aging graces it with hints of vanilla.
6. Sly Fox Christmas Ale: The Phoenixville (brewpub)/Royerford (brewery) operation does an interesting mix of canned session beers and big fancy bottles of bigger beers like this spicy/malty holiday red ale that’s quickly gaining palate-share as a local holiday favorite.
5. Great Lakes Christmas Ale: A new American holiday classic—brewed elegantly with honey and spices by Cleveland’s amazing Great Lakes. No one who drinks this ever stops raving. It’s annoying until you join them.
4. Tröegs’ Mad Elf: Not to be confused with the quite good Rude Elf’s Reserve from Fegley’s Brewworks or the Bad Elf series from the U.K.’s Ridgeway, Harrisburg’s Tröegs makes this regional champ that gets its kicks from spicy Belgian yeast and sweet and sour cherries. It’s sweet, spicy, tart and, at 11 percent ABV, strong all at once.
3. Jolly Pumpkin Noel De Calabaza Special Ale: While other Michigan breweries like Bell’s and Founders make waves with hops, Dexter’s Jolly Pumpkin specializes in beers with a touch of sourness, and Noel De Calabaza is no exception. (Calabaza derives from the Persian for gourd.) This new seasonal is rich with figs, raisins, sugar plums, cashews and, no lie, rum truffles. It’ll set you back a bit, but did I mention rum truffles?
2. Bell’s Sparkling Ale: While Bell’s Christmas Ale is another noteworthy entrant, Sparkling Ale (which all my Michigan people refer to as Champagne ale), could be the Kalamazoo brewery’s crowning achievement. It’s one of those “we brew it when we brew it” specialty rarities, which means you never really know when it’ll be available (if you see it, stockpile it). If you happen to have some on hand for New Year’s, it’s ideal for Auld Lang Syne-time.
1. Anchor Brewing Merry Christmas and Happy New Year: You probably thought I was gonna drop a Samichlaus on you, but I’ve never had it and it gets enough props. Besides, San Francisco’s Anchor has been brewing its annual paean to regeneration for longer (1975 to Samichlaus’ 1979). The recipe for this dark, spiced ale is top secret, and changes every year, as does the tree on the hand-drawn label (which methinks is not insignificant to that secret recipe). This year’s tree is the Bristlecone Pine; examples of the species are believed to be nearly 5,000 years old which, coincidentally, is about how old the art of brewing is believed to be. This is, for my money, the best holiday beer and the best holiday brewing tradition going.