I was listening to the radio the other day and realized that holiday music comes in two general flavors – classic songs that make you feel the Christmas spirit in your bones, and newer tracks that use the word “baby” a lot and have sleigh bells heaving about in the background mix.
This got me thinking (naturally) about beer, and I realized the same holds true for holiday brews. There are the ones that taste like Christmas, and the ones that have a Christmasy name on the label, but otherwise taste like slightly tweaked versions of something else the brewery produces. What the point of that?
I like my Christmas beers to get my taste buds humming “Jingle Bells” with loads of traditional holiday flavors. Give me gingerbread spices, brown sugar, nutmeg, or cherries and honey – anything that takes my inner child back to the days of snapping together LEGOs on thick shag carpeting in front of the tree.
One Christmas beer that truly tastes like the season is Troegs Mad Elf, an 11 percent ABV strong ale in the Belgian tradition that’s brewed with honey and cherries. This ruby-hued ale is sweet and dry all at the same time, tasting of figs, candy sugar and ripe cherries. It reminds me a little of fruitcake, a confection that I don’t usually care for, but one that makes an excellent inspiration for a holiday brew.
Mad Elf is a potent treat, which makes it perfect for sipping while gazing at the tree while listening to Burl Ives (sorry Mr. Bieber, we won’t be playing you on “Christmas Eve”). But be careful – anything more than two 12-ounce bottles in an evening will have you waking up feeling quite Grinchy the next morning.
A gentler alternative to Mad Elf is Sly Fox Christmas Ale, brewed with ginger, nutmeg and allspice. A beer with such spices on board runs the risk of being cloying, but Sly Fox Christmas Ale is actually quite nicely balanced, with lovely threads of brown sugar and vanilla holding it all together. Think of the ethereal Zooey Deschanel being balanced out by Leon Redbone's bassy croaking on “Baby it’s Cold Outside.” At only 5.5 percent ABV, this little gem packs most of the Christmas goodness of Mad Elf, but won’t leave your head feeling like it was run over by a reindeer the next day.
A wonderful brew that I tasted for the first time this year combines two things I adore – holiday flavors and Schlafly beer. It’s like a mash-up of “A Christmas Story” and Skrillex. Schlafly’s Christmas Ale is an 8 percent ABV winter warmer brewed with orange peel, juniper berries, ginger, cardamom and cloves. It pours a deep golden brown and its flavor starts with a pageant of yuletide tastes and finishes rich and dry, like many of Schlafly’s more stout offerings. This is the first year I’ve seen this beer on the east coast, and if you’re a fan of this St. Louis standout brewery, you should definitely put this beer on the top of your wish list.
The folks at Samuel Adams have been good little boys and girls this past year, putting many interesting and affordable limited release beers into big bottles. The trend continues for the holidays with Samuel Adams Merry Mischief – a 9.0 percent ABV “Gingerbread Stout.” This Christmas-cookie-in–a-bottle is heavy on the gingerbread and clove notes upfront, which give way to tastes of coffee and cocoa. This is a sweet sipper, perfect for sharing with your significant other as you take in your yearly viewing of Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas.
The king of all Christmas beers is Anchor Brewing Christmas Ale, a beer that’s been brewed with a different recipe every year since 1975. It’s the “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” of beers, if they changed the names of the other reindeers each year to spice things up.
For 2012, it’s a winter warmer that pours a dark ruby brown and tempts the nose with hints of nutmeg and cinnamon. A sip reveals that the folks at Anchor showed restraint when shaking the spice jars, with the seasonal flavors playing in the background as your palate is treated to the flavor of chocolate malts, brown sugar and notes of nuts and wood. More subtle than the other concoctions on the list, this beer remains a Christmas classic that you shouldn’t miss (just like Rudolph).
Now some may ask about Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, Ridgeway Brewing’s Very Bad Elf or Southern Tier Krampus. Aren’t these yuletide treats worthy of mention in a review of Christmas beers?
Don’t get your bows in a bunch – while those are all very good beers in their own right, they simply don’t taste like the season to me. It’s the difference between Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing the holiday classics and a hot-for-a-minute boy band crooning about their "baby." Each has their fans (there’s even a Facebook page petitioning One Direction to make a Christmas album ), but I’ll stick with the classics, thank you.
And if you think this makes me look like an old man, all I can say is, “You elves get off my damn lawn!”
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