Winter Warmers… Christmas Beers… Holiday Ales… this season presents brewers with a great opportunity to showcase their ability to incorporate unique spices and flavor profiles to transport you to a place where the fire is warm, the kids are tucked in their beds, and visions of sugar plums dance in your glass.
The challenge with comparing these beers is that they don’t all fit into a similar family – they are an eclectic (and sometimes dysfunctional) family unit, each with their own unique personality and “gifts” for your holiday glass. That being said, we’re organizing the following 25 well-respected Christmas / Holiday beers into their respective styles to help fairly compare and constrast what each has to offer. We used a similar scoring method to that used on Beer Advocate and Rate Beer – And the reviews were done by a combination of 5 different people – with experience levels ranging from a Certified Beer Judge, to a beer neophyte who’s admittedly much more comfortable hosting wine tastings. Here’s how to interpret our scores:
8-10 = Incredible Beer… stop reading, and go buy it now!
6-8 = Worth buying … or ask Santa to bring you one
<6 = Meh… we didn’t care for it, but who are we to judge?
Belgian Strong Dark Ales
This style is the classic “Christmas beer” from Belgium, and often receives the best reviews from the beer community. They should be full and complex, featuring a sweet, malt-forward, and usually somewhat fruity quality – and the Holiday varieties reviewed here should all contain a fair amount of spices as well, but also be incredibly smooth on the palate.
This puppy pours with booming, foamy 4 fingers worth of head over a brownish-amber body, with tons of carbonation flowing up. Aromas carry a light spice, a grape-to-plum fruitiness, caramel and molasses sweetness, and what I can only describe as a “rubber” quality – more prophylactic, than car tire (how’s that for a visual?). As it warms, the aromas meld into an after-dinner cordial – sweet, fruity, and thick. Flavors have a nice sweetness in the front – plums and dates, candy sugar, and peach fuzz. Outstanding mouthfeel and drinkability – Perfect carbonation, and terribly smooth. You will really have NO idea that this one clocks in at 13% ABV.
Mikkeller Santa’s Little Helper 2010
Amazingly strong, thick tan head, with tons of lacing, over a deep brown body. Aromas of roasted malts, healthy dose of spices, sweet table syrup, a chemical quality like shoe rubber, and licorice in the back. Very smooth on the palate – good ‘Belgian’ quality in the carbonation. Tons of anise/licorice in the flavor, with cocoa nibs, tobacco leaves, and a touch of red bell pepper in the finish. Creamy smooth througout. Touch too strong of a bitterness in the flavor for me, which brought down the drinkability a notch, but overall, this is a superb offering from Mikkeller.
St. Bernardus Christmas Ale (2009)
This bottle was cellared for the past year, so may have a slightly different quality than the 2010 version – but considering that they say you can age it for up to 15 years, we don’t think it had much of an affect.
Pours with a short tan head over a slightly opaque and deep amber body. Some carbonation present. Touch of lacing. Smelled of deep, ripe fruits (dates and raisins), with allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon – none of which is overpowering, and slightly yeasty quality. Light funk comes through as it warms into the high 60s. Delicious and smooth. Flavor is slightly more vinous than the aromas, and spices come through well, with some clove. Touch of bitter bark-like quality in the finish, which knocks it down a notch, IMO. Incredibly good carbonation, and really nice, smooth drinkability – always amazed at the 10% ABV on this one.
Gouden Carolus Noël
Pours with a short, creamy tan head that hangs out forever as a thick film over a deep brown body with orange edges. Plenty of carbonation present, and great lacing. Light, citric aroma, touch of peppermint, and then licorice root comes through as it warms. Flavor is of black licorice candy, with a touch of ginger and honey. Fruitcake-like candy / candied fruit comes through as it warms. Mouthfeel is incredibly smooth and creamy – reminiscent of a nearly flat ginger ale, with more depth/body. Big points on drinkability – this would be a lot of fun on draft, and if you ever need to choke down grandma’s fruitcake, just pour one of these to pair with it. 10.5% ABV.
De Dolle Stille Nacht
Pours with a healthy 3 fingers of head over a very deep golden-to-amber body – nearly opaque. Plenty of suspended floaties, make this one appear like syrup. Thich coat of head hangs out for a long time, with a touch of lacing. Aromas are pretty rich and thick – ripe apricot, and a fair amount of spicy Belgian yeast. But the bark don’t match the bite!! Flavor & mouthfeel are both HHHHUuuge compared to the aroma. Thick with orange peel, barley, and pomegranite. Unique. Tough to categorize this as any style – and no, other than the title, this is not your traditional spiced holiday ale. The 330ml is plenty – a sipper, no doubt, and worth the time to explore & enjoy. 12% ABV.
Short, but very creamy beige head over a brown body with amber edges – big lacing. Aroma starts off w/ a dank funk. Spices come thru shortly thereafter, with some deep fruits as well. Mouthfeel is very creamy, with flavors of cocoa powder, light cherry, touch of caramel, and some red licorice. Alcohol comes thru a little like cold medicine as it warms. Creamy smooth throughout, and highly drinkable. If you like Mad Elf, you should LOVE Corsendonk Christmas. 8.5% ABV.
Decent beige head over a deep amber/orange colored body with plenty of carbonation. Some lacing. Aromas of sweet cherries, cinnamon, and apple juice. Very inviting. Flavors were mostly sweet, with fresh-from-the-vine honeycrisp apples, nutmeg, cinnamon, and a touch of marachino cherry juice. Mouthfeel was pretty creamy for the style, but enough carbonation to hold up and keep it from being cloying. Solid on the drinkability meter for the ABV – good combo of aromas and flavors, but the aromas were the real winner here. 9% ABV.
Petrus Winter Ale
Pours with a HUGE beige head over a very deep amber colored body, with a ton of carbonation flowing up. Aromas of candy sugar, allspice, rich fruits (dates and cherry), and plenty of sweetness – caramel malts and molasses-like quality as it warms. Smells thick. Comes across a bit ‘cloudy’ on the palate… flavors are considerably different than the aromas – root beer, red grapes, and a light citric tang. Slight floral/herbal twist, too. Final finish is actually pretty bitter. Incredibly tight & dry – almost biting, if that’s possible for the style. Carbonation was a bit over the top. We scored this one pretty high overall on the drinkability meter, though. 6.5% ABV.
Pours with a very short cream-colored head that turns to a creamy foam, over a deep brown body with orange edges. Touch of lacing. Tons of anise in the aroma – but really well balanced with some molasses and a touch of caramel – Loved the aroma. A bit thin on the palate, leading to flavors of roasted malts, lots of spice, a bit of cola, and some bitter ginger-like finish. High amount of carbonation, and a very dry mouthfeel. Drinkability is pretty nice – but a touch too bitter to get a higher rating. If you have someone who digs gin & tonics, you might shock them with how much they enjoy this ‘dark beer’. 8.2% ABV.
Deep, opaque mahogany color with short head that fades quickly, and surprisingly no lacing. This beer is notorious for huge chunks of sediment, so pour it very slowly and leave an ounce or two… the floaties are not necessarily bad, but IMO, they leave a bit of a thick, burnt funk that throws off the finish. Aromas were interesting and complex – sweet spices, banana bread, hint of molasses, and touch of alcohol. Rich fruits come thru in the flavor as it warmed – plum skins, papaya, and then some thicker layers of molasses – it takes on some thick, burnt/peaty quality if you let the yeast and sediment flow in. Also noticeable were the spices of nutmeg, clove, and other assorted spices. Carbonation was a little lower than I remember from this beer, with a relatively rich and creamy body. The flavors were strong, and as the volume of carbonation dwindled, it became a bit of a task to finish. I’d recommend splitting this with someone, and serving it in the low to mid 50s. 9% ABV.
St. Feuillien Cuvée de Noël
Pours with a decent sized effervescent head that fades quickly, and doesn’t leave any noticeable lacing. Deep orange-to-brown body, with tons of carbonation present. Smells like apple cider … cinnamon, slight alchohol warmth, and it wasn’t until it hit the mid-50’s in temp did the aromas of red licorice and dark fruits begin to appear. Lightly bitter lime-citrus flavor, with cinnamon bun and ginger – strange bedfellows. Alcohol starts to bring the heat as it warms, and overall a bit thin IMO on the palate. Pretty dry finish, and fairly sharp mouthfeel from the carbonation. No velvety smoothness as you might expect from the style. Drinkability slows a bit as it warms due to the noticeable alchohol, which makes it appear quite thick, even w/the high carbonation and dry finish. Not a bad representation, but not among the best either. 9% ABV.
Fegley Brewworks Rude Elf’s Reserve
Pours with a short, tan head that fizzles quickly to a film. Body is clear, like a dark iced tea. Aromas are heavy on the banana, with some clove, allspice, and a tad cordial-like as it warmed. Lots of caramel sweetness. Flavors were dominated by ripe banana peel, a fair amount of spice (but not thick), and a lite citrus in the way back. Very one-dimentional in the “nanner” category. Pretty creamy mouthfeel at first, but lack of carbonation causes it to become pretty cloying. Becomes a bit harsh as it warms to around 60 degrees. Little too thick and cloying for the style which brings down the drinkability score. 10.5% ABV.
This review will not win any popularity contests, but this beer will not win any competitions either if judged in a formal review. Pours with just a skim head over a ruby/orange, but quite clear body. Just a touch of lacing. Pretty powerful aromas of maraschino cherries, and a cinnamon-bread dough. Cordial-like. Yes, some cherry and honey in the taste, but also picked up caramel apples, and some ripe banana and clove – at weizenbock levels. Thick, cloyingly sweet mouthfeel, but when considering the ABV, it holds up pretty well. Could really use more carbonation to cut the thickness. Pretty good drinkability for the ABV, and likely the reason for its cult-following. 11% ABV.
Winter Warmers & Herbed/Spiced Beers
These “styles” are a bit of a catch-all, and can resemble a bunch of different styles such as the Winter Warmer, Herbed/Spiced, and Belgian Specialty categories – all usually based on other styles, and then heavily spiced. Pretty non-descript, but here are our selections for this “category”…
Avery Old Jubilation
Really nice version of a Winter Warmer from Avery. This one pours without much head, but leaves a good ring. Brown body with orange edges. Candy sugar aromas, with a slightly rich/thick caramel malt … sort of ‘scotch ale like’. Rich and thick on the palate, with some toffee coming through, mocha in the back, and boy does it stick to you. Mouthfeel is also very scotch-ale-like … lower in carbonation, relatively thick and rich. This one was pretty easy to finish – and especially good for those who enjoy their beer on the sweeter side of the equation. 8.3% ABV.
Noël Des Géants
This one was picked up in ’09 and cellared for the past year. Fat head with great lacing… fairly clear amber-to-brown body. First impression on the aroma was ‘animal’ (i.e. dogs and cats)… but after letting it breathe, got some plum and raisin in the aroma. As it warmed, we also got some strong chewing tobacco quality. Initial flavors were also unimpressive – started off as unsweetened iced tea, and musty. As it warmed, though, we picked up some ginger bread and light tobacco. Decent holiday spice, but not overpowering. Lot of herbal qualities come thru… almost lavendar like. Slightly thin (but not watery) on the mouthfeel, which turned me off initially, until I could appreciate all that was going on in this beer. Medium parts sweet and dry, with a light herbal bitterness in the finish. Drinkabilty was huge – would never have guessed this was 8.5% ABV.
Thirsty Dog – 12 Dogs of Christmas Ale
Pours with a negligable head over a clear, but deep amber colored body, with some carbonation present. Just a spot of lacing. Aromas are very subdued – hard to pull out. Some caramel sweetness, and a touch malty. Little bit of a ginger bite in the flavor, with some nutmeg – doesn’t really match the full description on the bottle, but it’s pretty good nonetheless. Well carbonated and finishes clean. Can NOT tell that this is 8.5% ABV – this one could get you in trouble. Very quaffable, and zero aftertaste.
Anchor Christmas Ale
Pours with a nice, thick tan head over a very dark to amber colored body. Aromas of anise / black licorice, and some floral qualities. One reviewer described the aromas as “walking through my mother’s garden, while chewing my grandmother’s licorice”… Well, Mmmm K! Flavors start off with a sprucey bite, followed by Amish root beer sweetness (not to be confused with A&W, or even birch beer sweetness, per Seth), and a touch of roasted chestnut – Hello, holidays! Overall, we found the mouthfeel to be a touch cloying, given the ABV, but there’s a fairly high carbonation level which should’ve taken care of that. Drinkability scored kind of low for the style, unfortunately, primarily due to the lasting “dark” flavors that stick like flypaper. 5.5% ABV.
Bell’s Christmas Ale
Pours with a short, off-white head over a cloudy, orange-to-amber body with good carbonation showing. Great lacing. Aromas were too light – our 3 folks could only pick up very faint cinnamon, and some sweet cherry-like aromas. Light Northwestern hoppy bite on the palate, malts come through sweetly, a touch of clove, but no other discernable spices. Plenty of carbonation keeps the mouthfeel clean, and somewhat powdery. Drinks easily, nothing terribly strong… and “plain Jane” per one of our crew – we were expecting a bit more punch in the palate from Bell’s. 5.4% ABV.
Great Lakes Christmas Ale
Pours with a very short, off-white head over a very clear, copper body with a touch of carbonation flowing up. Aromas come off with an unexpected citrus rind twist, along with plenty of alcohol. Flavors are markedly different – body is not as thick as expected from the aroma, and flavors that come thru lead with bitter ginger, and just a kiss of cinnamon and honey. Mouthfeel is quite dry, and with a bit of a cloying paste, it brings the drinkability down to a slow level. Not bad overall, even though the carpet didn’t match the drapes. 7.5% ABV.
Pours with a pretty large sea foam white-to-beige head over a deep amber body w/good carbonation. Not much retention or lacing. Aromas start with a really unexpected funky quality, but as it ‘decanted’ and warmed, it took on more of the traditional holiday spice qualities. Some fig in the aroma, too. Fairly one-dimentional overall (as advertised, mind you), with spice battling spice to the spicey end – mostly ginger and allspice. Fair amount of maltiness, but not very sweet. Pretty dry overall, and not that complex. Mouthfeel is ok, with a moderate amount of carbonation. Pretty good for the style. A pleasant, dececently drinkable, and as-advertised-on-the-bottle Winter Warmer. Don’t hesitate to pick this one up – a good value for the price. 6.5% ABV.
The rest of the Christmas beers fall across that eclectic mix of styles we referred to earlier…
He’Brew Jewbelation Fourteen
Style: American Barleywine
Poured at cellar temperature into tulip glass with a very large, thick tan head over an opaque black body. Good amount of lacing. Aromas are very sweet: dark milk chocolate, roasted malts, white-russian-style alcohol, nutty, and some toffee beneath the alcohol. Extremely creamy on the palate – almost too much so for the style. Flavors carry much of the sweetness in the aromas. Peat smoke, toffee-to-molasses, dark chocolate, and a fair amount of hoppy bitterness tries hard to balance, but make no mistake, this is a sweetness first, bitterness last effort. Just remarkable mouthfeel – for all that heat, there is just enough carbonation to cut through and keep this one drinkin smooth and velvety. Drinkability is very high for a 14% Barleywine. All in all though, this is not necessarily a style match – this one is more like 1/2 American Imperial Stout, 1/3 Barleywine, and the remaining being a good Old Ale – Adam Sandler says “put them all together… what a fine drinking Brew!” 14% ABV.
Deep Pond Brewing – Belgian Star
This is a special entry into the mix, as it’s not commercially available (hopefully some day!). It’s a homebrew from Wardell Massey that recently took 1st place in the “spice, herb, vegetable” category at the Stony Creek Homebrewer’s contest in Collegeville in November.
Pours with 1+finger of white head over a thick (slightly opaque), deep golden-colored body with plenty of visible carbonation flowing up. Aromas are extremely inviting… reminds me of peppermint toothpaste, with banana, good level of holiday spice, white pepper, and touch of sweet citrus. Rich on the palate, with flavors of creamy banana, cinnamon, peppermint, artichoke hearts, and a dash of white pepper in the finish. Terrific level of carbonation that cuts through nearly all of the alchohol – smooth up front, and slightly prickly in the finish – cleans the palate to remove any impression of thickness. Drinkability is huge – too bad it’s not a production brew, because it would go really well with a lot of entress and desserts alike. It invites you in, delivers on the aromas, and then leaves you reaching for another. 9+% ABV.
Aggressive pour yields a 2F head over a deep golden to orange colored body. Very faint lacing. Aromas are flaming … initially comes through as rich banana bread, cinnamon, and fusel alcohol. As it warmed, it turned more toward apple juice, followed by raisin bread, a healthy dose of cognac, and white raisins. Alchohol heat fills the mouth, and flavors of thick honey, caramel, toffee, and white raisin all come through. Remarkably creamy and smooth mouthfeel, considering the style & alcohol content. Drinkability suffers a bit from the boozy qualities, but it is VERY good overall. However, this was quite different in flavor from any doppelbock I’ve had before. 14% ABV.
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale
Booming 4F of cream-colored head, over a clear but rich amber body – tons of carbonation present, and lots of sugary/sticky lacing. You can smell the balance in the aroma. Not terribly strong on either side of the hops/malts equation, but inviting. Fresh tangerine peel comes to mind, along with caramel malts. Good creaminess on the palate leads to western ‘piney’ hop flavors, with a touch of pineapple sweetness. Finish is nice and tight/dry. Above average drinkability for an IPA. This is exactly the drinkability you’d want from a 6-7% IPA.
Port Brewing – Santa’s Little Helper
Style: Russian Imperial Stout
Massive, thick tan head w/lacing, and some carbonation sneaking up the sides of this pitch black RIS. Aromas definitely have more coriander-like spice than I remember. Also bitter bark, and bittersweet chocolate sweetness. Flavor has a fairly biting and bitter hop aggressiveness up front, with tons of roasted malts, and only the slightest sweetness – like delicate choclate truffles, and a drop of molasses. Mouthfeel is full of carbonation, to keep it from becoming too thick. Good and dry. Solid drinkability. 9.5% ABV.
De Ranke Père Noël
Style: Belgian Strong Pale Ale
Cloudy golden body with just a faint off-white head, that hangs out as a film forever. Very minty aroma, with really nice accompanyments of herbs, earth, yeast, lemon, and hay – WOW, what an unexpected combo…. esp for a ‘holiday’ ale. My wife even commented on its uniqueness from 4 feet away (although she did not like the aromas). Very powdery on the palate … flavors are very herbal – the most I’ve experienced since Saison du Buff. Lots of white pepper – almost too much of that particular quality. Some lemon zest, Belgian yeast, and grass… This one would’ve been awesome in mid-Summer. Mouthfeel is crazy dry and clean, but there’s a slightly bitter film left on the palate due to a surprising lack of carbonation. Drinkability is ok, but just not my style. Speaking of Style, this one is about as odd of a Belgian Strong Pale as you’ll find… it seemed much more like a Saison, or Herbed/Spiced beer. This one is delicious and complex, but not a good fit for the BSPA category. 7% ABV.
Rogue Santa’s Private Reserve
Pours with a short tan head over a fairly clear, but deep amber-to-ruby body with a decent amount of carbonation flowing up. Aromas are nice – plenty of Northwestern US hops dominate, followed by some holiday spices and a light sweetness… touch of sawdust, too. Pure hop bitterness in the flavor … sort of wet-hop like. Spruce character is bitingly bitter – Tastes like I’m drinking a fresh-squeezed flower. Some grassy quality as well. For an American Amber, this one lacks any sweetness, and has no balance. Very dry finish. Thin/watery – mouthfeel makes this one seem like it should be in the 4% ABV range. Drinkability scores low for me, as it’s just way too one-dimentional. 6.5% ABV.
Here’s a link to our Holidales Summary List for you to download and take with you on your next Beer Hunting Adventure.
If these 25 beers were just not enough to quench your Holiday thirst, we’d highly recommend picking up Christmas Beer, a terrific book by Philly’s own Don Russell (aka, Joe Sixpack). Makes for the perfect stocking stuffer!
Many thanks to Chad, Seth, Wardell, Mike, and Kyle for their perspectives and input on this one – my liver couldn’t have survived this 2 week sampling without you!