A 101 Class in Christmas Beers

Dec. 10, 2018

A 101 Class in Christmas Beers

With a rich history and a range of flavors and styles, holiday beers help make the season merry and bright.

WORDS BY Benjamin Weiss
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Katrina Frederick

The very concept of attacking the wide world of holiday beers is a bit daunting. Unlike red paper coffee cups or pumpkin spiced literally everything, Christmas beers have been around for several millennia. For as long as there has been cause to celebrate, be it the winter solstice or the birthday of an ancient god, there has been beer for the occasion. The Scandinavians have been brewing julebryg beers for seemingly longer than recorded history, using local spruce wood and wild berries to add a flash of seasonal character. The Belgians, famous worldwide for their contribution to beer and brewing, have been serving up high-octane, spiced ales in monasteries for centuries. And Americans, of course, went full steam ahead with the concept. Nearly every one of the six thousand-plus craft breweries around today are making their own variation of a Christmas, or Hanukkah, or non-specific “holiday” ale.

What follows is a breakdown of these beers, divided into categories fitting for the season. Beers that deliver a warm wish for the season, beers that plan ahead for their gift giving, beers that contribute to fiendishly collecting, and, for good measure, one off-the-charts bizarre holiday ale.

Well Wishes

The oldest Christmas seasonal still brewed by an American brewer is known by the charming name Merry Christmas & Happy New Year, and it is arguably the ultimate beer to gift as all the holiday wishes you hope to convey are all right there in the name.

First brewed in 1975 by Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, MC&HNY was the first holiday beer brewed post Prohibition, and it has never been the same twice. This Christmas classic is pleasantly malty and sweet and each year the brewers use a different secret blend of spices to add a bit of Christmas flare. Be it spruce tips, nutmeg, cinnamon or allspice, it’s become a favorite Christmas past time for beer aficionados to attempt to decipher the current iteration’s recipe through sips and whiffs. It may not be typical holiday dinner banter, but it drives stirring debate nonetheless.

Beyond the use of different secret ingredients annually, MC&HNY displays a hand-drawn image of a different tree as the focal point of the label each year. These ideas of rotating recipes and labels may seem unremarkable in the current climate of craft brewers who constantly create clever marketing tactics, but it is this kind of imaginative distinction early on that made Anchor Brewing a trailblazing company, and cemented its status as a forefather of the craft beer industry today.

As distinctive as Anchor’s Merry Christmas & Happy New Year has been in the U.S., it is actually rather similar in concept to another superb holiday beer that has been made since 1970 at the famous Brasserie Dupont in Belgium. Avec Les Bons Voeux de la Brasserie Dupont is a luscious holiday beer whose name translates to “With best wishes from Brasserie Dupont,” making it another perfect gifting beer based on moniker alone.

Quite different in flavor and concept from Anchor’s holiday beer, this is a riff on Dupont’s famous saison, which is typically held as the gold standard in its category. It’s stronger than that flagship beer, and ALBVDLBD is a welcome addition to the colder weather in late December. Similar to a more traditional saison, it holds a lively carbonation attained through bottle-conditioning with live yeast and priming sugars, and the corked top makes it a festive and fitting alternative to champagne. Beyond the joy of popping the top, it’s a versatile drink that pairs well with nearly anything on the Christmas table.

Be it Merry Christmas & Happy New Year or Avec Les Bons Voeux de la Brasserie Dupont, these are ideal beers to bring as a host gift to a holiday event or stockpile—and you won’t even need a card to go with them.

Planning Ahead

Gift giving can be a struggle. Many of us wait until the last moment and when we’re forced to rummage through picked-over shelves, fighting traffic across town to be sure we get everything on our lists. Beer purchases are often similar, done without a lot of foresight or intention, simply grabbing whatever happens to be on the endcaps at our local liquor store while picking up last minute needs for the holiday meal. But we can learn from several Christmas beers about the benefits of planning ahead.

First there is the aptly named Christmas by Belgian brewery Het Anker under their Gouden Carolus line of beers. Local beer has been fermenting in this same space since at least 1872 and likely back as far as the late 1400s. Originally a hospital of sorts, Charles The Bold decreed there was no need to pay taxes on beer made for the institution, and thus it can perhaps be said that the brewers behind Het Anker have been planning ahead on this gift to the world ever since wrapping their minds around these tax loopholes. The actual lesson that can be learned from this 10.5-percent alcohol dark brown ale is from the brewing process. Beyond the use of a multitude of hops and six secret herbs and spices that emit holiday warmth and excitement, the beer is actually brewed in August. While most beers are meant to be enjoyed fresh for full flavor, this beer is brewed in the midst of summer and cellared for several months in order to reach peak quality just in time for the end of the year. Imagine if we all planned our Christmas gifts in August?

We can safely recommend this next beer if you do begin your planning that early. Port Brewing Company in San Diego, California, releases an inspired imperial stout each winter that they have dubbed Santa’s Little Helper. It’s a rich, chocolatey roast with notes of well-rounded coffee beans. What’s truly unique about this beer, however, is a portion of the beer brewed for the holiday release is actually held back by the brewers and placed into used whiskey barrels. It ages in these barrels for six months, soaking up all of those vanilla notes from the wood and toffee, as well as spice from the whiskey that is still soaked within the dark char that lines the inside of the oak. Come July, the barrel-aged variation of Santa’s Little Helper is released for sale, ready for those who are doing their holiday shopping in the middle of summer. It’s certainly worth purchasing and saving for the colder weather if you’re able to keep from opening your bottle sooner; but it also doesn’t hurt to have a little Christmas in July.

Collect Them All

For the collectors of the world, be it vinyl records or Santa Claus cookie jars, believe it or not, beer is a handy addition to your habit. There are plenty of breweries that release multiple variations of a beer or, like Anchor Brewing, a beer that changes year over year, making them exciting to collect and eventually enjoy side by side.

This project is sometimes made easier by those brewers who release a myriad of Christmas beers all at once. Virginia-based Hardywood is a perfect example. Their Gingerbread Stout is the sort of beer that Christmas dreams are made of—a milk stout brewed with vanilla beans, cinnamon, fresh baby Hawaiian ginger and wildflower honey. It’s a masterclass in creating a dreamily sweet but well-balanced profile. For the collectors out there, Hardywood releases a variety of barrel-aged versions ideal for hoarding (ahem, collecting). Rye barrel, bourbon barrel, rum barrel, apple brandy barrel-aged variations are worth trying side by side—in small doses, of course.

For the true seekers of rare collectibles willing to put in the time and energy, you may want to seek out the 12 Days of Christmas series by Southern California-based The Bruery, although if you are just starting now, it may be too late to collect the entire set. Starting in 2008 with Partridge In A Pear Tree, the exceedingly creative talent at The Bruery has been putting out a new beer based on the classic carol each year since, now onto Eleven Pipers Piping this year. The recipes vary significantly, attempting to take cue from the line of the song when possible. If you can find bottles of them all—whether through a trade with another collector or a beer seller with strong foresight and a deep cellar—you’ll be one of the lucky ones.

Get Weird

If the ideas thus far haven’t tickled your fancy, we leave you with one last Christmas beer that is as unique to enjoy as it is to understand. Famous Belgian sour beer producer, Liefman’s, has been creating some of the world’s best Flanders style red and brown ales since 1679. If it weren’t for their history in brewing, their holiday beer would likely sound like a joke. Known as Glühkriek, in reference to glühwein, the famous warm mulled wine found across Europe during the holiday season, Liefman’s recommends you drink this beer warm. A slightly tart cherry beer in the base, they add a blend of mulling spices to the beer and recommend warming it on the stove before consuming it out of a mug. It may seem unusual for an industry that today emphasizes “frost-brewed” and other ways to indicate that imbibing should mean nearly freezing your taste buds off your tongue, this is a delightful quaff, something that can turn a relatively normal holiday night into a memorable experience for friends and family. You may never have another holiday meal without your uncle reminiscing, “Do you remember that time we drank the hot beer?”

Whatever your choice this holiday season, drink responsibly and enjoy merrily.

For an added bonus, pair your beer with a holiday soundtrack.

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