Hoppy HolidaysCelebrating an American Christmas Ale
December 19, 2017
By Jeff Gredlein | The Beer Snob
So, here we are friends. The beginning of the season of winter is upon us. The holidays are in full swing. The end of December is near. Goodbye to 2017, hello to 2018. I hope you have all enjoyed the beers and writings the past year.
You’ll recall that the English variety of winter ale, those generally called winter warmer, are the rich and malty holiday beers, sans adjuncts. Belgium provides the spice in their cold weather beers, much like the wassail tradition of using a variety of holiday ingredients in a brew or concoction for a festive result. We Americans have examples of both winter ales, those malty rich or zesty and flavored, along with a version of holiday beer featuring our greatest contribution to the global beer community, hops!
It should not surprise that American craft brewing does not fit into a single or definite category when it comes to any particular style of beer, and even a malleable category like ‘winter ale’ is no exception. American beer brewers beg, borrow and steal from any and all styles to make exceptional and unique beers, regardless of guidelines or expectations; it’s about the beer in the glass.
The type of beer that one might refer to as American Winter Warmer will be those that offer no spices or additions, yet are released during the winter holidays, and make use of the brewery’s finest ingredients. These will be very malty and strong, hearty, typically sweet, and made to be savored and enjoyed slowly. In strength and flavor, they will often be grouped with the beers of the old ale style, and fall just under barleywines.
Fond of this category of beer, I suggest North Coast’s Old Stock Ale as a brilliant example. Founder’s Old Curmudgeon is also a more than solid option that will stick to your stomach and warm your insides on cold nights.
Even though the malt-driven, non-spiced American winter ales are highly rated, I have observed that most folks are very partial to the ‘wassail’ type of holiday brews. Hence, when most folks think of winter ales, they envision the Christmas variety, those spiked with holiday spices, the beers that are more akin to seasoned bread or festival candy and cookies.
Some wassail style ales are a bouquet of spices and wintertime flavors, I recently discussed Highland’s Cold Mountain, which is brewed with vanilla beans, cinnamon sticks, hazelnut extract and berries. Great Lake’s fantastic Christmas Ale offers the requisite cinnamon, but also uses fresh ginger and honey-holiday tastiness. Thrown in nutmeg and vanilla, and you’ve got the sweet and decadent Winter Solstice from Anderson Valley.
Other spiced versions lean toward earthier tones of spruce and cardamom, mineral and fruit. The grandfather Christmas of all spiced beers is Anchor Brewing’s Our Special Ale, the beer that started the American holiday beer trend in 1975 with the first edition of Anchor’s Christmas ale.
In some cases, the American winter ales that are most interesting are those that can be deceptive as to whether they are of the wassail-type, or of the winter warmer-variety. By that, I am referring to some of the seasonal beers that do not promote themselves as either kind, that are amazingly crafted and deliciously built as to promote a variety of tastes and notes, yet can leave the drinker questioning whether a brewer added, say, cinnamon or vanilla, or only used the combination of malts, hops, yeast and water to reveal the magic and creativity of the brewer’s art.
Rogue’s Santa’s Private Reserve was the first beer I thought to be spiced but was not. Avery’s Old Jubilation and Great Divide’s Hibernation Ale will delight with flavors of the season. Although 21st Amendment Brewery’s Fireside Chat is a winter spiced ale, the additions do not overwhelm, and one might guess it to be a well developed and highly flavored winter warmer. Deschutes Brewery’s Jubeale is awesome, not a clue if it’s spiced or not.
And, it wouldn’t be an American Christmas without tons of hops, the last variety of winter ale, the holiday hop bomb. Numerous American winter ales are highly hopped, that is no surprise, but the classic hoppy holiday brew is Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale. And, while this beer definitely has bitterness covered, it is robust in nature and has a glow-inducing power that allows the ale to fit nicely into the winter ale category. Malt forward, spiced or hopped-out, there is no wrong or right American winter ale. It’s a great time of the beer, I hope you take advantage. Enjoy the brews, happy holidaze and have a wonderful new year … Cheers.
Gene’s Haufbrau has at more than 200 in bottles or on tap. While they don’t have every beer the Beer Snob writes about, they probably have most. E-mail the Beer Snob at firstname.lastname@example.org.