Of the year’s many months, December might be the most inebriated. From holiday hullabaloos to family feasts, work to-dos to vacations, beer lubricates every occasion, bringing merriment and making torturous shindigs tolerable—especially family gatherings. There’s good reason why you see certain kin but a single time each year.
For me, beer is the best thing about December’s endless bacchanal. It’s also the very worst. By the time temperatures dip below my age, and A Christmas Story cycles on an endless loop, breweries have saturated shelves and taps with seasonal offerings, which typically fall into two camps. First are the potent antidotes to winter’s chill, namely old ales and barleywines with ABVs higher than Santa’s sleigh. Secondly, there’s Christmas beer, celebratory winter warmers stuffed with sweetness and ingredients cribbed from a fruitcake. Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, cloves, dried cranberries, orange zest—it’s a sensory-busting flavor blizzard I’d rather avoid. Though I might be forced to revoke my Ohio heritage, I am so not queuing up for Great Lakes’ cultish Christmas Ale.
Fact is, the holidays enable endless excess, roasted duck and prime rib, enough chocolates, cookies and candies to overwhelm Wonka’s factory. Surviving the indulgent marathon requires steady pacing, one at odds with goosed-up December beer. I’m hardly here to lob coal in your boozy stocking, or urge you not to crack Hardywood Park’s Gingerbread Stout, Anchor’s ever-changing Christmas Ale and that can of 21st Amendment’s spiced Fireside Chat. In small doses, and shared with the right company, these beers have their place and time.
After all, holidays are about upholding and cherishing tradition, and the ritual of spiced beers stretches back centuries, harking to an era when hops were absent from brew kettles. But today’s brews are gobsmacked with hops, so much so that IPAs are America’s favorite beer family. And they’re what you should be drinking while dressing a Christmas tree or lighting a Hanukkah candle. Heresy? Hear me out.
American hops, those bright-green flowers that bequeath beer aroma, flavor and bitterness, are harvested in August and September. To save them from savage Father Time, hops are dried and pelletized, a process that takes months to complete. Brewers’ first crack at brewing with the harvest is typically in the fall, meaning that the freshest IPAs are released for cold-weather consumption.
Instead of a novel notion, these bitter freshies have long been winter’s best friend. Since 1981, Sierra Nevada has brewed Celebration Ale, its righteously piney and citrusy addition to the seasonal drinking oeuvre. During recent cold snaps, the bounty has increased with Tröegs’ smooth and citrusy Blizzard of Hops, Boulder Beer’s pine-socked Slope Style Winter IPA, Deschutes’ citrus-charged Red Chair NWPA, and New Belgium’s fruity, wheatsteered Accumulation White IPA. Better still, these icicle-season IPAs boast manageable ABVs, strong enough to brighten moods and grease conversational wheels, but not so potent that you’ll become a mumbling fool in front of your boss or family.
Consider this advice my personal gift. Instead of a thank-you card, I’ll gladly accept another round.