We can’t help it, can we? We’re loose with our wallets this time of year, more likely to indulge ourselves and others, and there is always that nagging question—how best can I relax and properly get into the spirit, since this Christmas music clearly isn’t doing it for me?
Then we see a bottle with a tree or a snowman or a nutcracker and a higher amount of alcohol than usual. The rest is easy.
Until we drink it. That part can be hard.
Let’s be real about most of those Christmas beers we see in the shops and pubs this time of year: Most of them are not especially drinkable.
There’s that word again—“drinkable.” Let’s be clear: It does not mean “I can taste my 3-ounce sample without getting poisoned.” It means, “I have finished a whole glass of that beer and now I am sure that I would like another of the same, even if it goes against my better judgment.”
The festive beers that appear this time of year can sadly become an excuse for unimaginative brewers to empty the spice cabinet. And the fruit crisper.
Remember Samuel Adams Cranberry “Lambic”? Let’s all try to forget.
This is not a uniquely American phenomenon. British friends have similar complaints. The Germans and Czechs, meanwhile, appear have a tradition of adding, say, 0.5% of alcohol to their regular beer and slapping Saint Nick on the label—done. On the other hand, a growing number of indie brewers in those countries call themselves “craft” and use Advent as an excuse to drop juniper branches, plum puddings and licorice whips into the fermenters.
Oh, it’s fun. But is it drinkable?
Belgium has perhaps the greatest potential to excel in this arena, and thus the greatest potential to disappoint. What I believe to be the world’s greatest winter holiday beer event takes place in Essen, Belgium, every December. Typically there are more than 170 different Christmas and winter beers from breweries across Belgium—virtually every brewery in the country makes one. There are some truly great beers on that list if you know what you’re doing. On the one hand, ordering the unknown quantities is a shell game, an exercise in masochism. It’s loaded with random trainwrecks of over-spiced, boozy gack.
Sound familiar? Think of the holiday beers put out by your local and regional breweries. You can probably name one or two that are like old friends you enjoy seeing every year. And you can probably recall many more that you’ve tasted over the years that you never need to drink again.
There is a comments section below, so tell me if I’m wrong. Better yet, tell me about those old friends — the beers you do like to see every Yuletide.
Here are a few of mine:
Anchor Christmas Ale: Surely this is the classic American holiday beer, if we were forced to choose only one … except it’s not only one, because Anchor tweaks the recipe every year. Yes it tends to be spiced, but it’s subtly done, while the porterish, malty depth and hop character are enough to bring it all into balance. It hangs around 5.5% ABV so, you know, go on.
Boulevard Nutcracker Ale: I’ve got fond memories of this and still grab a sixer if I’m home for the holidays. It is nutty from malts and fruity and spicy from the hops—there are no nuts, fruits or spices in the beer. It tends to disappear from my glass in a way that would be perilous—somehow it’s 7.8% strength—any other time of year.
Dupont Avec Les Bons Voeux: “With the good wishes of the Brewery Dupont” seems old-fashioned but it’s only been around since the mid-1990s. It started as a sort of New Year’s beer but went year-round because people just liked it. Lively and golden, it tastes of lemon peel and pepper without having any. Something like a saison on steroids, it has 9.5% alcohol by volume and a cork that pops meaningfully.
De La Senne Zinnebir Xmas: The brewers wanted to include some flavors for holiday gourmands—read: gluttons—like fruit and chocolate in this ruddy brown beauty. But they also wanted to stick to their philosophy of dry, bitter ales with plenty of hop character. Their importers, the Shelton Brothers, sum it up neatly on their website: “Christmas beer without the wintry bullshit.”
Aecht Schlenkerla Urbock: This is not a traditional Christmas beer, but please consider it. In Bamberg it appears in the fall for “Starkbierzeit” and happily sticks around into the winter. It is beefier and smokier than the flagship Märzen, sweeter and richer but also more bitter, and at 6.5% strength it is well suited to festing and feasting. It wants to share the table with your Christmas ham.