Christmas is my favorite day of the year, but a close second might be the day we do our annual Christmas beer tasting. And this year was our best yet. We doubled the number of contenders, but rather than just give you a round-up of the ones we tasted this year, we’ve compiled a list of the best we’ve ever had. If you’re at least 21 and you’ve been particularly good this year, maybe Santa will leave one of these beers in your stocking. If you’re European, Father Christmas and Papa Noel might hook you up at 18. And if you’ve been bad, well, some of these Christmas beers with double-digit ABVs may be partly to blame.
These are all Christmas-themed beers, not just your winter warmers and white IPAs, which we ranked here. If there wasn’t a tree or an elf or a drunken Santa or at least a demonic Christmas beast, it wasn’t considered. Special thanks to our guest judges Beer Street Journal’s Reid Ramsay and CNN.com beer writer Greg Bowman along with Greg Eckert who helped write up a few of the verdicts after tasting some on his own. We limited the results to one beer per brewery (Southern Tier’s 2XMAS beat their also great Krampus) and this year’s tasting also included Blue Moon Gingerbread Spiced Ale, Rogue Santa’s Private Reserve, Boulevard Nut Cracker Ale, Breckenridge Christmas Ale and Goose Island Sixth Day.
Here are our absolute favorite Christmas beers available in 2013:
15. Heavy Seas Yule Tide
City: Baltimore, Md.
Style: Imperial Red Ale
Key ingredient: Jamaican Rum Barrels
Perfect for: A Caribbean Christmas—or just imagining one
The verdict: Part of the brewery’s Uncharted Waters series, Yule Tide is one of the most flavorful red ales we’ve tasted—thanks to ginger and vanilla notes and the rum-barrel aging.
14. Sierra Nevada Celebration
City: Chico, Calif.
Key ingredient: West Coast Hops
Perfect for: People who hate winter
The verdict: I know several people who refer to this wonderful IPA as their favorite Christmas ale, but those people 1) are zealous hop-heads and 2) apparently don’t like Christmas ale. Sierra Nevada plays to its strength with an IPA whose citrus notes recall your Christmas days back in Miami with the pink-frosted tree, singing carols along the beach.
13. Bell’s Christmas Ale
City: Kalamazoo, Mich.
Style: Scottish Ale
Key ingredient: Roasted caramel malt
Perfect for: All 12 days of Christmas
The verdict: This low-gravity Scottish ale is smooth, mild and well-balanced while still hinting at those familiar Christmas flavors.
12. Samuel Adams Merry Maker Gingerbread Stout
Style: Imperial Stout
Key ingredient: Ginger
Perfect for: Caroling preparations
The verdict: The followup to last year’s Merry Mischief, Merry Maker Gingerbread Stout is a delicious beer and probably the best value on this list, as it retails for about less than half of some of the others. The gingerbread taste comes through strong, with a smokiness that hints at some of those gingerbread men getting a little overdone.
11. Anchor Merry Christmas & Happy New Year
City: San Fransisco
Style: Winter Warmer
Key ingredient: It’s a secret recipe, but we’ll go with the bold hops
Perfect for: Decorating the Christmas tree without knocking it over
The verdict: Every year since 1975, Anchor has brewed its Christmas ale from a new recipe and put a different illustrated tree on the label. This year’s model has a nice ruby amber pour. The mixture of pine, cinnamon, and nutmeg sends a flurry of winter memories through your mind: sledding all day, warm Christmas cookies and the immediate warmth from a mug of hot chocolate.—GE
10. Port Santa’s Little Helper
City: San Marcos, Calif.
Style: Imperial Stout
Key ingredient: Brown Sugar
Perfect for: Earning your way onto the naughty list
The verdict: Last year we went with the bourbon-barrel variety, but this year we stuck to the original. This full-bodied Russian Imperial Stout has a creamy head with the aroma of cocoa, toffee, vanilla, and bourbon. Santa’s Little Helper is packed with an unbelievable amount of flavors fighting for your winter attention.—GE
9. Ninkasi Sleigh’r Dark Double Alt Ale
City: Eugene, Ore.
Key ingredient: Top-fermenting yeast
Perfect for: A heavy metal Christmas party
The verdict: The ancient German altbier isn’t a particularly common style among American brewers, but Ninkasi is celebrating the season with a unique double alt ale. Since Christmas doesn’t necessarily mean the same to everyone, we applaud the Portland brewery’s left-field choice here.
8. SweetWater Festive Ale
Style: Spiced Ale
Key ingredient: Cinnamon
Perfect for: Christmas in the South
The verdict: This bold, rich ale is full of roasted malts. The cinnamon and mace aren’t overpowering but bring a little Christmas cheer to go along with the malty goodness.