“Let’s Talk Beer Styles” is a monthly feature that accompanies Paste’s large-scale blind craft beer style tastings/rankings. The first month covered the history and modern role of American pale ale, and the next few subsequently tackled everything from Black IPA to classical pilsner to American IPA. The latest covers Christmas/winter beers, of which we just blind-tasted 104 samples.
“Christmas beer” means a lot of things to a lot of different people. This is something that became clear to me when I first started at Paste in late 2014, and was present for my first holiday beer tasting. It’s an annual tasting that is held in high esteem by Paste editor/founder Josh Jackson, and by some of the other familiar faces from the history of this publication. Even if they don’t attend every one of our blind style tastings throughout the course of the year, these guys do go out of their way to show up for the “Christmas” tastings. But what does Christmas/holiday beer really mean? What can we infer, when we see a bottle labeled with the generic-sounding “Christmas ale” or “winter warmer”?
Well, for one we can usually infer an ale, although there are certainly some Christmas lagers out there as well. We can guess that this ale will typically be on the darker side—amber, all the way to dark brown or black. We can guess that malt presence is going to be substantial, and that residual sweetness will be present to some degree. And we can surmise that this beer may incorporate spices or fruits in some way, although this is hardly universal. In this piece, I’ll try to clear that up slightly in the section below on common Christmas beer styles.
But first, let’s see if we can dig up anything on how these styles really began.
The Origin of Christmas Beers
I’ll apologize in advance on this one, because there’s not a ton of easily accessed historical information on these nebulous holiday beer styles, but one thing seems pretty clear: So-called “Christmas beers” actually pre-date Christmas, in the sense that people were brewing and drinking special, once-a-year holiday beers to celebrate the winter season long before the Christian date of “Christmas” was fixed on Dec. 25 by Pope Julius in the 4th century A.D. In the pre-Christian era, these beers were instead being consumed in beer-brewing cultures during pagan religious celebrations, such as the Winter Solstice.
It’s likely no coincidence that these traditions continued on into Christianity, either. Popes such as Julius I and his successors co-opted many aspects of pagan festal celebration in an effort to win over new converts to the early Christian church—they had to make the religion look attractive, after all. And what better way to do that than to condone an annual winter bacchanalia of strong beer?
As such, the tradition of strong or otherwise special brewing for Christmas exists in almost all Christian beer cultures in some capacity. This naturally included the monasteries of Europe, where Prima Melior was the name given to the breweries’ best of the best, served at Christmas. They were common in France (Biere de Noel), Scandinavia (jul, or juleol) and even Germany (weihnacht), which produced strong, dark, yuletide lagers. Christmas beers were served on farmsteads to the hired hands, and in English workhouses to the destitute.
In America, meanwhile, the traditions of Christmastime beer came over piecemeal via immigration, in the same manner that British and German beer styles existed in various pockets throughout the U.S., pre-Prohibition. And like almost all other national styles that weren’t light German lagers, Christmas beers were hit hard by Prohibition, resulting in an entire generation where these styles all but died out or were forgotten by American drinkers. But I’ll get into more detail on that below. First, let’s talk about some of the common beer styles you see under the term “holiday beer.”
Common Christmas Beer Styles
There’s a dizzying array of beer styles brewed and consumed for the holidays/the winter in general around the world, and if I dove into strange, rare Scandinavian styles and whatnot we would be here forever. Therefore, I’ll focus on the styles commonly available in the United States, regardless of their countries of origin.
Winter Warmer/Old Ale
Both the terms “winter warmer” and “old ale” come out of the British brewing tradition, and both can be used to describe fairly similar beers that may be difficult to distinguish from one another. “Winter warmer” is the more common term to see on a commercial beer label today, and it tends to imply a dark (amber to brown), fairly strong (5-8% ABV), malt-forward beer with prominent caramelization/toasty malt flavors, and also significant sweetness/richness and some alcoholic presence in the flavor. Hops tend to be on the milder side, and English variations on this style were largely unspiced, which is an interesting distinction. One must keep in mind that this only holds true for English examples of winter warmer. In the U.S.A, where brewers tend to call styles by whatever name simply “sounds right,” examples of winter warmer are likely to be spiced in the same way that other American holiday beers are. But in general, these are always rich, sweet, malty beers.
“Old ale,” on the other hand, is a somewhat nebulous, antiquated way of describing a style of malt-forward English ale that has been aged—they’re also referred to as “stock ales.” Historically, they could have been blended with younger beers, but they were also consumed on their own. ABV can be all over the place, as nearly any beer can be an “old ale” if aged, although stronger ales make more sense to age given that the alcohol helps preserve them. Many modern examples are strong (8% ABV or more), dark, malty and very sweet, while lacking the balancing hop presence of say, barleywine. It’s not a style you see very often from American craft breweries, owing to the fact that it blurs the line between other styles, plus the fact that we tend to hop everything more bombastically.
American “Christmas Ale”
American brewers don’t care about “style guidelines”—that’s our defining characteristic as a brewing culture. Thus, with styles that are already ill-defined such as “winter warmer,” we go even further off the rails in making our own thing. When the American craft brewing movement was a bit younger, and throughout the ‘90s and 2000’s, the concept of “winter ale” or “Christmas ale” was heavily attached to the ascendency of “seasonals” as one of the driving forces of brewery portfolios. Given that breweries needed a “seasonal” to put on the shelves after octoberfest/pumpkin beer season had run its course, winter and Christmas beers were the obvious answer. However, in American brewing, Christmas isn’t specifically associated with “the best beer we make,” ‘ala European tradition. American Christmas beers instead became tied to the concept of spiced beers.
Nearly all American Christmas beers are spiced in some way, although that’s really where the similarities end. The array of spices goes on forever: Cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger are common, but there are also beers made with licorice, pepper, mace, clove and even spruce tips for that genuine “Christmas tree” piney-ness. These beers vary wildly in terms of ABV and makeup—although almost all of them are malt-driven, some are dry, drinkable and in the 5% ABV or below range, and others are twice as strong and syrupy sweet. Some are even bursting with American hops, because once again—that’s what we DO over here. In general, the only thing that tends to hold true with American Christmas beer is the presence of spice.
Belgian Christmas Ales
In the minds of many beer geeks, Christmas beer royalty flows from Belgium. The brewing tradition is certainly there, and the association of “special” beers for Christmas is as well. With that said, Belgian Christmas ales aren’t all in the exact same style. Although classics of the style such as St. Bernardus Christmas Ale are very similar to the brewery’s beloved quadrupel, Abt. 12, others such as De Dolle Stille Nacht are defined as Belgian strong pale ales rather than dark ales or quads.
One thing they do tend to share in common is strength. These beers are big, designed for long sipping sessions on cold, blustery nights during the holiday season, preferably in front of a roaring fireplace. Many are based on quadrupels/Belgian strong dark ales, which means they bear the same combination of rich malt, fruity esters, caramelization, bready flavors and spice. If you love big, rich, strong (but complex) beers that tend to favor balance over extremes, then you owe it to yourself to go pick up one of the classics: St. Bernardus, Scaldis Noel, Corsendonk, De Dolle, N’Ice Chouffe, etc. You won’t regret it.
The Role of Christmas Beer in American Craft Beer
As mentioned above, the general idea of “Christmas beers” that include all of the mentioned styles—winter warmers, American Christmas ales, Belgian Christmas beers—have all been co-opted into the broader concept of the “winter seasonal” in American craft brewing. Rarely does a brewery produce a winter warmer-type beer in any other season but winter. Belgian-focused breweries may produce something reminiscent of a Belgian Christmas beer year-round, but those breweries are almost certain to have a special Christmastime release as well. And many other American breweries produce a Belgian-style Christmas beer just once a year.
In recent years, this style has also become more tightly codified/standardized for the sake of competition. The 2015 Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) guidelines condensed a few styles to create one for describing most American Christmas beers. Now a subset of category 30, “Spiced Beer,” 30c has been designated “Winter Seasonal Beer.” I’ve reproduced a section of the description below:
A stronger, darker, spiced beer that often has a rich body and warming finish suggesting a good accompaniment for the cold winter season. A wide range of aromatics is possible, although many examples are reminiscent of Christmas cookies, gingerbread, English-type Christmas pudding, evergreen trees, or mulling spices. Any combination of aromatics that suggests the holiday season is welcome. The base beer style often has a malty profile that supports the balanced presentation of the aromatics from spices and possibly other special ingredients. Additional fermentables (e.g., honey, molasses, maple syrup, etc.) may lend their own unique aromatics. Hop aromatics are often absent, subdued, or slightly spicy. Some fruit character (often of dried citrus peel, or dried fruit such as raisins or plums) is optional but acceptable. Alcohol aromatics may be found in some examples, but this character should be restrained. The overall aroma should be balanced and harmonious, and is often fairly complex and inviting.
So if you see a beer from your local brewery that is generically labeled as “Christmas ale,” the above description is the safest one to expect.
Three Essential Christmas Ales You Need to Try
Avery Old Jubilation Ale
Avery calls this annual release an “English strong ale,” and Beeradvocate lists it as an “old ale,” but whatever term you use, it’s a great American example of a strong British-style winter warmer/old ale/Christmas beer. This beer isn’t actually spiced, but its 8.3% ABV and malt complexity are enough to make you think that perhaps it was—very much a hallmark of the British style. It’s a big beer, but a subtle one: Toasted malt meets dark fruitiness reminiscent of cherry, light raisin, roasted nuts and something one of our tasters this year described as “plummy.” Alcohol is present in a warming sort of way, but it’s very soft and well-integrated. This is a beer that Avery has been refining and smoothing out for 15 years or more at this point, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more reliably excellent winter seasonal that still justifies being made every single year. It’s a classic of the genre at this point.
Anchor Our Special Ale 2016, aka Anchor Christmas Ale
And speaking of classics of the genre … no other American brewery can touch Anchor in terms of historical contributions to the concept of “Christmas beer.” Since 1975, they’ve been making Our Special Ale, an annual release that changes each and every year, both in recipe and in labels—you can actually see all 42 years of labels on the Anchor website, which is neat. We must confess that we’re not always huge fans of Anchor Christmas every single year, but 2016’s batch caught us completely by surprise during this blind tasting. Suffice to say, this is the best year of Our Special Ale that we can remember in recent history, and you need to go get some while you can. It seems beefed up in terms of malt presence in 2016, with a darker, fuller roast that is nutty, with notes of cocoa and very subtle baking spices. You might almost mistake it as being one of the more subtle Belgian dark strong ales thanks to this year’s profile of spice and fruit notes, and that’s high praise indeed. If there’s ever been a year to go out and buy one of those giant Anchor Christmas Ale magnums and bring it to a Christmas party, 2016 is it.
Saint Bernardus Christmas Ale
C’mon, you knew Bernie would be here. We needed at least one representative of the Belgian Christmas ales, and although you would be very well served with the likes of Scaldis Noel or Corsendonk, St. Bernardus has always had a special place in Paste’s heart. The classic Christmas ale has only been around for about 10 years, but it feels like much longer. It bears almost the same DNA as Bernardus’ classic Abt. 12 quadrupel, and it pains me to say that I’ve never had a chance to taste the two side-by-side for a more direct comparison. But if you love Abt. 12, it’s very much in the same wheelhouse: Very bready, toasty, nutty malt body with high carbonation, and dark fruit notes of raisin and currant that fade into delectable, spicy complexity. It’s presumably a bit spicier than the Abt. 12, but not noticeably so—like its year-round brother, it’s a beer that you want to sit back and savor, but also one that is dangerously quaffable for the 10% ABV. Beware: Bernie will most certainly sneak up on you and put you on your ass on Christmas Eve.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident staff writer and beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more craft beer coverage on a regular basis.