When Paste conducted its annual Christmas beer tasting last year (this is Year 5, if you were wondering), it was the first major beer tasting, outside of pumpkin beer, that I’d done with the other editors after arriving at our Atlanta office. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it was the first really good tasting that we organized in that time. Back then, in 2014, we tasted 31 Christmas/holiday beers and called it a day. And looking back, there’s so much we missed.
Yes, we missed a lot. For one, our “holiday” definition was way too tight, excluding classics of the season such as Sierra Nevada Celebration just because there was nothing overtly “Christmas” on the label. This was a mistake, as were many of the other missing beers. And oh lord, we certainly had those things pointed out to us in the comments. Dear Paste readers: Don’t think we ignore the comments. We don’t. Although being civil does help, you know.
This year, we’ve made every effort to include all those missing brews, which swelled the number hugely, from 31 to 71. The single most-mentioned beer from last year’s comments section is proudly represented—Thirsty Dog’s 12 Dogs of Christmas Ale. So are most of the other important beers we were missing, from Troeg’s Mad Elf to Deschutes Jubelale. It’s a much more comprehensive lineup.
In doing so, we’ve opened up this completely blind tasting to everything both holiday and winter related. Basically, if it references Christmas, the holiday season, or winter in general, it’s included. Unsurprisingly, this made for a startling array of styles, which was a plus for a blind tasting when it comes to keeping one’s palate refreshed. It’s hard to miss, after all, the difference between winter warmer, IPA, Belgian quad, imperial stout, etc, etc. We tasted some great beers, and we tasted some awful beers. So let’s get to it, and Merry Christmas.
Rules and Procedure
- All entries have something to do with the holidays or winter, or at least mention them somewhere on the label … or they’re made with pine or spruce or fir. There is no ABV limit.
- There’s a limit of two entries per brewery, which doesn’t affect things much. But were you aware that Sam Adams makes at least five different winter beers? Turns out they do. It’s nuts.
- Tasters included professional beer writers, brewery owners, professional brewmasters, beer reps and assorted journalists. Awesome, Paste-branded glassware is from Spiegelau.
- Beers were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged.
The Field: Beers #71-31
The following beers represent the offerings that didn’t make the top 30, aka “the finals.” They’re listed below in alphabetical order and are not ranked, as we want these lists to ultimately represent the best beers we’ve sampled rather than the worst. We enjoyed a large proportion of these, and it’s fair to say that most of them missed out on the top 30 simply because they were similar versions of other beers that are slightly higher in the rankings. There are a ton of amber, spiced “Christmas ales” in this field of 71, after all. Some are just a bit better than others.
Once again, the beers below are not ranked.
Alaskan Winter Ale
Anchor Winter Wheat
Breckenridge Christmas Ale
Brooklyn Brewery Insulated Dark Lager
Capital Winter Skal
Carolina Brewery Santa’s Secret
Diamond Knot Ho! Ho!
Diamond Knot Storm Surge
Fat Head’s Holly Jolly
Flying Dog Naughty
Flying Dog Nice
Full Sail Wreck the Halls
Full Sail Wassail
Golden Road Back Home Gingerbread Stout
Great Divide Hibernation Ale
Great Lakes Christmas Ale
Great Raft Awkward Uncle
Heavy Seas Winter Storm
Highland Cold Mountain Winter Ale
Lagunitas Brown Shugga
Lost Coast Winterbraun
MadTree Brewing Thundersnow
Odell Isolation Ale
Revolution Brewing Fistmas
Saint Arnold Sailing Santa
Sam Adams White Christmas
Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome
Shiner Holiday Cheer
Sixpoint Global Warmer
Ska Brewing Euphoria
Smuttynose Winter Ale
Starr Hill Snow Blind
SweetWater Festive Ale
Triple C Brewing Co. White Blaze
Two Roads Holiday Ale
Uinta Cutthroat Holiday Pale Ale
Yards Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce
Next: The finals! The best holiday/winter beers #’s 30-16
City: Chico, CA
Style: Fresh hop IPA
The verdict: Sierra Nevada’s seasonal classic sneaks into the back end of the finals. Important in the sense that it pioneered the idea of anyone brewing a winter/Christmastime IPA, we feel as if batches of Celebration vary in profile (and thus quality) from year to year. This time it struck us pretty solidly—piney and orange marmalade hop flavors, with moderate drying bitterness that still stands out as significantly more bitter than most of the beers in a Christmas ale lineup. It may have been surpassed at this point in the “Christmas IPA” department by some of the other entries on this list, but a tip of our caps to a perennial classic that is often one of the first things one thinks of when someone says “winter seasonal.”
City: San Francisco, CA
Style: Winter warmer
The verdict: The granddaddy of all American Christmas ales, currently in its 41st year, Anchor Christmas is a must-get that indisputably does vary in quality each year, because each time it’s made with a new recipe. This year’s batch feels a bit darker and maltier than in the past, with less pronounced spices and more fruitiness/toasted malt. Some tasters’ notes include impressions such as “dates” or “plums,” while others were focusing on a darker maltiness or the ever-present piney hops, which also seem a touch less pronounced than in the past. Dare we say that this year’s Christmas Ale is a big more elegant and simple than some of the more adventurous ones in recent years, which is not a bad thing.
City: San Diego, CA
Style: DIPA/Imperial red ale
The verdict: First let us just say that we’re confused why Alesmith dropped the “YuleSmith” name from this beer but is still calling the warm weather version “Summer YuleSmith,” despite being nowhere near the “yule” season. How does that make sense? Regardless, this beer hits with a huge blast of hops; possibly the hoppiest beer that was entered in the entire 71. On the nose it’s complex, with big pine and tropical fruit hop notes—something fairly unusual for this tasting, should note—and on the palate these are BIG flavors, with sizeable caramel maltiness that still can’t hold a candle to the resinous piney and grapefruity hops. No one is going to accuse this one of lacking in character, that’s for sure.
City: Chambly, Quebec
Style: Belgian dark strong ale
The verdict: “Big, Belgian, dark, sweet and spicy” are pretty much the building block descriptors of most of our favorite Christmas ales, so we were looking forward to trying a new beer in that vein from Unibroue. Nailing down the actual flavor of this one is a bit more difficult, though—it veers from the expected path of the Bernarduses or Deliriums and embraces a bit more of its “dark ale” side, with predominant roast and breadiness that combines to form a burnt toast impression with a bit of smoke. It’s drier than most things you’re going to see in the 10% ABV range, but the booze asserts itself with a warming in the chest. Cocoa flavors are complemented by a light array of holiday spices, but they combine into one exotic impression that doesn’t really offer a strong, individual note, except perhaps for anise/licorice. Overall, an interesting, unique stand-out among the other big, Belgian ales.
City: Boulder, CO
Style: English old ale
The verdict: The interesting thing about a beer like Old Jubilation is that it almost invariably flies under the radar, even as we’re in the course of one of these tastings. Case in point: While we were doing the particular day’s tasting that included this Avery winter classic, I don’t think a single person commented on it in any capacity. Instead, we were discussing other beers on the table—good or ill, but more extreme beers in either direction. It wasn’t until I actually tabulated the scores that I noticed everyone’s enjoyment of Old Jubilation—it had flown under the radar once again. It’s a classic beer in an old, weather-worn style, featuring deep, bready and toasty maltiness that hides its ABV very well. “Very nuanced and pleasant,” wrote one taster. “Very traditional” wrote another. If you want a big, malty winter beer that stays fairly dry and maintains its drinkability, you can’t go wrong here.
City: Bend, OR
Style: Winter warmer
The verdict: Jubelale almost feels like a spiritual peer of Old Jubilation, so I guess their side-by-side placement is only fitting. It’s smaller in ABV but perhaps more assertive in its flavors, with lots of dark, dried fruits: “Cooked blackberries,” wrote one particularly specific taster on his sheet. It’s a bit like an American barleywine that has been shrunk down to fit a smaller frame, although it still tastes larger than 6.7%. Several tasters also noted more of a roasty quality than in the past, and a few of the sheets have a quizzical “coffee?”, although the beer doesn’t actually feature any—Deschutes does include the word “chicory” in its tasting notes, though, so perhaps they’re not far off. The biggest stars are crystal malt sweetness and dark fruitiness, however, which makes it perhaps the first beer on this list to draw the “fruitcake” comparison. It will not be the last.
City: Munster, IN
Style: American porter
The verdict: This is an “Xmas porter,” brewed in exactly the way you would expect Three Floyds to brew it: With two fistfuls of citrusy American hops. Nevertheless, though, they really nail their style on this one. The roast is dialed in perfectly, and is the first impression in terms of flavor, as it probably should be. There’s a very thin dividing line between “really hoppy American porter” and “black IPA,” and the Floyds do an excellent job of accentuating and featuring the big, dry, cocoa and ashy roast qualities of this beer while also giving it an unmistakeable punch of orangey and piney hops. This is a balancing act far easier said than done, and its success reminds me of how Avery blazed a trail with their own “New World Porter” before the “black IPA” term had come into being. It’s an odd choice for a “Christmas beer,” but that’s the beauty of winter seasonals—although there’s a fairly set idea of what a generalized “Christmas ale” means, no one can ultimately tell a brewer what they should make as their winter seasonal. If you want to make a big, hoppy porter, more power to you, especially when it’s this tasty.
City: Asheville, NC
Style: American porter
The verdict: Two porters next to each other on a list of Christmas beers, what are the odds? The brewery says it was made with “caramelized ginger, vanilla beans, toasted cinnamon, pureed raisins and molasses,” and perhaps that crazy ingredient list is why the final product came off so differently to each individual taster. To some, it was the cinnamon that popped big, making it seem not too far off from something we might have had in our pumpkin beer blind tasting. To others, it was more of a peppery spice. Still others noted cocoa, ginger or a hint of smokiness. Props, however, to the taster whose sheet actually says “dark cookie beer,” hitting the nail right on the head. Regardless, it was universally enjoyed.
City: Portland, OR
Style: American IPA/”winter ale”
The verdict: The “winter ale” label could very well mislead you on a can of Abominable (and we love this can design, by the way), because the first whiff of this beer lets you know that it definitely exists somewhere on the IPA spectrum—or maybe this is just how they do winter warmers out in Portland. One taster compared it to an imperial version of Sierra Nevada Celebration, and that’s really not a bad extrapolation—it’s big on piney, resinous and citrus hops while also bringing an assertive shot of toffee and booze and very dark, rich caramel into play. We’re not at all sold on the term “India red ale” as a separate style, but this beer could easily fit into that mold, and be a superior example of it.
City: Avondale Estates, GA
Style: Imperial brown ale
The verdict: Wild Heaven’s Ode to Mercy is a coffee-infused imperial brown ale, although even in its base form that coffee character is significantly more subtle than in most coffee beers. The “special winter” variant adds bourbon-soaked oak chips, which has a twofold effect, smoothing out the coffee flavors a bit more while adding the sought-after barrel characteristics and vanillins. The coffee is still there, if you’re able to identify the flavor—it comes off as more spicy than most coffees, with a bit of that “bell pepper” quality that some coffee beers have depending on the roast. One taster’s notes remark that the rounded, rich maltiness and relative lack of hops reminded him of a scotch ale with coffee. Which makes us wonder, has anyone made a scotch ale with coffee?
City: Houston, TX
Style: Winter warmer
The verdict: When an American brewery makes a beer and calls it their “Christmas ale,” it usually tastes quite a lot like Karbach’s Yule Shoot Your Eye Out, but this example is better than most. Compared to some of the other spiced beers on the table during its session, the spices were simply better integrated and less in-your-face, with definite notes of ginger and cinnamon in particular, and every taster knew exactly what style of beer they were drinking. This particular Christmas ale also incorporates cocoa nibs, which adds just a hint of darker, richer baker’s chocolate. Of course, if we awarded points for A Christmas Story references, this would be our #1 brew of the year.
City: San Francisco, CA
Style: Winter warmer
The verdict: This winter warmer from 21st Amendment always seems to be a perennial fixture in these rankings, often hovering somewhere on the periphery. This year, tasters fixated on the base beer underneath, which seems like an English “old ale” in its richness and dark fruit flavors, along with a hint of roast. Spices are in good balance, with a typical mixture of allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. It’s a description that sounds like most other good Christmas ales, but it’s simply a well-executed version of that style.
City: Vorchdorf, Austria
The verdict: Samichlaus is a historic remnant of an earlier age in the craft brewing movement, a one-time holder of the “strongest beer in the world” title and still prized by fans of huge, malty German lagers. The alcohol is undoubtedly a challenge in drinking it—you really can’t deny that—making it taste more like port wine than beer at times. But once your palate acclimatizes, it becomes a heavenly beer for drinkers who love those massively malty, toasty, bready, toffee-like, dark fruity flavors, with waves of stewed fruitiness that evokes plums, grape and berries. It’s a pure expression of the sugars one can extract from malted barley, a love-it-or-hate-it selection that takes a strong constitution to really explore to the fullest. In the right mood, and in the right setting, it’s still a beer that could blow someone’s mind.
City: Halethorpe, MD
Style: Rum barrel-aged weizenbock
The verdict: Another Christmas seasonal with a recipe that changes every year (albeit always rum barrel-aged), Heavy Seas comes at us this year with a unique selection; a rum-infused weizenbock, which I can’t personally say I’ve ever had before. It’s a big, flavorful, weighty beer with expressive banana flavors, and a toasty breadiness that reminds one of a small loaf of German dark rye. Chasing that is a bit of booze, but for a barrel-aged beer at 9% ABV, this thing is hiding its alcohol content quite adeptly. Other tasters cited things such as “dried fig aroma” and “big Christmas sipper” in their notes. Its final placement was no doubt helped by Paste editor Josh Jackson, whose taste for the banana esters of German hefe yeast is well-documented at this point.
City: Hershey, PA
Style: Belgian dark strong ale
The verdict: An East Coast classic of cold weather season, Mad Elf has been portioned out in little flasks as an antidote against winter for some time now. There’s no pretense of hiding how big this beer is—it’s a burly, boozy, bear of a beer that is also unabashedly unbalanced toward the sweeter side of the spectrum. Thanks to the cherry addition, there’s quite a lot of red fruit flavors, and a particular note that reminds us pleasantly of twizzlers or red licorice. The Belgian yeast is fairly restrained, or perhaps it’s simply overcome by the massive maltiness and caramel sweetness, but it adds a background note of complexity. Tasting it blind, you might think it was a big, rich English barleywine, and you wouldn’t be that far off, except the light Christmas spices would make you pause. Regardless, it’s a style that Troegs has comfortably made their own over the years … so familiar, in fact, that Paste’s editor was successfully able to identify this beer out of the 71-beer field. That’s palate vindication, and the sign of a distinct brew.
Next: The 15 best Christmas beers we tasted.
City: Akron, OH
Style: Winter warmer/“Christmas ale”
The verdict: This beer was, in no uncertain terms, the one we got the most flack about missing last year, so there was no way we were about to miss it again. And we’re happy to report that it’s an excellent example of an American “Christmas ale.” The aromatics are really nice, with a perfumey blend of sweetly fragrant spices that are led by ginger and resinous pine in particular. I will admit this: I’m shocked to now look up that the ABV is 8.3%, because it sure as hell drinks like a much lighter beer than that. It has the requisite brown sugar sweetness to give it a “gingerbread cookie” impression without going overboard or artificial, which helps it land very near to the center of the bullseye for this style. This particular kind of spiced amber ale is probably the most difficult Christmastime beer style to really stand out in or make a unique impression, but there’s still a notable difference between the “okay” and exemplary entries. Finally: There’s an additional barrel-aged version of this beer? Come on Thirsty Dog, don’t hold out on us!
City: Watou, Belgium
Style: Belgian quadrupel
The verdict: And this, dear readers, is why we now do these tastings blind. St. Bernardus Christmas Ale is royalty among the classic Christmas beers, and indeed it performed very well in our tasting … but for a beer that was #1 in each of the last two years (before we moved to all-blind tasting), it still equates to a fall to Earth, the difference that truly objective judging can make. It’s a very strong, assertive Belgian quad, which softens on second and third impressions and showcases more dark malt/fruitiness reminiscent of raisin and perhaps sour cherry. It also has a vinous character that we haven’t necessarily noted in the past, an aspect that works with the fruitiness to almost create an impression of a complex ale that could even have had some red wine barrel aging. It’s still a classic, but a few of the other big Belgian ales beat out Bernardus this year.
City: Ingelmunster, Belgium
Style: Belgian dark strong ale
The verdict: The winter offering from Kasteel is an interesting one, somewhat flying against the expectations for Belgian dark strong ale. It tones down both the spice and ester aromatics derived from its Belgian yeast, and also keeps the fruitiness in check. Rather, the “dark” is highlighted more than in most, with unmistakable impressions of cocoa, nuts and even a light coffee-like roastiness that one doesn’t often find in any of the classic Belgian styles. There’s also plenty of chewy, sweet toffee flavors, with a finish that one taster referred to as “Werther’s Originals.” It’s sure as hell not what one would call “balanced,” but it is tasty.
City: St. Louis, MO
Style: Winter warmer/“Christmas ale”
The verdict: Schlafly’s Christmas ale feels to me like the more cultured, nuanced, perhaps urbane brother of its well-regarded pumpkin ale—they share a lot of the same DNA and flavor profile, but the Christmas Ale goes about its business with a lot more subtlety rather than the punchy flavors of the pumpkin beer. Like the pumpkin beer, cinnamon is probably the operative spice, with ginger trailing. The brewery says they also use juniper berries—maybe that factored into one taster writing “cigar box” as a tasting note? Regardless, the spices are classily integrated with mild, sugar cookie-like sweetness, making for an easy-drinking pint that surreptitiously hides its 8% ABV. That’s a feature we’re finding in common with many of the best winter warmers on this list—they don’t taste nearly as big as they really are.
City: Boston, MA
Style: Imperial gingerbread stout
The verdict: Another argument for why we conduct these tastings blind: This surprising offering from Sam Adams, which proves that Boston Beer Co. can still hit the occasional home run in their seasonal beer offerings. The most impressive thing about it is the base beer underneath all of the seasonal trappings, which is just a really solid imperial stout that we would be happy to drink regularly. A creamy body and rich cocoa flavor complemented by mild roast is the foundation for the “gingerbread” addition, which is kept tactful and doesn’t feel at all forced or artificial. This is exactly the kind of holiday beer that could be really sought-after if it was coming from a smaller, more hyped brewery, but as is you should find it equally easy to acquire and enjoy.
City: Decatur, GA
Style: Barrel-aged Belgian quad
The verdict: Three Taverns’ Feest Noel is a spiced Belgian quad in the same vein as St. Bernardus Christmas Ale, but this version has undergone additional bourbon barrel-aging on top of all the rest. It’s a fascinating beer, because in this case it seems like the barrel-aging has brought out different characteristics than one usually expects from a whiskey barrel beer. Compared to the regular Feest (which was also in this tasting), it comes off spicier—but not necessarily in the Christmas spice sense. Rather, it’s a prickly, complex spice that reminds us of the botanicals one might find in cola or root beer. Likewise, the overall assertiveness of flavor has been amplified, but the beer’s mouthfeel seems thinner, making an experience that is somehow less “rich” but perhaps more distinctive. One taster was sure that we were dealing specifically with port barrels, while another’s notes read “boozy as hell in a way that’s perfect for Christmas.” It’s damn good stuff, but as it turns out, we enjoyed the base beer even more.
City: Melle, Belgium
Style: Belgian dark strong ale
The verdict: Banana and clove Belgian yeast aromas factor in big on this classic Belgian dark strong ale, which follows immediately with toasted breadiness and closes with wave after wave of dark fruit—think cherry and raspberry. Unsurprisingly, the Belgian brewmaster visiting during this particular tasting had little difficulty sussing out the beer’s origin. Despite the ABV, though, Delirium Noel remains a good bit more drinkable than one might expect, and lighter of body as well compared to some of its brethren. If you’re looking for one of the classic Belgians that is perhaps a bit less aggressive in its presentation, this would be our pick.
City: Patchogue, NY
Style: Barrel-aged imperial stout
The verdict: Once again, this is why we do the tastings blind. This is a brand new holiday imperial stout from Blue Point, so fresh that it doesn’t even have a single written review on BeerAdvocate as of this writing. It’s received some bourbon barrel aging and was also brewed with sour cherries, resulting in a true flavor bomb of chewy dark malt and a big punch of berry fruitiness. The mouthfeel is huge, as are the whiskey impressions, which deliver a flavor akin to rich vanilla custard topped with maraschino cherries. This is a stout that wears its flavors on its sleeve—no futzing around, just an indulgent holiday treat. It’s indicative, I think, of how the current landscape of barrel-aging has become more egalitarian and accessible—no longer do excellent barrel-aged beers only come from small, hyped craft brewers. We don’t go out of our way to praise Anheuser-owned products at Paste, but credit where credit is due—Blue Point has delivered a delicious imperial stout for the holidays on this one.
City: Astoria, OR
Style: American IPA with fir tips
The verdict: A straight-up Christmas IPA and an excellent one from a brewery that has performed well in our past hoppy beer tastings, Fort George’s Magnanimous is a pretty refreshing change of pace in a lineup like this. It’s one of the season’s ubiquitous beers brewed with bits of real tree—in this case fir rather than the more common spruce—but unlike a lot of those beers the addition doesn’t create too much of a piney, car freshener aroma. Rather, it simply works in subtle conjunction with a slew of piney, citrusy and even tropical hops to deliver a bitter, punchy, off-dry ale. Writes one taster: “Juicy with a pine bite.” Multiple others noted “pineapple” in addition to the more expected pine and lemon citrus aromatics. Regardless, this is an excellent IPA that we’d be happy to drink any time of year because it doesn’t hit you over the head with specific seasonal theming.
City: San Diego, CA
Style: American IPA
The verdict: This is a beer born out of an accident that you might as well refer to as a Christmas miracle. It was created when two tanks at Green Flash were accidentally mixed together in a hop back—we hear that it was Soul Style and Alpine’s Nelson—and the holiday result might actually be better than either of those well-regarded IPAs. It hits with an huge waft of sticky, resinous, spicy pine, in a way that isn’t only fragrant but deliciously enticing. You can joke, as on one taster’s sheet, that this is “for when you want to drink your Christmas tree,” but pine flavors are an easy thing to make astringent rather than appealing. This one manages a very high volume of flavor without the accompanying bitterness creeping out of control. It makes an excellent tandem of winter IPAs with the previous beer, and together these two represent our favorite hop-forward selections of the tasting. In fact, even at a brewery that primarily makes IPAs, Jolly Folly is probably one of the best Green Flash has done.
City: Downingtown, PA
Style: “Winter Hefeweizen”
The verdict: Let’s just get it out of the way: No, a great hefeweizen isn’t what you think of as classical Christmastime beer. But damn it, there’s nothing saying that you can’t put out a German wheat beer for the holidays if you want to do it, and that’s what Victory did, and we salute them for it. After all, do we really need to add one more spiced Christmas ale to that market? Isn’t it better to have choices for all tastes? Especially when they’re this solid: Winter Cheers features some massive, tempting yeast aromatics that hit like a wave of freshly baked banana bread. This is one that punches well above its weight class as well in terms of volume of flavor—several tasters thought they were tasting a much bigger beer, perhaps a Belgian golden strong ale or trippel. It’s a doughy, chewy, spicy wheat ale that will make you reevaluate what you want to be drinking during the holiday season.
City: Decatur, GA
Style: Belgian quad
The verdict: When we tasted Feest Noel in last year’s ranking (it finished at #5), I had a bit of a suspicion that it might do even better in the setting of a blind tasting. And ultimately, this proved true. Vaulting past a few of the classic Belgian offerings comes a spiced Belgian quadrupel from Georgia that one taster simply wrote “smells like Christmas.” It’s bigger on the spices than some of its contemporaries, a real potpourri that especially highlights cinnamon and clove. It’s boozy, bready, on the sweeter side, and topped with a cap of dense, creamy foam that never seems to want to dissipate. To quote another tasting sheet: “Potent, Christmasy, boozy, rich, delicious.” Compared to the barrel-aged version, the Christmas spices come through a bit more vividly here, and the body seems more full and smooth. It’s a quad that has no rough edges or aspects that seem out of balance, and ultimately it’s that harmony that likely elevated the scores it received.
City: Escondido, CA
Style: Spiced stout
The verdict: Cursed with a rather cumbersome name in order to differentiate it from the beer that won Stone’s homebrewing competition in 2014, Xocoveza is nevertheless some delicious, incredibly well-balanced and conceived stuff. It’s also not a beer you would probably expect as a holiday brew from Stone—this one hasn’t been carpet-bombed with hops, for which we can only say thank you. Doing a “take on Mexican hot chocolate,” as Stone says in the ad copy, is hardly a new flavor profile for stouts at this point, but few of them are executed this deftly. Combining cocoa, coffee, pasilla peppers, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg, it really shines with an understated chile presence that adds smokiness and additional dried, dark fruit flavors—in short, it uses chiles in the subtle way that almost all the really great chile beers do. The chocolate and coffee flavors are also very well integrated as a baseline of “mocha.” From one tasting sheet: “Huge spice and vanilla aroma, big flavors that are well done.” If what you want for Christmas is stout, then this is something you can’t afford to miss.
City: Leuze-Pipaix, Belgium
Style: Belgian dark strong ale
The verdict: Scaldis Noel Premium is probably the quintessential Belgian dark strong ale of the season, and it also happens to perhaps be the biggest of them. The profile is completely classic: raisin, currants, blackberry, brown sugar and booziness that warms the center of your chest and radiates outward. Writes one taster: “Big raisin and Belgian candy sugar flavors.” Writes another: “Not too balanced, but very, very Xmas.” That’s Scaldis—it’s wish-fulfillment beer for those who love the big, dark Belgian fruit and booze bombs. It may not be quite as thoughtful or nuanced as some of the other Belgians, but it zeroes in on what we all love about the style. You can enjoy it as you sit with your family watching It’s a Wonderful Life after Christmas dinner, or you could probably baste a Christmas ham with it just as easily. I’m fairly certain that it would perform equally well in either scenario.
City: Seattle, WA
Style: American strong ale
The verdict: With a giant, malty, barrel-aged beer, every brewery is essentially trying to fulfill two simultaneous goals. The issue is that those goals—to both create massive flavors and make those flavors approachable and enjoyable—are somewhat in conflict with one another by nature. You know this, as drinkers. You’ve choked down whiskey barrel-aged beers that taste like licking the sour, charred oak on the inside of the barrel, and on the opposite end, “barrel-aged” beer that simply use the gimmick in name without really contributing the heart and soul of the barrel. Finding the balance is everything. It’s the measuring stick by which we judge barrel-aged beer.
Fremont’s Bourbon Abominable Winter Ale, hereafter referred to simply as B-Bomb, in the brewery’s own parlance, is some exceptional barrel-aged beer. It’s hard to say exactly what the base beer is—unlike so many other high-ABV entries on the list it’s not a quad, a Belgian dark strong or an imperial stout. It doesn’t have the hops to be American barleywine. It’s just a huge, malty American strong ale, and not one that falls back on a bunch of holiday spices to prop it up.
The flavors are monolithic in scope. It explodes with dried and fresh fruit flavors, port wine and whiskey booziness and the dark, rich sweetness of sticky molasses, which fades to brandied fruitcake over a finish that literally lasts for minutes. But what kept us coming back over and over was how smooth, how perfectly without rough spots this flavor bomb is. We can’t imagine a better way to celebrate the holidays with your loved ones than by cracking a B-Bomb.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he’s coming around on the opinion that the Christmas tasting is one of our best yearly groups of beers. You can follow him on Twitter.