Whatever you think about Christmas, you’ve got to agree that it is mankind’s greatest, most enduring tradition. Yes, it’s over-commercialized and most of the world doesn’t even celebrate it, but, you’ve gotta give props to any institution that’s been around for 2,000 years—especially one that comes with so much good craft beer.
Now, some will protest: “Ah, Christmas beer—a blatant commercialization of a sacred, family tradition just to sell more suds.” Indeed, for years after Prohibition, breweries were generally prohibited from using Christmas, especially jolly, old St. Nicholas, to advertise their brands. Just six years ago, the state of Maine grumbled “Bah, humbug!” to a brand whose label depicted Santa Claus, and declared it “undignified and improper.” But in fact, beer has always been a part of Christmas.
Before Prohibition, German immigrants brewed special, dark lagers for the holiday. Before that, the English served homemade wassail (spiced ale) to Dickensian carolers singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” In the Middle Ages, observant monks brewed their finest, strongest beer to mark the birth of Christ. Around 900 AD, as Norwegians converted to Christianity, they brought along their smoky Viking Jul (Yule) ale. At the risk of finding coal in my stocking, I’d argue that Christmas beer is older than Christmas itself.
Whether the date is divine or not, the traditions surrounding the holidays—gift giving, feasting and, yes, beer drinking—has evolved into the celebrations of Christmas. Which is why I say Christmas beer is not a style, it’s a tradition. It needn’t be spicy or strong, sweet or dark; it need only be special, a gift to be shared in the spirit of the holiday with family and friends.
Everyone has a favorite craft beer of the season. Here are 12 that are jingling my bells this year.
- Our Special Ale | Anchor Brewing | San Francisco, CA
Our Special Ale is the granddaddy of Christmas beer, and in my opinion the craft beer that reignited America’s passion for holiday ales. Famously flavored with a secret mix of spices that changes each year, this dark ale’s body is enhanced with delicious fruit-like malts.
- Mad Elf | Tröegs Brewing Company | Hershey, PA
Mad Elf is an East Coast cult favorite, that annually sells out, and at 11 percent alcohol content, gives everyone a nice, shiny red nose. But it’s not all about strength. This flavorful Belgian-style ale is flavored with cherries and honey, and its distinctive yeast strain provides a tingly snap to the palate.
- Christmas Beer | Great Lakes Brewing Company | Cleveland, OH
The Midwest version of Mad Elf, this honey ale draws raves from similarly impassioned fans who count down the days till its annual release. Though it’s considerably lighter (7.5 percent ABV) than the Elf, it has a nice, spicy kick thanks to the addition of fresh ginger and cinnamon.
- Celebration | Sierra Nevada Brewing Company | Chico, CA
This beer continues to dazzle the hophead in me, even in an age of double and triple IPAs. The aroma of its Cascade and Centennial hops just explodes from a billowing head above its copper-colored body. It’s as bright and fresh as a decorated tree on Christmas Eve.
- Jewbelation Sweet 16 | He’Brew The Chosen Beer | New York, NY
At 16 percent alcohol, this brown ale (made with 16 different malts and hops) will surely spin your dreidel no matter what your faith.
- St. Nikolaus Bock Bier | Penn Brewery | Pittsburgh, PA
A 2011 GABF medalist, this doppelbock has a full, luscious body. Though named for the fourth-century patron saint of Christmas, that’s actually American illustrator Thomas Nast’s nineteenth-century portrait of Santa Claus on the label.
- 2XMAS | Southern Tier Brewing Company | Lakewood, NY
Southern Tier’s new holiday ale for 2012 was made in the tradition of Sweden glögg. Though it’s brewed with figs, orange peel and spices, it’s not one of those over-bearing Red Zinger-like tea mixes. Its body is rich and creamy, not unlike the brewery’s highly-regarded autumn seasonal, Pumking.
- Santa’s Little Helper | Port Brewing Company | San Marcos, CA
At 10 percent alcohol, this rich, chocolate-like Russian imperial stout seems like it oughta be dessert. On draft, though, it’s so easy-drinking. Sometimes it’s fun being a little bit naughty.
- Sled Wrecker | Nodding Head Brewery & Restaurant | Philadelphia PA
Nodding Head’s winter warmer is made with Barbados molasses and rum-soaked fruit. A pint instantly eases the stress of holiday shopping and replaces it with a comfortable, friendly glow.
- 5 Golden Rings | The Bruery | Orange County, CA
The latest in The Bruery’s series of 12 Days/Years of Christmas series, following 4 Calling Birds, 3 French Birds and, well, you get the idea. As its name implies, this one is a golden ale, with Christmas spices.
- Santa’s Private Reserve | Rogue Ales | Newport, OR
always strikes me as an unusual ale for the holidays, and not just because its so distinctively hoppy. It’s the label’s raised clenched fist that throws me – a very un-Santa-like pose.
- Winter Solstice | Anderson Valley Brewing Company | Boonville, CA
A nod to the true roots of the holiday season, though I highly doubt the Druids of 200 B.C. were enjoying ales flavored with vanilla. This is an exceptionally creamy winter warmer.
Don Russell writes the Joe Sixpack beer reporter column at the Philadelphia Daily News, and is the author of Christmas Beer: The Cheeriest, Tastiest and Most Unusual Holiday Brews.