An old English poem calls beer “…meat and drink and cloth,” and nothing suits that description as well as the rich, satisfying beers produced in celebration of winter’s dark days. It’s no wonder they’re often called “winter warmers.”
Most of the great European beer cultures we draw our inspiration from have a tradition of special holiday beers. In the past, American brewers also produced holiday beers that were special versions of their regular offerings, sometimes with a bit more color and alcohol. By the 1960s, this was a lost tradition in the U.S. After a decades’ absence, they would come roaring back with a dark, malty vengeance.
Anchor Brewing restarted the tradition in 1975 with Our Special Ale. It began as an unspiced Strong Ale, but in 1987, spices began to be added. Up until the early nineteenth century, spices were common in English beers, and today’s spiced holiday ales owe a debt to them. Anchor’s version changes noticeably from year to year. The company, often forthcoming with brewing details on other beers, is notoriously tight-lipped about what’s actually in this beer—just a bit of fun that adds to the mystery.
There are plenty of others to choose from these days. Many, like Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Christmas Ale, Anderson Valley Brewing Company’s Winter Solstice and Harpoon Brewery’s Winter Warmer take their inspiration from the English spiced beer and wassail tradition, but others do not.
Alaskan Brewing Company’s Winter Ale uses the fruity, spicy character of spruce tips for a unique twist, but many are simply strong, malty ales, often with a heavy dose of hops. Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale is a classic of this genre as are Pyramid Breweries’ Snowcap, Deschute Brewery’s Jubelale, New Belgium Brewery’s Snow Day and Rogue Ale’s Santa’s Private Reserve, which contains a mystery hop named “Rudolph.”
Other styles can be used as the foundation of a celebratory nip: Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Chocolate channels an Imperial Stout while Flying Fish Brewing’s Grand Cru Winter Reserve is a Belgian strong golden ale. Mix those two together if you dare, and you get a really amped-up black and tan. Sam Adams has a nicely understated Winter Lager as well as a Holiday Porter, a style that Three Floyds Brewing uses for their Alpha Klaus. Lagunitas Brewing Company’s classic Brown Shugga is on hiatus this year pending a brewery expansion, replaced temporarily with Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Ale Brown Shugga Replacement.
Craft Beer: Eggnog’s True Companion
In the old days, strong beers were often compounded into cocktails, and these are a lot of fun to experiment with. Eggnog probably began as a heated, beverage called “posset,” properly called “crambambull” when made with ale. So while we normally think of adding rum or whiskey to our ‘nog, beer is equally delicious in the mix and may be more authentic to boot. Mix up a good batch of fresh eggnog and add a one-third part of a spicy holiday ale such as SweetWater Brewing Company’s Festive Ale, and if it’s really cold outside, a dollop of good dark rum or bourbon.
Cocktails with Craft Beer
Mixology is hot these days, so why not blend with beer? Black velvet, a mix of champagne and Stout, can be much more festive with Imperial Stout and a dollop of raspberry liqueur. Now there’s somethig memorable for New Year’s Eve! Perhaps a Belgian-style Tripel with a splash of mango nectar and a dash of ginger juice, garnished with mint or a strip of lemon grass, or a hoppy amber holiday ale blended with a little fresh cider, topped with whipped cream and garnished with some grated orange peel. And it never hurts to come up with a slightly naughty name for them, too. Try “Naked Nun,” “Sex in the Mash Tun” and Moonrise in Yakima.” What are they? That’s for you to decide.
Recipes for historic drinks like Crab Ale, Bishop, Lambswool and others are pretty easy to find on the Internet. They’re a lot of fun and surprisingly good. In the winter, many of these drinks would have been served hot. Special metal mugswith a long “toe” that could be slid under the coals, were kept handy for this purpose, but we can just pop that crambambull into the microwave for a minute and enjoy.
To tell you the truth, there’s nothing more fun than walking into a festive holiday soirée with a blowtorch and a heavy iron rod in hand, but those are the essential tools to create the king of all holiday beverages—a Flip, a name that derives from its being poured back and forth between two vessels to whip up some froth. Ale, sugar, some spices and a little rum are heated (but not boiled) in a saucepan, then beaten eggs are added and whipped in with a hand blender or a whisk. Now, fire up the torch, fireplace or stove burner, and carefully heat one end of the rod until it’s glowing red, then slowly plunge the rod into the beverage, where it will sizzle and foam, creating a rich caramelly flavor. Now, drink. Tradition was to pass a very large tumbler from person to person. If that doesn’t get the party started, nothing will.
Randy Mosher is an author, lecturer and consultant on beer styles and brewing. He is an instructor for the Siebel Institute in Chicago and the author of The Brewers Companion, Radical Brewing and most recently, Tasting Beer. Additionally, Mosher is a brand identity and package design consultant for an international range of clients in the brewing, food and beverage business through his company, Randy Mosher Design.