12 Beers of Christmas

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How many of these classic Christmas beers from craft breweries have you tried? (CraftBeer.com)

The Christmas lights are strung up (they’re still in a tangle in the garage, actually), the stockings are hung (nope), and the presents are all wrapped and under the tree (they haven’t even been ordered yet—that’s what two-day shipping is for). You’ve completed none of your holiday to-do list, and you deserve a beer.

Leave the visions of sugar plums to the little ones this year. For grown-ups, it’s all about those wonderful Christmas beers from independent craft breweries, and we’ve got a dozen classics lined up to get you into the spirit of the season. Put the kids in charge of decorating and kick back with one of these fantastic festive brews.

Great Lakes Brewing Co. | Christmas Ale

It’s difficult to explain the phenomenon of the annual Great Lakes Brewing Co. Christmas Ale release to people who don’t live in Ohio. At the brewery’s “First Pour” release event during the last week of October each year, a pint of Christmas Ale gets poured an average of every five seconds for 12 straight hours. That’s 70 kegs of beer in one day, and it’s only the beginning. Co-Founder Pat Conway says the beer has become an essential part of the season for Ohioans since first being brewed in 1992.

“When you taste it, you think of Christmas and the conviviality and warmth of the season,” he reflects. “It just seems to marry with the energy around Christmas.”

great lakes brewing christmas ale
Great Lakes Brewing Co. Christmas Ale (Great Lakes Brewing Co.)

The beer is brewed with ginger, cinnamon and honey, and weighs in at a warming but gentle 7.5% ABV. The Great Lakes co-founder expresses what many Midwesterners feel about this Ohio Christmas tradition:

“When I take a sip, it’s like I’m wearing a sweater.”

Tröegs Brewing | Mad Elf

Belgian breweries often brew a special high gravity beer for the Christmas season, but strong Belgian Christmas ales from American breweries can be tricky to find. Fortunately, Pennsylvania’s Tröegs Brewing makes plenty of Mad Elf to go around. This Belgian quadrupel is brewed with cherries and honey, and the first batch in 2002 used 300 pounds of local honey from the Happy Beekeeper farm.

“That 300-pound order has increased to 25,000 pounds a year,” says Jeff Herb, who handles marketing at Tröegs.

Tröegs Brewing mad elf
Tröegs Brewing’s Mad Elf (Tröegs Brewing)

Tröegs brews several variants of Mad Elf, including Naked Elf (the base beer without the cherries and honey), Wild Elf (a barrel-aged, mixed-fermentation version), and Mad Elf Grand Cru (a luxurious, limited edition version with Balaton cherries, wildflower honey and demerara sugar).

“We like to think of Grand Cru as our ‘Director’s Cut,'” says Herb.

(RECIPES: Traditional Christmas Desserts Made with Beer)

Revolution Brewing | Fistmas

Remember shopping malls? Revolution Brewing remembers shopping malls.

Rather than a conventional holiday party at one of their Chicago taprooms to celebrate their Fistmas Holiday Ale, the folks at the largest independent brewery in Illinois are hosting a mall crawl. Attendees of the Fistmas Bar Crawl at Woodfield Mall on the northwest side of Chicago will don elf hats and meander between the mall’s restaurants and bars sipping the titular spiced ale, and stops along the way will allow for gift wrapping and DIY Christmas ornament decorating.

Fistmas is 6.5% ABV and is brewed with ginger and orange peel. The beer has stayed more or less the same since it was first brewed in 2010, though it spawns a bolder taproom-only version called Fist of Krampus that changes year to year.

Bell’s Brewery | Christmas Ale

This legendary Michigan brewery is best known for its to-style classics, some of which helped define those styles in the first place. While beers like Two Hearted Ale have earned their status by standing firm on classic flavor profiles in a shifting beer landscape, Christmas Ale has changed with the times and received a significant update in recent years. While the beer was formerly a somewhat “timid” (as far as Christmas beers are concerned) 5.5% ABV, it jumped to 7.5% to better reflect consumer expectations for comforting holiday beers.

“Christmas Ale was revamped in 2017 to be a more rich, impactful and stronger beer for celebrating the holidays, stylistically inspired by non-peated Scotch Ales,” says Josh Smith, communications manager for Bell’s. The rich malt base and warming strength makes Christmas Ale a suitable companion for those cold Michigan Decembers.

(BEER TRAVEL: Plan Your Next Beercation)

Deschutes Brewery | Jubelale

This year marks the 32nd edition of Jubelale, even though Deschutes has only been open 31 years. That’s because Jubelale was the first beer the brewery in Bend, Oregon, ever bottled, all the way back in October 1988. That first year, founder Gary Fish hand-bottled the beer (with some help from his first employees) at his small brewpub. Production has grown a bit since then, but the recipe–based on traditional malty English winter ales–has remained the same.

Since 1995, the label art for each vintage of Jubelale has been designed by a different regional artist and inspired by Oregon winters. This year’s label by Mark Rada depicts birds in a forest, which Rada says represent the Jubelale artists of previous years, and a deer with robotic antennas, which speaks to being attuned to our environment.

“The earth is speaking to us here in Bend,” says Rada. Luckily for us, one of the languages it speaks is beer.

Sierra Nevada Brewing | Celebration Ale

Few beers are as iconically linked to the holiday season across the country as Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. This fresh hop IPA was first brewed in 1981 and the recipe has stayed the same for nearly 40 years, offering festive flavors of citrus and pine with a brisk hop bitterness that matches the cold winter air. Celebration includes plenty of fresh Chinook, Centennial and Cascade hops from the hop fields of the Northwest. Sierra Nevada spokesperson Robin Gregory says the arrival of those succulent hop cones is cause for its own annual celebration at the brewery in Chico, California.

“The fresh hops usually arrive at our dock in the middle of the night, and you should see our brewers,” says Gregory. “They are running around like kids on Christmas morning.”

Gnoel de Abbey beer
The Lost Abbey’s Gnoel de Abbey (The Lost Abbey)

Even for one of the largest independent craft breweries in the country, the excitement about great ingredients and great beer never fades.

The Lost Abbey | Gnoel de Abbey

The Lost Abbey of San Marcos, California, first brewed Gnoel de Abbey in 2017, but in just a few years, it’s already earned its place in this esteemed brewery’s venerated line-up. The beer isn’t spiced as many holiday beers are, but it stands out from the crowd due to its unusual concept. The brewery takes an imperial stout that’s been aging in bourbon barrels for over a year and blends it with a younger and lighter brown ale.

The resulting 8.5% ABV brew has the strength and roast of the imperial stout and the oak notes of the barrel but in a lighter, easy-drinking body, even at this formidable strength.

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Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales | Noel de Calabaza

The sour ale pioneers at Michigan’s Jolly Pumpkin put their own personal stamp on a classic Christmas-y style with Noel de Calabaza. They brew a Belgian dark strong ale, a style many Belgian brewers release as a holiday seasonal, and then put it in oak barrels for six months where it receives the signature Jolly Pumpkin mixed-fermentation treatment.

What emerges is a dazzlingly complex 9% ABV beer with richly layered malt and barrel character, some acidity and subtle funk, and notes of dark fruit and chocolate.

Boston Beer Company | Samuel Adams Winter Lager

Sam Adams Winter Lager is certainly one of the most widely available Christmas beers, and likely one of the first such beers many drinkers ever tried, much as their Octoberfest introduced many American drinkers to that German autumn style.

Winter Lager is a “warming bock with festive spices,” and while its 5.6% ABV is lower than many other beers on this list, its comforting malt flavors and spices make it a fine choice for a casual holiday party or watching a Christmas movie or football game on a December afternoon. The good folks at Boston Beer use ginger, cinnamon and orange peel to lend Winter Lager its festive character.

Victory Brewing | Winter Cheers

When you think of traditional winter or holiday beer styles, hefeweizen probably isn’t one that comes readily to mind. That uniqueness is exactly what makes Victory‘s Winter Cheers Hazy Wheat Ale stand out. While Christmas beers are often spiced, Winter Cheers gets its subtle clove spice from its Bavarian weizen ale yeast, which produces banana-like esters and clove-like phenols.

The beer is a little stronger than many hefeweizens at 6.7% ABV, and its high effervescence and balance of fruity and spicy yeast notes make it an excellent pairing beer for holiday dinners. It even has a nice kick of Citra hops to give it an American twist. You might not have thought of this style as a winter beer at first, but a few sips of this expressive Pennsylvania wheat ale will make you a holiday hefeweizen convert.

Warped Wing Brewing | Esther’s Lil Secret

esther's lil secret beer
Esther’s Lil Secret from Warped Wing Brewing Co. (Warped Wing Brewing Co.)

Warped Wing Brewing from my hometown of Dayton, Ohio, brews a few excellent Christmas and winter seasonals, including a spiced amber lager called Holiday Special and a smooth and comforting doppelbock called Abominator.

The crown jewel of holiday brews from this Gem City brewery, however, is Esther’s Lil Secret, which releases in November each year and is brewed in collaboration with 90-year-old Dayton chocolate company Esther Price Candies.

The recipe for Esther’s Lil Secret changes every year and, true to its name, is a closely guarded secret until the annual “release and reveal” party at the brewery taproom. This year’s edition is a Scotch ale brewed with chocolate, caramel and sea salt.

“We wanted to mimic the flavors of Esther Price’s now-famous Sea Salt Caramel,” says Warped Wing co-founder Nick Bowman. The rich and layered beer is a secret worth keeping.

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Great Divide Brewing | Hibernation Ale

While most of the beers on this list are themed around Christmas, the big holiday is just the beginning of a long winter. For most of the country, there are months of cold weather ahead after the presents are unwrapped. Folks in Colorado know this better than most, and Denver’s Great Divide Brewing releases a beer to carry us through the long, cold winter.

Hibernation Ale is an English-style old ale, a hearty beer with rich, layered malt flavors and enough strength at 8.7% ABV to brace us through those dark, cold evenings. This beer has been brewed since 1995 and has won multiple awards. It’s perfect to enjoy as your Christmas Eve nightcap, but be sure to hold onto enough cans of this traditional English style to last till to crocuses begin to peek through the frosty soil in spring.

Published Dec 11, 2019.

David Nilsen is an Advanced Cicerone and a member of the North American Guild of Beer Writers. He is the host of the Bean to Barstool podcast, and an editor of Final Gravity, a quarterly print beer zine. He lives near Dayton, Ohio, with his wife, daughter, and very irritable cat.

CraftBeer.com is fully dedicated to small and independent U.S. breweries. We are published by the Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade group dedicated to promoting and protecting America’s small and independent craft brewers. Stories and opinions shared on CraftBeer.com do not imply endorsement by or positions taken by the Brewers Association or its members.