At this time every year, beer aisles are inundated with holiday and Christmas beers. Although Christmas beer isn’t a specific style, it often falls into spiced ales, sweet stouts, or varieties called “winter warmers.” We all love the scent of holiday spice candles, but does a beer really need to taste like one to be a popular holiday beer? ManBQue’s resident beer experts, John Scholl & Jesse Valenciana, take this question on to find the best Christmas beers of the season. We sampled two ales, a stout, and a porter to recommend the beer with the most holiday cheer in it.
Nutcracker Ale – Boulevard Brewing
JS: This beer is definitely the color of good ol’ St Nicks outfit and smells as if he had just finished harvesting hops. With the great aroma, excitement for the first sip grew.
(Takes First Sip)
What the hell? The aroma and taste don’t mix, it’s like a bitter clove pine cone that hangs in the mouth well beyond when the dry finish wears off. That great aroma is overtaken by a flat mouthfeel that makes me question which spice I’m tasting. It does get better as it warms, or maybe it just gets better because it’s a 7.8% beer and it’s winter warming me. While the website claims that this beer is relatively low in IBUs, the sharpness hangs around too long and disconnect between aroma and taste sets the Christmas beer bar pretty low.
JV: I’m with John on this one, this was a misleading beer. The nose was way hoppy, with noticeable spice to it, which was actually promising. But when I took my first drink it was all hops, and the spices that were promised seemed to disappear. The alcohol was a bit high for my liking on such a thin beer. A very mediocre beer that shouldn’t be going around calling itself a “winter warmer.” That’s how beers get beat up…by beer dorks like me.
Christmas Ale – Bell’s Brewery
JS: The artwork on the 6 pack is a pine tree in a barley field, like Bell’s is trying to tell us something here. As I pour into the glass, I’m SHOCKED (shocked!) to see that it’s an amber colored ale. Just once, I’d like to find a Christmas ale that isn’t amber. This one smells not of sugarplum and spice, but of malt. “Well this is refreshing” I say after finishing my first few sips. The maltiness is a nice change from the bitterness of the previous beer we tried. With a ginger note in the finish, the beer is asking to be drunk all evening.
Bells uses local grain and a mixture of local and Pacific Northwest hops, which do become stronger as the glass empties but it still subtle compared to the grain, ginger, and pepper notes. Since this beer is 5.5% it can be enjoyed with family without someone bringing up how they were never mom’s favorite.
JV: This was a damn good holiday session beer with a nice light body to it. There was a very subtle but great malt scent to it, almost biscuity. There was a light pepper taste to it but what really made this awesome was a slight ginger flavor that lingered. I could have had ten of these beers, but John would have probably kicked me out of his house for being drunk and crying myself to sleep in his guest room. Again.
Merry Maker Gingerbread Stout – Sam Adams
JS: I know, I know – Sam Adams, aren’t they as big as InBev or something? I picked up this bomber because it wasn’t a holiday ale and because the price was seven bucks. There were also a couple gingerbread men riding a toboggan, which looked like fun. I’m a sucker for gingerbread fun. I break out the stout snifter for this one, and immediately noticed how great the carbonation is for this style of beer. This beer is exactly as I thought it would be by looking at the label; a gingery robust molasses front with a clove and roasted malt finish. Well done, Sam Adams.
JV: The first “craft” beer I ever liked was Sam Adams Boston Lager. I was 19. Since then, I haven’t been too enthused by much of what they produce. The Merry Maker didn’t make me re-fall in love with Sam Adams or anything, but it was certainly a solid beer.
The beer had a nice, sweet and molassess-y nose. The flavor was that of a wheat beer with a gingerbread cookie dipped in it. I liked the sweetness to it but I couldn’t possibly have more than one of these in a sitting. It had a very nice viscosity to it and the head was great, a perfect bodied stout.
Alpha Klaus – Three Floyds
JS: Okay Three Floyds, get me ready for Christmas. Immediately upon opening the bottle, I get the whiff of amazing hops. Is it Citra? Is it Galaxy? Was it dry hopped? Oh Three Floyds, you did it! This was like seeing a big present under the tree – you know it’s big, but aren’t sure how great it’s going to be.
Aside from the huge hop nose, this beer doesn’t taste like the traditional holiday brew. The dark malt finishes with a well-balanced hop and chocolate notes. Think of 3 Floyd’s Black IPA In The Name of Suffering with chocolate. This beer isn’t gimmicky and could be released any time during the year. Of the four beers I tried; this is the winner. Christmas-y? No. Good beer? Yes.
JV: Does Three Floyds ever make any beer that isn’t good? I’m not a fan of all of their beers, but they never make any beers that aren’t at the very least solid. The nose on this beer was awesome – hops were very deliciously fragrant. John and I were at a loss trying to figure out what they used. For a porter, the Alpha Klaus was a bit on the thinner side. It had excellently subtle chocolate notes with the right amount of sweetness to it. This was by no means some gimmicky holiday brew. It really reminded me of my favorite Three Floyds beer of all time, a New Orleans-style black IPA, “In The Name of Suffering” if it was dosed with dark chocolate.
This was my favorite of all the beers we so bravely tasted. You’re welcome, America