There are many custom brews to enjoy this holiday season, just don’t try them all at once
The holiday season can be a funny one for the beer world. Your average pale lager or even favourite IPA may not seem, well, festive enough to mark the occasion.
There is a reason people brew up mulled cider or rum eggnog for holiday parties, but this year, consumers want something more.
In recent years, craft brewers have become increasingly inventive with what they do with their releases around the holidays. In short, they are upping their game around finding beers that are well suited for holiday celebration.
I argue there are three types of holiday season beer available: the winter warmer, the spiced beer and the experimental beer.
The winter warmer is the most straightforward. It is a darker, maltier brew, often with a higher alcohol content designed for cold winter nights. British breweries have long brewed winter warmers as part of their regular rotation and more recently, many North American craft breweries have jumped on the bandwagon.
If you want a classic warmer style, look no further than Samuel Smith’s Winter Warmer, with its classic combination of caramel, molasses, chocolate, dark fruit, and full body. A more American interpretation comes from B.C.’s Bridge Brewing and its Sleigh Booster. It has similar malt flavours, but draws in an assertive American-hop bitterness.
Looking closer to home, Edson’s Bench Creek Legend Extra Old Ale (another name for winter warmer) is both lighter in colour and body, adding a noted hop character in the background for balance. Clocking in at 11.8 percent, it certainly does the job of warming up your insides.
The second group is spiced beers. There are actually two sub-categories here. The first is beer with the addition of holiday spices. The additions usually include cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and vanilla—similar to the spices added for mulled cider or wine—but can also include ginger, anise, licorice, citrus fruits, and other earthy spices.
The result can be quite mixed depending on how heavily dosed the spices are and the relative merits of the base beer. Some more commercial examples, like Granville Island’s Lions Winter Ale, go heavy on the sweetness and vanilla character. Others find a way to achieve a more palatable balance. Howe Sound’s Father John Winter Ale is one that balances a rich, chocolatey beer with a noted level of mulled spices, making it richly complex. Notable, renowned American craft pioneer Anchor Brewing releases a new version of their Xmas Ale each year with a different combination of spices.
The second sub-category adds no spices at all but still finds a way to impart similar flavours. These breweries figured, ‘why go to the trouble of creating a new beer with spices when you need not look any further than a dark Belgian Abbey-style ale?’ This longstanding style uses yeast strain to produce earthy, rounded spice characters without any special addition. Any Belgian dark ale, including Dubbels or Quadrupels, are perfect for the bill. St. Bernardus always releases a Christmas Ale that brings the power of its ABT12, bringing out the spiciness just that much more. De Rank and Gouden Carolus also offer annual Christmas versions of their strong, funky beer.
The third category didn’t really exist a few years ago. But, I think many craft brewers started to get bored with the whole holiday spices thing and started looking at other flavours they could use. We are seeing non-traditional approaches and styles that still leave the beer with a celebratory feel.
First in on the experimental act may have been Deschutes with their annual Jubel Celebration Ale. It uses some of the traditional spices, but adds interesting hops and often the beer is aged in oak barrels prior to release, creating a complex, style-straddling winter ale.
Other more fascinating creations are Alley Kat’s recent Long Johns, a salted caramel ale attempting to replicate the flavour of a chocolate treat. Along a similar vein, Bench Creek (its second holiday beer of the year) with Veruca Salted Brownie Oat Stout. Fernie Brewing may go the furthest this year with their Black Mammoth Winter Ale complete with Seville orange peel, oak spirals soaked in Triple Sec, dark chocolate, and cocoa powder.
Whether your tastes go for the more traditional holiday flavours or the more adventurous, there is a festive beer waiting for you. Be safe this holiday season and if having more than one or two of these brews, be sure to make other travel arrangements.