Craft beer is good for any occasion, but there are certain varieties that were made to celebrate the holiday season.
Holiday and Christmas brews have been around for hundreds of years, and American craft brewers have adapted the traditional ales of Belgium and England into a vast range of special beers to accompany the winter holidays. Dark ales rich with malt flavor and tinged with spices are most common, but there are hoppy varieties to try as well.
Don't deck the halls without a six-pack. Here are three tried-and-true classics from veteran American craft breweries that will help ease you into the hectic holidays.
Anchor Christmas Ale
San Francisco's Anchor Brewery has been making steam ale for more than a century, and its annual Anchor Christmas Ale has been a year-end favorite for four decades. Each year, the brewery tweaks its formula and the labels are hand-illustrated to feature a different tree. For 2015, the brewery dialed back the spices and intensified the piney hop character. It's still dark and rich with hints of molasses and chocolate, but the hop aroma is much more pronounced. There's one other thing that makes Anchor Christmas Ale a special holiday treat. In addition to the usual six-packs, the beer is available in an attractive gold foil-dressed magnum bottle that holds 1.5 liters. The giant bottles can usually be found at BevMo! and other big booze retailers for less than $20.
Sierra Nevada Celebration
Dark ales brimming with cinnamon, nutmeg and clove flavors are common styles of holiday brews, but California's largest craft brewery keeps its focus on hop flavors. Sierra Nevada Brewery has been making Celebration Ale with fresh hops since 1981, long before the IPA style grew to dominate the industry. They've added the "IPA" moniker to the Celebration bottles and refreshed the label a bit, but that's all that's changed in 30-plus years of making the beer. Straddling the border between deep golden and light amber, Celebration features more malt character than most California IPAs, but the aroma and flavor are still all about those pungent hops from the Pacific Northwest. The recipe for Celebration is the same every year, but variations in each year's hop crop have a big influence on the brew's flavor. The pine and pith and grapefruit aromas are particularly pleasant in this year's batch, and the hops' big round bitterness lingers long after each sip. You can often find 12 packs for less than $15 at most supermarkets.
The annual winter release from Bend's Deschutes Brewery, a classic craft brewery in Oregon, has a classic malt and spice flavors. Jubelale blends several malts with American, European and English hop varieties and adds a delicate layer of holiday spices. Though many spiced Christmas ales can be a little too heavy on the spice, Jubelale manages to balance the aromatics with roasty malts and plenty of hop bitterness. There are hints of dried fruits, plums and currants underneath the spices, but the ale isn't dense or heavy on the palate. The beer has been winning awards for more than three decades, and six-packs should be widely available at craft beer retailers and supermarkets.