Each of the traditional brewing cultures around the globe — Germany, Britain, Belgium, and now America — has a different specialty beer style made for the holidays. You can take a trip through a world’s worth of holiday brews with just one trip to the local bottle shop.
Sugar and spice from Belgium
Any discussion of traditional Christmas brewing must start with Belgian beer. With all of the rich tradition of neighboring Germany’s beer culture, but none of the Teutonic adherence to strict brewing laws, Belgian beer is both refined and adventurous, and the country’s brewers excel at the use of specialty brewing sugars that impart deep color and rich flavors. Often dark and potent (often 10% alcohol or more), the holiday brews can taste like liquid fruitcake. But spices aren’t often added to Belgian Christmas beer (that’s more of a French brewing tradition). It’s the signature Belgian yeast strains that provide all those fruit-and-spice flavors. Imported favorites such as Corsendonk Christmas Ale, Affligen Noël and Saint Bernardus Christmas Ale are classic examples.
There are many American craft breweries with their own take on the style, and actual fruit and spice additions are more common in these new world versions. Try the approachable and affordable (and spice-forward) example available exclusively at Trader Joe’s. Brewed at Quebec’s Unibroue, the yearly Vintage Ale releases are bargains at around $6 for a 750 ml bottle, and the 2017 release is is boldly spiced stocking stuffer.
Strong lager from Germany
In the German brewing tradition, purity is prized and lagers reign. While there are few beers made specifically for the holiday season, the classic bock beer style is a perfect fit for long, cold evenings. A strong lager — meaning a slowly fermented beer with a minimum of the fruity flavors common in ales — bock showcases clean malt flavors. With a higher alcohol and more body than many of the German lager styles, bock was known as “liquid bread” by the monks who brewed it for their Lenten fasts. When the master brewers in Munich got a hold of the style, they bumped up the booze even more and the doppelbock was born. These malty lagers, rich with toast and toffee flavors, are somewhat sweet. They are a perfect match for roasted meats such as duck and pork that are often served with fruit or a sweet sauce as a counterpoint. Doppelbock is also great with chocolate treats and Christmas cookies.
Look for Paulaner Salvator, Ayinger Celebrator, or Spaten Optimator in the imports section at the store. American craft-brewed doppelbocks are a curiously rare breed.
Winter warmers and barleywine from Britain
While low-alcohol real ales such as milds, bitters and brown ales are the mainstay of British beer culture, there’s a long history of brewing strong ales to combat England’s cold and dreary winters. Barleywine is the strongest style in the British tradition that reaches into double-digit alcohol content. The intense beer bursts with malt-derived flavors of toffee, caramel, dark fruits and nuts. Built to weather long years of rest in the cellars of British estates, where the barleywine develops sherry-like sweetness and even more fruit flavors, young barleywine can be quite hoppy (the woody, herbaceous flavors of English hops, and the bitterness they provide fade as the beer ages). There is no beer style better suited to sipping in front of a warm hearth on a quiet holiday night.
Craft brewers, with their tendency toward bombast and excess, have embraced the barleywine style, developing an even stronger and more hop-forward Americanized substyle. And many brewers have taken to aging their barleywines in used bourbon barrels for even more punch. Old Numbskull from San Diego’s AleSmith is available in both standard and a barrel-aged version. Traditional English versions are more refined and showcase more fruity esters and a densely layered malt foundation. Thomas Hardy’s Ale, J.W. Kee’s Harvest Ale and Fuller’s Golden Pride are classic English examples, and there is no better beer to accompany a fragrant wedge of Stilton cheese.
The American brews
Spices, flavorings, barrel aging, and ever increasing alcohol contents are commonplace this time of year, but there are plenty of restrained and refined American classics too. Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale — an IPA made with freshly harvested hops — is as evocative of the holidays as string-lights and sleigh bells for many beer fans. Speaking of sleigh bells, Sleigh'r from Oregon’s Ninkasi brewing is a festive example of a rarely-seen German style: the doppelsticke. Now in its 41st year, Anchor Brewing’s Christmas Ale is another longtime favorite, and each year the San Francisco brewery offers its seasonal brew in oversized magnum bottles, perfect for host gifts and for slipping under the tree.
It’s not all about Christmas brews though, New York’s Shmaltz Brewing — home of “He’Brew- the Chosen Beer” — crafts a special Hanukkah Beer each year to help celebrate the festival of lights. This year’s offering is a dense and creamy golden ale brewed with cacao nibs.