Winter beers come in many flavors
They might not melt snow, but the big brown beers of Christmastime display warming, spicy aromas and flavors that evoke so many things December, including gingerbread men, snow-dusted fir trees, mulled wine, and, sometimes, Chanukah.
Among us now are classics like Anchor Brewing’s annual Christmas Ale, Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome Ale, Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale, Deschutes’ Jubelale, and, from Austrian brewery Schloss Eggenberg, Samichlaus, a bock containing more alcohol than most wines and claiming on its front label to be “The World’s Most Extraordinary Beer.” More recently introduced newcomers to this beer category include 21st Amendment’s Fireside Chat, a spiced ale; and Moylan’s spiced White Christmas Winter Lager.
These beers range from 6 percent to 14 percent alcohol by volume and include ales and lagers. What, then, do they all have in common? Christmas spirit, according to the Beer Judge Certification Program guidelines, a long-winded document referred to by brewers and tasters for its eloquent descriptions and definitions of most recognized beer styles. The guidelines declare that a Christmas beer should display “a wide range of aromatics,” often “reminiscent of Christmas cookies, gingerbread, English-type Christmas pudding, spruce trees, or mulling spices. Any combination of aromatics that suggests the holiday season is welcome.” The beers may be spiced with cinnamon, orange peel, nutmeg and allspice and are often malt-heavy, fudgy brews whose sweetness and often high alcohol levels can ably balance their potpourris of aroma.
Lagunitas Brewing Co.’s Brown Shugga’ only loosely matches the BJCP’s description of traditional Christmas beers. Yet it has become one of the most anticipated winter releases in California and often finds its way into horizontal tastings of the Christmas beer style. A review in the December issue of Celebrator Beer News gave Brown Shugga’ a top-notch five-star rating when blind-tasted against dozens of other international winter releases. Brown Shugga’, highly hopped, spicy and sweet, owes a good quarter of its 9.9 percent alcohol level to cane sugar, a trait owing itself to the winter day in 1997 when the brewers, who were making their annual barleywine at their Petaluma facility, ran short of malt and resorted to hundreds of pounds of brown sugar from local supermarkets to fill the malt gap.
Adam Avery, brewmaster at Avery Brewing in Boulder, Colo., says his Old Jubilation Ale is technically most like an English old ale, not a Christmas or holiday ale. The beer, of rich, round coffee and chocolate notes, is made without spice additions, which Avery feels can diminish a beer’s “drinkability” while fatiguing the taster’s palate over the course of a bottle or two. Whether Christmas beer or not, Old Jubilation’s package label depicts a family of holiday revelers in a horse-drawn sleigh arriving at the gates of a country estate, presumably for a tree-trimming party followed by a feast of a roasted pig with an apple in its mouth. Old Jubilation was also included in Celebrator’s tasting and received a five-star rating.
In the same review, Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale received three stars (still a “Good”). Though it’s on shelves now, and though its label features a cozy cabin in the snowy woods, don’t crack the bottle expecting figgy pudding, gingerbread and hot mulled wine from this beer, because it’s actually an IPA, according to the brewery’s senior research analyst, Thomas Nielsen.
Anchor’s Christmas Ale (it received four stars) is the real thing by BJCP standards. Brewed every year since 1975 using a secret blend of spices, the beer is awaited eagerly by devotees who often set aside a magnum bottle or two for long-term cellaring, saving them for that most regal and revered experience in beer drinking—the vertical year-by-year-comparison tasting. The beer’s recipe changes every season but is always brewed as an ode to the “joy and celebration of the newness of life,” according to Anchor’s website. In similar spirit, 21st Amendment’s secretly spiced Fireside Chat (three stars) touts itself as “a kick in the butt and a hug at the same time.”
Finally, we discuss the biggest beer of the month, Shmaltz Brewing Co.’s Jewbelation Fourteen, now on shelves. Chewy, fudgy, and redolent of caramel and hazelnuts, the 14-percent-alcohol ale was released in honor of Schmaltz Brewing’s 14th birthday this December. Last year, the same beer was brewed and released as Jewbelation Bar Mitzvah. Get it? The brewery is Jewish, and if a taste of Fourteen inspires warm, fuzzy feelings and images of loaded stockings, jingling bells, or reindeer, drink again.