Ray Isle (@islewine on Twitter) is Food & Wine's executive wine editor. We trust his every cork pop and decant – and the man can sniff out a bargain to boot. Take it away, Ray.
Few issues in the world are truly black-and-white. Cats, for instance. Some people think they’re nice pets; some people think they’re furry little narcissists who’d happily dine on your face if there were ever a complete collapse of civilization due to a nuclear apocalypse. Ditto Elvis (meaning some people love his music, some think it’s awful. ...Not that he’d dine on your face. Though, honestly, if it were a zombie-based apocalypse, I suppose he might.)
But one thing that can be divided into simple, black-and-white categories is winter and holiday beers. Basically, there are the ones that taste like something your grandmother would bake, and the ones that don’t.
Not that I’m trying to tick off the grandmothers of the world. I don’t want a legion of rolling pin-wielding grannies chasing me down Fifth Avenue, bent on my demise. However, I do think that a beer should, at least in some way, taste like a beer instead of, say, a fruitcake.
Other people may not be as riled up by this topic as me. I accept that. Since it’s almost Christmas and there’s still time to buy a case of tasty winter ale, I don’t want the beer drinkers of the world to come back home with something that tastes like a fermented brown sugar-cinnamon Pop-Tart. So here are six that are actually very good:
Anchor Brewing Christmas Ale
San Francisco-based Anchor Brewing has been making its Christmas Ale since 1975, changing the secret recipe for it with each new release. There are definite spice notes in this dark-brown ale (clove, juniper), but they're subtle rather than overbearing, and the main impression is appealing, toasty malt.
Italian brewer Teo Musso is at the forefront of that country’s quickly growing craft beer scene, making a range of terrific Belgian-style beers from his home base in Piozzo. His Christmas brew is akin to a Belgian strong, dark ale, clocking in at 9% alcohol (though you wouldn’t guess it) with light notes of toffee, espresso and cherries.
The folks at Deschutes have been brewing their Jubelale for 25 years now. The 2012 is a chicory-inflected, chestnut-colored, malty and spicy English-style strong ale with a low-key hop note. It’s a terrific example of a winter warmer ale, perfectly balanced and alarmingly easy to drink.
Innis & Gunn Winter Treacle Porter
This Scottish upstart (founded in 2003) makes a range of interesting oak-aged beers. Their winter offering is a porter - though a very light, ruddy-hued one - with a distinct toffee-malt character and hints of vanilla from the barrel-aging.
Smuttynose Winter Ale
Trappist ale yeast gives this seasonal beer from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a luscious, full-bodied, caramel-fruity character; there are no particular spice notes here, so it’s really more a traditional Belgian dubbel rather than a specific winter brew. But it’s darn good, and in the end, isn’t that what matters?
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale
One of the most widely distributed and popular winter-season ales, this American IPA isn’t spiced with anything at all. It is, though, emphatically grapefruit-y and piney, thanks to the fresh (just-harvested) hops used in the brewing. It’s a wake-you-up style of beer, i.e., just the ticket if you’re in a state of holiday-induced exhaustion.
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I love Stella and Heineken. They are delicious!!!
Add the oh so delicious St. Arnold's Christmas Ale to the list and remove the Sierra Nevada. California has way better beers with the first listed Anchor Steam being a great example!
Boulevard Nutcracker Ale is a tasty treat. I second the mention of Shiner Cheer as well.
I have only tried one of those and, like pretty much every Deschutes brew, it was wonderful.
I haven't had any fruity Christmas beers, but I did have a Widmere – Marionberry Hibiscus Gose (limited release [summer?]) – that was pretty good.
Big Bad Baptist Imperial Stout. It truly warms the soul.
You better be talking about Jesus when you refer to this holiday as a "fairy tale."
By the way, in case you're not, I just finished leaving gifts at the homes of more than 5 billion kids who believe in me, so STFU and show some DAM respect.
A particular favorite of mine since I moved to Texas is the limited edition, Winter Warmer by Rahr and Sons of Fort Worth, Texas. Cheers to all.
Drugs are bad.
You forgot Ninkasi's Sleigher......
Ninkasi is expanding but still too small to get much notice.
In time more people will discover what a great brewer they are.
Belgium beer is the best.....
Who celebrates a fairy tale? LEt the sheep have their day. Its just another day off for me.. Bring on the beer!!
I'm impressed by your superiority.
You better be talking about Jesus.
By the way, in case you're not, I just finished leaving gifts at the homes of more than 5 billion kids who believe in me, so STFU.
I'm confused, Mark.
Are you taking your day off from the sheep? Is that why they get their day? Poor sheep.
Only liberals could take the Celebration of the Birth of Christ and turn it into a keg party.
Pretty sure Jesus got the party started with all that wine.
Dec 25th was a merry drinking giftgiving holiday long before the era of Jesus, who according to the bible was born in early summer.
Only a conservative would turn an article about Christmas into a political rant.
Exactly. The anger and bitterness is astounding. They take Obama in the white house as an almost violent personal attack and cataclysmic threat to themselves and their perceived (in the case of the average working/middle class republican voter) special power. It is a serious trip to witness the posturing behaviors of the people who consider themselves conservative during the Obama era of America. Obama simply drives them crazy.
I agree with the Great Lakes Christmas Ale. That's been one of my favorites for a while. However, first choice, I'll go with something I've made for the holidays. Last year, it was a habenero pepper porter. This year it's a chocolate oatmeal stout, which I'm loving. I'm looking for something dark and high gravity in the winter, but not necessarily with all the cookie spices.
Or you could just have a tall, cold Miller Lite and stop being a pretentious a-hole who thinks that microbrews are the end all be all.
Actually micro brews started it all when beer was what people drank instead of the unsanitary water. Almost every community had it's own beer. Then over time the Macrobrews like Miller, Bud, and Coors started telling people that the fizzy yellow water is what they should like. Every beer has its place but micro brews are becoming more popular because many people are find that they just plain taste better. There's a brew for everyone out there and Miller might be yours, but is sure isn't mine. If I want light and refreshing I'll have a Baxter's XPA or the like.
Sad to see that two of my favorites are not listed. Great Lakes Brewing Company Christmas Ale and Shiner Cheer.
Yes, Belgium. The home of InBev. They rock. [/sarcasm]
Add to that list nearly any beer brewed in Belgium or Czech Republic. The two best beer-brewing countries in the world.
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