Pictured above: Breckenridge Brewery Christmas Ale
Near the end of each year, a handful of brewers around the world make one of my all-time favorite beer styles: The Christmas ale.
Where other beers (think IPAs, lagers, or stouts) have clear guidelines as to what constitutes their style, the Christmas ale spans a wide range of malt and hop contents—and sometimes even includes spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. What they all have in common, though, is that their higher alcohol contents and robust flavors make them perfect winter warmers when the nights grow chilly.
And because these Christmas beers are only available for a short time each year, your window of opportunity for scooping up a few is closing quickly. I recommend grabbing a few six packs from different producers; they actually age quite well in the fridge, developing even fuller flavors and aromas over time.
Anchor Christmas Ale
The Christmas ale began its first run of popularity in the United States in the early 1900s, and was quickly squelched by Prohibition. Pretty much the only reason we have Christmas ales in the States now is because of San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing. Beginning in the mid-’70s, they started offering “Our Special Ale.” Each year since, their bottle design has featured a new type of tree—and a new recipe. Tasting notes for 2021’s release include a mild wood smoke, abundant caramel tones from its malts, and a pleasantly pungent hoppiness that binds the whole thing together. Truly one of the best Christmas ales around.
Abita Christmas Ale
In Southern Louisiana, the jolly visage of Santa Claus is replaced with a much more Cajun-themed “Papa Noel.” In homes across the bayou on Christmas Eve, families will light massive bonfires to guide Papa Noel safely through the swamps. And if you were to look into the sky on that evening, you would see not reindeer pulling Papa’s sleigh—but eight flying alligators. This is lovingly portrayed in Abita’s Christmas Ale, which I find to be one of the most pleasantly smooth and easy drinking Christmas beers available in the U.S. It has an aroma dominated by spice and malt sweetness, and a clean hop bitterness on the finish.
Prairie Artisan Ales Christmas Bomb Imperial Stout
Oklahoma’s Prairie Artisan Ales is probably the Midwest’s most experimental brewery, bringing in dozens of adjunct ingredients and making a range of styles that’s always changing and evolving. Prairie is best known for their Prairie Bomb, a huge imperial stout that’s loaded with extra flavors on top of its dense, black base. But Christmas Bomb is even more special—it takes the Prairie Bomb imperial stout base, then adds espresso beans, vanilla beans, chocolate, ancho chile peppers, and Christmas spices for a lengthy aging period. Sip carefully, this one can really sneak up on you.
Bell’s Christmas Ale
Inspired by traditional Scotch ales and then taken up a few notches of ABV, Bell’s Christmas Ale is rich with caramel and toasted malt flavors and very low on hops. It’s a particularly accessible example of the style, with no crazy flavors or heavy hopping to distract from the abundant malt and warming alcoholic finish. And since the brewery distributes out of Kalamazoo, Michigan, you can find it in a wide swath of the United States, from the Midwest to the South to the Northeast. A great beer to bring to Christmas parties.
Schlafly Christmas Ale
Proudly brewed and distributed from St. Louis, Missouri, Schlafly’s Christmas Ale has one of the most unique recipes of any American-made holiday beer. A sweet caramel malt base forgoes much hop presence at all, and instead accentuates that rich and warming flavor with Orange peel, juniper berries, ginger root, cardamom and cloves. It’s the best beer for one of my favorite uncommon holiday drinks: Mulled ale. Really, just heat it up on the stove and take a mug around with you for a walk in the snow. It’s delightful.
Breckenridge Brewery Christmas Ale
Coming to you from Breckenridge, Colorado, Breckenridge Brewery’s Christmas Ale offers a carefully crafted balance of hops and malt in a warming and boozy package. By using a combination of caramel, chocolate, and roasted malts, they provide a deeper base of flavor that needs a significant punch of hops to round it out. That comes courtesy of Chinook and Mt. Hood hops, which give the beer a naturally spicy and herbal finish. If you’re usually a fan of IPAs, this Christmas ale will really be up your alley.
Saint Arnold Christmas Ale
Coming to you from the great state of Texas, Saint Arnold is a Christmas ale brewed less for cold weather and more for slow sipping (Houston doesn’t get a whole lot of snow, after all). It has a bold and rich flavor coming from five different types of malts, lovingly balanced with hops that provide a spicy and drying finish. Coming in at 7.5 percent ABV, it’s a dessert in and of itself—but it also pairs beautifully with classic Christmas confections like fruit cake and spiced pudding. Being near the center of the country has its benefits, too: You can find Saint Arnold’s Christmas Ale in select locations all over the U.S.
Mikkeller Hoppy Lovin’ Christmas Ale
From this beer on, we cross the pond to focus on European-made Christmas ales. Denmark’s Mikkeller brewery is first up, with their Hoppy Lovin’ Christmas Ale: A special edition brew that’s already been discontinued, so get it if you see it on a store shelf. The beer itself is a big, citrus-heavy Imperial IPA that comes in at 7.8 percent ABV. It’s brewed with ginger and pine needles for even more spicy and herbal goodness. It finishes strong, bitter, and zesty, so IPA nerds will absolutely love this Christmas ale.
Corsendonk Christmas Ale
A confession: Belgium is easily my favorite country to drink beers from. Their powerful, unabashed ales have some of the most complex flavors you’ll ever taste, and carbonation is often fine enough to be compared to a real champagne. The Belgian brewers at Corsendonk put these qualities on full display in their Christmas ale, a bottle-conditioned Belgian strong dark ale that smells like every baked good your Grandma ever cooked for the holidays. A pleasantly tart finish is the final touch that keeps the beer from becoming overwhelming, and makes it a fine pairing with just about every dish on the Christmas dinner table.
Delirium Noel Gift Pack
Another confession: I am an absolute sucker for each and every boozy gift pack that comes out around the holidays. Even for spirits and beer I don’t enjoy, if they come with a fancy cup? I’m all in. Thankfully the brewers at Belgium’s Brouwerij Huyghe are top-notch, and their Delirium Noel is the finest Christmas ale I’ve ever tasted—when you drink it from the glass included with this gift pack. It concentrates the deep, rich, fruity and malty flavors to a fantastic crescendo, fully utilizing every point of its 10 percent ABV to achieve a density of flavor usually reserved for distilled spirits.