Let’s be honest: Christmastime will drive you to drink — and there are plenty of opportunities at holiday parties to imbibe.
But there’s one major problem. Brewers have used the season as a reason for making holiday-themed craft beers, which simply serve to distract drinkers from the many dozens of styles out there that are just so much better tasting (at least in this writer’s opinion).
Most holiday beers are a take on the winter warmer style with a generous dose of malty sweetness and spices. Save the hoppy bitterness for another time because these beers typically exist to showcase spices like clove, nutmeg and cardamom. They’re also a bit higher in alcohol harshness to give the drinker that warming quality you need about mid-December.
Regardless of our predilections for other styles, we decided to set aside our War on Christmas Beers for a day to see how they stacked up.
To make the tasting infinitely more bearable, we paired the beverages with Ewephoria (an aged sheep’s milk gouda) and Randolphe Fourme Au Moelleux (a blue cheese wrapped with sweet wine) from Aperitivo, as well as lemon ginger clove and iced molasses cookies from Sweetie-licious Bake Shop. Both shops are located in the Downtown Market in Grand Rapids.
Participating judges for this tasting session, which was not a blind comparison, included:
• Joe Boomgaard, Revue Beer Czar and all around Scrooge on anything related to Christmas.
• Rachel Harper, designer at sister publication MiBiz who’s cautiously open-minded to holiday beers.
• Kim Kibby, designer for Revue who doesn’t trust how Christmas beers smell.
• Nate Peck, former scribe turned production scheduler at a Grand Rapids manufacturer who admits Christmas beers are a guilty pleasure.
Here’s what we found out:
Great Lakes Brewing, Cleveland, Ohio, 7.5% ABV
Manufacturer’s description: Do not open ’til Christmas? Whoever coined that phrase obviously hasn’t tasted Christmas Ale’s fresh honey, cinnamon and ginger flavors. A Yuletide’s worth of holiday spices and sweet honey to keep you a-wassailing all season long. Pair with roast duck, spiced desserts and ugly Christmas sweaters.
Judges’ take: Here’s an example of a beer that’s well-refined to provide a festive nose and a pleasant flavor. What’s more, you can taste the individual spices and the honey and still tell there are some hops present as well. It’s not overpowering — meaning the beer is very drinkable. This is what Christmas should taste like.
Deschutes Brewery, Bend, Ore., 6.7% ABV
Manufacturer’s description: A robust ale with a warming spice. Intriguing, layered flavors unfold to reveal chicory, dried fruit and toffee notes with a hoppy kick to finish. The deep garnet color pairs perfectly with holiday celebrations.
Judges’ take: This beer follows the Goldilocks principle: The amount of spice is enough for you to notice it, but not too much so that it overpowers the beer. Its spiciness and sweetness are truly just right. This winter warmer also pairs incredibly well with a molasses cookie — ideally consumed next to a roaring fire.
Dark Horse Brewing Co., Marshall, Mich., 8.75% ABV
Manufacturer’s description: 4 Elf is holiday cheer in liquid form. Spicy aromas like cinnamon and clove give this dark brown winter warmer a proper holiday welcome. Balanced between malt, hops and spice, at 8.75% ABV, this beer goes great with all holiday foods — from sweet snacks to the roast beast.
Judges’ take: Pours darker than most holiday beers with an off-white head. The aroma: CLOVES!!! The spices overpower this beer to a point. Said one judge: “If you want a spicy winter warmer, you could do a lot worse.” Another was more complimentary: “Spicy, sweet and boozy: my favorite combo.” Should taste amazing with pumpkin pie.
Southern Tier Brewing Co., Lakewood, N.Y., 8.0% ABV
Manufacturer’s description: We were inspired by a Glogg party … to brew a beer that pays tribute to this Nordic tradition. 2XMas Ale combines traditional brewing ingredients with figs, orange peels, cardamom, cinnamon, clove and ginger root. Pair with sausages, korv, fish, pickled herring, rich cheeses, holiday cookies and cake.
Judges’ take: This beer ascribes to the Clark Griswold extreme Christmas decoration principle for holiday beers. “It tastes like the Gingerbread man exploded in my glass. Nothing subtle here,” one reviewer wrote. The taste is maximum cardamom that overpowers anything else in the beer. It’s intense — “like getting kicked in the face by Rudolph.”
Odd Side Ales, Grand Haven, Mich., 5.8% ABV
Manufacturer’s description: This dark ale is made with candi sugar and orange peel.
Judges’ take: It’s dark in color. The aroma is slightly sweet and reminiscent of candi sugar. Orange peel is negligible. There’s a nice flavor and it’s drinkable, but it lacks the “wow” factor. “I want this to be more than it is,” one judge said.
Bell’s Brewery, Galesburg, Mich., 5.5% ABV
Manufacturer’s description: Bell’s [created] Christmas Ale [as a] sessionable holiday beer, using locally grown malt, which would stand apart from the array of spiced winter warmers that are typically introduced this time of year. … [It is] intended to complement holiday menus, not overshadow them.
Judges’ take: A hazy pour, this beer is all about the bready malts. It smells “like fresh bread out of the oven,” according to one judge. While the beer is definitely drinkable, its flavors remain rather subtle, an understated quality that may be appreciated by those who’ve had quite enough yuletide.
ROAK Brewing, Royal Oak, Mich., 6.6% ABV
Manufacturer’s description: With just the right amount of spice and a toasty malt body, this [Belgian style spiced] brown ale will put a spell on you. We’ve added only the best Michigan apples to create an ale that is warming, spicy and crisp. Pair with apple pie, beef stew or brie.
Judges’ take: Pours cloudy and smells like potpourri and apple pie thanks to what seems to be copious amounts of nutmeg. It has a “velvety mouthfeel” and made one reviewer feel “like rolling in a pile of fallen leaves.” Others thought it was more “middle of the road.”
Atwater Brewing Co., Detroit, 6.2% ABV
Manufacturer’s description: The Lebkuchen Christmas Ale is a deep amber ale that blends the malty base of Maris Otter pale malt, walnut notes of Dark Munich malt, raisin and toffee flavors of a deep Caramel malt.
Judges’ take: It’s a malty one. Definitely brewed in the German tradition, this beer features some dark fruit and raisin notes, but its body is fairly thin. Also, there’s not much aroma. Nice amber color.
Uncle John’s Cider, St. Johns, Mich., 6.5% ABV
Manufacturer’s description: The base starts as our Uncle John’s fresh apple cider which we ferment and blend with candy flavors of your childhood to make this spicy and festive cider. Semisweet, gluten-free.
Judges’ take: Imagine what cider would look like if it were exposed to Chernobyl. It’s fluorescent, neon and aggressive. The scent and the flavor are of spiced apples, but just — weird. Said one judge: “Do you remember when people would dissolve Jolly Ranchers in Zimas? That is this (cider).”
Frankenmuth Brewery, Frankenmuth, Mich., 6% ABV
Manufacturer’s description: Christmas Town Ale (an American spiced ale) combines sweet toasted dark malts with American hops to create a medium-bodied spiced ale with a taste and aroma that is unmistakably Christmas.
Judges’ take: Pours a dark amber. It features a malty and sweet nose with some astringency and it finishes “cottony,” according to one reviewer. This is a “meh” beer. Drink one if it’s handed to you, but don’t seek it out.
Alaskan Brewing Co., Juneau, Alaska, 6.4% ABV
Manufacturer’s description: Brewed in the style of an English Olde Ale, this ale balances the sweet heady aroma of spruce tips with the clean crisp finish of noble hops. Its malty richness is complemented by the warming sensation of alcohol.
Judges’ take: This has a malty/bready sweetness, but very little if any of the spruce comes through. In fact, it’s rather bland, with a thin, watery body. “Like a pair of socks you get on Christmas morning — vaguely unsatisfying,” said one reviewer.
North Peak Brewing Co., Traverse City, 6.8% ABV
Manufacturer’s description: North Peak Blitzen is a Festivus Ale with a complex malt characteristic and Michigan Chinook and Cascade hops. Rye malt provides a crisp spiciness for well-balanced, rich Festivus Ale.
Judges’ take: Our reviewers were decidedly curt in describing this underwhelming, “boring” beer. Matching it with blue cheese pulled some flavor out of the beer, but not much. One wrote: “This is a rye pale ale. It is what it says it is.” Another said: “It had a cool name.”