Ho, ho, humbug. I’ll be honest, I’m not really a Christmas guy. Sure it’s nice getting together with family and friends, but the whole season isn’t really for me. But the one benefit to the tinsel and traffic is Christmas Spiced Beers. This week’s installment of Know Your Styles is being brought to you by William Nordmann of the blog Year of Beer. I’m sure in William’s experiment of trying a new beer everyday of the week he came across plenty of Christmas beer last year, so this should be old hat to him. Let’s see what he has to say about Christmas/Winter Spiced Beer:
Christmas beer is a wide open style with no set method of brewing or even a set strain of yeast. Lager, Ale, Belgian, even Lambic yeast strains are used by brewers to create a Christmas beer. A brewery often starts with a simple style like amber ale, and tweaks the recipe with spices or extra malt. Christmas beers typically have strong flavor and high alcohol content, with some extra sweetness. Sometimes this style is referred to as a ‘winter warmer’ because of the extra alcohol and malt, helping you keep warm in the snow. The real key point of the style is to invoke the flavors and spirit of the Christmas / Holiday season with tastes of gingerbread, cookies, and pine trees.
The Christmas/Winter Specialty Spiced Beer BJCP style 21B is a relatively new style, and was not present in the 1999 edition of the guidelines. It is rumored that the addition of the Christmas/Winter specialty spice beers style was encouraged by the Happy Holiday Homebrew Competition (HHHC) sponsored by the St. Louis Brews Homebrew club. Since the competition is always held around the holidays, the style was judged in the competition before it was official in the BJCP.
What you should be seeing: The beer should have some color and not be too light or straw colored, but really anything past amber and just shy of black can be acceptable. The Delirium Noel had a good deal of sediment, likely from bottle conditioning. The Bells, Schlafly and Samuel Smith were pretty light, with the Anchor being the darkest at an almost black/stout color.
What you should be smelling: Christmas memories is the goal of the aroma. The Delirium Noel had a fruity cranberry aroma with some hints of farm house or lambic yeast. Sweet aromas of molasses and honey are present with the Samuel Smith, Bells and Anchor. The Schlafly Christmas ale had a fruity hop aroma which smells more APA than cookie.
What you should be tasting: Again, Christmas beer celebrates the taste of gingerbread and spiced cookies, clove, and pine. The malt is often strong to increase the alcohol to around 7-12%, and there is usually some residual sweetness from the malt. Out of the beers I sampled, the Anchor beer has a nice molasses flavor with some spicy notes of ginger and pine. To me, the Delirium brought back more Thanksgiving-style memories than Christmas with a cranberry taste and some sour funkiness. Schlafly comes across well with nice, subtle spices balanced against the sweet honey malt flavor and the hop aroma turns into a nice fruity flavor. The Samuel Smith has a nice aroma of cherries but the flavor is far too dry and without much flavor.
How you should be drinking this: No good guidance on how these beers should be drunk since the underlying style and yeast are not well defined. The warmer range of (55-65) is a good idea, since there should be a lot of flavors and aromas that can come out better as the beer warms up. Plus, the weather is likely on the cold side anyway, so ice cold beer is less appetizing. For glassware, tulip pints are good choices since they allow the aroma to open up well and let the drinker to warm up the beer as needed.
What you should be buying: A lot of breweries make a Christmas beer as a seasonal. Wine and Cheese in Clayton had a large selection of Christmas beer grouped together in an end cap. Even some Schnucks and Dierbergs will have Christmas beers grouped together. There is the Bad Elf series by the Shelton brother with fun labels of Elves looking evil. Anchor has been making their Christmas beer since 1975, each year with a new label. AB InBev makes a Winters Bourbon Cask Ale, but I don’t recommend it. Sam Adams puts out a selection of Christmas beers including a Winter Lager, Cranberry Lambic, Holiday Porter and Old Fezziwig Ale.
Related Styles: Spice and Herbed beers are the closest, but a Christmas beer can be anything.