Stylin’ & Profilin’: What is a Christmas Beer?

Stylin’ & Profilin’ is a brief look at different beer styles that will help you learn whether they’re right for you. Ultimately, words can’t truly turn you on to a solid craft beer. You have to smell, taste, and savor each sip to truly discover if it’s one you’ll come back to in the future. But the background info obtained in this post won’t hurt anything either. In addition, Stylin’ & Profilin’ takes a glance at various elements of craft beer culture to further enhance your knowledge and know-how!

What is a Christmas Beer?

christmas beerWhen the winter months hit, you’ve probably had your fill of pumpkin beers and Oktoberfest offerings and are ready for something that delivers a little something extra. The colder time of year is typically when heavier, “chewier” beers see an uptick in demand, like porters and stouts. The well-balanced roastiness and bitterness of these brews provide the perfect complement to a blustery, snowy evening.

When the thermometer drops, it’s safe to assume the holidays are in toe. No matter what, where, and how you celebrate, it’s a magical time of year filled with joy and stress all at the same time. But all the effort it takes to find the absolute right gift seemingly melts away when you’re surrounded by the ones you love.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be the holiday season without Christmas beer to play a role in your parties, dinners, caroling, and enjoyment of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (best Christmas movie EVER).

Christmas beers are a unique seasonal offering that are brewed for consumption during the winter months, specifically Christmas time (see how that works out?). They’re typically on the stronger side and spiced with a variety of ingredients not normally found in other beer styles. There’s really no pattern or specific recipe to relate to Christmas beers as many craft breweries have produced their own interpretations with a diverse variety of ingredients.

The first American example of a Christmas beer dates back to 1975 when Anchor Brewing released Christmas Ale, a beer that has stood the test of time for over four decades with a new recipe every season. Since then, the envelope has been pushed and countless breweries have staked their claim towards Christmas beer real estate by bringing something unique of their own to the market.

For example, Great Lakes Christmas Ale is brewed with honey, cinnamon, and ginger, while Southern Tier’s Christmas beer 2XMAS utilizes the same cinnamon and ginger duo, but adds in figs, orange peels, cardomom, and cloves. Troegs Brewing brings us another popular Christmas offerings, Mad Elf, a potent but drinkable ale that tips the scales at 11% ABV and contains notes of cinnamon, clove, and allspice. Fat Head’s welcomes the holidays with Holly Jolly Christmas Ale, brewed with local Ohio honey, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and coriander.

The list goes on and hundreds of breweries have put their own spin on this holiday tradition, but the point is pretty clear: saddling a Christmas beer with an exact definition is as daunting a task as trying to eat just one peanut butter blossom throughout the holiday season (best cookie EVER). Craft brewers make a living going against the grain and trying new things, often times stumbling upon something that works perfectly or, in some cases, a new beer style altogether. In a way, Christmas beers serve as a style within a style, allowing brewers to build off an established base beer and enhancing the liquid’s profile and complexity with an array of ingredients meant to capture the flavors of the holiday season.

In my research compiling this installment of S&P, I stumbled upon a great article by Don Russell citing the history of Christmas/holiday beers. Don covers an interesting fact: Christmas beers are more of a tradition than a style. He gives a fantastic history lesson on how and why these beers became a thing as well, among other points. Read up.

So, to answer the question “What is a Christmas beer,” the answer is “complicated.” As it is with all beers, subjectivity is the name of the game. You may dig the cinnamon and the honey that Christmas offerings deliver while your drinking partners may feel exactly the opposite. Regardless of what beer tickles your holiday fancy, remember it’s not just the beer in your glass…it’s who you’re tipping that glass with.

Happy Holidays and cheers!







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