The holidays are always an excuse to over-indulge. There’s tons of food, friends, family, and endless Christmas parties. But maybe you’re not into eggnog. And while the rum in Christmas fruitcakes can give you a nice buzz, you’d probably prefer something stronger.
Besides, you’re surrounded by relatives. Chances are you need the best Christmas beer just to get through the week. Loved ones in close quarters can get claustrophobic. Especially when past tensions come up – and they always do. So grab a bottle, find a cozy corner, and cheers!
The Best Christmas Beers
Great Lakes Brewing was started by Irish Brothers in Cleveland Ohio. The last breweries in the city had shut down years before, so opening a new one in 1986 seemed both smart and stupid – there must have been a reason the others closed! But The Conway Brothers (Daniel and Patrick) took a chance. And their Christmas Ale is still a hit three decades later.
What exactly is a Christmas beer? Well, it needs to be dark, heavy on the malt, and heavier on the alcohol. Dan and Pat hit a winning formula with cinnamon, sweet honey, and fresh ginger. The beer has won six medals since 1999 – both gold and silver. It has an ABV of 7.5% and an IBU of 30. This seasonal beer usually hits shelves after Halloween (from November).
Why is Christmas beer so boozy? Well, you’ve probably taken the week off. So there’s no job you’re rushing to and you have nothing to do but eat, drink, and fight with family members. You can afford the hangover. That said, fruits and spices are common in Christmas beer. And since Anchor Brewing was borne out of the drunken days of panning for gold, it’s up there.
For 2020, this quintessentially American brand upgraded its recipe to help us all drink the darkness away. And while its ingredients are as protected as the coke formula, the beer does infuse holiday flavors like chocolate, graham crackers, and toasted marshmallows. You can only buy this beer from mid-November to early January. And there’s a new one every year.
Denmark is known for its cultural exports. They gave us hygge and this delightful series of baby-making ads. There’s one Danish tradition we may all want to adopt … J-Dag. It’s an informal holiday marking the official release of Christmas beer. Specifically, Julebryg. This beer is only sold for 10 weeks a year, starting on J-Dag aka J-Day – first Friday of November.
Unlike the usual Christmas ales, stouts, and porters, Julebryg is a dark pilsner. It has an ABV of 5.6% and arrives on the, ‘shipped’ on a horse carriage draped in blue. Later, beer trucks drive around singing the Tuborg Brew Christmas song and giving out free beer. Julebryg contains licorice, caramel, blackcurrant, and münchener. Also, yes, you can import it.
Christmas beer is sometimes marketed as a ‘winter warmer’. The high sugar and alcohol content allegedly raises body temperature. So it’s ideal for chilly days and freezing nights. And since Austria is full of snow-capped mountains, it makes sense they’d be responsible for the world’s strongest beer. Samichlaus was initially a 14% ABV beer that was retired in 1996.
The beer lost its title to Snake Venom, a Scottish 67.5% demon of a drink. But Samichlaus renewed production in 2000. The beer is brewed on December 6, aged for 10 months, then released around Halloween. The beer has a barley-wine feel with aromas of nuts, brown sugar, caramel, raisins, oak, tobacco, and molasses. It’s a gold-colored Christmas beer.
Yes, the elves are generally furious, or so we assume. Imagine doing all that work while Santa gets the glory! So when your holiday chores have you feeling overwhelmed, pop a bottle cap to keep you going. It’s brewed by brothers John and Chris Trogner. Theirs is an independent brewery with almost 200 employees. And no, the staff aren’t (mad or) grumpy pixie folk.
Their Scratch Series issues an experimental batch every Thursday. But for Christmas, try their Mad Elf Ale. This 11% brew has an IBU of 15. It’s a burgundy beer and is malted with pilsner, chocolate, and Munich. Its hops are Saaz and Hallertau brewed with spicy Belgian yeast. The beer is further flavored with cherries, honey, sugar, cloves, and cinnamon.
It may have a tongue-twister of a name (especially if you’re not francophone) … but don’t worry – this beer is far kinder to your palate. In Belgium, there’s a river called Scheldt. But most people call it by its Latin name, Scaldis. This river is so significant that it’s sometimes personified as a river god … named Scaldis. Of course, for us Americans, it’s Christmas beer.
This top-fermented beer appeared in 1991. It has an ABV of 12% and its brewed with various malts, hops, candy sugars, and caramel. The beer is described as ‘copper colored’ so it’s not stout-dark but it’s not witbier-gold either. This strong dark ale is brewed in the patented Belgian style. Its fruity flavors include pineapple and banana with a praline finish.
It seems the best Christmas beers are Belgian. So it’s a good thing the EU is open to exports! But while Belgian brewing tech sailed across the ocean, this beer is brewed right here in the US. Decatur Georgia to specific. But first, let’s talk about Three Taverns Brewing.
The founder – Brian Purcell – first experienced this monkish brew in 1994 Brussels. He was on a road trip with friends and caught the bug. Years later, he officially started brewing. He named his brewery after an inn from biblical times. As for their Christmas beer, it’s a quadrupel of roasted malts, candy, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom. Its ABV is 10%.
With a name like Fistmas, this beer packs a punch. But is it tough enough to be named the best Christmas beer? Let’s start with the founders, who describe the company as Illinois’ largest independent brewer. This was Josh Deth’s first attempt at opening a brewery. He first caught the bug in 1995 but he fell over a few times, learning brewing lessons along the way.
After several attempts and multiple career detours, Josh and His wife finally succeeded with revolution Brewing. Their Fistmas ale has an ABV of 6.5% and an IBU of 31. Its can features a happy and extremely drunk Santa in a barrel. The red beer contains infusions of orange peel, ginger, stone fruit, caramel, and freshly baked bread. It’s only sold at end-year.
Even good girls (and boys) love beer so don’t judge this rogue, barrel-wearing Santas. The holidays are even harder on them, so have a little mercy! Besides, you know Santa loves his milk and cookies, so when Rogue Ale released their 2020 Christmas ale, they brewed it as a winter warming peppermint milk stout. The brewery offers several winter stouts.
But while Rolling Thunder, Shakespeare’s Nitro, Double Chocolate Nitro, and Chipotle Thunder can all get rid of yuletide chills, their bona fide beer is from Santa’s private Reserve. Santa’s tipple has an ABV of 8.34%, an IBU of 26, and an SRM of 163. The peppermint is extracted from tree barks and rich chocolate. But Santa opens his cellars in November.
You’ve heard of gifts that keep on giving? In 1988, Gary Fish brewed and bottled a very special batch by hand. It was his brewery’s first-ever beer and made the perfect present for that little brewing family. Deschutes now has three decades of heritage behind it. And they still release a fresh batch of Jubilale every Christmas. Its ABV of 6.7% and its IBU is 65.
Unlike some of the annual ales we’ve looked at, the recipe for this super-sweet doesn’t change. But the label does. Every year since 1995, the brewery commissions a different regional artist. They create a winter scape to sticking on the bottle. Jubilale is a malty spicy winter warmer with a finish that combined dusted cocoa and toffee. Sales start in October.
An IPA for Christmas?!? Not quite, but it’s very … IPA-like. And it’s not a Fa la la la larger – it’s more of a sweet winter ale with an IBU of 85 and an ABV of 7.6%. As their top brewer Matt Coughlin likes to say, “Ho Ho Ho and a Bottle of Yum”. They specialize in easy-drinking well-aged bottles. And yes, they want those bottles back for recycling and refills!
As Breweries go, they’re relatively young – they opened in 2007 on St. Patrick’s Day. They’re very eco-friendly – they even host 25,000 square feet of solar panels! The beer has Gambrinus Pilsner and Munich malt with centennial hops and imported crystal malt. A red beer with off-white and aromatics that are both fruity and floral, hinting at orange and rose.
The best Christmas goes on sale around Halloween and fades from the shelves by February. You might choose to keep it and age it. Especially with top breweries doing a new recipe every year. But the Jolly Pumpkin echoes the fall in its name and its Christmas Calabaza (calabaza is Spanish for pumpkin). It’s a 9% winter ale that’s oak-aged for 6 months.
Because it ages half the year, its flavors are well mixed and layered. It’s a mixed … bottle of deep malty mahogany (chocolate, wheat, pilsner), hops (Fuggles, Styrian Aurora, Tettnang), fruits, and spice. Dark and brewed in Belgian style, it incorporates all things Christmas. Other taste teasers include candied pecans, sugar plums, spicy fruitcake, and truffles.
If the name doesn’t get you, the palate will. This beer is a secret – at coke levels. They even have ‘release and reveal party’ since the formula changes annually. It’s a collaboration between Warped Wing Brewing and a chocolate factory called Esther Price Candies.
This Dayton sugar-magician gave the beer its tantalizing name. And the 2020 recipe aimed for a liquid version of Esther Sea Salt Caramel candy. It’s an 8% beer and can be tricky to find off-season. Start haunting their website around October. Or get yourself a cheat sheet.
If you have certain sensibilities, the word boulevard is always followed by the angsty chant ‘of broken dreams’. But Boulevard Brewing is ‘the largest specialty brewer in the mid-west’. John McDonald and his brewing crew have been doing it since 1989. So let’s talk scotch ale.
Snow & Tell (5.9%) has a tattle-tale Christmas sweater on the label. It’s a heavy drink with caramel, toffee, and a touch of smoked malt. The beer gets its seasonal spice from Chinook, Styrian Golding, and Magnum hops. You can only buy it as part of the fall sample pack.
Colorado winters can get pretty punishing. So if your schedule doesn’t let you hole up for the season, you can at least warm up with Hibernation Winter Ale. Brian Dunn started his brewery in 1994. At first, it was just him – brewing, selling, bartending … no time for naps.
Maybe that’s what prompted his hibernating holiday drink. It has won one gold medal and three silvers since 1997. The beer is dry-hopped in the old English style. Its ABV is 8.7% and is delightfully thick and frothy. Every sip carries hints of toast, toffee, caramel, and coffee.
Prairie Artisan Ales sure know how to light up the holidays. And this 13% brew will have you rethinking your indulgence. In a good way. It may be the youngest brewery we’ve looked at – initiated in 2012 – but it’s also the booziest beer so far. Impressively, it’s a year-round beer.
Being one of their fan favorites, they couldn’t restrict to a single season. Bomb is an imperial stout. It’s dark and hearty, brewed with vanilla, coffee, chocolate, and chili. You might want to avoid the in-laws after a few sips of this. Find a quiet corner and soak in the sugary Christmas gift that ‘smells like fruitcake’. And get comfy, you’ll want a nap afterward.
We’ve heard a lot about the 25th amendment lately … but what about the 21st? It’s reached the legal drinking age, so it needs the barkeep’s attention! In case you didn’t Google it, the 21st Amendment officially ended the prohibition, so it’s the perfect name for a brewery.
The San Francisco company started in the year 2000. The founders are Shaun O’Sullivan and Nico Freccia. And their Christmas beer is a spiced winter ale with an ABV of 7.9% and an IBU of 47. It’s infused with cocoa, perfect for chatting by the fire over the holidays.
What beer are you serving this Christmas? Bring on the booze and show us in the comments!