Christmas Beer: The Cheeriest, Tastiest, and Most Unusual Holiday Brews
I can remember a time not too long ago when Christmas/winter/holiday beers seemed to be limited to only a few, such as: Anchor Our Special Ale, Sierra Nevada Celebration, Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome, and some local brewery and brewpub offerings. Now, it's a blizzard (sorry) of options.
Don Russell is the "Joe Sixpack" beer columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. His book Christmas Beer is part breezy history (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created by an ad writer for Montgomery Ward department store in 1939), descriptions of Christmas customs around the world (Nicholas of Myna in what is now Turkey —the patron saint of brewers— became Dutch Sinterklaas, who then became our Santa Claus) and even some recipes, such as Wassail, Pffeffernuse, Bier Fisch.
First and foremost, however, Christmas Beer is a compendium and review of 'Christmas' beers, with honorable mentions and a Top 50 list. The beers chosen comprise a wide variety of styles and flavors, quite a contrast to the relatively recent past. Such lists may eventually become obsolete, but even so, they gain their own historical value.
Russell is not reticent about calling the beers 'Christmas' beers rather than winter or holiday. He has influential friends. Here's part of his interview with Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing —the granddaddy of the craft beer movement in America, and maker of one of the first revivalist spiced 'Christmas' beers in the US.
[Initially, in 1975, unspiced] "it was designed to be as noncommercial as it could possibly be, so we wouldn't offend anyone," Maytag notes. "I knew perfectly well it was a bit naughty to mix a religious holiday with beer ... but I don't think I've heard a single word of criticism from anyone." The following year, Maytag boldly labeled his holiday beer, "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year: Our Special Ale."
And what exactly is a 'Christmas' or 'winter' beer? Although Russell comes down on the side of spiced beers — Anchor wouldn't begin to add spices to theirs until 1987— he disputes that there is any one 'Christmas' style. Rather:
Christmas beers are ales and lagers made by breweries around the world once a year, as a gift to all of us kids at heart. Full of flavor, they often contain secret ingredients ; typically, they have a bit more alcohol, for a nice way to settle into a long winter's nap.
I won't spoil your fun of discovering which beers Russell anoints in his 'best-of' list, but, as there's a blizzard outside tonight, I will mention Heavy Seas Winter Storm, at position #35.
this ale features no less than five hop varieties, including those northwestern darlings, Cascade, Centennial, and Chinook. You'll find an underlying sweet malt base that tones down the tang a bit, but with all those aromatic hops, that's a little like saying the sun was shining until that massive nor'easter barreled down the coast and shut down I-95.
12 'Beer' Books for Christmas: This is another in a a series of 12 recommendations for beer-themed books —one per day, until the Winter Solstice, 21 December.
This is not a Top 12 list. It's my list of 12 books, personal delights. On Christmas Day: put your feet up, pour yourself a good beer, and read a good book. Better yet: give a friend the gift of a beer and a book. The entire list here.
Caveat lector: As an employee of a beer/wine wholesaler in northern Virginia, I sell the beers of Heavy Seas (Clipper City Brewing).