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The release of Christmas beers is a highlight of the holiday season. These seasonal brews begin making an appearance in October and include winter warmers and malty, complex ales artfully accented with fruits and spices. Some are tried-and-true favorites that have been around for decades, while others are new to the scene. All are sure to make your winter just a little brighter.
Dominated by ales, many winter beers are best when served at cellar temperatures (between 45 and 55 degrees). To fully enjoy their rich, malty flavors and aromas, pour them into bulbous glassware rather than those with straight sides. Snifters, goblets, and tulips are excellent choices, though a nonic pint glass will enhance the experience wonderfully as well. Below, get to know the best Christmas beers.
Best Overall: Samichlaus Classic Bier
An Austrian doppelbock from Brauerei Schloss Eggenberg, Samichlaus is an iconic Christmas beer that captivates enthusiasts every year. It's not the easiest to find, but you will not be disappointed when it crosses your path.
Brewed on one day each December, it rests for 10 months to gain the ideal complexity of roasted malt, caramel, and prunes. It's bottled at a wine-worthy 14 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), which amplifies the flavor wonderfully. At the same time, it is a lager, so Samichlaus also has the crispness that makes the bottom-fermented beers enjoyable. Don’t keep this one in the bottle either! Pour it into your best tulip glass because it’s ruby color and luscious foam head deserve to be in the spotlight of any holiday celebration.
Best Winter Warmer: Samuel Smith Winter Welcome Ale
Whether it's Christmas Eve or the coldest night in January, a bottle of Winter Welcome Ale from Samuel Smith is a toasty treat. It's been brewing top-notch beer in Yorkshire since 1758 using traditional stone “Yorkshire squares” for fermentation. A fixture in the British beer scene, the brewery’s oatmeal stout and nut brown ale can easily be found in beer coolers year-round, sometimes alongside other Samuel Smith bottles. Come late fall, they are joined by the unmistakable purple label of Winter Welcome that screams holiday cheer.
This is an ideal example of a winter warmer, with its rich maltiness perfectly balanced out by floral hops and inviting fruit and spice notes. It’s available in large 550-milliliter (18.5-ounce) bottles, a pleasant 6 percent ABV, and registered with the Vegan Society. Serve this cozy fireside brew slightly warm—around 50 degrees Fahrenheit—in a chalice or snifter for the best experience.
Best Strong Ale: Avery Brewing Old Jubilation Ale
A brilliant find from Boulder Colorado, Avery's Old Jubilation Ale is, quite simply, a delicious beer. The winter warmer is an English-style old ale that uses no adjuncts for extra flavor. Instead, the magic is the result of five specialty malts that come together in perfect harmony.
This strong 8.3 percent ABV ale makes its annual appearance starting in October, so you can get into the holiday spirit early. Its inviting malty profile overshadows any hoppiness while the mahogany color and hazelnut, mocha, and toasted caramel notes encompass the feel of the season. It’s also an excellent beer for pairings, especially with rich comfort foods.
Best Belgian Ale: Brasserie Dubuisson Scaldis Noël
Brasserie Dubuisson was founded in 1769 and continues the tradition of brewing authentic Belgian beers. In 1991, the release of this strong dark ale quickly caught worldwide attention and its annual appearance comes with high anticipation. In the United States, this beer is found under the name Scaldis Noël and elsewhere it's Bush de Noël. No matter what the label says, it offers the taste of a classic Belgian dark ale.
This 12 percent ABV dark amber ale continues to delight beer aficionados with a warm, full malt accented by brown sugar and banana with a hint of pineapple to keep things interesting. It finishes off with bitter hops, though it weighs in at just 21 IBUs. It’s available in tall 750-milliliter bottles that are ideal for holiday gatherings, though 330-milliliter (11-ounce) bottles are ideal for a cozy evening at home.
Best Scotch-Style Ale: Bell’s Christmas Ale
For a seasonal without the extra spice, turn to Bell's Christmas Ale. It's as warming as any other and a masterfully brewed Scotch-style ale. It’s not one of those peaty misinterpretations that are prevalent among American craft brewers, though. No, this one follows the traditional Scotch ale style; a complex and toasted malt brew with no Scotch whisky influence.
Bottled at 7.5 percent ABV, you'll enjoy toffee, warm bread, and dark fruit flavors against an oakiness that melts in your mouth. Best served at cellar temperatures in a nonic pint, it’s the ideal beer for a snowy night. And, if you want to infuse beer into your baked goods or holiday dinner glazes, few brews will work as well as Christmas Ale.
Best American Craft: Odell Brewing Isolation Ale
While many winter warmers lean toward dark, rich malts, Odell Brewing's Isolation Ale takes a medium-bodied approach. The Colorado brewery also refrains from adding fruits and spices. Instead, it lets its house yeast strain four varieties of hops, and roasted and caramel malts do the seasonal flavor work.
This craft ale’s balance of sweet, nutty malt and crisp hops is perfect and offers drinkers a softer seasonal that doesn't sacrifice flavor. At 6.1 percent ABV and with 29 IBUs, it's very drinkable, and there is a nice bitterness that wakes up the palate. It will easily become one that you seek out each year.
Best IPA: Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale
If IPAs are your thing, crack open a bottle of Celebration Ale and enjoy the hoppiest of holiday beers. Sierra Nevada started brewing it in 1981, and it was one of the original American-style IPAs that set off a revolution in craft brewing. After all these years, it remains a hit, especially among hopheads who also want to enjoy a holiday-worthy brew.
The primary difference between this and other winter seasonals is that it’s not sweet or spiced. Considered a classic in the American brewing scene, its familiar citrus and pine notes are attributed to the year’s first harvest of hops. Weighing in at 6.8 percent ABV and 65 IBUs, it does have the bitter aspect expected of the style, but it’s not too hoppy when compared to other IPAs. That balance is exactly why fans come back to it every year.
Best Barrel Aged: Breckenridge Holidale
When you've been outside all day and need to take a chill out of your bones, Breckenridge Brewery has a seasonal ale that will fix you right up. If you’ve enjoyed the Colorado brewery’s Christmas Ale, you’ll thoroughly appreciate Holidale. It may not be as readily available, but it amplifies everything you’ve come to love in the easy-drinking winter warmer.
Essentially, Holidale is Christmas Ale that’s rested in former whiskey barrels. This extra step adds deep whiskey-kissed oak and toasted biscuit flavors on top of the ale’s recognizable caramel, chocolate, and roasted malt taste. The barrel-aged beer is also classified as a strong ale, and it’s a rather potent 10.7 percent ABV, so it will not go unnoticed. Pour it into a goblet, and enjoy it as a cozy after-dinner drink.
If you want the all-around best Christmas beer, we recommend Samichlaus Classic. The iconic Austrian lager is brewed just one day a year, and it features notes of caramel and prunes. If you’d prefer a domestic beer that’s a little less holiday spice, try Odell Brewing's Isolation Ale. It trades fruits and spices for roasted caramel, and the result is a malty seasonal that’s just the right amount of sweet and bitter.
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Colleen Graham is a food and beverage writer with over a decade of experience writing about cocktails, beer, and wine. She is the author of two books—“Rosé Made Me Do It” and “Tequila: Cocktails With a Kick.”