Celebrating good cheer is central to the holiday season, and the tradition of raising a glass to toast peace on earth and goodwill to mankind goes back centuries. Modern seasonal brews owe their roots to blended drinks such as wassail, which earned a place in song as well as celebration. One Oregon brewer, Full Sail, keeps the heritage alive with its own version of wassail.
Here is a 12-pack of beers brewed especially for the season, all of which make for colorful additions to holiday gatherings.
Anchor Christmas Ale
Anchor Brewing Co., San Francisco, Calif.
Anchor is best known for its steam beer, but since 1975 it has brewed a special Christmas ale, with a unique recipe and label each year. Dark mahogany in appearance, this ale is spicy with plenty of hops and malt; look for cinnamon, nutmeg and chocolate with a hint of mint.
Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig Ale
Boston Beer Co., Mass.
Billed as the Christmas cookie of beer, Old Fezziwig derives its name from one of the lovable characters in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Spicy with lots of hops; look for tastes ranging from toffee and caramel to chocolate, ginger and orange peel.
Bridgeport Brewing Co., Portland, Ore.
Another nod to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Ale evokes the best of a holiday fruitcake with its deep mahogany color and subtle flavors of toffee, brown sugar, plums and raisins. No humbugs here.
Shmaltz Brewing Co., San Francisco, Calif.
Here’s a beer with a sense of humor and the flavor to go with it. With a slogan like “It’s the beer you’ve been waiting for” and marketing loaded with puns, Messiah Bold and its companion He’Brew beers occupy a special niche in the brewing world. Three varieties of hops—Mount Hood, Cascade and Warrior—give it punch to balance complex malt character.
Castle Brewery Eggenberg, Austria
Though some brewers might contest its claim to being “the world’s most extraordinary beverage,” Samichlaus is definitely special. Brewed once a year on Dec. 6 and aged for 10 months, this doppelbock claims to be the “king of Christmas beers,” and it earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s strongest lager at 14 percent alcohol by volume.
Santa’s Private Reserve Ale
Rogue Ales, Newport, Ore.
This red ale is a cheerful fireside warmer as well as a good dinner-table companion to beef and pork dishes. Rogue combines Chinook and Centennial hops for a spruce finish and to balance the sweet, roasted flavor of the malts.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico, Calif.
Sierra Nevada ales have taken a front seat in the craft brewing movement, and this libation brewed especially for the holidays has won numerous awards and accolades. Never shy about using hops, Sierra Nevada combines two varieties in dry-hopping for aroma and character.
The Gift WinterBock Lager
Starr Hill Brewery, Charlottesville, Va.
In contrast to some of the darker holiday ales, this German-style Hellerbock (“heller” denotes a light color) has a golden hue; two-row and Munich malts give it sweetness, balanced by German noble Hallertau hops.
Lights Out Holiday Ale
Blue Mountain Brewery, Nelson County, Va.
Along with Starr Hill and others, Blue Mountain has helped give the Charlottesville region a reputation for good beer. Lights Out Holiday Ale is a big beer, weighing in at 7 percent alcohol by volume and having a strong hop presence (60 IBUs).
Bell’s Christmas Ale
Bell’s Brewery, Comstock, Mich.
Bell’s is a shining light in the North Country firmament of beer, and this malty scotch ale uses only barley grown in its home state. Hops from Michigan are in the mix as well. A classy beer for spreading cheer.
Ridgeway Brewery, Oxfordshire, England
The United Kingdom has some great winter beers—try Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome—but the playful packaging make Pickled Santa a fun option. Brewed with fresh whole spices, this English ale is chestnut in color with hints of cinnamon, coriander and nutmeg.
Brasserie Dubuisson, Pipaix, Belgium
Potent at 12 percent alcohol by volume, this Belgian Special Ale avoids being cloyingly sweet by evoking a nutty, chewy flavor. Consider saving this for after dinner, when there’s time to sip and savor—both the beverage and the holiday spirit.