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Winter Warmers & Holiday Ales: A Boozy 12 Days of Christmas

Humans have been celebrating the winter solstice for hundreds upon hundreds of years. The Norsemen arranged huge feasts that included drunken cavorting with beer in preparation for the celebration of the longest night of the year. The Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival held from December 17 to the 23rd, to praise and honor the god Saturn – it included a public banquet, gambling, gift-giving and 24/7 partying in a Mardi Gras type atmosphere, where they continually consumed beer and wine.

The tradition of brewing during the month of December continued on into the Middle Ages by monks who brewed for the winter solstice and religious festivities. In addition, Wassail was created during the Middle Ages. Wassail is a mulled punch, served hot – it was brewed with a variety of different elements including roasted crab apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and people would drink it out of a large communal bowl. In fact, there is a traditional carol, popular at the time, about the Gloucestershire Wassail that was sung during the Middle Ages:

“Wassail! Wassail! All over the town,

Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;

Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;

With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink unto thee.”

(And now I think we all know how the bubonic plague spread … it wasn’t just the fleas.)

Wassail is a mulled punch, served hot – it was brewed with a variety of different elements including roasted crab apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger.

The Industrial Revolution in the mid-1700s in England gave rise to beer made with wild yeasts being aged in oak barrels for months to years, with tannins being released during the fermenting process, adding to the complexity and flavor of these winter warmers being produced specifically during the holiday season. All of these cultural and historical celebrations, along with new innovations and recipes, paved the way for our current holiday traditions, parties, and special winter and holiday brews.

Today, Winter Warmers & Holiday Ales are mainly heavily spiced ales that contain a strong malt backbone, are low in hop bitterness, and have a higher alcohol content, with higher ABVs that range anywhere from 5.5-10%. They are usually darker in color from a light copper to a very dark brown.

Whether you’re looking for something to get you through the holidays with your in-laws, or attempting to bring something other than the standard bottle of wine to gift to your hosts at upcoming holiday parties, or perhaps you’re looking for 8 crazy beers to go with your 8 crazy nights of Hanukkah, or you’re playing Santa for the entire month of December and making a list (or more like 3 million) and checking it twice (I’m looking at all you moms out there), or you simply want to spruce things up during the month of December, there are plenty of seasonal brews to choose from, including the 12 winter warmers, Christmas ales, and porters I’ve sampled below. (Along with the partridge in a pear tree – he was delectable.)

Snowdrift Vanilla Porter – Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company, Chippewa Falls, WI. 6% ABV, American Porter. This dark brew is a touch on the lighter side for a porter. Nutty, malty, definite vanilla notes, with a slightly bitter coffee finish. Good for perhaps a beginner venturing into the world of porters and darker beers, or for someone looking for some complexity without the heavy fullness of many porters. You can literally drink this brew, have your cake and eat it too, and not feel like you’ve over-stuffed yourself with both dessert and beer.

Christmas Ale – Great Lakes Brewing Company, Cleveland , OH. 7.5% ABV, Winter Ale.  If you love ginger, you will LOVE this beer. Brewed with honey, this is a light ale with HEAVY, but pure, ginger notes, and cinnamon sprinkled throughout. A tart finish that will pucker your lips and tantalize your taste buds – which might just come in handy if you’re standing beneath the mistletoe! Certainly worth sampling this holiday season. 

2XMAS – Southern Tier Brewing Company, Lakewood, NY. 8% ABV, Winter Warmer Spiced Double Ale. This is most definitely Christmas in a beer bottle. A potpourri of sorts, it’s brewed with figs, orange peels, ginger root, cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves. I find that it is reminiscent of gingerbread or spice cake. It is a brew for sipping, (rather than swigging), while cozying up to a roaring fire with Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” softly in the background. Truly, this brew could quickly become part of your holiday traditions every year.

Saranac Caramel Porter – Saranac Brewery/F.X. Matt Brewing Co., Utica, NY. 5.4% ABV, English-style Porter. This very mild roasted porter with hints of chocolate and caramel is sure to be on Santa’s nice list. The beer is brewed with carmelized sugar, roasted barley, chocolate and caramel malts, East Kent Goldings and Fuggles hops. An enjoyable, easy drinking and easy brew to find in your local supermarket or convenience store as it is highly distributed, making it the perfect last minute pick-up on your trek over the river and through the woods to your grandmother’s house this holiday season.

Harpoon Winter Warmer – Harpoon Brewery, Boston, MA. 5.9% ABV, Winter Warmer Ale. This brew is a classic that’s been brewed since 1988 – nearly 30 years(!) and was Harpoon’s first ever seasonal beer. Along the way, they’ve perfected the smoothness of the brew and the balancing act between the spices of cinnamon and nutmeg. The aroma of the brew is cinnamon and vanilla. Upon first taste it’s sweetly spiced, but not explosively so, and the malt, along with the balanced cohesiveness of the cinnamon and nutmeg mildly lingers on your tongue long after your last sip. After sampling this winter warmer, it’s very clear as to why this seasonal brew has been around for so very long.

Holiday Ale – Two Roads Brewing Company, Stratford, CT. 7.3% ABV, Biére de Noël. This brew is inspired by the Biére de Garde style which originated in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France. Traditionally, only a few small farmhouse breweries in France specifically brewed this ale during the few weeks leading up to Christmas and into the winter season. This is a smooth toasted malt brew with notes of treacle (the British term for molasses) and a deep caramel and toffee finish that delightfully lingers. It is brewed with French Strisselspalt and Aramais hops. Personally, out of all the brews that I tried while writing this article, this was one of my favorites that I will definitely be looking forward to for many holiday seasons ahead!

Winter Lager – Samuel Adams Boston Beer Company, Boston, MA. 5.6% ABV, Winter Lager. This beer (and brewing company) has loads of fans all around the Northeast and beyond – a winter brew that the masses anticipate every year, brewed with orange peels, cinnamon and ginger. True to form, it is spicy and citrusy, but balanced in both, & malty throughout. A crowd pleaser, and easy drinking, this is the perfect brew to bring and share at any of your holiday parties.

Pilot Batch: Dark Chocolate Scotch Ale – Genesee Brewing Company, Rochester, NY. Instead of hot chocolate during Christmas morning breakfast, you could just as easily drink this brew and at 7.5% ABV, it won’t exactly get you slobberknockered before noon.  This light Scotch Ale has a very pleasant bittersweet chocolate body from start to finish that’s not too sweet or overpowering so that the richness of the malt still shines. It is also brewed with Hedonist Artisan Chocolate’s 72% dark chocolate, and is Genesee’s collaboration with a small business right in Rochester, NY!

Big Moose Winter Ale – Saranac Brewery/F.X. Matt Brewing Co., Utica, NY. 5.7% ABV, American Pale Ale. If you believe that spices belong in a slice of pumpkin pie, and not in your beer, you will find a friend in the Big Moose. It’s an extremely crisp, floral, and citrusy brew without a hit of cinnamon or any other spice for that matter. And if you’ve tried this in the past, you might want a pick up a 6-pack now, because they’ve revised their recipe a bit – it now includes 2-row Pale, UK pale, Carapils, and Caramel Malt, along with Centennial, Citra, and Amarillo hops.

2017 Celebration Fresh Hop IPA – Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico, CA. 6.8% ABV, IPA. This dry-hopped American IPA has a bold strong hops presence with malt mixed in. There are some pretty great pine notes, especially on the finish. If you haven’t tried a brew with pine notes, I highly recommend it. You might love it, you might hate it, but it’s worth the experimentation. While the Celebration IPA is not considered a “winter warmer,” it is a seasonal brew that only comes out this time of year, and I would be remiss to not mention it, and if including this brew in my list puts me on Santa’s naughty list, then so be it. (Besides, I’m already likely on that list anyways … ) And did I mention pine?

The Mad Elf Grand Cru 2017 – Tröegs Independent Brewing Co., Hershey, PA.  11% ABV, Belgian Strong Dark Ale. An ale unlike any other, it is brewed with a spicy Belgian yeast, Balaton cherries, Demerara sugar, wildflower honey, cinnamon and clove. This makes for a sweeter ale, dark ruby red to burgundy in color, and it must MUST be served in a chalice. The same company makes a Mad Elf ale in a 6-pack, that also has cherries, but this is the director’s cut, a special version, that comes in a beautiful 750mL bottle with a corked top, reminiscent of a champagne bottle. Perfect for when the occasion calls for a nice bottle of wine or champagne and you want to be the weirdo who does something different.

Choklat, Blackwater Series – Southern Tier Brewing Company, Lakewood, NY. 10% ABV, Imperial Stout. It just wouldn’t be a finale to a list during the holiday season without a dessert beer. (Who doesn’t love dessert?!) This beautifully dark —almost black— heavier Imperial stout is bursting with dark chocolate. It truly is decadent, and a good balance between bitter and sweet, being somewhere in the middle. Instead of a port for your holiday nightcap, try a bottle of this instead. It is sold in 1 pint, 6 fl oz. bottle, which is enough for approx. 2-4 people, depending on the size of your pour. Or have it with dessert, with something vanilla like ice cream or cut-out sugar cookies – In fact, Santa would probably appreciate it if you left this, instead of some crappy almond milk, out alongside his cookies on Christmas Eve.

Have a safe and fun holiday season and I’ll meet all y’all back here in 2018!

Kristin Merritt
Just a brief introduction that I’ve joined the Table Hopping crew as your new craft-brew-loving gal who will be bringing you your monthly pour of beer education and the low-down on all things beer related in the immediate CNY area and beyond. Along the way I hope that I can give a few recommendations for your grocery lists, event suggestions and local hotspots for an afternoon out with friends or planning a date, and if not for nothing, perhaps enlighten you with some random knowledge that you can amaze your teammates with at trivia night – or at least give you and your pals a suggestion on what to drink at the bar! I have some mighty large shoes to fill that my friend and fellow Syracuse Women of Craft Beer member (& founder), Gloria Rakowsky, left for me, but I hope that my style (and shenanigans) will keep all y’all coming back for more each month. Cheers!