The changing of the seasons means we get new seasonal craft beer. Most beer fans love the release of season specific brews. But there’s only a few Holidays that have their own category of beer. The Christmas Ale is one of those styles that is uniquely brewed to help celebrate the season.
I’m a huge fan of this style so I’m excited to “unwrap” all that is great about Christmas Ales.
What Is A Christmas Ale?
Winter causes many move to drinking darker, heavier beers that offer a warming sensation. Of the styles enjoyed in the colder months, few are as celebrated as the Christmas Ale.
And it only makes sense as Christmas is by far the most popular Holiday. While most Holidays last just a day, Christmas is really an entire season.
A Christmas Ale is typically amber or darker in color. Some may even appear to be nearly black. A white to tan head will be common.
For flavor, the goal is to be reminiscent of Christmas in aroma and flavor. For example, they often have elements from Christmas cookies, gingerbread, evergreen trees or mulling spices.
To achieve this, many brewers will use allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves or ginger. These spices incorporate aroma and flavors that are common around Christmas. It is also common to find orange peel, lemon, plum and dark fruit flavors.
There should be little to no hop flavor or bitterness in this style of craft beer.
To aid in the sweetness of these beers, molasses, honey or brown sugar may be used. This adds to the already heavy malt base that is used in this style of ale. The end result should be a medium bodied, malty, sweet, spiced ale.
The ABV on these beers tend to be higher than average as most are over 6% with some exceeding 8%. IBUs are on the lower end of the spectrum and will be 35 or lower. This will be evident in the lack of bitterness as these beers focus on the malt character, sweetness and spice.
Christmas Ales hit shelves and tap handles around the early part of November.
The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) lists this style of beer in section 30C which is titled Winter Seasonal Beer. You can check out more here.
Again, this style of beer should be liquid Christmas so think of warm spices and abundant sweetness.
Christmas Ale Vs Winter Ale Vs Winter Warmer
What’s the difference between these three styles? I didn’t know the answer so I did some research. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a ton of information.
What I found is Winter Warmers and Winter Ales can be just about anything a brewery wants it to be. While a Christmas Ale is specifically brewed to mimic the unique flavors of the season.
So more or less, a Christmas Ale needs to be a spiced, malty ale while the other two can be hoppy or darker if they brewer wishes.
So a Christmas Ale is a Winter Ale/Warmer but not all Winter Ale/Warmers are Christmas Ales. Get it?
In addition, Christmas Ales normally become available in November and are gone by the end of December while Winter Ales and Warmers are released throughout the coldest months.
As with most craft beer styles, the interpretation is really up to the brewery. If a brewer thinks that a coffee IPA tastes like Christmas then they could call it a Christmas Ale.
7 Christmas Ales For Your Wish List
Despite being excellent beers, many of these do not have creative names. I’m assuming for marketing purposes, many brewers simply use Christmas Ale as the name of their Holiday beer. It’s not much fun but at least the beer is good.
ABV: 7.5% IBU: 30
This one is a classic and for many the epitome of Christmas Ales – at least in the areas that they distribute.
There was a time that this beer would sell out faster than it hit shelves. Luckily, Great Lakes is able to keep up with the demand and most of their distribution area can find this one through the end of the year.
Expect well balanced notes of spice and sweetness.
Great Lake’s Description:
Do not open ‘til Christmas? Whoever coined that phrase obviously hasn’t tasted Christmas Ale’s fresh honey, cinnamon, and ginger flavors.
A Yuletide’s worth of holiday spices and sweet honey to keep you a-wassailing all season long.
ABV: 8.3% IBU: 21.5
For some reason, breweries love using the word “dog” in the names of their breweries and beers. I don’t get it.
But I do get why people love this Christmas Ale. It has huge flavor and focuses on the spices. With higher than average ABV, the spices won’t be the only thing warming you up.
Thirsty Dog’s Description:
This beer’s name sums up the idea of bringing the best together to celebrate. It is filled with seasonal flavors from generous amounts of toasted and caramel malts, mixed with the equally generous amounts of honey, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. We feel it is the perfect libation, filled with flavors of the season.
ABV: 6.5% IBU: 31
Revolution Brewing is in Chicago, IL and luckily they distribute their beer into my area.
They make a wide range of styles but I’ve mostly had their IPAs but this is quite different. The dark red color and malt character are as far from an IPA as you can get.
Add in the ginger and orange flavors and you’ve got a really tasty beer. This one has a lighter body than many of the others on the list which makes it more sesssionable.
Our Holiday Red Ale is steeped with ginger root and orange peel, resulting in a beer with aromas of fresh baked bread, caramel, and stone fruits. Fistmas was brewed with specialty malts to achieve a beautiful deep red hue.
ABV: 5.5% IBU: 34
First things first, Abita did a great job with the artwork on this one. It is easily the best label among this grouping.
Unlike the rest of the beer on the list, Abita intentionally reinvents this beer each year. So you’ve got to make sure to pick some up and see what they’ve done with it this year.
Abita Christmas Ale rounds out our calendar. Each year at the Abita Brewery we craft a special dark ale for the holiday season. The recipe changes each year so that Abita Christmas Ale is always the perfect gift. Its spicy character is excellent with traditional holiday foods such as gingerbread or spiced nuts. Try some blue cheese or a creamy Camembert with a Christmas Ale.
ABV: 8.0% IBU: 30
Don’t worry if you can’t pronounce the name of this brewery, just know that Schlafly makes some great craft beer.
This one features really bold spices that amplify the warming reaction you’ll get from it. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s 8.0% ABV.
And I love how their description references how this beer will help you get along with your family during the holidays.
Our Christmas Ale is a warming winter ale that blends the spices of the season with sweet caramel malt. Orange peel, juniper berries, ginger root, cardamom and cloves are added for spiciness. We use honey in the fermentation process, which raises the ABV without producing too much heat from the alcohol content.
Many breweries produce richer, higher alcohol beers for the winter holiday season, bolder than their year-round offerings. The inspiration for this beer came from spiced holiday beverages such as wassail and mulled wines. Around the holidays, the sweet and spicy aromas, not to mention the booze, in such libations tend to smooth the rougher edges of enjoying each other’s company and spreading goodwill.
ABV: 7.5% IBU: 28
Fat Head’s is probably most well-known for their Hop JuJu Double IPA but don’t think that they don’t know other styles.
I have to note that this is the third Ohio beer on my list; guess my local ties are hard to get past. But it’s hard to not include them when they are making some great craft beer.
Most Christmas Ales feature honey but Fat Head’s really promotes it in their description. So as you might expect, this one has a sweeter touch to it.
Fat Head’s Description:
Once upon a frozen evening way up north, a sweet local honey named Holly inspired our Jolly Fat Man (as only Holly can) to create this festive spiced holiday ale. We think you will enjoy his holiday creation with it’s aromas and flavors of Christmas day. Sweet malt, ginger, honey and cinnamon spice. Sip this by the fire with your significant other. Who knows, maybe it will lead to a little inspiration of your own. From our Jolly Fat Man to yours, Happy Holidays.
ABV: 6.7% IBU: 65
Make sure you read the description below, they are celebrating bottling this beer for the 30th time. How many breweries have hit milestones like that with a seasonal beer?
I know many that consider this an annual must-have beer. The IBUs on this one is higher than other Christmas Ales so expect a touch of bitterness. But it won’t be overwhelming.
It also features darker malt flavors that exhibit cocao and toffee more than others. And of course, you’ll get plenty of spices in there. Overall, you’ll find this one to be less sweet than others.
Cocoa, dried fruit and toffee notes. A robust ale with a warming spice.
Warm spiciness and tradition grace this bold, complex winter ale. The deep garnet color pairs perfectly with holiday celebrations. To celebrate the 30th bottling, for the first time ever, this year’s packaging features not one, but a series of custom snowflake themed illustrations.
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Wrapping It Up
There is a huge selection of Christmas Ales available but hopefully one of those seven sound good to you and you decide to give it a try.
But even if these are not available in your area, most craft breweries enjoy making Christmas Ales. So take a look around at your local breweries and see what seasonal options they have on their tap list.
Regardless of which Christmas Ale you choose, I am confident that this style of craft beer is perfect for when you are enjoying the Christmas season with friends and family.