The 12 Beers of Christmas

Written by on November 13, 2011 in Beer - 24 Comments

All the leaves have fallen off the trees and the girls around town are wearing far too much clothing – winter has arrived. Thankfully, I can take solace in the arrival of Christmas beers. The only problem is that with so many to choose from, it can be hard to separate the barley from the chaff. Armed with an overtaxed liver and a lack of real responsibility, I set out to save your taste buds from the mediocre and send you straight to the sublime. Only one beer can earn the title of ‘Christmas in a bottle’ — here’s my take on twelve you can get here in Columbus:

12. Blue Moon Winter Abbey Ale

ABV: 5.6%
Style: Dubbel
Brewed in: Golden, Colorado
If you think Miller Lite is a Pilsner, you just might think Blue Moon’s Winter Abbey Ale is a dubbel. Although the medium brown hue, light caramel taste, and medium-light body hint at the style, that’s all this beer offers: a hint. Ultimately, the corn smell and adjunct taste make this a (predictably) disappointing macrobrewery take on a classic Belgian style.

11. Indigo Imp Winter Solstice

ABV: Unknown
Style: American Amber Ale
Brewed in: Cleveland, Ohio
This beer starts off weakly with a sweet, malty smell and only a hint of spices. The flavor is, likewise, fairly light. Initially tasting of caramel and cinnamon, the finish is slightly hoppy and quite metallic. Overall, this hazy brown brew was disappointingly bland. To be fair, it did have a very smooth, velvety mouthfeel.

10. 21st Amendment Fireside Chat

ABV: 7.9%
Style: Winter Warmer
Brewed in: San Francisco, California
This dark brown winter warmer has a pleasant albeit weak aroma of cinnamon, dark caramel, and figs. It tastes like biscuity English malts, slightly burnt caramel, and shows a reserved use of spices. While thinner than expected, the alcohol is well-hidden. It’s not perfect, but this beer is a solid example of a winter warmer.

9. Full Sail Wassail

ABV: 7%
Style: Winter Warmer
Brewed in: Hood River, Oregon
Wassail is a traditional term for mulled ale (or cider, mead, etc.), drunk to ensure a healthy apple harvest. This dark ruby-brown ale wards off the cold with a spicy, roasty, alcoholic bite. It smells of bread, dark fruit, and caramel. It starts off sweet and finishes hoppy and dry. This beer is good, but could stand to be less alcoholic , fuller-bodied, and more flavorful.

8. Shiner Holiday Cheer

ABV: 5.4%
Style: Dunkelweizen
Brewed in: Shiner, Texas
This amber dunkel smells like PEACHES. It tastes like PEACHES. It is thin, well-carbonated, smooth, and has an aftertaste of PEACHES with a hint of spearmint. This beer might sound crazy, but it’s quite well- executed and does a great job spreading Christmas cheer. The bottle claims it’s brewed with roasted pecans, which I unfortunately did not taste.

7. Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome Ale

ABV: 6%
Style: Winter Warmer
Brewed in: Yorkshire, England
This copper-colored brew is a solid English take on the winter warmer style. It leads with smells of fragrant toffee, bread, and English Fuggles (a hop varietal). In keeping with English tradition, it has a bready, almost biscuity taste with accents of toffee, fruity esters, and light spices. It also has a strong mineral taste that may be objectionable to some, perhaps from the water used to brew with. It has medium body and carbonation.

6. Tommyknocker Cocoa Porter

ABV: 5.7%
Style: Porter
Brewed in: Idaho Springs, Colorado
This beer is not particularly complex, but it’s quite good. It smells like cocoa powder and honey, and tastes just the same. Although the body is a light for a porter, the carbonation and roasted malt taste are appropriate for the style. Like Shiner’s brew, this beer is simple but hits its mark.

5. Elevator Brewing Winter Warmer

ABV: 8.6%
Style: Winter Warmer
Brewed in: Columbus, Ohio
The intense sweet cinnamon aroma of this ruby-brown beer had me salivating instantly. It is full-bodied,
almost creamy, and very satisfying to sip on. It tastes strongly of cinnamon, accentuated by nutmeg and
breadiness. While this is a strong contender, it’s too sweet to be considered balanced.

4. Columbus Brewing Company Winter Warmer

ABV: Unknown
Style: Winter Warmer
Brewed in: Columbus, Ohio
Like Elevator’s brew, this beer is heavily spiced. However, it is more complex, with notes of not only cinnamon but also nutmeg and honey. The taste leads with nutmeg, followed by cinnamon, then a slight malty sweetness, finishing with spicy hop bitterness. While there is some malty sweetness in the taste, this beer is quite dry for the style. This beer is great for those who love a spicy Christmas ale without all the sweetness.

3. Tröegs Mad Elf Ale

ABV: 11%
Style: Strong Dark Ale
Brewed in: Hershey, Pennsylvania
The biggest beer on this list, Mad Elf stays true to its Belgian roots with an aroma dominated by spicy yeast with honey and cherries playing a supporting role. The amber-ruby, slightly cloudy beer tastes just as it smells. Mouthfeel and carbonation levels are good and appropriate to style. This beer could use stronger cherry flavor. Personally, I love this beer and I’m glad to see a Belgian take on Christmas ale. At 11% ABV, you’ll have to be careful with something this smooth.

2. Great Lakes Brewing Company Christmas Ale

ABV: 7.5%
Style: Winter Warmer
Brewed in: Cleveland, Ohio
Almost a mythical legend in Ohio, this Cleveland classic smells like cinnamon, honey, ginger, and nutmeg (in that order). The taste is even more complex than the aroma, starting with a light caramel sweetness and bready maltiness, following with a strong ginger-honey taste, and finishing with cinnamon and a bit of hop flavor and bitterness. This medium-bodied ale has great carbonation and absolutely no trace of alcohol. Unlike CBC’s dry beer or Elevator’s sweet beer, Christmas Ale toes the line of perfect balance. The ginger, though, is a little too much and could be reduced in favor of more cinnamon. Drink this beer a bit warmer to bring out the honey flavor.

1. Thirsty Dog 12 Dogs of Christmas Ale

ABV: 8.3%
Style: Winter Warmer
Brewed in: Akron, Ohio
This beer has the strongest aroma, rivaled only by Elevator’s Winter Warmer. Unlike the one- dimensional, cinnamon-forward Elevator offering, 12 Dogs presents an intoxicating and balanced aroma of cinnamon, nutmeg, honey, and some ginger in the background. The flavor is quite similar, though the combination of alcohol and ginger is a bit sharp (though GLBC’s Christmas Ale has more ginger, there is substantially less alcohol). This is a minor complaint, however, next to the depth of flavor and wonderful balance. Its balanced yet unabashed use of spices edges out Great Lakes to capture the title of ‘Christmas in a bottle.’

Fortunately, these beers are readily available around town – with the exception of Great Lakes, which sells out as soon as it hits the shelves – so you’ll be able to toast with taste this holiday season.

What’s your favorite winter beer?

About the Author

Sage is an engineering grad student who loves beer, cars, and guns — in that order. At least right now. A homebrewer and gay for anything Belgian.

24 Comments on "The 12 Beers of Christmas"

  1. Ryan November 14, 2011 at 9:38 AM · Reply

    And just a note for anyone looking to try any of these beers: These beers in particular benefit from being sampled at a slightly warmer temperature (roughly 45-55F). If you are drinking them cold, you WON’T be able to smell or taste the complexity these bring to the table! Pour it and cup the glass in your hands and sample it as it warms. It will eventually open up and hit a sweet spot. Enjoy!

    • Deb November 14, 2011 at 10:08 AM · Reply

      Hey Ryan, can you send me an email? dbitzan (at) gmail (dot) com.

      We have everything we need for the experimental brew.

  2. Drew November 14, 2011 at 10:24 AM · Reply

    I’ve always heard that the 12 dogs of Christmas is brewed using the original recipe for Christmas ale. I’m glad you ranked it the best. It us hands down my favorite thing about Christmas! This town is way to coocoo for Christmas ale.

    • Sage Wolfe November 14, 2011 at 10:25 AM · Reply

      Drew, I’ve heard that too. I was told that their brewer (who formulated the recipe) used to work for GLBC.

  3. Andrea November 14, 2011 at 10:45 AM · Reply

    Nice picks! Fireside Chat is a favorite and definitely a great beer to have on hand. Gotta disagree with Blue Moon suggestion though. I would replace that with New Holland’s Cabin Fever.

    • Cheryl Harrison November 14, 2011 at 10:47 AM · Reply

      Yeah, I would have stuck Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale in there over that. I actually like Celebration Ale a lot 🙂 A couple Ohio beers that maybe should have made the list like Frosted Frog – maybe a Christmas Beers part 2 is in order? 🙂

      • Sage Wolfe November 14, 2011 at 10:57 AM · Reply

        Celebration Ale is a great beer but I don’t think it fits on this list. It’s just an IPA, albeit a great one.

        • Cheryl Harrison November 14, 2011 at 11:03 AM · Reply

          Maybe it’s just the packaging, but it tastes like Christmas to me :-p – you’re right though

        • John November 14, 2011 at 12:11 PM · Reply

          Does it have to be a Winter Warmer to be a “Holiday beer?”

          • Sage Wolfe November 14, 2011 at 12:15 PM ·

            I think that’s really up to the drinker, but in my mind, holiday beers other than winter warmers should have an atypical ingredient (winter warmers already have spices, etc.).

            Mad Elf had cherries and honey, Holiday Cheer had peaches, Tommyknocker had cocoa and honey. This is just my take on it — I think the little something extra is what makes them festive and Christmas-y.

    • Sage Wolfe November 14, 2011 at 10:55 AM · Reply

      Ha, trust me, I’m not ‘suggesting’ that anyone drink Blue Moon Abbey Ale (I wouldn’t suggest buying Winter Solstice, either).

      I would definitely like to try Frosted Frog. I’ve yet to have anything from Hoppin’ Frog that wasn’t great (their pumpkin ale is my favorite).

      • Ryan November 15, 2011 at 1:38 AM · Reply

        I was reading this as your take on 12 beers, not necessarily your top 12 of the season.

        • Sage Wolfe November 15, 2011 at 2:16 PM · Reply

          That’s correct — just my take on this dozen. I guess I didn’t make that clear enough.

          • Cheryl Harrison November 15, 2011 at 6:14 PM ·

            I thought it was clear 🙂

  4. Jared Svetek November 14, 2011 at 11:14 AM · Reply

    My favorite (for the time being) comes to us from Oregon. This lovely beverage is called Santa’s Private Reserve brewed by my favorite brewery Rouge Ales. I drink this and instantly go stand outside waiting for snow to start falling. I’m not an expert when it comes to the numerous flavors and ingredients in beer, but this one is hearty and oh so delicious.

    Website below:

  5. fenchurch November 14, 2011 at 11:41 AM · Reply

    Despite the fervor over GLBC Christmas Ale, I haven’t been impressed by it the last two years.

    How about Lagunitas Sucks? It’s taking the place of Brown Shugga this season. Haven’t tried it yet myself, but wondered if anyone has, and how it is.

    • Ryan November 15, 2011 at 1:36 AM · Reply

      It’s good, but not a style that would fall within this grouping. Very grapefruity, hop forward IPA…

  6. John November 14, 2011 at 11:58 AM · Reply

    No Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale? One of the best holiday beers out there…Lagunitas Holiday Ale is also delicious; it’s the replacement to Brown Shugga.

    Hoppy Holidays!

  7. John November 14, 2011 at 11:59 AM · Reply

    @fenchurch… amazing American IPA – picked some up Friday night and was blown away. If you dig hops, check it out.

  8. Brandy November 21, 2011 at 6:57 PM · Reply

    Kudos Ryan on the “let it warm up a bit” sentiment. I am disappointed that Harpoons Winter Warmer was left off the list though. But then again I always like the ones no one else does. Happy Holidays.

  9. Kelly Magic December 4, 2013 at 11:12 AM · Reply

    I recently had Hopping Frog Frosted Frog Christmas ale, and it definitely got me into the beermas spirit. It was not nearly as sweet as most other Christmas beers, and the spice was well balanced. It may be better than 12 Dogs of Christmas.

    If you find yourself in Delaware, visit Staas Brewing Co to try their Drunk Turkey sage IPA. Their winter warmer, Flying Fatman, is pretty good too.

  10. D Lanford November 11, 2016 at 9:00 PM · Reply

    Great web site. Thanks.
    I just tried the Shiner Texas Warmer. This sweet taste maybe one of my new favorites. I hope this will become one of their regular beers, not just a one off brew. Lagunitas Sucks was mentioned, also one of my favorites. I need to try their Holiday Ale.
    I need to put Hoppin Frog on my list to try also.

    Thanks for the reviews.

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