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The Difference Between a Christmas Beer and a Winter Warmer

December 25, 2017

By Jared Paventi, December 25, 2017

On the day after Thanksgiving, my wife helped me lug the box containing our artificial Christmas tree up from the basement. Traditionally, this is the first day of the Christmas season for the Paventis, when we start hanging decorations, playing Christmas music and have our first viewing of White Christmas.

The first day of my personal Christmas season usually happens a couple of weeks before. This year it was November sixth, when the black cardboard carriers containing amber bottles of Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Christmas Ale started appearing on the shelves at my nearby grocery store. The arrival of this annual treat officially kicks off the most wonderful time of the year for me each winter. There’s just something about the darkish brown ale bursting with caramel malt, cinnamon, honey and ginger that says Christmas more than anything to me. Well, aside from Andy Williams and Bing Crosby.

“I feel like Christmas Ale is more of a Christmas holiday beer than a winter warmer because of the added spice notes and less focus on the malt,” said Mike Friedle, Great Lakes’ Upstate New York sales manager and certified Cicerone, said.

Now in its 25th year of availability, Christmas Ale often gets confused for a winter warmer, a fact Friedle is quick to counter.

“We’re really kind of splitting hairs here but you need a rich malt backbone with roasted and chocolately malts (for a winter warmer),” Friedle said. “That line is becoming more and more blurred every single year because winter warmer, as a style, is being falsely marketed as holiday beer because of the response winter beers get.”

So, keep the winter warmers on ice until January, or when the cold winds move in and you need a boozy treat to stoke your internal pilot light after a shoveling snow or putting away Christmas decorations. ‘Tis the season for Christmas beer right now, and these domestic selections rise to the top. I say domestic because our friends in Belgium do a nice job as well. Purchasing a bottle of Scaldis Noël, Saint Bernardus Christmas Ale or, my favorite, Brasserie d’Achouffe N’Ice Chouffe would not be the worst money you spent this holiday season.

The recipe is meant to serve both drinkers who want to crack open a bottle now and those who want to age the beer.”

Anchor Brewing Company Christmas Ale

Recipe development for the craft pioneer’s Christmas Ale begins in March. For the uninitiated, Anchor Brewing Company has tweaked its recipe and the tree on its label each year since its first brewing in 1975. Brewmaster Scott Ungermann looked to achieve balance within the last few batches of the beer.

“By peeling back the layers of the spices, we are making sure that all of the spices, malts, and hops work together to amplify one another rather than fighting against each other,” he said. “We are seeking to have a harmonious blend rather than a cacophonous one. One of the things we strive for in making a new recipe every year is that there is sufficient 'newness' year after year.  In order to do this we need to introduce new things, but we also need to remove some of the existing components so that we don’t just keep on adding more and more.”

Ungermann said the recipe is meant to serve both drinkers who want to crack open a bottle now and those who want to age the beer. The 2017 version has a 6.7% alcohol by volume, and a different malt profile to boost roasted and toasted malt aromas.

“We also changed the spices slightly this year to accompany the malt changes in a textured approach that was designed to work well with the new malts.”

It’s like a Christmas beer & Mexican chocolate stout got together & made an adorably boozy liquid baby.”

The Bruery’s Nine Ladies Dancing and Ten Lords a Leaping

The Bruery’s Twelve Beers of Christmas series takes a new verse each year and applies it to a different style of wintertime beer. Nine Ladies Dancing is a dessert beer mimicking tiramisu. Classified as a Belgian strong ale, the flavor profile combines chocolate, vanilla, and coffee, evoking the distinct flavors of the Italian dessert.

Ten Lords a Leaping is an imperial wit brewed in the tradition of a wassail, an aggressively spiced English drink. The Bruery, known for its sour and barrel-aged beers, incorporated ten different spices in this beer: coriander, orange peel, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, mace, anise, dried apples, and cloves.

Fat Head’s Brewery Pimp My Sleigh

Great Lakes is the best known Cleveland brewery, but Fat Head’s might be its most underrated. Pimp My Sleigh is one of two holiday beers – the other a winter warmer – brewed here, a Belgian-style strong ale replete with dark candied sugars, raisin, fig and hints of black currant. It’s noted for being a full-bodied beer with a creamy mouthfeel. Fat Head’s gets a lot of acclaim for its IPAs, but this dark beast is a departure only in style, not quality, from its normal range.

Prairie Artisan Ales Christmas Bomb!

It seems like every beer list these days includes an entry from Prairie Artisan Ales. Its Bomb! beers share the same base flavors of ingredients of vanilla beans, cacao nibs, coffee and ancho chilies – a smoky pepper with low in heat – and the Christmas Bomb! is no different. For the holidays, Prairie adds a liberal helping of cinnamon to complement the stout. It’s like a Christmas beer and Mexican chocolate stout got together and made an adorably boozy (13% ABV) liquid baby.

Two RoadsMerry Christmas from Two Roads, it looks like.

Sierra Nevada Brewing Company Celebration Ale

Of course we are going to include Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale. Where other breweries zig to dark beers, Sierra Nevada zags to make a hop bomb. First brewed in 1981, Celebration Ale is a fresh hop IPA with a well-balanced malt backbone. Take a whiff from the glass and you get a noseful of Cascade, Centennial and Chinook hops fresh from the oast. The caramel malts render an intensely bitter beer with flavors of orange peel and pine.

Tröegs Brewing Company Mad Elf

I love Tröegs Brewing Company beer but I can never remember the key combination for an umlaut, so I rarely write about them. The Mad Elf has been a Christmas tradition in Central Pennsylvania since 2002 and it has since spread throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. It’s not a beer for the faint of heart, tipping in at 11% ABV and classified as an American strong ale. It’s aggressive in every way, as you might expect a mad elf to act, with bold flavors of cherry, banana, clove, toffee, and caramel. You can taste the impact of the yeast esters in the fruits and the grain bill goes a long way to temper and balance things out.

Two Roads Brewing Company Holiday Ale

The Connecticut brewer goes European with its holiday beer, reaching into the north of France for a biere de Noël, a darker, boozier variation of the farmhouse biere de garde. The malts and hops – Aramis and Strisselspalt, if you’re scoring at home – are French, imparting a spicy flavor that sets this beer apart from the rest of Two Roads’ range of hop-forward ales and sours. And that was Phil Markowski’s intent. The co-founder and master brewer at Two Roads, Markowski said that this beer is about creating awareness for a style.

“If we instead chose to brew a hoppy IPA for the Christmas season we would probably sell more volume,” Markowski said. “But, we would miss the opportunity to help educate the consumer about an obscure style of holiday ale with origins in France, a country much better known for wine than beer. If we can help create that awareness by sometimes brewing historically significant styles such as a Biere de Noel, as opposed to more commercially popular styles, then that's the path we will take.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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