It’s that time of year again: Saturnalia.
Sorry, I mean: Christmas. (I think this column’s new Latin name is getting to me. Although, seriously, Saturnalia—the wild ancient Roman winter festival—seems way more fun than Christmas. However, I digress.)
I won’t be covering Hanukkah or Kwanzaa beers, although I have celebrated Hanukkah multiple times, because my mother’s side of the family is Jewish; therefore, according to the matrilineal tradition of Judaism, I am considered a Jew. Sadly, there is not a wealth of Hanukkah beers; that, plus my ignorance of Kwanzaa outside of Lionel Richie references in “All Night Long,” means I’m forced to stick with Yuletide-themed beers.
I will be doing the very cliché thing of recommending some of favorite holiday beers to you. But isn’t that what Christmas is really about, anyway? (Yeah, yeah, there’s that Middle Eastern guy who people have carried on about for the last two millennia, too.)
Enough of my insolence. Let’s get to the list.
Winter Welcome Ale, Samuel Smith Old Brewery: The wassail (pronounced wahss-uhl) is an English tradition that extends back before the Norman Conquest. In the context of beer, in medieval times, a traditional winter wassail consisted of hot strong ale, sugar, spices and roasted apples. It came to America as the “Winter Warmer” and usually consisted of a stronger English ale that, if not spiced, gave hints of spice from the malts and hops used.
This is my favorite incarnation of the wassail (that I can find, of course) and has been for a very long time. If you haven’t experienced the beer of Yorkshire, England’s own Samuel Smith Old Brewery, you should; they are pretty widely available here, and I cannot recommend them enough. This beer gives the distinct English malt nose of treacle and caramel, with earthy, woodsy hop notes from the Fuggles and East Kent Goldings hops. There is a lingering flavor of plum, and as it warms a little, you can pick up apple esters from the English yeast. It warms my heart more than my chest, even though it has a respectable 6 percent alcohol by volume—a medium-high level of alcohol as English ales go. I may use a bottle of this to attempt a traditional wassail drink. Wish me luck.
Delirium Noël, Brouwerij Huyghe: No, I didn’t just pass out on my keyboard. That’s the name of the Belgian brewery that also brings you its flagship beer, Delirium Tremens. Christmas versions of Belgian abbey ales are not uncommon and are among my favorite seasonal beers. (This is unsurprising, really, since many of my favorite beers are Belgian or Belgian-inspired.)
This Belgian dark strong ale clocks in at 10 percent ABV, but like any well-made abbey ale, the alcohol is well-hidden in the aroma and flavor. This is due to the widespread use of candy sugar that adds alcohol during fermentation but, due to its lack of proteins, doesn’t also add body as malt sugars would. This leads to deadly drinkable beers with tons of flavor. In this particular beer, I picked up a slightly floral note, plus apple, spiced plum, clove and a hint of banana. That is followed up by a lovely warmth in the chest as it goes down, but not so much as to prevent the next sip. If you’re a beer drinker but haven’t tried Belgian ales, you need Jesus.
Christmas Ale, Brouwerij St. Bernardus NV: Here’s another dark Belgian Christmas ale from one of my favorite Belgian breweries. This brewery is unique, not just because of the exceptional quality of all of its beers, but also because of the character of its yeast. It contains many of the characteristic esters and phenols found in other Belgian ales, but also a unique hint of licorice. I don’t even like the flavor in the wild, but when it’s embedded among other flavors expertly, it’s very satisfying. Such is the case with this Christmas ale.
This very dry 10 percent ABV with dark fruit, banana, clove and, of course, a hint of licorice is balanced by a medium-bitter spice finish. Am I making it plain enough how much I love Belgian ales yet?
Jubelale 2018, Deschutes Brewery: From closer to home comes a beer from a beloved beer-maker in Bend, Ore. This is their version of the wassail, and while at a traditional 6.7 percent ABV, it is true to American versions of Old World styles and is hoppier. I usually decry this lack of imagination when it comes to such American recreations, but here, it suits the beer.
Cocoa powder, prune, coffee, a hint of cherry, raisin and a lovely toasted quality are all in play with this one. It has a medium-bitter finish and medium body; the extra hops not only contribute flavor, but balance out all of the malt flavors, making it actually thirst-quenching.
Rise and Pine, Uinta Brewing Company: This beer is a recent favorite of mine from a Salt Lake City brewery whose beers I’ve happily sampled for a decade. I first tried Rise and Pine last year and fell in love. This is described as a “hoppy dark ale” with juniper and piney hops—and it delivers just that. I wondered why it wasn’t considered a black IPA until I saw the malt bill on Uinta’s website and noticed it didn’t include any pale malt. Mystery solved.
Aromas and flavors of prunes, pine and grapefruit predominate and evoke Christmas. It has a medium body but is crisp enough to be very drinkable despite the 7.5 percent ABV. I took a can of this on each of my biggest hikes last year and enjoyed them tremendously. (You might think it foolish to have a beer after a big hike, but for my cousin Josh and me, it almost immediately relieved all of the aching in the legs.) Especially after hiking up to the Palm Springs tram, this beer was a fitting end to a very rugged trek.
I hope I’ve portrayed how much I love these beers and look forward to greeting them every year, like friends I haven’t seen since last Christmas. Give them a try, and see what you think—preferably beside a fire with friends and/or family around.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!
Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.