The words "Christmas beers" always give me pause. While that designation doesn't carry specific style guidelines, such brews invariably possess the same pitfalls: They carelessly bludgeon the ale with mulling spices. They outright insult us with overblown cranberry flavors. The sentiment seems to be that a season that continually encourages the production and gifting of fruitcake deserves to have good taste abandoned altogether.
I certainly understand brewers wanting to commemorate this festive season (i.e. cash in). It's not as if most of us want to face the holiday completely sober, anyway. But must beer suffer in the process?
Here are three holiday ales that not only avoid the pitfalls of Christmas beers; they also manage to succeed in their own right—just like baby Jesus would want them to:
AleSmith's Yulesmith Holiday Ale (8.5-percent ABV): This red-hued amber brew summons a chewy head that's blistered with massive bubbles like those on the surface of a witch's cauldron. The pine aromatics are bold and plentiful. The first taste is tremendously sticky, giving those same pine notes real staying power. There's an initial citrus flavor worth noting, too, but since it's beaten into submission nanoseconds later by a massive kick of pine-needle bitterness, there's no point in dwelling on it.
Despite the prominence of the pine notes, the bready malts and citrus flavors contribute enough to prevent this imperial red ale from becoming a carbonated mock-up of the water in the Christmas tree stand. It's bold, hoppy and, frankly, tastes like winter.
Karl Strauss' Four Scowling Owls (9-percent ABV): Belgian tripel is about as far from the hallmarks of a Christmas beer as you can get, making it a particularly intriguing option. The Four Scowling Owls (the fourth entry in Karl Strauss' annual 12 Days of Christmas beer suite) has a rich, honey-amber color with a foamy eggshell head. It somehow manages to smell both musty and zesty, which seems like a pretty good nexus for this style. It has a champagne-like character to it: Tight bubbles animate the palate, and it offers some sweetness despite finishing on the dry side. The flavor is something else entirely, though, with notes of citrus pith, white pepper, mandarin orange and pears.
Nothing about this bright beer shouts "Christmas!," but that's not to say it isn't delicious in its own right.
Manzanita Brewing's Night Before Christmas (7 percent ABV): This American stout is redolent with rich, dark chocolate. It's earthy and slightly sweet with the aromatic chill of mint. It's a profile that suggests a dessert beer is forthcoming, though that's hardly the case. The experience of this beer is definitely grounded more in the full, roasty aspects of the stout. It has an earthy bitterness that quickly comes to prominence over the coffee and baker's-chocolate notes. The finish is minty, leaving silky traces of cocoa behind.
The Night Before Christmas reminds me of a marshmallow accidentally set ablaze while toasting it. If you were expecting a perfectly sweet and golden-brown confection, you're going to be disappointed, but if you like your marshmallow to bite back a smidge, it's its own unique reward.