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What's the difference between a Christmas beer and a winter beer? Well, the labels for Christmas beers are usually red and green, while winter beer labels tend to be blue and white. As far as style goes, though, there's not much to differentiate them. In fact, neither is even an official beer style.
According to the Oxford Companion to Beer, Christmas ale is "a catch-all descriptive phrase given to special beers made for Christmas and New Year celebrations, often with a high alcohol content 5.5%-14% ABV and marked by the inclusion of dark flavored malts, spices, herbs, and fruits in the recipe."
The entry for winter ale notes that while winter warmer beers were popular in Europe for hundreds of years, often heated and spiced, they slowly disappeared in England in the 20th century and were revived in both the U.S. and the UK by the craft beer movement in the 1970s. "These seasonal beers, generally at 5% to 8% alcohol by volume, have an emphasis on darker malts and sometimes use spices alongside hops, recalling the old heated spiced ales. Many winter ales in Europe are dubbed 'Christmas ales,' and this is an old tradition, although in the United States this is translated to 'holiday ale' out of cultural sensitivity."
So while there's no official definition of a Christmas or winter beer, the OCB's opinion is that they usually use dark malts and often include spices. Which doesn't explain the existence of light, unspiced wheat beers and IPAs that fall under the winter/Christmas/holiday/celebration beer umbrella. Speaking of that umbrella, even determining what beers fall into the category is dicey. Is it anything with an image of snow on the label, or only beers that include the word "winter," "Christmas," etc. in the name?
I'd more or less decided on the latter—dubious as the distinction may be—and rounded up a decidedly noncomprehensive collection of Christmas and winter beers, when, in the course of my online research, I noticed that Paste Magazine had included Lagunitas Brown Shugga in its Christmas beer roundup. It's a seasonal release, but doesn't say anything on the label about winter, holidays, or the like. Since I already had 14 beers to taste (and there are many more available locally; enough that I may end up doing a second round-up next week), I wasn't about to go searching for seasonal releases. But I happened to have some Brown Shugga in my fridge, so I decided to include it.
I've divided the beers into two categories—Christmas and winter—even though that doesn't seem to predict much in terms of style. One IPA fell into the winter category, the other into Christmas. They're listed in descending order from our least favorite to favorite, though it's worth noting that the Christmas category was stronger overall.
Shiner Holiday Cheer: This dunkelweizen pours a bright reddish brown, smells pleasantly of peaches, and tastes like Kool-Aid. No one on our little tasting panel managed more than a couple sips before being overwhelmed by its cloying sweetness and dumping out the rest. A glance at the label reveals that in addition to being brewed with peaches and pecans, the beer has natural flavor and caramel color added.
Breckenridge Brewery Christmas Ale: A medium-bodied winter warmer with well-balanced malt and hops. There are no spices that I can taste, but the finish is slightly spicy. It doesn't distinguish itself in any way, which can be good or bad depending what you're looking for.
Sierra Nevada Celebration: A good beer if you appreciate a wallop of hops (which, full disclosure, I don't). Brewed without spices, the flavor is hops, hops, and more hops; there are some piney notes to the beer that come from (you guessed it) the hops. This one gets great reviews but wasn't for me.
Great Lakes Christmas Ale: A classic (at least in the midwest), this was the most heavily spiced of any of the beers we tried. Brewed with honey, it's sweet but not syrupy and tastes like spice cake, full of cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg.
Revolution Fistmas: This smells like pine trees—sort of in the way that hoppy beers often do, but without the punch of hop flavor that the aroma leads you expect. A beautifully balanced beer, it's got plenty of hops, but also enough bready, caramelly malt that neither dominates. The ginger and orange peel it's steeped with are restrained, and the spices only come through a little on the finish.
Josephsbrau Winter Brew: The style of this dark double bock lager (contract brewed for Trader Joe's) makes it sound far more interesting than it is. It tastes like a generic malty beer, with a smooth, mildly sweet flavor that fades quickly.
Capital Brewing Winter Skal: Much like the Josephsbrau, the Skal is a pleasant, forgettable winter lager that lacks depth of flavor. It's easy enough to drink, but not something I'd buy again.
Hinterland Winterland: This dry, roasty porter brewed with juniper berries gets points for its name, but not much else. It tastes like pine and overroasted coffee, as if it were brewed with burnt Christmas trees.
New Belgium Accumulation: New Belgium claims that this white IPA is "a direct revolt to the longstanding tradition of brewing dark beers for winter." It's a nice floral IPA, without many characteristics of a white ale; though it's a perfectly good beer it doesn't stand out.
Bell's Winter White Ale: A Belgian-style witbier, light and lemony with a slightly spicy, peppery finish and not much carbonation. Like the New Belgium, it's pleasant but not particularly remarkable.
Lagunitas Brown Shugga: Famously originating from a failed batch of Olde Gnarlywine Ale, Brown Shugga is aggressively hoppy and sweet, and somehow manages to be perfectly balanced. It's got lots of caramel and toasty malt flavors followed by a citrusy bitterness, and doesn't taste nearly as alcoholic as it is (9.99 percent ABV).
Smuttynose Winter Ale: According to the brewery, their winter ale is brewed with a special Trappist ale yeast in a style "reminiscent of a Belgian Abbey Double." It's a toasty, complex brown ale with flavors of creamy milk chocolate, dark fruits, and a slightly spicy finish.
Anchor Winter Wheat: I expected this new release from Anchor to be similar to the Bell's and Victory wheat beers, but when I saw the color—a dark brown-black—I realized that wouldn't be the case. It tastes like prunes, cherries, cocoa, and toasty malt. The color made me think the beer would be heavy, but it's actually medium-bodied—but very full-flavored.
Julia Thiel writes about booze on Thursdays.