“Tis the season to be jolly…” so starts the traditional Christmas song, and what is more jolly than a few festive beers with your beer-drinking buddies at those holiday parties?
In fact, with all those in-laws and other relatives in such close proximity over the holiday season, you’ll probably need a festive beer or two just to get through the week.
Although many beer critics would argue that American craft holiday beers are simply a marketing ploy to extract more money from beer geeks, Christmas beers or holiday ales are nothing new.
The tradition of drinking a holiday seasonal beer can be traced all the way back to the Vikings who drank mugs of Jul (or yule) ale every December. Some areas such as Cleveland even get that excited they have a whole holiday craft beer scene with first-pour parties starting as early as October every year.
What’s called the most wonderful time of the year is now an American craft beer holiday for us beer lovers. These awesome beers are the kind of ale you just want to curl up in front of a fire with as the weather gets colder and those nights get darker. They also make great gifts (hint, hint!).
Let’s take a look a look at the best Christmas-themed beers to stuff in your stockings in 2022.
What Is a Christmas Beer?
It can often be hard to define the holiday beer category, as there are no BJCP guidelines for what makes a holiday beer. Generally, they tend to be beers with a bit more strength and malt to greet that colder winter weather.
Holiday beers often include the Belgian Tripel style ales, fruit infused-beers, porters and stouts, brown winter ales, and even that favorite of craft beer lovers; the IPA.
The Oxford Companion to Beer defines Christmas Ales as “special beers made for Christmas and New Year celebrations, often with a higher alcohol content of 5.5% to 14% ABV and marked by the inclusion of dark flavored malts, spices, herbs, and fruits in the recipe.”
In medieval times, Christmas beers were often called “lambswool” and included ingredients such as nutmeg, ginger, honey, and roasted apples.
Nowadays, a Christmas beer will often add popular festive flavors such as cinnamon, cloves, citrus, and dark fruits in addition to the honey and nutmeg – think of it as the craft beer version of mulled wine, just not served steaming in a ceramic mug.
Many breweries love to add their own spices and flavors in bold beer ideas and label them with festive names such as Bronx Brewery Jingle Jangle or simple words such as “Santa,” “Reindeer,” “Holiday,” or “Elf.”
Whether it’s their highest alcohol content beer, a crazy spiced beer, or even a super hoppy beer, the better-known Christmas beers are some of the most anticipated annual releases of many craft beer purveyors.
The 12 Days of Christmas: 12 Best Holiday Beers
Let’s take a look at the 12 best holiday beers for those magical 12 days of Christmas. Although we often refer to them as Christmas beers, most are normally released at the end of October straight after Halloween.
There’s no reason you can’t be enjoying these awesome beers for all of the holiday periods, and with production normally stopping at the end of January, make the most of them while you can.
Christmas Ale by Anchor Brewing
- ABV 7%
Anchor Brewing has been known as a craft beer pioneer ever since Fritz Maytag first set up the San Francisco brewery in the late 60s.
In 1975, Anchor was the first brewery to produce a Holiday beer since prohibition ended, and their beloved Christmas Ale is now in its 47th year of production.
Released every November, Anchor’s Christmas Ale has a different recipe every year, but the one thing all iterations of this favorite holiday beer have in common is they pay homage to the holiday season in addition to the attributes of craft beer.
The recipe, however, is a closely guarded secret, with the Anchor Brewing website only saying “Top Secret” when it comes to which Malt, Hops, and Dry Hops have been used.
One of the most reliable holiday beers on the market, despite the different recipes every year, the last version of this much-beloved beer featured layers of dark chocolate, raisins, and classic holiday flavors of marshmallows, graham crackers, and hints of baking spice.
I have yet to try this year’s installment, and Anchor, as usual, was quite tight-lipped about what 2022 would bring.
As well as an ever-changing recipe, the Anchor Christmas Ale also features a different hand-drawn label every year.
Recent years have featured iconic and endangered species of trees, including the Joshua Tree (ideal for any U2-loving craft beer fans) with a portion of the profits going to the One Tree Planted Charity.
Not only are you getting one of the best winter warmers out there, but you’re also doing your bit for the planet – a double festive bonus!
Jubelale Festive Winter Ale by Deschutes Brewery
- ABV 6.7%
Another annual release that changes its label every year, Jubelale features the artwork of different regional artists and makes the perfect gift. First brewed and bottled by hand in 1988 by Gary Fish, this was the brewery’s first-ever beer.
With over three decades of heritage behind it, Deschutes still release a fresh batch of Jubelale every October just in time for the holiday season. Unlike the Anchor Christmas Ale, what doesn’t change is the recipe of each release.
Although a few tweaks may have been made over the years, this winter warmer features the same blend of five hops (Bravo, Cascade, Delta, US Tettang & East Kent Goldings) to go along with the roasted barley and pale malts for extra character and warmth.
With an IBU of 65, it’s certainly one of the hoppiest holiday beers you will find but balanced with a finish of dusted cocoa and toffee for that malty yet spicy flavor.
This year’s label, just in case you are interested, features an ethereal depiction of a winter landscape by a freelance illustrator, Francisco Morales, who is based in Portland, Oregon, and was inspired by his first winter in the Pacific Northwest.
Be warned when you buy this beer – it’s very addictive and so too can be collecting the different year bottles for their artwork (I have over 20 of the bottles of the last releases as keepsakes. Missing 2015 if anyone can help?).
Xocoveza by Stone Brewing Company
- ABV 8.1%
This much beloved Mocha stout by Stone Brewing Co. was actually the winning brew of Stone’s annual homebrew competition back in 2014 and was such an instant hit that the guys at Stone decided to re-release the beer every year in celebration of the holiday season.
An amazing flavor profile of Mexican hot chocolate features cocoa, coffee, and pasilla peppers, along with those festive flavors of vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg with a generous helping of chocolate.
The overwhelming flavor, which hits you as you take the first sip is vanilla – is like Christmas in a glass and the perfect beer for making a beernog (Recipe to follow at the end of this round-up).
A highly anticipated release every year, this milk stout makes a great gift for friends, loved ones, or even just to yourself.
Celebration Fresh Hop IPA by Sierra Nevada Brewing Company
- ABV 6.7%
Brewed every year since 1981, the hoppy IPA from Sierra Nevada seems to break the mold for traditional Christmas beers.
In a time of year that is better known for highly alcoholic, sweet, sticky, malty, and darker beers, Hop Celebration offers a groundbreaking take on the festive ale with a beer that features a balanced toasty nuttiness with notes of pine and citrus in the hoppy aromatics.
Hop Celebration has a bone-dry finish with that extra bitterness all Sierra Nevada ales are renowned for. The only concession to Christmas seems to be that it’s wrapped in a red can.
Holiday beers aren’t just about the taste of Christmas, but can also be about the celebration too.
Rumor has it the head brewers often huddle around the fermentation tanks with a Hop Celebration in their hand to toast the start of the holiday beer season. After tasting this beer, you’ll agree that it’s not a bad way to toast the start of the holidays.
Mad Elf by Tröegs Brewing
- ABV 11%
Brothers John and Chris Trogner claim their inner Mad Elf takes over the Tröegs brewery once a year when they produce this heady at 11% ABV Belgian-style beer for the holidays.
Brewed with local Pennsylvania honey and chocolate malt, a hint of mischief throws in a blend of five sweet and tart types of cherry for good measure.
While the local honey wildflower sweetens the beer, the spicy Belgian yeast adds subtle notes of cinnamon, cloves, and allspice to the mix.
A Burgundy to ruby red colored beer, it has an IBU of 15 with noble hoops like Saaz and Hallertau used more for aroma. A taste that really shines through is all those lovely cherries (Bing, Lambert, Van, Royal Ann & Montmorency).
Available from Mid October to December every year, Tröegs now even produce a Mad Elf Grand Cru, which they describe as a Director’s Cut of the beer.
Using only Tart Blaton cherries seems to make all the difference with subtle notes of brown sugar, clove, and peppercorns accompanying the cherries with a cinnamon taste.
Reminiscent of a good quality Belgian-style fruit beer, the Grand Cru even comes capped with a champagne-style cork for that extra feeling of decadence. Buy your loved one a bottle of this luxurious ale and they’ll know you put in the effort.
Christmas Ale by Great Lakes Brewing Co.
As we mentioned earlier, Cleveland seems to go crazy every year over the festive season and Christmas beers are considered to be their specialty.
Every winter promises to be their best craft beer holiday season, with many of the local breweries holding a release party in mid-October, some even hosting a halfway-to-Christmas party as early as mid-July for fun Christmas Ale celebrations in the summer.
Perhaps the most well-known and widely distributed of these ales is the Great Lakes Christmas Ale. Moderately hoppy, this smooth and perfectly spiced malty beer features hints of cinnamon, ginger, and honey in its complex flavor profile.
The brewery recommends the beer pairs well with anything from rich game or duck to desserts. If you are in the mid-west in October, you really should try to attend one of Great Lakes’ first-pour launch parties, which have become legendary.
This year, the festivities started at 10:30 am, with the Clevland carollers followed by a Ceremonial delivery of the first keg of Christmas Ale and the first pour.
Food events like beer-infused donuts and Christmas Ale-themed food followed all day in the beer garden, accompanied by eclectic DJ sets and a classic Christmas karaoke session.
12 Dogs of Christmas Ale by Thirsty Dog
- ABV 8%
Traditionally known for naming many of our favorite ales after dogs like the Old Leghumper or the Irish Setter Red, the Ohio brewery at Thirsty Dog now produce a special Christmas beer annually known as The 12 Dogs Of Christmas.
Packed with flavors of honey, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, it’s formulated to what the brewers say is Santa’s secret recipe in a Winter warmer style of beer.
The seasonal flavors come from generous amounts of toasted and caramel malts mixed with equally generous levels of honey, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg.
With a deep ruby to dark brown color, it has a frothy white foamy head reminiscent of many of the German styles of winter beers.
Although there was a controversy surrounding the origins of this Christmas Ale from Thirsty Dog (many believed the recipe was stolen from the Great Lakes Brewing Company Christmas Ale) the use of European hops tends to work a little better in most beer drinker’s opinions compared to the citrussy American hops of the Great Lakes brew.
Although traditionally a seasonal Christmas beer, with first-pour parties in October again, the beer has proved so popular that the last few years have seen a special batch release in July – The Twelve Dogs of Christmas -Christmas in July Ale for those who just can’t wait a whole year to try it again!
Tuborg Julebryg by Carlsberg
- ABV 5.6%
Although the Vikings may have been the first to drink seasonal beers, the mugs of Jule (or Yule) Denmark are better known nowadays for bland lager exports like Carlsberg or Carlsberg Special Brew.
However, one reason to get excited again about Danish beer is this seasonal release of Juleybrg under the Tuborg arm of the Carlsberg brewers.
Only available for 10 weeks a year starting on the first Friday of November, otherwise known as J-Dag (aka J-Day), the Julebryg arrives with much fanfare and even an informal holiday in Denmark.
Traditionally, the first batch of his Christmas brew is shipped by a horse and carriage draped in blue with later deliveries by beer trucks singing the Tuborg Christmas song and handing out free beer to the people of Denmark.
Unlike normal Christmas Ales or stouts and Porters, Julebryg is a dark pilsner lager with an ABV of 5.6%, which contains flavors of licorice, caramel, blackcurrant, and münchener malts.
Don’t worry, it is imported here into the US! However, I don’t expect to see too many (if any) beer trucks handing out free cans of Julebryg in my neighborhood anytime soon.
Christmas Ale by St. Bernardus Trapiste Brewery, Belgium
- ABV 10%
One of the oldest Christmas or holiday beers in the world, this Christmas Ale is actually a Belgian Quadruple style of ale best described as a dark, seasonal beer full of wintery character and flavors.
An intensely dark beer, it has a full rich body and a fruity flavor with seasonal zesty aromas. Hints of creamy caramel and fire-roasted chestnuts are complemented by notes of aniseed.
This original zestiness carries on throughout the beer with a finish of dried fruits and chocolate, giving it that extra festive taste in a Belgian style loved by many beer connoisseurs.
A unique St Bernardus yeast strain dating back to 1946 gives the beer its own special complexity. Aroma and flavor are bread heavy with caramel malt giving it a cookie-like flavor.
If you’re a fan of Belgian beers, then this is definitely the Holiday beer you should be looking for during this festive period. Luckily, it’s carried by most beer wholesalers across the US. Just be quick, as demand often outstrips the limited supplies.
Santa’s Private Reserve by Rogue Ales
- ABV 6.5%
Rogue Ales is another brewery that likes to shake it up flavorwise when it comes to the annual release of its festive ale.
Although the previous ales created for Santa’s private reserve included a malty sweet oaky ale last year, and in 2020 was a warming peppermint milk stout, for 2022 they have gone a little more traditional with a tangerine and chocolate flavored stout.
However, they still throw in the odd curveball with some tahini added, which goes an extra nuttiness to this winter stout.
Rogue Ales like to have fun with their seasonal brews, the label of this can every year entertains and they even produce a range of glassware that can be picked up online, often sometimes even on Amazon.
Holiday Cheer by Shiner Beers
- ABV 5.4%
Although Shiner is better known for their Shiner Bock beers, which are the ideal accompaniment to a mid-summer BBQ with friends, the great thing about Christmas is many of these smaller brewers try their hand at something new for the holiday season.
Shiner Holiday Cheer is a beer made in the traditional German Dunkelweizen style, but using uniquely American ingredients like Texan peaches and pecans. After all, what would Thanksgiving and Christmas be without some pecans?
The resulting beer is a holiday session ale that’s not too heavy, yet is still packed with just the right amount of seasonal complementary flavors.
Only available for two months of the year, like most of the beers we have looked at, make sure your track down this Texan favorite, especially if you’re a fan of the German beers at your local beer depot.
Winter Solstice Seasonal Ale by Anderson Valley Brewing Company
- ABV 6.9%
Holidays aren’t just about Christmas, as my friend is always keen to point out. In fact, he wouldn’t even consider drinking a beer that had the words Christmas emblazoned on it (he doesn’t know what he’s missing out on!).
Fortunately, Anderson Valley offers their seasonal brew Winter Solstice from October to January, which they describe as their take on the classic style of a winter warmer. Although with an ABV of just 6.9%, it’s probably better suited to warmer locales.
Pouring with a deep amber hue and a medium frothy off-white head, the creamy mouthfeel features flavors of toffee, spice, and caramel with a strong malt backbone and a hint of faint hops for bitterness and a sweet finish.
Some may also find hints of vanilla and dates, although they can be very subtle.
With its lighter ABV, this is one “winter warmer” you could keep drinking into the early spring months, assuming you have any left when the stock runs dry at the end of January.
How To Make a “Beer Nog”
As promised, here’s a recipe for beer nog, using the excellent seasonal holiday stout, Xocoveza from Stone Brewing Company. What’s more holiday-like than a traditional “nog” drink?
- 6 large eggs
- 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 2/3 cup white sugar, granulated or caster
- 2 1/2 cups whole milk
- 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
- 10 oz Stone Xcoveza Stout (or similar)
- 2 tsp ground nutmeg
Place the egg yolks, vanilla, and 1/2 a cup of sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer and beat for several minutes until the yolks fluff up and double in volume.
Add all the other ingredients to the bowl, excluding the whites of the eggs and the remaining sugar, and mix until it’s all well combined. Once fully mixed, transfer to a clean bowl and allow to stand.
Thoroughly wash the mixing bowl and whisk before placing the egg whites into it and start whisking. Slowly sprinkle the remaining sugar into the mix and keep whisking it until it thickens up and becomes stiff.
Carefully fold the egg whites into the yolk and beer mixture and leave to chill until ready to drink.
When serving, pour into your favorite beer goblets and garnish with a little more grated nutmeg before spreading your festive cheer.