This list is part of a Paste series of bottom shelf liquor and craft beer style tastings. Click here to view all entries in the series.
“Christmas beer” means a lot of things to a lot of people. Sure, you probably inherently think of some kind of amber, spiced winter warmer when you see the words “Christmas ale” on a label, but this isn’t always the case. More and more, breweries are exploring the boundaries outside of the traditional when it comes to their Christmastime seasonal releases. There are still winter warmers (and plenty of big Belgian ales) galore on the shelves at this time of year, but they’re now regularly joined by everything from wintry IPAs to holiday-appropriate kettle sours. Hell, we even had a pilsner or two in this tasting, somehow.
Which is all to say: One really can’t afford to go into a blind tasting of Christmas beers with a strong, preconceived notion of what “Christmas beer” means. Because we’re judging these beers on a basis of “What do we want to continue drinking?” rather than “how holiday appropriate are they?”, the goal is to give every beer—be it a lager, Belgian ale or imperial stout—the same fair shake.
In the end, the expansion of this field has been good for craft beer—part of the industry’s slow and steady journey away from stereotyped “seasonal” styles, toward an acknowledgement that many craft beer drinkers want to drink all styles, all year round.
So with that said, let’s get to the ranking!
A Note on Beer Acquisition
As in most of our blind tastings at Paste, the vast majority of these Christmas beers were sent directly to the office by the breweries that choose to participate, with additional beers acquired by us via locally available purchases and the occasional trade. We always do our best to reach out to breweries we’re aware of that make exemplary versions of particular styles, but things always do slip through the cracks. We apologize for a few significant omissions that we couldn’t acquire, either due to seasonality or market shortages. There will never be a “perfect” tasting lineup, much as we continue to try.
Apologies to Troegs in particular, whose classic Mad Elf arrived too late to make the last day of tasting.
Rules and Procedure
- This is a tasting of Christmas and winter beers, largely determined by how the breweries chose to label their products. The rules for entry were broad—as long as they had some kind of holiday or winter theming, we accepted them. There was no ABV limit. When in doubt, we simply allow a brewery’s marketing to define a beer’s style, and expect them to stick to the designation they’ve chosen.
- There was a limit of two entries per brewery. The beers were separated into daily blind tastings that approximated a sample size of the entire field.
- Tasters included professional beer writers, brewery owners, brewmasters and beer reps. Awesome, Paste-branded glassware is from Spiegelau.
- Beers were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged. Entries were judged by how much we enjoyed them for whatever reason, not by how well they fit any kind of preconceived style guidelines. As such, this is not a BJCP-style tasting.
The Field: Christmas Beers #103-31
I hate to say it, but the traditional “Christmas ale” or winter warmer can have a hard time standing out in this particular blind tasting. Especially when they’re going up against some kind of exemplary barrel-aged beer or classic Belgian Christmas ales, the milder winter warmers have their work cut out for them. And as a result, you’ll probably find a fair number of them in The Field, including yearly staples such as the genre-defining Anchor Christmas Ale.
I also might as well not sugar-coat the fact that there are some bad beers in here. As with pumpkin beers, Christmas ales do tend to invite the occasional artificially flavored mess. We tasted a handful of beers in this tasting that were syrupy sweet or overly spiced abominations, and some others that were just confused in terms of what they were meant to be or who they were meant to appeal to. The Christmas beer tasting always tends to be something of a minefield in that way. But of course, there are also plenty of excellent beers here in The Field, as there always are.
As always, I’ll remind you that the beers listed below are simply presented in alphabetical order, and as a result are not ranked. I repeat: These beers are not ranked.
Abita Christmas Ale
Anchor Christmas Ale
Asheville Brewing Co. Ninjabread Man
Baere Brewing Co. Bring the Greenback
Bell’s Christmas Ale
Big Boss Brewing Co. Holiday Mess
Boulder Beer Co. Slope Style
Braxton Brewing Co. Claus
Breckenridge Christmas Ale
Brew Kettle Winter Warmer
Cherry Street Brewing Cooperative Spruce Almighty
Crux Fermentation Project Snow Cave
Dark Horse Brewing Co. 4 Elf
Dogfish Head Pennsylvania Tuxedo
Dogfish Head Puddin’ Wine
Double Mountain Brewery Fa La La La La
Elysian Brewing Co. Bifrost
Fieldwork Brewing Co. Goyz in the Hood
Fieldwork Brewing Co. Hors de Saison
Golden Road Gingerbread Stout
Good People Denim Downhiller
Goose Island Winter Ale
Gouden Carolus Noel
Great Divide Hibernation English-Style Old Ale
Great Lakes Christmas Ale
Heavy Seas Winter Storm
He’Brew Hanukkah, Chanukah: Pass The Beer
Highland Brewing Co. Cold Mountain
Highland Brewing Co. Imperial Cold Mountain
Indeed Brewing Co. Old Friend
Iron Hill Reindeer’s Revenge
Iron John’s Golden Spruce
Knee Deep Stifler’s Mom
Lagunitas Brown Shugga
Lone Tree Brewing Co. Vanilla Caramel Amber Ale
New Belgium Accumulation
Ninkasi Brewing Sleigh’r
NoDa Brewing Co. Hoppy Holidays
Odell Isolation Ale
pFriem Family Brewers Winter Ale
Reformation Brewery Festive Stout
Rhinegeist Brewery Dad
Rocket Republic Brewing Co. Coffee Cream Ale
Rocket Republic Brewing Co. Cosmic Cookie
Rogue Ales Yellow Snow
Saint Arnold Christmas Ale
Saint Arnold Brewing Co. Cut With Bread Pudding
Samuel Adams White Christmas
Samuel Adams Winter Lager
Samuel Smith Winter Welcome
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale
Sly Fox Brewing Co. Christmas Ale
Southern Tier 2X-Mas
Starr Hill Brewing Co. Snow Blind
Strange Craft Beer Co. Gingerbread Man
Thirsty Dog Brewing Co. 12 Dogs of Christmas
Three Taverns Feest Noel
Track 7 Mutant Snowman
21st Amendment Fireside Chat
Two Roads Holiday Ale
UFO Winter Blonde
Uinta Rise and Pine
Upslope Wild Christmas Ale
Warped Wing Esther’s Little Secret
Warped Wing The Abominator
Wit’s End Brewing Co. Ugly Sweater
Wolf’s Ridge Brewing Snow Cone
Yellowhammer Brewing Nussknacker
Next: The rankings! Christmas beers #30-1
30. pFriem Family Brewers Belgian-Style Christmas Ale
City: Hood River, OR
The verdict: Props to the folks at pFriem, who continue to put out really high-quality beers that have made the ranked portion of practically every style they’ve ever entered. Here, the brewery, often known for its hop-forward styles, is tackling the classic Belgian Christmas ale, albeit doing it in a way that is a bit more friendly and approachable than most. Their take on this style—probably the Paste office favorite, in terms of classic Christmas beer styles—is lighter in body than some of the bigger bruisers, and a bit lower in alcohol as well at 8% ABV. These factors make for an easy drinking example of the style, featuring light spice notes of clove and anise, balanced by mild caramel malt and hints of dried fruit. In general, this beer is obviously more interested in subtlety than it is in bombast. Simply summed up in one score sheet: “Belgian Christmas, session style.” That might be taking it a bit far, but at least you could probably drink two of these in one night without getting too vocally festive.
29. Harpoon Winter Warmer
City: Boston, MA
The verdict: The sad truth about a lot of “classic” seasonal beers is that people simply continue to buy them every year because they hold some sort of sentimental value—i.e., they don’t stand up in blind tastings. Harpoon’s Winter Warmer is the opposite—a classic in both the memories and on the palate, now making this list two years in a row. It’s no fluke, as this old-school winter warmer is still an excellent example of what spiced, Americanized Christmas ales are all about. Malt-driven and moderately sweet, it begins with a nicely caramelized malt body that also dabbles in bread crust/toast, before segueing into well-balanced spices—unmistakeable flavors of cinnamon and nutmeg that are firm but far more subdued than some of the others on the table. Or as one of the score sheets notes, “right down the holiday middle.”
28. Avery Brewing Co. Old Jubilation
City: Boulder, CO
The verdict: Another Christmas, another place for Old Jubilation in these rankings. This beer is absolutely one of the most dependable of all American-made Christmas ales, and its placement in these blind tastings on a yearly basis is more than enough evidence of that. Toasty dark malt complexity and hints of dark fruit (black cherry/raisin) give it ample character, but Old Jubilation is simultaneously significantly more easy drinking than the ABV would suggest. It’s a beer that is both approachable and suggests significant depth. If you like big, malty, wintry brews, there’s little doubt that you’ll enjoy it.
27. Fiction Beer Co. Wintry Emblem
City: Denver, CO
The verdict: We first tasted this beer during last year’s blind Christmas tasting, but it seems to have been tweaked slightly since then. It’s still an “oak-aged winter spice ale,” but the presence of the wood seems more subtle this time around, driving more focus toward the warm, inviting spice profile. Sweet, fragrant cinnamon is a nice bassline in this beer’s groove, with notes of dark brown sugar, allspice and clove. Like several of the other traditional Christmas ales in this tasting to make the ranked portion, one of its strengths is how deftly it hides its 8.8% ABV—you’d never know you were drinking something that strong.
26. Seventh Son Brewing Co. Rime
City: Columbus, OH
The verdict: The phenomenon of “Christmas IPA” is a bit of a tricky one. We had several other excellent examples in this tasting (tip of the cap to NoDa’s Hoppy Holidays, which just missed the rankings), but Rime was certainly one of the most unique and memorable. They call this one a “winter spiced IPA,” but make the correct choice of focusing more intently on hop flavors and aromatics than spice-driven ones. The hop profile is very piney and resinous, positively Christmas tree-like, and we were rather shocked to find that the beer didn’t specifically include spruce tips. You do get hints of bitter, pithy citrus, along with ginger, in a way that is unusual—the ginger fuses with hops to reinforce the beer’s overall “woodsy” quality. Kudos to Seventh Son for going well off the beaten path on this one.
25. Port Brewing Co. Santa’s Little Helper
City: San Marcos, CA
The verdict: We were actually a little bit shocked by this beer’s profile in this tasting, despite having sampled it numerous times before … because this is the bourbon barrel-aged version, and boy, is it a doozy. Put simply, if you’re the type of person who carries around a little Santa flask during the Christmas season, might we suggest you put some of this stout in it? It won’t matter if it’s warm, or flat, because this stuff is a flavor bomb, and a massively boozy one at that. Huge, alcohol-driven flavors of dark fruit and lightly oxidized sherry give way to a tang of sour oak and deep caramelization. It may be a bit too abrasive on first sip for some tasters, but for us it comfortably settled into a decadent happy place as we revisited it, like a well-aged oloroso port. Potent stuff though, so watch out.
24. The Bruery 9 Ladies Dancing
City: Placentia, CA
The verdict: And speaking of overwhelming Christmas booze bombs, The Bruery has a few to contribute to that conversation as well. 9 Ladies Dancing is another explosively flavorful beer, although it’s difficult to tell what exactly the base brew underneath all the adjuncts is supposed to be, except “strong, malty and boozy.” Quite rich, and with a substantial amount of residual sugar, 9 Ladies offers up big flavors of coffee roast first and foremost, followed by nutty cacao nibs and vanilla. It’s the kind of beer you’d probably attribute barrel-aging to, despite the fact that I don’t think any wood was involved. Like the one that precedes it, we’d expect this to be too bombastic for some palates, but we like our Christmas beers a little on the exuberant side.
23. Hardywood Park Christmas Morning GBS
City: Richmond, VA
The verdict: There are quite a few beers labeled as “gingerbread stout” in this blind tasting, but Hardywood Park is one of the few breweries that have made one of these beers into a yearly staple that people get legitimately excited about—and for good reason, as it turns out. Christmas Morning is the coffee-infused variant of that gingerbread beer, adding another layer on an already solid base. Big spice notes of candied ginger, brown sugar and cinnamon are nicely balanced with nutty coffee and the base beer—a very creamy imperial milk stout. Texturally, this one is very nice; velvety smooth, with a thick, chewy mouthfeel but very well-hidden alcohol. It feels like a recipe that has been dialed in and perfected to the point where it represents exactly what the brewery intends it to be.
22. Lost Abbey Gnoel de Abbey
City: San Marcos, CA
The verdict: The Lost Abbey’s latest holiday seasonal is a spiced “brown ale,” although it’s not entirely clear if they mean that as an American or Belgian brown/abbey dubbel. Regardless, this judiciously spiced entry is an interesting one—lightly spicy but with great malt complexity and flavors that evoke toasted chestnut, graham cracker and light roasted coffee. There’s also a bit of acidity and woodiness to this, although we see no indication that it was wood aged, which strikes us as unusual—perhaps we’re misidentifying something in the spice profile? Either way, this is a beer with character to spare and a big personality, feeling a bit larger than its 8.5% ABV. It stands out nicely in a field of traditional winter warmers, while retaining some of the same qualities.
21. Rogue Ales Santa’s Private Reserve
City: Newport, OR
The verdict: First things first: If you’ve had this before, this probably isn’t the beer you’re remembering. For years, Santa’s Private Reserve has been the name of Rogue’s traditional spiced “Christmas ale,” but this year they apparently started completely from scratch to create something that has literally nothing in common with the original version. This incarnation of Santa’s Private Reserve is a Belgian dark strong ale, but also one with a fresh pop of red fruit in the form of cherry and raspberry. The result is quite fruit-forward, with bright and juicy raspberry that is tempered somewhat by the dark malt and caramelization. Slightly viniferous, but without the presence of oak, this doesn’t necessarily seem like a beer that would have to be relegated to the holiday season, but it functions well here nevertheless. It’s certainly a big improvement on the previous Santa’s Private Reserve, so hopefully this holiday fruit bomb is the standard from here on out.
20. Cherry Street Brewing Cooperative Gingerbread Stout
City: Cumming, GA
The verdict: We once called Cherry Street, a small “brewing cooperative” north of Atlanta, the state of Georgia’s most underrated brewery, and it’s beers like this that make us feel good about that decision. This is a simple but very well-executed gingerbread stout, featuring big roasty flavors and a substantial charge of coffee, while keeping its spices on the subtle side, at least as far as “gingerbread stouts” go. We’re not exactly certain if it actually contains coffee or just evokes those flavors strongly, but it does so well enough that one taster’s sheet refers to the beer as “Columbian Christmas.” The beer’s thick, creamy texture helps it punch above its weight class in terms of mouthfeel, and it might have scored even higher if not for the fact that it was coming out of a somewhat undercarbonated crowler. This is one we’d very much like to try straight from the tap sometime.
19. The Bruery 10 Lords a Leaping
City: Placentia, CA
The verdict: The latest in The Bruery’s ongoing, 12-year exploration of the 12 days of Christmas is 10 Lords a Leaping, an unusual imperial witbier that is simultaneously inspired by Belgian dark strong ales and the spice profile of wassail, the traditional mulled holiday drink. The result is something very strong, very spicy and very complex—it hits you with a wave that continuously evolves into different spice notes. Thick, viscous and slightly syrupy in texture and sweetness, it reminds one of a spice syrup you might add to a cup of turkish coffee. Coriander, allspice and anise are all big components, although getting the full effect takes repeated tastes and perhaps a range of temperatures to coax all the nuances out. The level of residual sugar and accompanying fruitiness might give some the impression of holiday fruitcake, but it works pretty well for us.
18. Silver City Brewery Old Scrooge
City: Bremerton, WA
The verdict: Silver City Brewing Co. was the surprise sensation of last year’s blind Christmas beer tasting, scoring very well with both this beer and its barrel-aged version, and this year’s results ended up being almost exactly the same. The base version of Old Scrooge presents as something akin to a boozy English old ale, with hints of red licorice, anise and chewy, toasty malt. There’s a lot of red fruity notes in this bottle; enough to perhaps make someone think that the brewery had given it a subtle aging on cherries. As with last year, we certainly are noting the booze here—even at 9% ABV listed on the bottle, it feels like a bit more. This is a real winter warmer in the literal sense, the kind of beer you can feel warming your chest. As we returned to it again, I realized that it actually reminded me of another beer in this tasting that we also enjoy: It’s like an amped up version of Avery’s Old Jubilation, and that’s not a bad thing. But as with last year, the barrel-aged version of Old Scrooge is even better.
17. Wild Heaven Beer Ode to Mercy Special Winter Ale
City: Avondale, GA
The verdict: Wild Heaven’s annual holiday release finds itself jazzed up a little bit in the spice department this year, adding cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg to a base of imperial coffee brown ale. As in the past, its “bourbon oak chip” aging contributes subtle rather than overt notes of wood and vanilla, which play well with the spicy, herbal coffee character. To that we add some subtle Christmas cookie spices, and you end up with a well-balanced offering that will appeal equally to coffee beer aficionados and appreciators of the classic American Christmas ale. It’s a beer with a lot of influences, but it’s simultaneously right down the middle in terms of approachability.
16. Bell’s Winter White
City: Kalamazoo, MI
The verdict: This is exactly the kind of well-made beer the benefits most from a blind tasting format. White/witbier doesn’t exactly tend to be a beer style that gets the geeks excited, and they’re all too likely to form an impression the minute they see this label. In a blind tasting, though, the first thing you’re struck by is how wonderfully flavorful (and complex) this offering is, which is made all the more surprising when you see that it’s only 5% ABV. Put this beer in front of someone blind, tell them it’s a Belgian tripel, and I really don’t think anyone is going to call that bluff. Heavy spice is a key, but it’s more Belgian yeast/ester driven aromatics than commercial Christmas spices, with notes of apple, clove, barnyard and hay. All in all, this was a really pleasant surprise, and certainly one of the best non-imperial beers of the tasting.
15. Lone Tree Brewing Co. English Old Ale
City: Lone Tree, CO
The verdict: Modern “old ales” are a bit of a curious anachronism, and not the sort of thing you see very often in the craft industry, but perhaps this style should come into the vogue—it does make for superlative winter and Christmas drinking. Perhaps best described as an English barleywine with a lower hop rate and some implication of age, this one from Lone Tree gets a substantial spice treatment. The result is a very nice beer that is full-bodied but still approachable, rich with caramel and touches of toffee and redolent with gingerbread-esque spices. To quote one score sheet: “It’s like liquid ginger spice cake.” From another: “Like Fig Newtons with caramel, nutmeg and honey.” This is a very well-executed idea that takes the perfect base beer for the job and gives it a crowd-pleasing spice profile.
14. Hardywood Park Apple Brandy Barrel GBS
City: Richmond, VA
The verdict: We already praised Hardywood Park’s skill in “gingerbread stout” earlier on this list via Christmas Morning, but this version of the same beer aged in apple brandy barrels is the real star as far as we’re concerned. With that said, the influence of the barrel is a subtle one—a certain fruitiness and viniferous quality, but we doubt anyone in a blind tasting would ever jump to the conclusion of “apple brandy.” What it does do is smooth out and refine the big spice profile of cinnamon and ginger candy, while retaining GBS’ wonderfully velvety texture at the same time. This beer’s mouthfeel is the definition of the hard-to-quantify tasting note known as “round,” because it has no rough edges. The barrel has smoothed everything away to give a complementary quality where each note glides effortlessly into the next—the mark of many great high-ABV beers.
13. Prairie Artisan Ales Christmas Bomb!
City: Tulsa, OK
The verdict: Prairie is a brewery that knows how to make big stouts, and you can feel certain that just about any version of their classic Bomb! is going to be a beer that stands out favorably in a blind tasting. This variant hides its alcohol frighteningly well—seriously, this might be the most dangerous 13% ABV imperial stout we’ve ever tasted. Its profile is warm and spicy, heavy on cinnamon and nutmeg, with a charge of coffee-like roast and a hint of dark/dried fruit that almost reminds me of the way ancho chiles present in a chile beer, although some of that “heat” might be booze-related. From one score sheet: “Dark, spicy, sweet and awesome.” From another: “Big, dark fruity and velvety smooth.” You’re not going to find a more approachable 13% ABV beer on this list, that’s for sure.
12. Prairie Artisan Ales Barrel-Aged Christmas Bomb!
City: Tulsa, OK
The verdict: And what do you know, here’s the other Christmas Bomb!, a first-time release for 2017. This version, which comes to us from the innards of a whiskey barrel, maintains some of the remarkable drinkability of the base beer, but gives up the rest for a big bump to its overt sweetness and richness. With that said, the barrel doesn’t pop in a huge way on this one—not a ton of booze, or oak, or liquor. Rather, it has a way of amplifying the flavors already present in the base beer—lots and lots of sweet (but dark) chocolate, cinnamon and vanilla. This beer is a handful, and a few tasters thought it was dangerously close to the line between “rich” and cloying, but it’s perfectly calculated to stay on the right side of the divide. This is a beer we’d expect to be massively popular in the taproom setting; a real people-pleaser. As long as you can tolerate a bit of sweetness, seek it out while you can.
11. Upslope Brewing Co. Christmas Ale
City: Boulder, CO
The verdict: This might be the most consistent but least celebrated beer in this entire tasting. It’s good every year, and although it may not walk out with the #1 spot, it probably has a better batting average in the Christmas blind tasting than any other beer that doesn’t begin with “St. Bernardus” or “Scaldis.” Like those beers, the base is a Belgian dark strong ale, but a somewhat more understated one thanks to an ABV that is a bit lower. Dark, clovey and slightly bready, it’s almost dunkelweiss-like, save for a greater degree of caramelization. The use of spices is fairly deft, with light gingerbread notes that complement its malt profile without trying to steal the show. Upslope just has this beer seriously dialed in, and they’ll probably keep ending up in these rankings for as long as we keep doing them.
10. Breckenridge Brewing Co. Holidale
City: Littleton, CO
The verdict: I’m not sure exactly what you’d call the base beer behind this barrel-aged take on Breckenridge’s annual Holidale—perhaps an old ale, or an underhopped barleywine, or a milder take on Belgian dark strong ale—it’s difficult to tell thanks to the presence of spices. But suffice to say, it’s big, malt-forward and very well balanced regardless. This is a seamless combination of dark/dried fruity flavors (black cherry/raisin) and fairly subtle booziness drawn from some whiskey barrel aging—a nicely deft touch on that one, at least compared to some of the massive BBA beers in this tasting. It’s rich without being cloying and boozy without being overwhelming to the average palate. This is about as cheerful and approachable as barrel-aged imperial Christmas ales come.
9. Schlafly Christmas Ale
City: Saint Louis, MO
The verdict: I’m honestly not sure which came first: This beer, or Schlafly’s beloved spiced Pumpkin Ale, but I’ve always considered the two beers to be siblings, if not identical twins. Regardless of which is the innovator, they both showcase Schlafly’s knack with spiced amber ales of this kind, delivering some of the best traditional Christmas/pumpkin beers in the game. Fragrant cinnamon and ginger give way to hints of citrus and cardamom, built on a rock-solid foundation of toasty malt and a subtle, soft sweetness. This is one of the best expressions of what so many Midwestern breweries package with the simple name “Christmas Ale,” because it’s all about balance. Or as one taster literally wrote on his sheet: “This is a far above-average Christmas spice beer.” And that’s exactly what it is.
8. Fremont Brewing Co. B-Bomb
City: Seattle, WA
The verdict: We’ve come to know that just about anything that comes out of a barrel from Fremont is going to be exemplary—explosively flavorful but also far more balanced than most breweries’ 14% ABV, barrel-aged beers could dream of being. They have excelled in this category for years, at least partially because you can taste the expenditure of resources—this beer is a blend of one and two-year-aged Abominable Ale, for instance, and that makes all the difference. The result is an intensely flavorful, rich Christmas beer that rolls across the palate with waves of oak, caramel, vanilla and overt whiskey influence, followed by baker’s cocoa and roasted nuttiness from the malt. It’s like a meeting point between traditional winter warmer and barrel-aged imperial stout, and we continue to enjoy it every year we taste it.
7. Fremont Brewing Co. Coffee CInnamon B-Bomb
City: Seattle, WA
The verdict: Oh, and while we’re on the topic of great barrel-aged Christmas beers from Fremont, here’s the same damn one, except with the addition of coffee and cinnamon. All of the same descriptors from the last beer apply: It’s explosively flavorful, full of assertive whiskey, oak, caramel, vanilla and cocoa impressions. Of the listed ingredients in the beer’s title, it’s the coffee the comes forward more strongly than the cinnamon, at least to our palates, and it also serves to dampen the booziness ever so slightly. As with other Fremont barrel-aged products such as their BBA Dark Star imperial stout, the perfectly smooth, velvety mouthfeel is another highlight—the beer feels every bit its weight in terms of texture alone. So often with Fremont beers, it’s the little things that make these big differences.
6. Delirium Noël
City: Melle, Belgium
The verdict: It seems like of all the classic Belgian Christmas ales, Delirium Noël is the one that stands apart from the fold. It’s a little bit less burly, a little leaner, a little less festal, but very well balanced all the same. On the nose, tasters got more of the banana/clove Belgian yeast/ester character than in some of the other quads/Belgian dark strong ales, chased by assertive (but complex and hard to nail down) spices. Several tasting sheets compliment the beer’s lively carbonation, as is common among these bottle-conditioned Belgian ales, which helps give Noël prickly bubbles that contrast nicely with a rich malt base. Still, it’s more dry than some of the others, and you may even pick up a hint of herbal noble hops. Always an interesting beer, and never one we can fully predict.
5. Goose Island Noël
City: Chicago, IL
The verdict: This is a brand new beer from Goose Island, and it immediately lands among impressive company in the field of Belgian dark strong Christmas ales. A bit more roasted malt-forward than some of the other versions of the style, it presents with toasty, nutty malt flavors that segue nicely into dark fruit. There’s also enough Belgian yeast signature to make the assumption, which is no doubt why one taster wrote “big, traditional Belgian Christmas.” All in all, Noël stays on the drier side of the spectrum, akin to classic Belgian Christmas ales such as St. Bernardus, and drinks dangerously easily. For a first bottling, this is something Goose Island should be quite proud of.
4. Brasserie Dupont Avec Les Bons Voeux
City: Tourpes, Belgium
The verdict: This is a beer that might make you pull out your Christmas rulebook to see if there’s anything in the guidelines about “Christmas saison,” but hell, it’s a damn good beer, regardless of whether it fits any kind of preconceived notion of holiday brews. Dupont makes this beer, translated from the French as “with good wishes,” exclusively for the holiday season, and that’s good enough for us. Perfumey on the nose, with hints of spicy and herbal hops plus fruity Belgian esters, it’s a lovely bouquet. You don’t get a lot of beers in Paste blind tastings where judges write “delightful!” on a score sheet, but this is one of those times. Beautifully balanced between lightly doughy/grainy malt, lively carbonation and expressive yeast, it’s a wonderful change of pace from all the other Christmas brews, but it would be an amazing saison at any time of year.
3. Silver City Brewery Barrel-Aged Old Scrooge
City: Bremerton, WA
The verdict: It’s funny to me that we can do these blind tastings for more than three years and I can still be surprised by things that have never happened before. Case in point: As it turns out, this year’s Christmas beer tasting ended up having the exact same three beers in the top three spots. Two years in a row, in two tastings with more than 100 beers each, and an array of of different judges each year, and we somehow ended up with the same top three. What the hell are the odds of that? Regardless, it’s massive vindication for Silver City, a brewery we had never even heard of when they sent in these Christmas beers a year ago, an an affirmation that the barrel-aged version of their Christmas ale, Old Scrooge, is a magnificent holiday dram. As we observed last year, it tastes significantly bigger than its 9.5% ABV, explosively flavorful and pretty booze forward, but it integrates its barrel character absolutely beautiful into the beer as a whole. Caramel malt, syrupy dark fruit and a hint of molasses give a faint impression of brandied cherries, and a brandy snifter feels entirely appropriate as a serving vessel. This is “beer to drink in a well-appointed study in front of a roaring fire,” if there ever was one. Just don’t spill any on your bear skin rug.
2. St. Bernardus Christmas Ale
City: Watou, Belgium
The verdict: I’ve now written this list enough times that I no longer have to look up St. Bernardus to know the ABV (10%) or the fact that it hails from “Watou,” Belgium. That stuff is officially committed to craft beer memory, as is the factor that makes this beer so consistently great: It’s all about balance. St. Bernardus Christmas isn’t the most purely flavorful of the classic Belgian Christmas ales, but it may be the most perfectly centered. It’s probably a bit lighter on the palate than you’re remembering—a little thinner, and a little drier. This is by design. It drinks frighteningly easy for a 10% ABV take on what is basically Belgian quad, bringing signature notes of dark bread, a whisper of toffee and subtle spice (especially ginger), followed by hints of booze. It’s nowhere near cloying, nor particularly “sweet”—it’s a stately, sophisticated Christmas ale that will never go out of style.
1. Scaldis Noël
City: Leuze-Pipaix, Belgium
The verdict: In 2015, 2016 and 2017, the finishing places of Scaldis Noël in this blind tasting are as follows: #2, #1, #1. That alone should tell you all you need to know about what an amazing, classic Belgian dark strong ale we have in this holiday staple. It is ridiculously consistent, and never short of awesome.
What we have here is a beer in the same mold as the preceding St. Bernardus, but it forgoes a little bit of Bernie’s balance in favor of festal ebullience. Which is to say, it’s just a little bit more of everything—a bit sweeter, a bit more overtly boozy, a bit more intense in its flavors of dark fruit and spice. Bready malt is buttressed with columns of intense dark fruitiness like black raspberry and maybe cranberry, and perfumed generously with cloves, allspice and ginger. You can’t take a sip of this and not be mentally and emotionally transported into the holiday season. The contents of this bottle are a magical elixir in that way. It has firmly established itself as our #1 Christmas beer, and judging from the last few years of tastings, it’s going to take a whole lot for anything to ever unseat it.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more beer and liquor content.