While walking through a grocery store recently, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks. There, nestled among the displays of holiday candies and six-packs of assorted, spice-bombed Christmas ales, was a four-pack of one of the most beloved holiday beers of them all, St. Bernardus Christmas Ale.
Now, in and of itself, that wouldn’t be terribly noteworthy. The classic Belgian dark strong ale has been sold in four-packs of 11.2 oz bottles for at least a few years now, offering greater flexibility for fans who don’t want to break into an entire 750 ml bottle on any given night. But these weren’t bottles. No, this was St. Bernardus Christmas Ale in a four-pack of 12 oz cans. And not even printed cans, either—these were wrapped cans of the sort you might expect to see from Local Hype Brewery’s new, weekly hazy IPA release. In other words, quite a change in the presentation of a brand that has so long been associated with the heavy, festal tradition of decanting from a weighty glass bottle.
I must admit, looking at that four-pack of 12 oz cans stirred a pang of nostalgia in me, and a twinge of accompanying sadness. It’s not as if this is some kind of momentous decision that is likely to shape the future of one of the great, historic Belgian monastic brewers, but it is a choice that feels steeped in symbolism and portent. It hints at the struggles faced by historic brewers like St. Bernardus to maintain relevance and appreciation among American beer drinkers, in a segment that their classic abbey ales originally helped to build. Lord only knows how many American beer geeks first found a passion for “better beer” over goblets of Prior 8 or Abt. 12, before the classic Belgian beer styles increasingly gave way to a hype cycle that now seems to revolve almost entirely around gimmickry and adjuncts. It’s sad to see St. Bernardus Christmas Ale in a wrapped can because it’s a brand where that would once have been decried as “undignified” for its status—the kind of beer had a level of mystique and gravitas that now seems absent from craft beer in general. It’s the same feeling a wine drinker might have, looking at a canned version of Dom Pérignon. It’s also a sign of the times.
I can’t argue against the obvious economic reasons to make such a move, which speak for themselves. And make no mistake, in terms of practicality and convenience, having access to a world-class beer like this in a manageable, more easily transported 12 oz can is by no means a bad thing for drinkers. In addition to helping control portion sizes on a 10% ABV, dangerously drinkable Belgian quad, the can likely serves as good protection for that precious cargo. After buying one of the four-packs, I can attest that the beer is as sublime as it was when it placed #2 in our last blind tasting of 103 Christmas beers, awash in celebratory flavors of dark, vinous fruit, toasted pumpernickel bread, clove, anise, caramelized sugars and oh-so-subtle acidity. It’s a masterpiece of composition and complexity; exactly the sort of thing that the current beer zeitgeist has little use for.
And that’s why it’s sad to see a beer like this in a four-pack of wrapped cans, because it suggests that selling it in its old-school packaging has become increasingly untenable. It suggests that even the likes of St. Bernardus Christmas Ale can’t get by on selling itself via superlative quality alone, thanks to the decrease in interest in big, celebratory beers that aren’t also infused with brownie batter, fruit puree and breakfast cereal. It hints at the reduced stature that a brand like St. Bernardus has in the modern U.S. beer scene in general, which coincides with far too many package stores no longer devoting any shelf space at all to classic Belgian and European ales. After all, why maintain a shelf of abbey ales gathering dust, when it could instead be the fifth shelf of wrapped-can, DDH hazy IPAs with near identical neon labels, or an extension of the fruited smoothie sour or pastry stout sections? If there’s one thing that the current beer scene needs, it’s more hazy IPA, fruited sours and pastry stouts.
Holding one of these cans in my hands likewise makes me nostalgic for the bygone era of large format bottles that we have long since waved goodbye to at this point. On this front, I can recognize that I’m viewing the beer scene of 10-15 years ago with decidedly rose-tinted glasses, as most of these 22 oz bomber and 750 ml wine bottles were always unnecessary or unwieldy for the styles that were being placed in them. But for a beer like St. Bernardus Christmas Ale, I truly believe they helped to communicate the special nature of the brand to the consumer. “Here is a beer for a true occasion,” said that packaging. Here’s a bottle you can give as a gift, with a heft that signifies the gravitas of the liquid within, and have the person who receives that bottle instantly understand that this beer bears no similarity to the cans of Bud Light in the fridge, nor should it be treated the same.
Today, that kind of symbolism is much harder to find, although of course the 750 ml bottles of St. Bernardus do still exist. Coming across this brand in a can, though, does little to communicate at a glance how exceptional it really is. It has instead been rendered mundane to the casual drinker, who is all too likely to simply wander by one more “Christmas beer” of no particular significance. All too often, the effort of a brand like St. Bernardus to remain relevant in the modern market seems to have exactly this sort of streamlining effect, which makes them stand out less on the shelf, rather than more.
After tasting it, I’m of course glad that St. Bernardus Christmas Ale is still just as beautiful a beer as it ever was, not that I really suspected that the opposite would be the case. I simply find myself wishing, as I so often do, that this kind of complexity could generate the kind of excitement and plaudits that beer geeks now reserve for saccharine fruited sours, or saccharine pastry stouts, or … saccharine hazy IPA. Seeing a masterpiece of the genre shunted into a wrapped 12 oz can in an effort to appeal to those consumers is just one more holiday bummer.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.