Come winter, almost every brewery in the Western world makes a special beer for the holiday season. In Europe, the tradition of Christmas ales dates back centuries. In the States, with the current infatuation with craft beer, the convention thrives.
Dark and robust, most of these beers are relatively high in alcohol, between 7 and 12 percent. They’re usually strong in flavor, too, some being heavily seasoned with spices like nutmeg, coriander, and cinnamon. This combo makes them perfect for serving in small vessels, as a pre- or post-dinner drink, and sometimes even with dessert. (At Christmas dinner or during holiday parties, I’ve found that it’s best to serve them in small wine glasses, brandy snifters, or fancy beer glasses, if you have them.)
One of my recurring favorites, especially to serve with sweet things, is Evil Twin’s fudgy Aún Más a Jesús, a tar-black 12% imperial stout. (The name means “Even More Jesus” in Spanish.) It’s one of the few beers that I find assertive enough to stand up to holiday confections. The mouth feel is viscid and inky, with aromas of bittersweet chocolate, soft leather, and dried tobacco. On the palate, the flavors are coffee-like and robust, with an undercurrent of vanilla and dark dried fruits (think cherries, raisins, and prunes).
Another solid option this year comes from Southern California's The Bruery: 6 Geese A-Laying is the sixth installment in their annual "12 Days of Christmas" series. It's a dark and toasty winter ale made with the surprising addition of gooseberries, which bring a hint of bright, citrus-like acidity. At 11% alcohol, it's structured to age for up to six years; store it until 2019 and drink it alongside the imminent 12 Drummers Drumming.
And from one of my all-time favorite breweries, Michigan's Jolly Pumpkin, is Noel de Calabaza, a funky Belgian-style Christmas ale. The 9% mahogany-colored brown ale is aged for months in oak barrels which impart an upfront lactic sourness amid layers of woodsy complexity. On the back end, hints of honeyed sweetness and holiday spice linger. The sourness of this beer would ruin a sweet treat, so consider serving it with more savory fare, like aged cheeses or roasted nuts, or simply on its own.
Whichever variety you choose, the key to serving a holiday ale is to allow the beer to warm slightly so the aromas are in full bloom—carbon dioxide is more soluble in colder liquids, which means that aromas and flavors get muted. Just-from-the-fridge temperatures are about 15 degrees too cold, so pull your beer out about 45 minutes to an hour before serving.
Evil Twin Aún Más a Jesús, about $15 for 12oz; The Bruery 6 Geese A-Laying, about $25 for 750ml; Jolly Pumpkin Noel de Calabaza, about $16 for 750ml. Available in specialty beer stores throughout the U.S.