For me, the most exciting thing about the holidays is the onslaught of Christmas beers. No, not the six-pack your bright-red Uncle Gus used to down just before the gift exchange — I’m talking big, hearty, Belgian holiday ales. Most are characterized by a strong, dark malty sweetness offset by a heavy dose of baking spice flavors and heightened alcohol content to help you stay all warm and toasted toasty. There are variations, of course, not to mention a wonderful world of British “winter warmers” and American holiday beers waiting to be consumed, but that will have to be for some other post. (If you’re particularly curious, I highly recommend delving into Don Russell’s epic tome, Christmas Beer: The Cheeriest, Tastiest, and Most Unusual Holiday Brews.)
And while you just may not be able to attend the 15th Annual Christmas Beer Festival being held in Essen, Belgium this weekend, there are plenty of great Christmas ales you can try in the comfort of your own drinking hole. I’ve selected my five favorite Christmas beers — Belgian only, in the spirit of this weekend’s Kerstbierfestival.
|1. Gouden Carolus Noël
Magnificently complex, Gouden Carolus Noël blends layers of flavor, messing with your taste buds all along the way. Sweet caramel and rich malt lead the way, knocked back by a spicy, sharp anise presence. Notes of dried fruit, vanilla, and a bold bite of alcohol help keep you warm no matter how many feet of snow are outside.
|2. St. Bernardus Christmas Ale
Perhaps the most balanced of the bunch, St. Bernardus’ holiday release presents a more subdued approach without sacrificing flavor. The flavor profile is complex, stirring up hints of prune, ginger, and cherries, but it’s the old-world musty cellar aroma that brings you back for each subsequent sip.
|3. Scaldis Noël Premium
Bush, known stateside as Scaldis, presents their complex take on the Christmas beer — exhibiting sweet aromas of toffee and banana. On the palate, brown sugar, chocolate, and baking spices help balance the pleasant warmth of 13% abv.
|4. Fantôme de Noël
Departing from the “malt bomb” them, the light-amber/red color alone tells you this winter incarnation of a saison is a creature of a different breed. Earthy and yeasty with a tart pucker, woody citrus prickle your tongue, while still imparting some of the same spicy character as the others. Despite weighing in at 10% abv, Fantôme is dangerously drinkable with no real detectable alcohol flavor.
|5. Delirium Noël
Brouwerij Huyghe completes a trifecta by adding Noël to their lineup of Delirium Tremens and Delirium Nocturnum. Upfront, it is incredibly sweet with notes of raisins and apricot, but a peppery spice and slight sour vinous undertone tame a bit of the malt.