Hark! Do you hear what I hear?
It’s Santa delivering Christmas beers — a ton of them.
Here in Ohio, we love our holiday brews thanks in large part to fan favorite Great Lakes Christmas Ale. Made with honey, ginger and cinnamon, it’s an annual obsession for many and defines the winter beer-drinking season.
Rick Vernon, owner of the West Point Market in Akron, knows about crazed holiday beer fans. His store stocks 80 to 90 holiday beers, including Great Lakes Christmas Ale on draft.
“The demand is there for them,” he said. “They are pricier, but I think they are worth it.” (While Christmas Ale is the top seller for the upscale grocer, Vernon’s personal favorites are St. Feuillien and Anchor Christmas Ale.)
Holiday beers can be whatever a brewer dreams up. They don’t all taste of traditional Christmas spices. For example, Shiner Holiday Cheer is made with peaches and pecans. But they all tend to feature bolder flavors and higher alcohol.
“The holidays are a special time for everyone, particularly craft brewers who seize the opportunity to showcase their creativity with winter’s festive spices and robust ingredients,” said Julia Herz, program director for the Brewers Association in Boulder, Colo. “Winter seasonals are among the most popular craft beers year in and year out, and this is reflected in strong sales numbers during the winter months.”
The Beacon Journal asked 10 Ohio brewers to share their holiday favorites and recommendations, with one caveat: They couldn’t pick their own. Three of them chose the same beer, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale.
• Fred Karm, owner and brewer at Hoppin’ Frog Brewing Co. in Akron:
“Christmas ales make up possibly the widest category. There are great ones that are really hoppy, and there are great ones that are strong, rich and malty with little to no spice character. But I want to taste Christmas — I want Christmas spices in my glass! Now I admit that I have not kept up with assessing all of them like I would like to, but my favorite was the spicy Christmas ale made by Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, called Holiday Spice. It has a friendly Christmas spice mix of cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg that to me tastes like Christmas.”
• Joseph Kearns, brewer at Main Street Grille & Brewing Co. in Garrettsville:
“Winter Mischief, a holiday spiced ale made with honey and spices, and brewed by Lager Heads Brewing Co. in Medina, is a must-try for those who enjoy this style of Christmas ale. It has a wonderful fresh-spice flavor and aroma on a deep amber body; and at 8 percent alcohol by volume this is a true winter warmer ale. It is available at the brewpub and in six-packs around the state. So, if you’re looking for beer to warm up the holidays with, give this one a try!”
• Eric Bean, owner and brewer at Columbus Brewing Co. in Columbus:
“Since first discovering Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale in 1998, it has remained not only my favorite holiday beer, but quite possibly my favorite beer that we do not brew. Each year, their brewers use hops fresh from the fall harvest and meld them with rich caramel malts to produce this bold hoppy beer. It pours a mahogany red with intense aromas of pine and grapefruit. Each sip provides wonderful hop flavor, quickly balanced by hints of toffee. While not the spiced holiday ale that we Ohioans have come to expect this time of year, it is certainly not one to be missed.”
• Angelo Signorino Jr., head brewer at Barley’s Brewing Co. in Columbus:
“In the early 1990s, a variety of hops called Centennial had just become available. Described as Cascade on steroids, it had more grapefruit/citrus character than anybody had experienced. Sierra Nevada bragged that Celebration Ale featured Centennial hops. Because it was a seasonal, it was fresh and mind-blowing. Then Sierra Nevada couldn’t produce enough to supply the Central Ohio market, so I tried to brew it at home. Hoppiest beer I’d ever brewed. We were getting ready to brew our 100th batch at Barley’s, and I thought a Centennial IPA would be the perfect fit. Plenty of beers in the last 20 years have pushed the boundary much further, but I still have a soft spot for Celebration Ale.”
• Rick Seibt, head brewer at Willoughby Brewing Co. in Willoughby:
“My favorite winter seasonal beer is Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome Ale. For me, the colder weather calls for a more robust beer, malt-forward with a rich flavor and higher alcohol by volume. But I still want a beer that I can drink a few of and still enjoy the festivities. Winter Welcome is a 6 percent ale that’s filled with great malt and floral aromas in true English style. It’s very quaffable and pairs wonderfully with the traditional foods of the season. Every year I pour myself one, smelling the awesome aroma brings back fond memories of the season.”
• Luke Purcell, brewer at Great Lakes Brewing Co.:
“Back in the mid-1990s when I began my career in the brewing industry, we were like kids at the candy store when Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale came out. It’s not a spiced ale like a lot of them are these days, but something about it still brings on the holiday feeling for me. To me, this hearty ale has everything I want without going over the top. Its rich malt flavors are the perfect balance to the intense hop flavors and aromas.”
• Garin Wright, co-owner and brewer at the Buckeye Brewing Co. in Cleveland:
“I love Christmas ales because they land into a seasonal style that has no real definitive guidelines. It’s up to the owner and brewer to decide how they want to express the holidays and their company. I’ve always been partial to Belgian-inspired Christmas ales. I adore how the Belgian brewers express these beers with rich malt and passion for yeast character. With that, I choose St. Bernardus Christmas Ale as my favorite. At 10 percent alcohol by volume, it creates warm fuzzy feelings on Christmas Eve. It reminds you of cherry pie or Grandma’s secret fruit cake recipe. Expect dark fruit flavors, a bready malt character, and a fairly dry finish. Bottom line: If you know a beer aficionado, stuff a bottle in that stocking. Merry Christmas.”
• Scott LaFollette, owner and brewer at Blank Slate Brewing Co. in Cincinnati:
“I don’t remember exactly so we’ll say the year was 19 something something. I was shopping for a Christmas present for myself so of course I was in the beer aisle. I picked up a Scaldis Noel, not because I knew what it was, but because it came in a cute little ‘Christmas-y’ looking bottle. It may have been the best Christmas present I ever had. Deep ruby in color with wonderful notes of plum, fig and caramel in the aroma which follow through into the flavor. Unlike a lot of American Christmas beers, it doesn’t use any spice additions, but still manages to evoke all the senses of the season for me. It packs quite a big punch in a small package (12 percent alcohol by volume), which is great after those long days visiting family. I try to buy one every year and cellar it until the next Christmas.”
• Jon Koester, brewer at Maumee Bay Brewing Co. in Toledo:
“I enjoy a nicely spiced holiday ale on occasion, such as our own Blitzen Ale, but my mind always conjures thoughts of a big, warming barleywine or old ale for a cold winter night. Not a year goes by where I don’t enjoy one of my favorite English-style old ales, Hibernation Ale from Great Divide Brewing Co. It boasts a big, chewy mouthfeel with flavors of roasted malts with dark, caramelized fruits with just enough hops for great balance. Truly an outstanding beer from an amazing brewery.”
• Jay Wince, co-owner and brewer at Weasel Boy Brewing Co. in Zanesville:
“I’ve always liked the Anchor Christmas Ale. I can always rely on a very nice balance of spice, malt, hop bitterness and the familiar Anchor fermentation flavors. It has consistent smoothness and drinkability. Sometimes there are hints of roastiness, usually a good malt depth that blends well with the different spice combinations. This year’s version is modest in alcoholic strength at 5.5 percent alcohol by volume and seems to have hints of herbal, fruity, floral character in the nose and flavor as well. A very nice satisfying holiday favorite. And it usually ages well, too!”