In November 1975, the Anchor Brewing Co. of San Francisco, the only craft brewery in the U.S. at the time, released a seasonal beer with a label that featured a nondescript Christmas tree in the center and the words “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” While the brewery dubbed the malty, rich release Our Special Ale, it quickly became known among the non-Budweiser set for that packaging, and, as was often the case for the pioneering Anchor, the beer kicked off yet another trend in modern American brewing: the Christmas, or holiday, release.
Anchor has offered what it now simply calls Christmas Ale every year since, with both the recipe and the tree on the front changing annually (the 2015 release features a Deodar cedar—there are some right there near the brewery in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood).
Myriad other breweries have followed in Anchor’s wake. The seasonals they release all share two characteristics, as far as we have been able to tell over our many winters of drinking them. They are all invariably among the thickest, darkest, sweetest and strongest beers a brewery offers. And they all play off that holiday theme; not necessarily Christmas always, but you quickly get the picture from the packaging: warm, fuzzy, fun beers meant to evoke roaring fires, crisp snow, friends in sweaters, yada yada.
As with their winter-beer cousins, these holiday beers can be either sublime or far from it, syrupy instead of smooth, a chore to drink rather than a joy. To help you avoid a libationary lump of coal, we tried a kaleidoscope of widely available holiday-themed beers. Here are seven of the best.
Anchor Brewing Co., San Francisco
Anchor was not the first U.S. brewery to brew a Christmas or holiday beer, but its 1975 debut was the one that really got things rolling, particularly for craft beer. This year’s offering is on the bitter side, yet still richly nutty, if not as thick and bracing as in previous years. It had us thinking pecan pie. It’s a sessionable 5.5 percent alcohol by volume.
Hanukkah, Chanukah: Pass the Beer
Shmaltz Brewing Co., Clifton Park, New York
The Jewish festival of lights is over, but this now-annual release from Shmaltz is still available (it debuted in late 2014). It’s a busily delicious amalgam of eight malts and eight hops that clocks in at 8 percent ABV. (Get it?) We picked up everything from raisins to nuts to coffee to sweetbread — all going down surprisingly smoothly. A brew to ponder, that’s for sure.
Deschutes Brewing Co., Bend, Oregon
A gorgeously presentable ale, with a deep maroon color and plenty of snowy carbonation, it tastes of figs and dates as well as toffee and caramel. Again, though, as with Shmaltz’s Hanukkah, Chanukah, Deschutes’ Jubelale is smooth, busy yet not unbalanced. There was a nice spiciness in the aroma, too, and a dry hop finish. It’s 6.7 percent ABV.
The Mad Elf Ale
The Troegs Brewing Co., Hershey, Pennsylvania
Stockpile this beer. An awesomely textured ale with a richly sweet taste and aroma not unlike a Jolly Rancher candy or a perfectly blended Cotes du Rhone — probably from the cherries used. The raw honey that Troegs also uses leaves the Mad Elf with a delightfully dry finish, and the 11 percent ABV is, to say the least, warming. Pity the holidays come only once a year.
Great Lakes Brewing Co., Cleveland, Ohio
We’re not big fans of ginger in beer — the addition often just creates an overwhelming smell of badly made lo mein. Great Lakes does it right with its annual Christmas Ale, which reeks of gingerbread on the pour, an aroma that recedes the deeper you get into the beer. The taste is one of candied spices and nuts (fruitcake in a glass?). Here, too, honey makes for a smooth finish. It’s 7.5 percent ABV.
Samuel Adams Holiday Porter
Boston Beer Co., Boston
You really can’t go wrong with this seasonal from the nation’s largest craft brewery. It’s pretty much a nicely sweet porter, well balanced between a gentle hoppiness and a roasted maltiness. Nothing too in-your-face, a perfect introduction to the evolving world of holiday beers. At 5.8 percent ABV, dang near sessionable as well.
Sweetwater Brewing Co., Atlanta
A proverbial meal in a glass, with figs and cinnamon at the fore and a spicy bitterness that the malty sweetness happily balances. Sweetwater’s creation was particularly thick, and it poured like some kind of ad for holiday beers: deep brown and a two-finger head. It’s 8.1 percent ABV, a strength we didn’t really taste until it was too late.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution and the new fine-wine history, American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story.