Understanding beer style is important to understanding the craft brewing industry. Amongst other things, defining the style of beer that a bottle contains helps consumers to choose products that meet their fancy, and allows breweries track sales and trends. In mid-2008, a report published by the Brewers Association found that, for the first time in the craft brewing industry, sales of pale ale were eclipsed by sales of seasonal releases. This was seen as evidence that, as consumers have become more beer-savvy and adventurous in their tastes, they increasingly look for a wider variety of beer to enjoy.
Recognizing this, brewers have jumped at the opportunity to broaden their style portfolio and to bolster their sales with small-batch brews of limited release ales and lagers designed to fit the season. While many smaller breweries will release a uniquely named seasonal, increasingly, the larger production brew houses have gone to a more generic format named for the season. Many varieties of “summer ale” abound, with increasing examples of “spring” and “fall” suds slowly making their appearance on the shelf each year. But by far the most ubiquitous and varied seasonal in the brewing calendar is the enigmatic Christmas Brew.
With roots stretching back to the time of legend and days of yore, these brews routinely defy classification, blending styles, bending rules and pushing boundaries (going higher?). The most laced-down of the group describe themselves as porters or brown ales, with most calling the murky realms of olde ale and strong ale home, or simply defying traditional classification altogether by claiming the bastard title of winter warmer. In general, Christmas brews start life with a high gravity (sugar content) and are then fermented with an ale yeast, finishing out heavier in body, darker in color, sweeter on the tongue and containing more alcohol than the average beer. They are the kind of thing you might want to savor on a cold evening after a day on the slopes, and tend to display their full flavor profile when consumed slightly warm. Some contain spices, herbs or fruit, with spruce-tips, juniper berries, holiday spices, chocolate and raspberry being fairly common additions. With all this variety, the only means of better understanding this phenomenon is to try them out. For reference, a few personal favorites that should be widely available across the West are listed here.
In the olde ale style, Avery Old Jubilation, produced by Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder has been a seasonal favorite of mine for over ten years. It presents a bold toffee flavor, blended with a note of currant from the hops. Mahogany in the glass, this one comes in at 8.3% abv. Though brewed since 1995, Hibernation Ale, from Great Divide Brewing Co. in Denver only crossed my radar last year. Perhaps a better example of the Olde Ale style than Avery’s offering, one gulp of this elixir presents a complex series of flavors in the mouth, with a good degree of warmth from the alcohol (8.7% abv) and a solid hop finish. Adding a completely different twist, Alaskan Brewing Co. tapped into tradition dating back to the 1700s and brews their Winter Ale with the addition of Sitka Spruce tips. The result is an invigorating boost to the piney flavors from the hops, balanced by the dark and sweet character of the underlying beer.
In the marketing material for their Christmas Ale, Breckenridge Brewing Co. states that “The chill of a Colorado high-country winter calls for a beer with extra flavor and strength.” (Fuckin-A to that!) This perennially impressive release in the strong ale category heeds this call, weighing in at a hefty 7.4% abv with a luscious malt backbone to support all that delicious alcohol. Wassail Ale, brewed by Full Sail Brewing Co. in Hood River, OR, is a pleasantly hoppy experience, and would be a good choice if you prefer Pale Ales or IPA-style beer. They have also released a new offering this season, Session Fest, which will be packaged in the same 11-oz. stubby bottles the other Session styles come in. Also new for 2011 is Snow Day, from New Belgium Brewing Co. I initially assumed that this was a rebranding of the 2 Below seasonal from years past, and was happy to learn that it is, in fact, a new recipe based on a malt known as “Midnight Wheat.” 2 Below nearly saved my life while stranded at Denver International over the holidaze a few years ago, (the New Belgium bar sits at the end of the concourse that handles regional flights to the mountains of Colorado), and hopefully Snow Day is a worthy replacement.
Erich Hennig lives and works in Durango, CO, where he generally rocks it. Got a Christmas Brew that we should know about? Drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org