There are no shortage of new beers in the holiday season. Winter is one of the best times of year to experience the widest range of malt beverages that most appropriately compliment the holiday fare.
My first experience with holiday beer comes from Cleveland's Great Lakes Brewery. This brewery is an institution not only in Ohio but also in the United States, operated by the Conway family. They are a pioneer in the craft brew movement, and the Christmas Ale showcases their talets. The strong brew highlights flavors of ginger, honey and pine with a surprisingly clean finish. Enjoy it with a stocking full of goodies.
If anybody would need winter warmer beers to make the nights fly by a little faster, Norway would probably be Ground Zero. Nogne O ("Naked Island") produces craft beer in the Scandinavian countryside, and God Jul ("Winter Ale") is their holiday offering. The beer is medium bodied, with sweet caramel/chocolate notes and a heavily roasted finish.
Tommyknocker Brewery achieved cocoa notes in their winter beer through another methodology...namely they added roasted cocoa beans to the brew kettle along with honey to give the brew a definite chocolate character. I've never been a huge fan of Tommyknocker beers, but the Cocoa Porter definitely separates itself from the rest of the portfolio.
Holiday beers allow brewers to show off their craft alongside artists whose naughty side shows through in clever Christmas packaging. British artisan Ridgeway produces a plethora of cleverly packaged holiday beers, including Santa's Butt, Lump of Coal and the Bad Elf series. Criminally Bad Elf is one of four different elven brews, and it is a thick, viscous beer with a vinous character and enough alcohol to remove nail polish. These are interesting beers in a free speech forum because the state of Connecticut banned the beers because they have Santa Claus on the label. Buy these beers to give the finger to the censor police.
Outside of holiday beers, winter is also a great time of year for Abbey style ales. The high alcohol content and aggressive flavors temper the winter chill nicely. Abbey ales are derivative of the Trappist ales, a series of beers developed by monks in Belgium. Konings Tripel is produced at the only Trappist brewery outside of Belgium, across the border in neighboring Holland. The beer displays a rich golden hue, and it has a more delicate yeast influence than its Belgian counterparts. When you finish this beer off, there should be about six more Trappist breweries left in order for you to sample your way across the Catholic beer palette.
Not all Abbey ale producers are Trappists. Some, like St. Bernardus, have Trappist roots that go back as far as any of the other breweries' Trappist affiliations. The Prior 8 is the double ale, and it has all of the bready notes, fruity flavors and herbal bitterness that mark this classic style.
St. Bernardus also crosses genre lines with their Christmas ale. The beer has a dark, rich, opaque appearance, and it displays a thick head, notes of clove, ginger, apples, figs, cinnamon and oatmeal. I don't know how to say "Merry Christmas" in Dutch, but I bet it sounds something like St. Bernardus Christmas ale.
Belgium produces other styles of beer apart from the Abbey ale style. Other brews from dynamic producers like Rodenbach make the nation the birthplace of some of the world's most exciting beers. The newest offering from this legend is the Redbach, a blend of nearly three parts sour ale mixed with one part cherry juice. The native yeasts and barrel aging give the beer an unmistakable character. The combination is a spicy, refreshing tart cherry cooler with hints of tree fruit that is absolutely divine.
Domestic producers don't shy away from Belgian character, either. Stoudt's Beer, from Pennsylvania, always tastes better to me because the brew master is a woman. I can't confirm or deny the influence the woman's touch has on the brewing process...I can only tell you that the ladies don't make bad beer. The Triple Ale (made in the classic Belgian style) has strong citrus flavors that punch through the complex malt and flowery hop aromas. I would like to check out the brew pub that is part of Stoudt's, although it has a limited vegetarian menu. I'm sure the beer more than makes up for it.
Avery Brewing also tries their hand at the Belgian style with the Beast. This is a Belgian grand cru style ale with a whopping 16.4% abv. The beer displays fantastic tastes of brown sugar, orange rind, maple syrup and spices. It will age as well as any others.
There are, of course, many other beers available that fall outside of the previously discussed categories. I'm a little behind the curve, but Weyerbacher released an Octoberfest styled beer in their Autumn Fest that was a great beer made in the classic style. This beer has the classic malt character that marks the brews from this time of the calendar year. Weyerbacher is another brewery that always makes great beer (including a number of Belgian-styled offerings), and they are well worth checking out.
You end up naming many locations as great epicenters of brewing before you come up with Quebec. But French Canada is home to great brewers like Unibroue and McAuslan, and these beers are so good you'd think everybody in Germany and Belgium was being inspired by the artisans in Quebec rather than the other way around. The St. Ambroise oatmeal stout is a former World Beer Championship gold medalist, and this beer is definitely a winner, with notes of molasses and charcoal that develop into a knockout beer.
Speaking of world classics, few names in British beer supersede Harviestoun. Old Engine Oil is the name of this producer's opaque brew, a mass of chocolate and coffee bitterness tempered by the English knack for creating some of the world's greatest beers. The latest offering is actually aged in old Scotch barrels, giving the beer a ripe peat character that makes this beer truly an experience. Enjoy it with a stinky piece of cheese as recommended by the brewers.
Much like beer with chocolate notes, beer can get coffee notes from a variety of sources. Bell's Java Stout accomplishes this task by combining their outstanding stout with the finest Sumatran coffee. The roasted coffee and malt notes create a marriage that is made in heaven (or Kalamazoo, Michigan).
Lagunita's takes a similar approach with their Capuccino Stout. Lagunita's relies on a local roaster to provide them with the best coffee, and this beer is slightly more delicate than the ebullient Bell's Java Stout. This taste is driven more by malt and less by coffee than the Bells counterpart. Both are excellent.
New Holland goes about adding character to their brews in a different manner...barrel aging. The dragon's milk is a strong ale with a support consisting of roasted oak underneath a midpalate of plums, licorice and caramel with a bright hop finish. This beer is considered their flagship, and as a result, it is very tasty.
And we'll finish the trip off with the progenitors of some of the world's biggest beers: Stone. The main offering from these loquacious craftsmen is the Arrogant Bastard. They do many different versions of the bastard, including October's Double Bastard, made from twice the malt and hops of its little brother. The marketing campaign behind Stone will tell you that you will not like this beer. If you think Budweiser is only acceptable for beer battering, I'd track down as many of these bottles as I could get my hands on and don't buy their clever ploy to keep the Bastard all to themselves.