Here's a fun idea for a holiday party: Buy several kinds of winter beer, invite your friends to do the same, and make a night of tasting what everyone brings. Make sure to invite a large enough group and pair your beer selections with festive food offerings so as not to get too merry.
My friends and I had one of these holiday beer parties last week (though in this case I picked the brews). If you don't have a beer expert in your group, ask workers at your local liquor store for recommendations, do some research online, and bring tasting notes with you to the party. The beers below should help serve as a guide for what to look for.
Variety is the key to the game, so try to get as many kinds of beer as possible. When some friends and I reviewed 12 pumpkin beers back in the fall, we found that it can be difficult to place a variety of brews, even seasonal ones, into one neat category. Winter seasonals offer even more variety and range from spicy winter warmers to traditional Belgian quads to fresh-hop IPAs. One stout or porter can be very different from the next. Another tip: Buy local. Some of the best seasonal beers are brewed right here in New England.
The following is not a list of the 12 best Christmas beers, though several of these brews are definitely in the top handful. You'd be excited to find one or more of the following beers under your tree.
Saranac Season's Best Nut Brown Lager: Purchased as part of a Saranac winter pack, this lager was chosen to ease us into the night. Not a great choice. There was nothing distinguishable about the brew, which was neither nutty nor spicy. Paired with a chicken chili, the beer was too weak to accompany the food. There are some solid brews in the holiday pack, including a caramel porter and the Big Moose Ale, both of which would have been better choices. The holiday pack is good, but this particular brew not so much.
Delirium Noel: Nothing like going from bad to great, right? The Christmas offering from Belgium's Brouwerij Huyghe is the sister beer of Delirium Tremens, one of the world's great beers. As expected, this is exceptional. The beer pours darker than the Tremens but lighter than another Brouwerij Huyghe brew, Delirium Nocturnum. Notes of apples and banana bread waft up from the glass. It tastes bready but light, and there's a burst of champagne in your mouth right before you swallow. My friend put it simply when she said, "I love this beer." This is a traditional Christmas beer, weighing in at 10 percent ABV.
Great Divide Hibernation Ale: Not a Christmas brew per se, but the winter offering from Colorado's Great Divide was a welcome change from the first two. This English-style old ale is malty and dry hopped, providing a nice balance. One friend called it "too medicinal", but you're bound to taste the alcohol in a beer that weighs in at 8.7 percent ABV. Another taster noted, longingly, "If there was a lot of snow outside, I would drink this beer." This is a winter beer that will please hop heads.
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale: Speaking of hops, Sierra Nevada brews their winter beer with the fresh crop of hops from the harvest season. The result is a resin-y, pungent IPA that weighs in at 6.8 percent ABV. This beer is one of my favorite winter brews, in part because it has nothing to do with the over-sweet, spicy beers that can dominate the season. My friend Tania, who describes herself as a Coors Light drinker, said, "I actually really like this." The hop flavor lingers. We all found it to be a nice change of pace from the rest of the lineup.
Anderson Valley Winter Solstice: This canned offering from one of California's best brewers is a little more traditional for the season. It's a winter warmer, and hints of cinnamon, nutmeg, and other holiday spices come through. I also smell apples. There's candy-sweetness to the beer, but it's not overly malty, and on the scale of winter warmers this is one of the most balanced out there. If you have a friend who is eager to try new craft beer but doesn't have much experience, this is a good winter beer to point them to.
Mystic Brewery Vineland One: This is not a Christmas beer at all. It's not even a winter beer. But part of celebrating around the holidays is picking out something special. This beer from the Mystic Brewery was fermented with natural yeast harvested from a Massachusetts-grown plum. The yeast imparts unique flavors on the beer, including dark, fruity wine notes, even though no fruit was added to the beer itself. The result is a bone-dry, champagne-like brew. It's sour, though I'd call this a gateway sour. One friend likened it to Campari, though I think that's taking the bitterness a little too far. This is a celebratory beer, and everyone at the table loved it.
Troeg's Mad Elf: Another special one, I aged this in my makeshift beer cellar for a year before popping the cap off this week. Troeg's makes this 11 percent ABV beer with cherries and honey, and the cellaring really brings out the cherry notes. Because of the high alcohol content there is a cough-syrup quality as the beer warms, but I find the beer balanced enough for occasional drinking. There's a "super cute" or "scary looking" elf on the label, depending on your perspective.
Notch Brewing Cerne Pivo: Want to know why I love writing about beer? Because sometimes a beer like this will come along to tear down all of my preconceived notions. Ipswich's Notch Brewing makes session beers that are low in alcohol content. They also make darn flavorful beers. Cerne Pivo is inspired by the dark lagers of the Czech Republic. It's a roasty, malty, flavorful beer that clocks in at just 4 percent ABV. In that way, it's the perfect beer to put down a few of at your next holiday party without worrying about getting too jolly. The beer's low sugar content is obvious -- it doesn't pack the most powerful punch -- but it's certainly enjoyable. The dry, malty brew pairs well with a super-sweet cupcake.
Ken Schmidt / Iron Fist / Stone Mint Chocolate Imperial Stout: This is a collaboration between a homebrewer and big boys Stone and Iron Fist. Several folks in our group liked the sound of this one most on paper. This one clocks in at 9.6 percent ABV. It smells minty, but as is the case in other beers that have tried to do the mint chocolate thing, something doesn't work here in the flavor. The mint comes through too strongly and doesn't mesh with well with the traditional "beer" aspects of this brew.
Baxter Brewing Phantom Punch Stout: Named in celebration of Lewiston, Maine's 1965 heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, Phantom Punch is a foreign extra stout. Baxter releases all of its beers in cans, and this is their least hoppy beer to date. It's a nice, dry stout of 6.8 percent ABV, packing vanilla, cocoa nibs, and roasted, smoky malts into the can. We liked this one.
Samuel Adams Merry Mischief: There's bound to be fatigue in every beer tasting of this size, and this gingerbread stout looked like it had sticky-sweet trouble written all over it. But in maybe one of the biggest surprises of the night, this beer scored well. Pouring darker than expected, nutmeg and cinnamon come through but don't overpower. Unlike in some winter warmers, the spices weren't too muddled. I'm not a sweet beer guy so I didn't like this one as much as some of my friends, but several of them put it in their top three beers of the night.
St. Bernardus Christmas Ale: The golden goose. We saved this for last assuming it would be the best, and it didn't disappoint. A bright aroma leads to "dangerously drinkable" sipping, as one friend put it, for a beer of 10 percent alcohol. Dark candied fruits and bready yeast mix with banana. Someone else described it as "not gimmicky" -- you don't need cinnamon and nutmeg to make it wintery. This has been my favorite Christmas beer for some time and will continue to be so.