For those of us who prefer to celebrate the holidays with hops and barley rather than fermented grape juice, winter is a great opportunity to sample some seasonal brews that won't bust a budget. Some of these may require a little more effort than a trip to the local supermarket, but the trouble is certainly worth it. (For more, see Beeronomics: Factors Affecting Your Pint.)
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Three Wise Choices
Truly wise partygoers may want to opt for leaving the gold, frankincense and myrrh at home and come bearing these gifts instead. Anchor Brewing, Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada are all respected craft brewers, and each of them rolls out something a little special for Christmas. These will all be recognizable to casual beer drinkers, but will almost certainly stand out as being a little "special."
Anchor's Christmas Ale features a different recipe every year and this year's version really does taste a bit like Christmas, with some flavors that resemble roasted nuts, spices and fruit, though with some bitterness at the end (maybe more like Christmas than we want to admit). Twenty-four bottle cases can be had online for $39, and many Trader Joe's locations carry this beer.
Boston Beer Company's (NYSE:SAM) Sam Adams has made its Winter Lager a little less funky over the years, but it is still a solid offering - and one that probably won't freak out your friends. There is good body to his beer, and the sweetness and spices are noticeable without being out of balance. A case goes for $26 online, though many supermarkets will run sales on this and it is common in warehouse clubs.
Sierra Nevada's Celebration Ale will be a little more challenging for those whose usual fare runs more in the typical light American lager category. The Celebration Ale is very hoppy, but there is a lot of flavor amidst that bitterness, and the alcohol in this one will definitely warm up a drinker. A case of this runs a little more - about $30 online - and is not quite as commonplace in supermarkets as the Sam Adams offering.
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A Little Bit of Everything
For those who do not like to make a lot of choices, or who want a wider selection at a very reasonable price, there is the annual Sam Adams Winter Classics Variety Pack. This year's version replaces the Cranberry Lambic with Chocolate Bock, which is no great loss as Sam Adams' iteration of lambic beer was a travesty for lovers of true lambics. Like most Sam Adams offerings, the beers in this pack (Boston Lager, Holiday Porter, White Ale, Chocolate Bock, Winter Lager, and Old Fezziwig Ale) are not so flavorful as to alienate casual drinkers (like those who might be showing up to your Christmas party), but likewise flavorful enough to stand out as "different." Like other Sam Adams offerings, the Winter pack is usually available at a very reasonable price at warehouse clubs. (For more, see Beer Mergers: Are The Micro Brewers Doomed?)
Winter is a great time to see whether your local breweries offer up any special seasonal brews. Here in the Carolinas, we are lucky to take advantage of Cottonwood's Almond Stout and Frostbite, as well as Duck Rabbit's Rabid Duck Russian Imperial Stout and Big Boss Aces and Ates. None of these beers will be as cheap as the giant macrobrews, but drinkers will get a lot more flavor and character for just a little more money.
A Trip to the Wild Side
For those willing to pay just a little more, some truly interesting winter beers await.
Stone Brewing's Double Bastard Ale is likely to be a memorable experience for anybody who tries it, though probably not so memorable if someone tries more than two. With over 10% alcohol by volume, this is not a lightweight beer - but the flavor is pretty amazing. A reddish beer with a lot of fruit, the sweetness is offset by some over-caramelized grains and hops. Like other Stone Brewing beers, this one can often be found at Trader Joe's, and the prices are often quite reasonable (though I was not able to find it in bottles smaller than 22 ounces).
From Quebec and Unibroue comes La Fin Du Monde. Another highly potent beer, this is a Belgian-style ale that in some respects is completely over the top. It's peppery and spicy, but also sweet and fruity. Three-quarter liter bottles will run about $7 to $9 online.
Although North American brewers have really stepped up their game over the past couple of decades, there remain a few European winter beers that are absolutely worthy of a try. Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome is not hard to find, and typically runs about $5 to $6 for an 18-ounce bottle. This beer is almost a prototypical winter beer - the alcohol definitely offers a warming sensation, while the combination of fruit, caramel and spice is pretty much expected in winter beers.
Going a step beyond are two of my absolute favorite winter beers, both from Belgium. Scaldis Noel (also known as Bush de Noel) and Delirium Noel both pack a powerful punch, but are not just about the alcohol. Scaldis will remind drinkers of toffee or molasses, but is actually pretty complex. In some respects, it is a dangerous beer to drink as the flavors really mask the high alcohol content (12% ABV). Delirium Noel has the regular allotment of winter spice flavors, but a little more sweetness and yeast than many other winter beers. It won't suit everybody, but it certainly stands out (as does the bottle featuring pink elephants frolicking in a winter scene). Both of these beers are increasingly showing up on the shelves of stores like Whole Foods and Total Wine, and represent affordable splurges.
The Bottom Line
Certainly there are plenty of beer drinkers who are more than happy to content themselves with Budweiser (NYSE:BUD) at only about $0.60 a bottle. Celebrants willing to pay just a few bucks more per bottle, though, can discover some really interesting, flavorful, and sometimes downright bizarre beers throughout the holiday season. With most of the major breweries focusing on mass-market tastes, huge scale and lower prices, these beers do not represent any sort of commercial threat to the industry, but they do offer up an opportunity to add a little variety to the holiday season. (For more, check out Beer Nation.)
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