What makes us stand in line for hours just to pick up a few hazy boi cans? Or what has us planning a dream vacation to the little town of Santa Rosa in early February for a chance to snag a sip of Pliny the Younger? Why do we fiercely fight to protect that one American light lager we grew up drinking—are you team Old Style? PBR? Shiner? Genesee? Natty Boh? Hamms? And above all else, why, for the love of St. Nick, do we love Christmas beers so much? Take a look behind any storied holiday beer and you’ll find a tradition as rich as opening presents underneath the tree, drinking hot cocoa around the fire, or lighting the Menorah for Hanukkah or kinara for Kwanzaa.

With names like Celebration Ale, Christmas Ale, and The Mad Elf, Christmas beers seem to invoke a romantic nostalgia in all of us. Often causing us to join a line around the block to taste a first tapping (as is the case in Cleveland, OH, for Great Lakes Brewing Company’s First Pour event) or snag a magnum off the bottling line (like Anchor Brewing Historian Dave Burkhart does every year) or load up the back of a trunk with cases of a beer that’s only around for a few months (The Mad Elf doesn’t sit on the shelf for very long!).

As we all know, the holidays are about tradition. And tradition can hit us as strongly as a 12.5% ABV stout, especially when it comes to beer.

Just take a look at this history of some of these most revered Christmas beers and it will be as clear as a silent night why Christmas beers have their own cult-like following.

A Brief History of Christmas Beers

great lakes brewing company christmas ale beer
Photography courtesy of Great Lakes Brewing Co.

Christmas beers have been around for a while, reaching as far back as pre-Christian Scandinavia when Vikings made Jul or Yule to commemorate Norse gods and celebrate the winter solstice.

In the beginning, these Scandinavian Christmas beers used dark malts endemic to the region, producing blacker, maltier beers. And perhaps we can see those influences in America when Scandinavian immigrants brought their brewing traditions to the U.S.

Over time, many cultures have seemingly had a hand in brewing some type of traditional holiday beer whether it’s bière de Noel, a darker bière de garde in France; weihnacht, a sort of Munich dunkel in Germany; or even just Stella Artois, a lighter Belgian ale in Belgium. Fun fact: the word stella means star in Latin and represents the Christmas star.

Here in America, craft brewers have constantly been inspired by the spices, ingredients, treats, and customs of the holidays.

Even from the very beginning of the craft brewing movement, dating as far back as 1975 when Anchor Brewing Owner Fritz Maytag brewed the first Christmas Ale. Many consider this beer one of the first American Christmas beers.

And honestly, that first recipe? Well it certainly wasn’t what many considered a Christmas beer style at the time.

But What Exactly Is a Christmas Beer Anyway?

sierra nevada celebration fresh hop ipa sweater christmas lights
Photography courtesy of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company

To us, the definition can really get as twisted as those pesky strings of Christmas lights.

But in the beginning, Christmas beers in America seemed to follow the traditional European style of darker, spiced beers.

In fact, The Beer Judge Certification Program actually lays out guidelines for Christmas beers as “a stronger, darker, spiced beer that often has a rich body and warming finish suggesting a good accompaniment for the cold winter season.”

But in reality, any brewery that now puts out something during the holiday season can spin it any way they see fit. Whether through adding traditional spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove, by emulating holiday treats like eggnog or milk and cookies, by leveraging labels and designs that evoke that seasonal nostalgia, or even by doing something completely different. Like celebrating the festive hop harvest.

For most, the Christmas beers that have stood the test of time, attracting a devoted following year after year, have tapped into that special recipe that creates traditions.

Christmas Beers Start Holiday Traditions

anchor brewing christmas ale beer
Photography courtesy of Anchor Brewing Co.

When Maytag brewed the now-iconic Anchor Christmas Ale for the first time in 1975, he probably couldn’t have imagined how ingrained the beer would become in drinkers’ own holiday traditions.

Maytag came up with the idea for a Christmas Ale after taking a trip to England.

He came back inspired to brew two new beers: Old Foghorn barleywine and Christmas Ale.
But the very first Christmas Ale, released on Nov. 17, 1975, wasn’t anything like a darker, spiced beer. In fact, the very first version was actually an all-pale-malt ale dry hopped with Cascade hops.

See, earlier that year, Maytag had brewed Anchor Liberty Ale for the first time, commemorating the 200th anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride. After visiting England and having a hard time finding all-malt beers, he decided to brew his own.

So technically, the very first batch of Christmas Ale was actually the second batch of Liberty Ale. In fact, the working title was 2nd L.A. before Maytag named it Our Special Ale. (Still with us?)

“In an odd way, the trip made Fritz even more determined to do something special and unique to San Francisco and Anchor,” says Burkhart, whose thirty-one years at the brewery led him to compile a book on Anchor’s history called “The Anchor Brewing Story” that came out last month.

To help promote Our Special Ale, Maytag took out an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle saying come and get our special Christmas Ale. “He had no idea how the ad would be received, but there was a line around the corner with people interested in trying this beer,” says Angela Knotts, director of brand marketing at Anchor. “From day one, there was an energy for Christmas Ale… That tradition continued year after year.”

Today, for many, Anchor Christmas Ale has become as much a part of their holiday season as baking cookies or drinking eggnog. And the recipe has evolved over time, eventually becoming a spiced brown ale that changes every year.

“It’s all about the renewal of the season and celebration,” says Dane Volek, brewmaster at Anchor, who is about to celebrate his twelfth season brewing Christmas Ale. “It’s our gift for the year to be unwrapped and enjoyed by all.”

troegs independent brewing the the mad elf christmas ale beer
Photography courtesy of Tröegs Independent Brewing

Similarly, at Tröegs Independent Brewing, their holiday beer—The Mad Elf—became an almost accidental hit.

When Tröegs Co-Founders and brothers Chris and John Troegner decided they wanted to make a holiday beer, they brewed a Belgian beer, added too much fruit and honey, walked away and returned the next day to find “a big foamy mess,” says Jeff Herb, marketing media coordinator at Tröegs. Or perhaps it was just a pesky elf causing havoc in the brewhouse. We may never know.

But what we do know is that the beer turned out “legendary right out of the gate,” says Herb. “The first batch sold out in advance…and immediately had this cult status.”

The Mad Elf tapped into a niche just by being a holiday beer. Folks saw The Mad Elf as a way to start a new tradition or introduce the beer into their old ones.

Today, Herb says it’s not uncommon to find grandmothers showing up at the brewery to buy three cases of The Mad Elf because their entire family is expecting to drink it when they come home for the holidays.

“It’s cool to hear from those fans that are borderline obsessive,” says Herb. “People that absolutely love it and think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread… It has definitely found that holiday vibe that attaches itself to so many people.”

Some fans even send in photos of themselves under the Christmas tree wearing matching The Mad Elf shirts or filling up their trunks with six to seven cases of beer to ration throughout the year.

Because, and here’s the kicker, you can only get The Mad Elf from around October through December.

It doesn’t hurt this beer’s cult-like status that people can only fill their cars with cases for a limited period of time every year.

Limited-Edition, Seasonal Beers Gone in the Twinkle of an Eye

sierra nevada celebration fresh hop ipa
Sierra Nevada Celebration Fresh Hop IPA | Photography courtesy of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company

Although Christmas beers may differ in recipes, the one thing that almost always stays the same for each and every one is that, like the holidays themselves, these beers are only around for a short time each year.

Which has inspired its own customs. For instance, wherever Burkhart is in the world, he makes sure that he’s at the brewery to grab the first bottle of Christmas Ale off the bottling line. “That’s my little tradition,’ he says.

Knotts continues, “There is something so special about a beer that only comes out once. Each year you get something special, something collectible. That’s something extraordinary.”

For most Christmas beers, if you want to enjoy them, you only have a limited window to imbibe. But perhaps the clock ticks fastest for Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale, a unique take on a Christmas beer that celebrates freshly picked Cascade and Centennial hops.

Actually inspired by Anchor’s iconic Christmas Ale, Sierra Nevada Founder Ken Grossman decided to make his own seasonal version. But he wanted to brew his holiday beer with a bit of a twist. One focused just on the perfection of the hops he loved.

Considered a fresh hop beer, Celebration Ale includes a dry hop of whole-cone Centennial and Cascade hops picked at the peak of freshness and delivered to Sierra Nevada’s Chico brewery in California in two to three days and to the Mills River location in North Carolina within five to seven days.

sierra nevada celebration fresh hop ipa snow angels
Photography courtesy of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company

“It’s on the minds of everybody going in for hop selection,” says Sierra Nevada Product Manager Terence Sullivan, who has been brewing Celebration Ale for twenty-eight-and-a-half years. “We’re not only buying for the entire year, but we’re buying for Celebration Ale.”

All together, this year, Sierra Nevada will brew roughly 40,000 barrels of Celebration Ale with about 80,000 pounds of hops split equally between Cascade and Centennial, which comes out to about 400 bales of total whole-cone hops. Sierra Nevada doesn’t dry hop with T-90 pellets or Cryo or anything like that. They use 100 percent whole-cone hops.

Which means once those hops are plucked, they need to be brewed with pronto.

All told, brewing with the fresh hops takes Sierra Nevada about twenty-eight days. And there is no sweeter feeling for anyone at the brewery than tasting that first batch of Celebration Ale during the second week of October.

“I don’t know if everyone feels the same way as I do, but when Celebration comes out and on in our pub, that’s my go-to beer until I know it’s gone on January 1st,” says Sullivan.

Which probably adds to its cult-like following, the fact that you can only get it on draft and in package for about three months out of the year.
When the ball drops and you ring in the new year, Celebration Ale drops out of the market too.

You have to drink this Christmas beer while it’s fresh during the holidays, so good thing it’s a beer built for winter and celebrating, especially around family dinner tables.

“It embodies the holidays, and what we do in the holidays is celebrate, whatever it is that you celebrate,” says Isaiah Mangold, head innovation brewer at Sierra Nevada. “Celebration is a universal term. It’s exactly what I get when having a pint of Celebration Ale with a coworker or family or bringing it to a celebratory event… It embodies that celebration of happiness, passion, togetherness, and community.”

Because what the holidays signify are a turning of the seasons and a time to indulge. When “it’s cooler evenings, rainy, drizly, [and] Celebration Ale is on the shelves, we start thinking about Thanksgiving, Christmas, the holiday season, and lining up vacations,” laughs Sullivan.

Or playing good ol’ fashion hooky.

Indulgent, Decadent Christmas Beers: Naughty or Nice?

great lakes brewing company christmas ale first pour
Photography courtesy of Great Lakes Brewing Co.

Much like grandmothers show up at Tröegs to load up their cars once The Mad Elf is available, the fine folks of Cleveland line up around the block for the chance to get that first taste of Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Christmas Ale every year.

“A lot of people play hooky from work on a Thursday,” laughs Mark Hunger, brewmaster at Great Lakes Brewing Company. “People are lining up by 7 o’clock in the morning to be the first ones through the door.”

In what has become known as First Pour, Great Lakes goes all out to celebrate Christmas Ale, performing a ceremonial delivery of the first keg through the door. Even the mayor gets in on the action, giving a proclamation of celebration. “It’s a lot of hype, a lot of excitement,” says Hunger. “When we start pouring, the taps don’t stop for twelve hours. I figured it out, and we poured twenty-five barrels of Christmas Ale alone…which during that time period roughly [equals] a pint of beer every five seconds for eleven or twelve hours.”

That’s the fervor Christmas Ale has stoked around this Ohio city and the greater Midwest. “We were one of the first to come out with a holiday ale in this area,” says Hunger. “People have grown up with it…people know it, and it always tops their list.”

But Great Lakes Christmas Ale’s capacity to inspire indulgence reaches beyond the city with folks flying in from all over because it “brings a lot of joy and happiness to them and they have a great time,” says Hunger, recounting that this year the first four to five people in line were dressed in bunny suits from the iconic Christmas movie, A Christmas Story, filmed in Cleveland. “You walk up and down the line…and you hear so many stories like that,” says Hunger.

It’s those kinds of little (or big) indulgences that we can only get away with around the holidays. Because let’s be honest, Christmas is really a time to make excuses for being a little bit naughty.

The Magical Powers of Nostalgic Holiday Flavors

troegs independent brewing the mad elf christmas beer
Photography courtesy of Tröegs Independent Brewing

For some, Christmas beers seem to have these magical powers, turning people who don’t even drink beer into converts for just a short time.
“People who don’t even drink beer, the one 6-pack or case of beer they buy a year is Christmas Ale,” says Hunger. “It’s become ingrained in their holiday spirit and things they do around the holidays.”

Similarly, at Tröegs, Herb says he has met plenty of people over the years who’ve told him they don’t like beer, but they love The Mad Elf and “have to have it every year around the holiday,” he says.

And for those who do enjoy beer, Christmas versions give them flavors different from the norm. Or highlight ingredients that emulate the holidays.

For The Mad Elf, Tröegs includes Pilsner, Munich, and Chocolate malt in the base before adding local wildflower honey from a guy in Carlisle, PA, called the Happy Beekeeper. For Tröegs, he sources a whopping 25,000 lbs of Pennsylvania honey from apiaries around the state each year. On top of that, Tröegs adds five different varieties of cherries—Bing, Lambert, Van, Royal Anna, and Montmorency—into the fermenter for a sweet and tart kick along with a distinctive Belgian yeast that highlights the allspice, clove, and light cinnamon notes.

great lakes brewing company christmas ale
Photography courtesy of Great Lakes Brewing Co.

Great Lakes Christmas Ale also includes an addition of honey. Hunger says they’re on track to use over 200,000 pounds this year. Along with 7,000 pounds of both ginger and cinnamon—two spices added to this strong amber ale (7.5% ABV).

The ginger particularly gets some extra special love. Hunger says they buy boxes of whole gnarly ginger root that they throw into a chopper and snip into little half dollar pieces that go in a basket with cinnamon sticks and get dropped in the boil. “Back in the day, we used to have a bunch of cutting boards and guys up there with knives chopping up ginger,” laughs Hunger, noting that investing in a chopper has paid off in spades. “People are wide eyed when they see us brewing it.”

Both Great Lakes and Tröegs have stuck to their original genius, keeping their recipes intact for thirty years and twenty years, respectively.

“We didn’t want to mess with a masterpiece,” says Herb.

But for some breweries, it’s messing with the minds of their drinkers (and their masterpiece) that has actually been the backbone for their brilliant beers.

Silent Nights: Closely Guarded Secrets

anchor brewing christmas ale holiday table
Photography courtesy of Anchor Brewing Co.

We’re speaking directly to you, Anchor! Because we still want to know what went into this year’s fantastic Christmas Ale recipe. But we’ll never know.

Why? Because Anchor holds its (Christmas) cards close to the chest. Keeping the recipe secret dates back to 1987, when Maytag made a special beer for his wedding.

But not just him. Together with his fiancée, Beverly, Maytag brewed Bridale, a spiced version of the 1986 Christmas Ale recipe (which from ‘83-’86 had changed from a pale ale to a brown ale courtesy of another one of Maytag’s trips to England when he came back inspired to brew an all-malt brown ale).

Using the base brown beer and similar malts, the pair elected to each pick a separate ingredient to add to the beer and then collectively decided which hops to use.
The beer proved to be so popular, Maytag decided that, from 1987 on, Anchor Christmas Ale would be a spiced brown ale with a yearly changing recipe that included new, secret ingredients each year.

And neither you nor I will ever know exactly what goes into that seasonal batch.

“There is some mystique to not knowing the exact recipe,” says Knotts. “It’s a very bespoke beer and that’s a big component of hype or cult beer.”

For example, this year’s recipe evokes what Volek calls “elegance.” Pouring a jet black, from the appearance, aroma, and taste, “when I started smelling the beer, we had a lot of inspiration from amaro on the spice blend,” says Volek. “I get really strong orange peel aromas, a lot of zesty citrus notes on the nose, as well as those coastal spices.”

On the palate, we get a few more clues to the recipe. “We use some caramel rye in the beer this year…so on the palate, you get fresh-baked rye bread almost like a rye sandwich,” says Volek. “A lot of decadent caramel that still has that citrusy warmth… It’s nice and dry, finishing clean.”

Hopefully that gives you some ideas.

But keeping the ingredients a secret adds an allure of mystique and mystery to this seasonal one-off.

What’s not a mystery, but maybe something you hadn’t noticed before: The tree on the Christmas Ale label changes every year.

And these design decisions aren’t based on whims; rather, they’re well thought-out, intentional choices with hidden meaning.

You know, kind of like that ugly sweater you decided to wear to the holiday.

A Charlie Brown Christmas: Special Characters and Designs

anchor brewing christmas ale
Photography courtesy of Anchor Brewing Co.

Since the very beginning, Anchor Christmas Ale has always featured a specific tree on the label. Each with its own story and intention.

The tradition began in 1975 when Maytag chose a generic, symbolic tree to use as the model. But each subsequent year the tree took on new meaning.

“Fritz loved the idea…of a new vintage—of something with a new label with new artwork on it,” says Burkhart.

That first year, he also had a printer die cut blank neck labels to attach to each bottle so people could take those and write their own holiday message on it (e.g. Merry Christmas from Joe to Mary).

Originally intending on switching up the artist every year (an idea Maytag got from the famous winemaker Baron Philippe de Rothschild who used different artists from Salvador Dali to Andy Warhol on his Bordeaux vintage labels), Maytag basically stuck with one artist.

Jim Stitt designed the original label in 1975. Although Maytag hired someone else in ‘76, he realized that he wanted to stick with Stitt.

From 1977, and for the next 44 labels, Stitt drew a new tree every year. And although he retired in 2019, the now-ninety-five-year-old Stitt is enjoying retirement, according to Burkhart.

“I challenge any designer on earth to create forty-eight distinctive labels that need both red and green, a tree, has to say ‘Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,’ and ‘Anchor Brewing,’ and ‘Our Special Ale,’” says Burkhart. “Within those narrowly defined parameters, Anchor has created a remarkable assortment of labels over the years—and trees!”

It’s an important feature of Christmas Ale, with each tree generating its own story. (Find a few of our favorites here or check out all of them here.)

troegs independent brewing the mad elf christmas beer
Photography courtesy of Tröegs Independent Brewing

Similarly, it’s an iconic design that has helped push The Mad Elf into the holiday hall of fame.

Tröegs’ Christmas beer character has gone through four iterations over the last two decades. “[Originally,] there was a napkin sketch that helped push the name forward,” says Chris Troegner. “He’s not angry, just a little squirrely.”

But Tröegs Content Manager Jeremy Drey says the second version of the elf has by far been the most popular and the longest-tenured, sticking around from 2004-2014. The third design came with a brewery rebrand in 2015 and lasted until 2020. The latest (and fourth) design, from Florida illustrator Josh Noom, “harkens back to the second elf, but is all about being friendly and welcoming to drink the beer,” says Drey. “There is a fine line, especially when working on this iteration, of not having the elf look too young, too old, or too drunk. We put a lot of thought into it and it harkens back to the…fan favorite.”

At Sierra Nevada, the brewery’s Celebration Ale has also become widely known for its bright red label. For some, it represents the colors of Christmas, presents, and, well…celebrations.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Beer

great lakes brewing company christmas ale first pour
Photography courtesy of Great Lakes Brewing Co.

As you can see, we can’t pinpoint just one reason why Christmas beers have captured the imaginations and hearts of so many people—some who don’t even drink beer!
Like building a great fire, a practice that involves gathering kindling, cutting wood, assembling the logs correctly, and eventually creating a spark, Christmas beers succeed because of all these distinct rituals.

And to us, that’s the fabric of a true tradition. It doesn’t have to make sense to everyone (again, ugly sweaters anyone?). It just has to mean something to you and those in the celebration.

Now, that’s the true magic of the holidays.

The Top Christmas Beers to Try During the Holidays

Anchor Christmas Ale – Anchor Brewing Co.

San Francisco, CA

anchor brewing christmas ale holiday beers

Winter Warmer – While we can’t tell you exactly what’s in this year’s Christmas Ale, what we can tell you is how Volek described the beer to us. Pull out whatever clues you’d like from there, Sherlock.

After what Volek calls a string of years where Christmas Ale poured out midnight black, folks can expect something a little different in 2022. “This year, it’s kind of ruby, garnet hues with a little bit of walnut, very dark mahogany, and all those red to autumnal orange to a bit in the brown category,” says Volek. “The red really jumps out when you shine it up to the light and look at the sun through the glass, you see this beautiful red hue, which is very difficult to get in brewing.”

In the mouth, consider this beer like Christmas in a glass or a cozy sipper that’s quintessential during the holidays.

Plus, don’t beers just taste better when they’re in bigger bottles? Special to Anchor, the brewery has been releasing its Christmas Ale in magnum bottles since 1991, when Maytag’s friend Jack Davies, who owned Schramsberg Vineyards, sent him a magnum bottle of sparkling wine for Christmas.

“Fritz thought it would be fun to do something nobody as far as we knew ever did before,” says Burkhart. “Bottle magnums of Christmas Ale.”

The holiday season is a wonderful time meant for sharing and gifting. Nothing says, ‘I’m ready to celebrate with friends and family’ better than a 1.5 liter (about 50oz) giant bottle full of a spiced brown ale.

“From our perspective, we want Christmas Ale to be a catalyst for sparking holiday joy, and beer in a magnum automatically means you can share with others,” says Knotts.
So go forth and start your own tradition with this magical beer this year.

Reaad More

Celebration Fresh Hop IPA – Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

Chicago, CA

sierra nevada brewing company celebrate ale fresh hop ipa holiday beers

American IPA – Unlike other Christmas ales that feature spices or fruit, Celebration Ale at its core is a beer all about hops.

Which is why we love it so much.

Pouring out a beautiful ruby red color, Celebration Ale almost looks exactly like an ornament you’d hang on the tree or a candle you’d place in the kinara (candleholder) for Kwanzaa (red candles represent one of the colors of the Pan-African flag along with the struggles of the past).

Not an easy color to hit in beer, red really represents the holidays. “Visually it’s an absolutely striking beer,” says Mangold.

And the hue stands out in contrast to the pillowy white head. “To me one of the real standouts is the foam,” says Sulivan. “It performs great in a pint glass. The lacing you get from Celebration Ale is so inviting and it’s such a pretty beer in any type of glass.”

Along with the striking color, Celebration Ale will hit you in the nose with citrus, pine, and that aforementioned rose characteristic, “but you get a little backbone of caramel, toffee notes too,” says Sullivan, courtesy of the caramel malts Sierra Nevada uses in the recipe.

And here’s where things get interesting.

Both Sullivan and Mangold consider Celebration “one of the first true West Coast IPAs that was ever made,” says Sullivan. But some jestingly disagree.

Those like Russian River Brewing Company Co-Founder Vinnie Cilurzo, who playfully argues that West Coast IPAs do not include caramel malt and color. “Vinnie always gives us s*** because we use C-60 caramel malt because why would you ever do that [in a West Coast IPA],” laughs Sullivan. “But he loves Celebration Ale; he just likes to bust our chops.”

And the malt is crucial in Celebration Ale. It softens the edges on what could be an overly bitter beer. “It reminds me of a lot of really great salsas,” says Sullivan. “The flavor is not overly aggressive, but there is a nice sharp bitterness…not over the top, but just the right amount of bitterness that makes you want to come back for another sip and another sip.”

Because on the palate, Celebration Ale truly shines like a highly polished ornament. “Celebration is so perfectly balanced that even though it’s aggressively hopped, it has that little caramel, raisin note from the specialty malt that plays so well,” says Mangold. “They’re just in perfect harmony.”

Whether you’re pairing the beer with Thanksgiving dinner or a simple night around the campfire.

“I’ve had people ask me: What would you pair this with?” says Mangold. “I’m like: life!” The beer just simply goes with any occasion…any celebration.”

Even more impressive considering at the end of the day Celebration Ale is actually a fairly simple recipe. It’s just two kinds of malt—pale and caramel—and two kinds of signature hops—Cascade and Centennial.

That and “a lot of love that makes Celebration Ale finish the way it does,” says Sullivan with a smile.

When year-end looms and days darken, most of us turn to dark beers, stouts, and porters. Normally, we slow down on hoppier styles. But Celebration is the rare exception. A winter mainstay brewed to invoke the sensation of evening strolls by tall pine trees, Celebration is one of the best holiday beers worth sipping every year.

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The Mad Elf – Tröegs Independent Brewing

Hershey, PA

troegs independent brewing mad elf holiday beers

Belgian Strong Dark Ale – A Christmas beer through and through, The Mad Elf pours one hundred percent rich ruby red. “The aroma is full of those cherry notes,” says Drey. “On first impression, its color and the smell of just cherries come through… Then there is a lingering chocolate, cocoa notes from the malt that come through midway into the back, and there is definitely a little bit of alcohol heat for sure due to that 11% ABV.”

It’s the high alcohol volume that, much like the mischievous mad elf himself, can really sneak up on you.

Don’t be surprised if a bottle of The Mad Elf puts you on the couch for the rest of the night. Which honestly, on Christmas Eve or Day, is probably exactly where you want to be anyway.

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Christmas Ale – Great Lakes Brewing Company

Cleveland, OH

great lakes brewing company christmas ale holiday beers

Winter Ale – Distinctive describes Great Lakes Christmas Ale pretty accurately. “You can smell us brewing it around the neighborhood,” says Hunger. “Whenever I get out of the car and it smells so good, I’m like alright, we’re doing a batch of Christmas Ale today.”

Courtesy of the vast amounts of both fresh ginger and cinnamon sticks (3.5 tons of each, to be exact), Christmas Ale packs a spicy wallop. But with an incredible smoothness. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” comes to mind here. “It’s very smooth,” says Hunger. “The spices are there, but it’s not overly spiced. I like to say it’s a beer that a Bud Light drinker can sit down, drink, and enjoy along with craft beer connoisseurs.”

Similar to some other Christmas beers on this list, Great Lakes’ version pours a deep amber. A fairly complex malt bill of roasted barley, special roast crystal malt, and wheat build the backbone for those bright spices.

“When you taste it, it’s going to be smooth, it doesn’t really have a bite,” says Hunger. “You’ll taste that malt sweetness, some floral character from the honey comes through, and then some of the mild spices that you got in the smell will also come through in the taste. Some people pick up ginger more, some people the cinnamon… [It] usually has a pretty clean finish. It won’t linger like a big hoppy IPA and finish pretty smooth.”

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Old Jubilation Ale – Avery Brewing Co.

Boulder, CO

avery brewing old jubilations holiday beers

Old Ale – Made in a style you don’t see very often, Old Jubilation harkens back to almost A Christmas Carol-like times. This is a slightly different take on a Christmas-style beer. Forgoing classic holiday spices, Old Jubilation relies instead on five specialty malts to give the beer a deep, dark roasted mahogany color.

Those malts also lend the beer a rich, textured, coffee-chocolate aroma and flavor with a strong backbone of nuttiness.

In fact, if this beer were a Christmas carol, we’d probably name it “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.”

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Christmas Ale – Bell’s Brewery

Comstock, MI

bells brewery christmas ale holiday beers

Scotch Ale / Wee Heavy – Only available from October through December, Bell’s Christmas Ale rings all the right notes for a traditional holiday beer and then some. Considered a Scotch Ale or Wee Heavy, Bell’s Christmas Ale clocks in pretty high in the alcohol content department at 7.5% ABV. So consider this one a fireside sipper.

Think of any holiday dessert and you’ll find those notes here: sticky toffee pudding, gingerbread snaps, snickerdoodle cookies. An indulgent treat, Christmas Ale is as synonymous with the holidays as a plate of cookies and glass of milk.

Who knows, St. Nick might like that better, actually.

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Jubelale – Deschutes Brewery

Bend, OR

deschutes brewery jubelale holiday beers

Winter Ale – Speaking of tradition, Deschutes Jubelale sits on the shelf up there with Anchor Christmas Ale and Sierra Nevada Celebration. First brewed in October 1988, Jubelale has stood the test of time. Opening as a brewpub in June of 1988, Deschutes wanted to create a beer to celebrate Christmas that same year. Fashioned as an English strong winter ale, Jubelale was Deschutes first bottled beer. They released thirty-five cases of 750mL bottles capped by hand.

According to Deschutes’ first brewer, John Harris, the brewery bought used champagne bottles, cleaned and sanitized them, and took the labels off, hand-labeling their own makeshift design.

Over thirty years later, Jubelale now features a different label each year. Often showcasing a local Pacific Northwest artist.

And the beer inside remains timeless, pouring a beautiful deep amber “with notes of chicory, earth, spice, and fruit,” according to the beer’s Untappd description.

Consider Jubelale kind of like a Yule fire that never stops burning.

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Christmas Ale – Brouwerij St. Bernardus

Watou, Vlaanderen, Belgium

brouwerij st bernardus christmas ale holiday beers

Winter Ale – Belgium just has a brewing history deeper than the U.S. can imagine at this point. And the holidays are nothing if not about tradition.

Tracing its roots all the way back to the early nineteenth century, Brouwerij St. Bernardus began when monks at the Saint-Sixtus-Abbey brewed and sold Trappist Ales to make money for the monastery.

In 1945, St. Sixtus actually made the decision to limit its brewery operations, partnering instead with a local cheese-making factory. By 1946, the cheese factory morphed into St. Bernardus Brewery. The partnership allowed the monks to brew with an acclaimed St. Sixtus yeast strain, which has now wound its way into most St. Bernardus beers, including Christmas Ale.

A very dark, Belgian strong ale, St. Bernardus Christmas Ale pours out midnight black with flecks of garnet. On the nose, predominant holiday notes such as hot cocoa, molasses, and gingerbread dominate. While on the sip you’ll find dried dark fruit, warm baking spices, and dark chocolate.

Big, and boozy, Christmas Ale is the hearty drink to get you through those cold winter nights…or family dinners.

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