Candy canes are fun. Gift cards are useful. But nothing festively stuffs a stocking — or brightens a Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, for that matter — quite like a beer tasting of the season.
Holiday beers come in an array of styles: light and dark; elaborate and blessedly simple; sweet, tart and savory. What they tend to have in common, though, is packing a punch. Holiday beers often match the season, and the weather, by landing bigger, boozier and fuller flavors than what breweries release the rest of the year. In other words, they’re perfect for a snowy, 12-degree December afternoon.
Here are our 10 favorite festive finds, listed in alphabetical order, each guaranteed to help create the happiest of holidays.
- 2XMAS (Southern Tier Brewing; 8 percent alcohol): This “spiced double winter ale,” as the brewery describes it, evokes the holidays like little else on this list. There’s a lot happening in the bottle: fig paste, orange peel, ginger root, cardamom, cinnamon and clove. If that sounds bold and busy, well, it is. A beer that drinks like a pine cone doused in potpourri could easily become overbearing, but Southern Tier somehow keeps 2XMAS dry, balanced and harmonious. Few people will need a lot of this beer, but one or two to evoke the holidays? Absolutely.
- 3 Kings (Cruz Blanca; 8 percent): This ruby-red ale is inspired by ponche, a traditional Mexican holiday fruit punch typically served warm. This brew (which is not meant to be served warm) is made with ingredients that can be found in ponche, including hibiscus, guava, tamarind, currant, dried orange peel and cinnamon. The result is tart, earthy and herbal tea-like, with light balancing bitterness in the finish. Another one you might not need a lot of, but a wonderful way to celebrate the season.
- Alpha Klaus (Three Floyds Brewing; 7.3 percent): What makes this legendary local winter release a “Christmas porter,” as Three Floyds says? In true Three Floyds style, it is packed with hops. And that’s about it. But it works. Alpha Klaus takes on an unusual piney character for a porter that manages to evoke the season and that tree in the corner of so many living rooms.
- Barrel-Aged Krampus Cookies (Old Irving Brewing; 14 percent): ’Tis the season of stout aged in bourbon barrels, and Old Irving — which recently announced plans for a major expansion — leans particularly hard into the timing with its annual barrel-aged stout made with vanilla and cocoa nibs. It’s a massively chocolaty and decadent beer, but with admirable oaky and boozy character from the time in the barrels. This year’s release features four additional versions: coffee and toasted coconut; cinnamon and chilis; peanut butter; and one without any added flavors. These beers will be a bit harder to find than others on the list, but are at a handful of retailers.
- Christmas Ale (Anchor Brewing; 7 percent): This craft beer classic was first made in 1975, before craft beer was even a thing. The beer (and its label) morphs every year, and this year’s brew features an elegant and restrained dose of spicing. The malty base beer does the heavy lifting, but with holiday echoes including notes of cinnamon, clove and anise, followed by a light, balancing bitterness. This is a beer drinker’s holiday beer.
- Christmas Ale (Bell’s Brewery; 7.5 percent): Another holiday classic, but this one is notable for its restraint: no frills and nary a holiday spice in sight. This is simply a lovely Scotch ale with a warming malty caramel note that sings the holidays without wearing them on its sleeve.
- Minted (Hop Butcher for the World; 10.5 percent): Frango Mints are a Chicago holiday tradition stretching back decades, and last year Hop Butcher teamed up with Garrett Brands on turning the classic flavor into a rich, inky stout. That beer has returned for an encore. Its rich, minty, chocolaty goodness comes this year with the addition of a Minted-branded 10-ounce glass and a print, both available at Hop Butcher’s newly opened taproom on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago.
- St. Bernardus Christmas Ale (St. Bernardus; 9.8 percent): This dry, effervescent Belgian classic is another one sure to please old-school beer lovers, rife with complex notes of brown sugar, honey and ripe, earthy fruit.
- War on Christmas (Illuminated Brew Works; 11 percent): The silliest beer on this list, all the way down to its name, yet done exceedingly well. The aroma of this peanut brittle white stout explodes with dessert aromas — including a massive dose of caramel corn — but with a savory twist. For such a garish aroma, War on Christmas drinks surprisingly lean and even refreshing, threading the flavor into a beer that is gaudy, well-done fun.
- Ya Filthy Animal (Hopewell Brewing; 6.4 percent): A fun twist on holiday beer — as fun as its name (a “Home Alone” reference). Instead of sweet or savory like most of the beers on this list, Ya Filthy Animal heads tart with a dark fruit character (think plum) that lands tidy, refreshing and vaguely cocktail-like in its festiveness.