Christmas Beer Yields Christmas Cheer

Top 10 Holiday Beers

"The Christmas spirit truly is never more alive than when you share it with your fellow man," says beer connoisseur Don Russell. In this spirit, he shares with us his favorite holiday ales.

Don Russell i i

Beer columnist Don Russell says winter brews may be more true to the celebration of Christmas than Santa himself. Russell is the author of Christmas Beer and Joe Sixpack's Philly Beer Guide. Courtesy Don Russell hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Don Russell
Don Russell

Beer columnist Don Russell says winter brews may be more true to the celebration of Christmas than Santa himself. Russell is the author of Christmas Beer and Joe Sixpack's Philly Beer Guide.

Courtesy Don Russell

Consider the libations of the season: Spiked eggnog. Mulled wine. What about a nice frosty Christmas beer?

What might have seemed terribly declasse just a few years ago is now a full-fledged trend, thanks to the past decade's explosion of fine craft beers. At Tria, a Philadelphia bar known for its meticulously curated beer and wine lists, a half-dozen winter or holiday beers can be sampled.

The beers range from the Sly Fox Christmas Ale, brewed in nearby Royersford, Pa., to the potent Scaldis Prestige from Belgium, which might be the most expensive beer in the world. (It costs about $350 a case; a 5-ounce pour at Tria will set a person back $11.)

On a recent nippy December evening, Don Russell — better known as "Joe Sixpack" — hosted a Tria happy hour dedicated to Christmas beer. Russell is a former investigative reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News who now writes a popular weekly beer column.

Russell explains that Christmas beer has a reputation for big, malty, spicy flavors, but it comes in hundreds of variations. He urges doubters to experiment with the Dupont Avec Les Bon Voeux ("an awesome holiday ale") and the De Struise Tsjeeses (a cult beer created by a couple of Belgian jokesters whose playfully sacrilegious label had to be toned down for the U.S. market).

After making the rounds — and flogging his new Christmas Beer book — Russell hops in a cab with Tria co-owner Jon Myerow and sets off for the School of Fermentation. Originally started to instruct Tria's servers in the subtleties of the cafe's various beers and wines, the school is now open to the public.

A sold-out classroom awaits Russell's evening seminar on Christmas beer. Russell explains that Christmas beer predates Christmas. For millennia, he says, farmers around the globe marked the winter solstice by brewing particularly potent beer, heavy with fruit and grain.

His discourse touches on the ancient Egyptians, Saturnalia, the wassail tradition and St. Nicholas. Russell says Christmas beers have been common among small European brewers ever since the Middle Ages, but he credits San Francisco's Anchor Steam for reinventing Christmas beer for the contemporary market.

The class tastes a number of Christmas beers, including Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome Ale, and Samichlaus, from Austria. Russell says it's brewed just one day a year in a huge batch.

"They actually have a Mass to bless the beer," he said. "There's a chapel in the brewery, and they have a priest come in."

Russell has one suggestion for those looking to add a little religious pluralism to their holiday tippling: Try HeBrew Jewbelation from Shmaltz Brewing Co.

A recent industry study shows that beer sales are up and wine sales are down — a finding that makes plenty of sense to Russell. Beer, he says, is recession's champagne.

10 Christmas Beers, From Soup To Nuts

Mad Elf Beer Bottle and glass.

"Think fruitcake, but not the awful one made by your Aunt Bertha," Russell says of Troegs Mad Elf. "This beer tastes like it's been aged in an apple cider cask." Courtesy Don Russell hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Don Russell
Samichlaus bottle and glass.

Advertised as "The Strongest Lager Beer In The World," Samichlaus has 14 percent alcohol — that's three times as strong as the average beer. Make sure you have a designated sleigh driver. Courtesy Don Russell hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Don Russell

Smuttynose Winter Ale (New Hampshire), a sweet dark beer with notes of cherry and chocolate. Pair with snapper soup.

Stille Nacht (Belgium), a sweet, very strong pale ale. Pair with a washed-rind cheese such as Limburger.

Troegs Mad Elf (Pennsylvania), a strong dark ale brewed with cherries and honey. Pair with bacon quiche.

Mahr's Christmas Bock (Germany), a classic, malty Bavarian bock. Pair with a sausage plate.

Anchor Our Special Ale (California), a spiced winter warmer with a spruce aroma. Pair with cranberry salad.

Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome (England), a classic unspiced winter warmer with mellow roasted malt. Pair with roasted turkey.

Anderson Valley Winter Solstice (California), a spiced winter warmer with warming vanilla notes. Pair with pumpkin pie.

Baladin Noel (Italy), a Belgian-style strong dark ale with a vibrant, spicy yeast character. Pair with those red-and-green-wrapped Hershey kisses.

Samichlaus (Austria), a smooth, brandylike triple bock. Pair with a cigar next to the fireplace.

Gouden Carolus Noel (Belgium), a strong dark ale spiced with herbs. Pair with salted pecans.

Books Featured In This Story

Christmas Beer

The Cheeriest, Tastiest and Most Unusual Holiday Brews

by Don Russell and Everett W. Faircloth

Hardcover, 208 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Christmas Beer
Subtitle
The Cheeriest, Tastiest and Most Unusual Holiday Brews
Author
Don Russell and Everett W. Faircloth

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Joe Sixpack's Philly Beer Guide

A Reporter's Notes on the Best Beer-drinking City in America

by Don Russell

Paperback, 223 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Joe Sixpack's Philly Beer Guide
Subtitle
A Reporter's Notes on the Best Beer-drinking City in America
Author
Don Russell

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

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