Beercraft newspaper column #52: The creative use of holiday ales

Indulge in a pint of holiday cheer

By Mark Tichenor and Bruce Lish

The Holiday season has returned with a vengeance. It’s that time where we celebrate all those great yuletide traditions, like joining a thousand-person line in front of the Wal-Mart at 4 am, hearing the same few Christmas carols performed over and over, in every possible musical style, or performing the ritualistic lower back exercise of dragging 2,347 mail-order catalogs out to the recycling bin.

Even though the holidays can cause their share of stress, the season can also bring joy. And the best part of the Holidays is undoubtedly the release of winter ale. Right now, hundreds of breweries nationwide are making their own interpretations of this warming, spicy seasonal beer style.

Big regional breweries like the Boston Beer Company, the Anchor Brewery and Sierra Nevada distribute their holiday ales nationwide, and some of these have become quite famous, and their ubiquity has formed the archetypes of what this beer is “supposed” to taste like: sweet without a lot of hop finish and plenty of nutmeg and clove flavor. But holiday ale has no set style guidelines and many brewmasters use it as a chance to get creative, so we lucky drinkers get to try all kinds of wild variations.

You only need to look as far as Syracuse’s Middle Ages Brewing Company to see what we’re talking about. Middle Ages bucks the all-barley strong-ale convention with Winter Wheat. The result is a bit surprising if you’re expecting the light bite of other wheat beer styles (like Hefeweizen or Belgian witbeer).

The aroma and flavor notes imparted by the wheat make really set this brew apart.

It’s lighter, and perhaps a bit fruitier, than most of its peers, but Winter Wheat packs real body, and offers a combination of traditional holiday ale sweetness with the banana and clove characteristics of a wheat beer.

The Otter Creek Brewing Company of Vermont is offering the imaginatiely named Winter Ale:  a rich, mellow brown ale rounded out with raspberries to create a blend of flavors that compliment each other. The danger with fruit and beer is the fruit flavors can be overwhelming, but Winter Ale avoids that pitfall. The raspberry is more of an essence than a flavor, although it’s quite noticeable.

Otter Creek Winter ale isn’t as strong as most winter seasonals, nor does it posess the typical extreme malt sweetness that goes along with many stronger beers. Its lighter brown ale flavor and fruit-imparted crispness make it very accessible, and a sure hit at Holiday parties, probably even among people who don’t usually enjoy beer.

Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t also mention the holiday ales brewed here in Rochester. The 2007 Custom Brewcrafters Christmas Ale uses spices, but relies on the underlying characteristics of the beer instead of overwhelming the drinker with cloves and nutmeg. It’s sweet and warming, with an aftertaste reminiscent of gingerbread.

Across town, the Rohrbach Brewing Company offers Kacey’s Christmas Ale. It’s dark, rich and substantial, with a hint of cherry. And the High Falls Brewery is brewing Festive Ale, which combines rich caramel and toffee notes with a somewhat lighter body than most winter ales.

In other beers:

Monty’s Krown is going Belgian. Our favorite beer and music hangout is now stocking Duvel in bottles. As far as we know, the only other place where you can sip incredibly awesome Belgian beer while watching punk bands is…well it’s Belgium. Krown Manager Jen Clark says this is going to be an ongoing thing, so pop down and indulge your inner Waloon.

Bruce is a certified beer judge and commercial brewer. Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to



One thought on “Beercraft newspaper column #52: The creative use of holiday ales

  1. I was in the Lac De Ville Tops today and they had a twelve pack of Belgian beer. I had to stop and stare at it for a minute – it seemed so out of place, like a live goat.

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