In general, I tend to cringe at holiday-themed gifts because they feel a bit too “on-the-nose.” But holiday beers are one glad exception. Think about it. Beer is less expensive than clothing or tech gifts, easy to wrap, and even easier to customize if you know just a little bit about a person’s beer preferences. So, for many occasions, I think that giving liquid gifts is the way to go.
Here in the DMV, we’re lucky to have a lot of breweries putting out holiday projects that make great stocking stuffers and excellent conversation pieces for your next holiday party. Most of the beers featured here have already hit grocery and liquor store shelves for the winter, but many brewers are also releasing small-batch projects that are only available in big bottles, on tap, or at the brewery.
The best buying advice I can give is this: if one of the beers featured here strikes your interest, be sure to do a little research online and at your neighborhood beer retailer to see where you can pick some up before the shelves are bare.
Winter Brews A Mixed Breed
What makes a “holiday beer”? What are the rules for this increasingly common style? There seem to be two answers to this question, based on popular consensus.
- A “holiday ale” or “winter warmer” is a specific type of beer generally brewed with less hops and more malt than other seasonal ales, and with the addition of spices or other ingredients that invoke traditional holiday flavors, such as cinnamon, cloves, allspice or dried orange peel.
- A holiday beer is any beer (generally dark, though not always) that puts you in the holiday spirit. The only rule is that it must be “special”– higher ABV, special aging, unique flavors, you name it – a little something extra that sets the beer apart from all the rest.
Recently, brewers have been gravitating toward the second definition, and rightly so. Because when your sole directives are “brew it dark, and make it special,” you’ve got a lot of creative freedom to work your own personal magic. As consumers, all we have to do is sit back and decide which interpretation of the holiday flavor palate we like best. And I’m all for that.
Local Brewers Weigh In
There’s an added benefit to the categorical flexibility of winter seasonals, according to Mary Ann Burns from Old Ox Brewery in Ashburn, Va., who told me, “We want our beers to shine for the entire winter season, and not just during the holidays. After all, beer should be enjoyed equally whether you’re making merry with friends during the holidays or enjoying a quiet snow day in February.”
Thinking back on how I spent my last snow day, I’m inclined to agree.
Of course, wherever there’s consensus, you’ll always find a few malcontents, and I love malcontents because they keep life interesting.
When I caught up with Chris Van Orden from Port City Brewing, he explained, “Our winter seasonal, Tidings, bucks the conventional ‘dark-beer-in-winter’ wisdom and instead locks in some of those warm summer flavors to enjoy in the bitter cold, making it a particular joy to drink on its own in the dead of winter.”
Touché, Port City. Well played.
A Crash Course in Holiday Beer Pairings
These days, beer pairings are getting more popular, and your mom’s wine pairing mnemonic (dark with dark meat, white with white meat) just won’t cut it.
Thankfully, our local brewers have been particularly forthcoming when it comes to recommending how to best enjoy their winter projects.
According to brewer Bill Madden at Mad Fox Brewing Company, “Rich, dark beers like our Festivus Ale are best enjoyed after dinner like an aperitif.” And that makes sense. If you’ve got a dark beer with a particularly high ABV, save that bad boy for after you’ve cleared your plate and before dessert comes out. The decision to unbutton your pants is entirely up to you.
Others have been a bit more experimental when it comes to pairing advice.
Take Atlas Brew Works, for example. They claim that “pairings for La Saison des Fêtes [their holiday project] include spicy sausage and reindeer steaks.” Personally, I’ve never tasted reindeer, but I would bet you any amount of money that your spouse will frown upon you putting bear traps on the roof because your beer label “got you thinking.”
In the end, we must all accept that some pairings are just not worth it.