Top 5 Holiday Beers

Greet the season with five robust ales and lagers that stand up to both sweet and savory dishes

For as long as humans have brewed beer, they have also crafted special ales and lagers for holiday feasts and celebrations, a flavorful tradition that continues to this day. While there exists no precise definition of what constitutes a Christmas beer-some are spiced, others highly hopped, and still others crafted in conventional styles like bock and India pale ale-they are generally a bit stronger than conventional beers, and share among them a spirit of celebration and indulgence, much like the holidays themselves.

Avec les Bon Voeux (Brasserie Dupont , Belgium )

(About $10.50 for a 750-milliliter bottle)

The name translates to "with best wishes," a salutation from Belgium 's peerless brewer of the ale style known as saison (or season). These were historically well-hopped, potent ales brewed in farmhouses and designed to quench the thirst of laborers through the nonbrewing summer season. This particular one, brewed by the recognized standard-bearer for the saison style, is a hypercharged interpretation, with admirable strength (9.5 percent alcohol), a rich orange color, honeyed peach fruitiness, and a hoppiness that is far more spicy than bitter.

Entrée Pairing:

Mustard and Garlic Roast Goose
The hoppiness of the ale tames the fattiness of the bird, while the beer's fruity, spicy character adds dimensions of flavor.

Dessert Pairing:

Chocolate, Cranberry and Ginger Trifle
Spice (ginger) meets spice (hops) in this pairing, and the sweetness of the ale's malt accents the orangey chocolate pudding.

Samuel Smith Winter Welcome (Samuel Smith Brewery, England )

(About $4 per bottle or $11 for a four-pack of 12-ounce bottles)

This classic British Christmas ale is balance personified, with a relatively restrained alcohol content of 6 percent, an aroma rich in floral malt, and a body that delivers plenty of orangey, toffee-ish malt-held in check by an almost minerally, dry hoppiness. The Smith brewery was a champion of the Christmas ale when it had almost disappeared from the British market, but it's back with a vengeance, and vintage-dates this brew with a new label design each year.

Entrée Pairing:

Roast Beef with Glazed Onions and Gravy
The toffee-ish maltiness in this beer, tempered by that minerally edge, means it will harmonize well with the sweet, caramelized flavor of a good roast.

Dessert Pairing:

Caribbean Christmas Pudding with Brandy Butter
Overly sweet desserts will make the malt in this ale taste harsh and sour, so a spice-driven pudding like this is a better match.

Rogue Santa's Private Reserve (Rogue Ales, Oregon )

(About $5 for a 22-ounce bottle or $10.49 for a six-pack)

Nothing subtle here. One sniff reveals acres of citrusy, almost piney hops over a caramelly maltiness. The body has notes of grapefruit and faint resin layered over sweet, soft malt. This is the kind of hop-assertive ale the Rogue brewery is best known for, and a fine pick for the bitter-ale aficionado in your life.

Entrée Pairing:

The Great After-Thanksgiving Turkey Enchiladas
The hotter you make this dish, the better it goes with the beer, as the hops tame the heat and the spice removes some of the beer's citrusy bite.

Snack Pairing:

Spiced Mixed Nuts
The perfect snack with a beer this hoppy should have salt and spice, since it takes a lot of flavor to measure up to the flavorful force of the ale. These nuts are ideal.

He'brew Jewbelation (Schmaltz Brewing, New York )

(About $5.50 for a 22-ounce bottle)

It may be tempting to write off this Hanukkah beer as a gimmick, but to do so would be a mistake, as this is one serious brew. Twelve malts, including rye and spelt, and 12 varieties of hop combine to make a potent (12 percent) and remarkably complex jigsaw puzzle of a brew with a forceful personality and long, lingering finish.

Dessert Pairing:

Balsamic Truffles
You need a rich beer to stand up to the chocolate truffles and aged Balsamic vinegar.

Dessert Pairing:

Flourless Chocolate Cake with Coffee Liqueur
The intense chocolate-coffee flavor in this cake brings out the spice, malt, and hop of the ale.

Mahr's Christmas Bock (Mahr's Bräu , Germany )

(About $6 for a 500-milliliter bottle)

The Germans aren't as enthusiastic about Christmas beers as are their European neighbors, particularly those in Belgium, but this strong lager-darker and hoppier than the brewery's regular bock-makes you wish they were. Rich, herbal, and almost nectarlike maltiness dominates, while gentle bitter hops keep it all from becoming cloying. They've had time to perfect the recipe; the company's been brewing since 1670.

Entrée Pairing:

Pork Tenderloin with Roasted Apples and Onions
The soft maltiness of this beer will play beautifully off the sweetness of the pork, while its herbal component accents the apples and onions.

Dessert Pairing:

Spiced Streusel Apple Pie
This pie, made with tart apples and sour cream, will complement the beer's maltiness; low sugar keeps it from dominating the bock.

Stephen Beaumont is a veteran drinks writer and author of five books on beer.


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