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Stay merry with Christmas Ales

THANKSGIVING WAS a day when crisp, autumnal beers expertly complemented plates filled with heavy food, the brews alternating between the bitter bite of fresh hops and a chewiness from sweet caramel malts.

But Thanksgiving is past, and now it’s time to clear our palates and make way for the beers of Christmas.

The idea of a “Christmas Ale” has taken hold in recent years with breweries slowly establishing an actual style to match the smart branding concept. Often these holiday-release beers will be branded with terms like “Winter Warmer” and “Spiced Beer” for technical classification as opposed to using the Christmas moniker.

These beers are lightly hopped and rely on a medium malt blend accented with holiday spice aromas and flavors to create a beer that is dark in color, often higher in alcohol and brimming with the tasting notes that would normally be attributed to a slice of your grandmother’s pecan pie. Allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon are regular finds in these beers, and the complementing base brew’s flavor can range from a sweet, sticky molasses to licorice and fig.

Perhaps the best known Christmas beer is Anchor’s Merry Christmas & Happy New Year, which has been brewed since 1975. Anchor consistently tweaks the recipe as well as the beer’s label with every annual batch, but you can count on heavy spicing and a clean finish.

This year’s version marks the 40th anniversary of the special beer and it is as comforting as ever, with a manageable 5.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) and hints of nutmeg and pine on top of a ginger and simple sugar foundation.

I do enjoy many of the domestic holiday offerings like the roasted malts of Bell’s Christmas Ale and cinnamon of Atlanta brewery Sweetwater’s Festive Ale. But for me, the season is best enjoyed with the delicious ales created and refined during Belgium’s long and storied history of brewing fantastic beer.

The Belgian classifications of Dubbel, Tripel and Quadrupel typically make for fine holiday food pairings as well as late night fireside sippers. As you move up the ladder from two to three to four, the alcohol level typically increases (although not necessarily by even measure) but apart from that, the names do not actually help much in determining style.

Belgian Dubbels are middle-strength beers, ruddy brown in color and smelling of caramelized sugar. The mouthfeel is lighter than you might expect from the deep color and their flavors can be very complex evoking pepper, a range of fruitiness or hard-candy qualities on top of a raisin-like profile.

Tripels are golden in color and, like Dubbels, easily quaffable. The Belgian yeast strain is the star of the show and the higher than average ABV often hovers in the area of ten percent. That yeast imparts flavors like dry spiciness, banana and clove.

Quadrupels are often interchangeably called Belgian Strong Dark Ales. If you like Dubbels, you may find yourself loving Quads even more thanks to their amplification of the traditional Dubbel characteristics. Dark fruits and sometimes biting alcohol astringency meet zesty spicing with a boozy finish. These are meant to be shared and sipped rather than gulped.

Delirium Noël is a perfect beer to drink over the festive winter holiday. It’s packaged in a white ceramic bottle and adorned with Delirium’s trademark pink elephant, in this instance wearing Santa Claus’ signature cap. The presentation makes it a perfect gift or tag-along to holiday parties. A Belgian Strong Ale, this 10% ABV drink brings together the best in the Quadrupel style guide for a richly spiced dark fruit blend.

If you want something more decadent, St. Bernardus Christmas is an excellent choice. Equal in strength to Noël, Christmas adds chocolate to the fray creating a Belgian Strong Dark Ale that is sweet and drinks like a cake full of cinnamon, plums and cherries with toffee crumbles thrown in for good measure.

It’s rated as one of the best beers in the world with a score of 99 out of 10 . The complexity and craftsmanship may ruin you on all other spiced beers but the richness definitely demands this be a beer reserved for the most special of occasions.

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, the season of colder air and making time to gather with friends seems to beg for a precious ale to signify the importance of the occasion.

If you choose to avail yourself of the multitude of new “Christmas” beers on the domestic shelves or go back to the old world charm and tradition of Belgium’s cast of strong ales, finding a beer that both suits your tastes and evokes the cheerful mood of the season is easier than ever.