The Christmas season is almost upon us and there are a bevy of Christmas and winter ales available. I thought I might sample a few and share my thoughts on them. Since there are 12 days of Christmas, it seemed to me that 12 would be a good number, though there are quite a few more. Beeradvocate counts 425. Up until this year, the main beer I looked forward to each Christmas season was Troeg’s Mad Elf. It is a cherry flavored old ale with an 11% alcohol wallop, but very smooth tasting so you would never notice the booziness until it creeps up and leaves you three sheets to the wind. This experiment had a few surprises. I would say Mad Elf remains my favorite, but I now have a few others I will be looking forward to every year as well. Anderson Valley Winter Solstice was a very happy surprise. I’d seen it in the store before, but never bought it. I’m very glad I did this year. Another beer I didn’t put on the list in part because it’s not exactly a Christmas beer, though I think it is only sold at this time of year, and in part because it would have made the experiment go to 13 beers instead of 12, was the Trader Joe’s 2012 Vintage Ale. It is a Belgian style strong ale brewed by Unibroue in Canada. They are the makers of La Fin Du Monde and Maudite, both excellent Belgian style beers. One thing that stood out in my experiment was that there is no one style or flavor that is “Christmas” or “Winter” beer. I came into this tasting thinking that winter seasonal beers are usually heavy, dark and laden with spices. I came out realizing that each brewery seems to have its own interpretation of a winter beer. None were really heavy. A few were pretty dark, though still light in body. Not all were spiced, at least not necessarily with the spices I might have expected like nutmeg and ginger. Here is the list: 1. Troeg’s Mad Elf 2. Anderson Valley Winter Solstice Ale 3. Goose Island Christmas Ale 4. 2Xmas (Southern Tier) 5. Schlafly Christmas Ale 6. Weyerbacher Winter Ale 7. Long Trail Hibernator 8. Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale 9. Full Sail Wassail 10. Anchor Christmas Ale 11. Bison Gingerbread Ale 12. Breckenridge Christmas Ale Troeg’s did not disappoint with the Mad Elf this year. As a always it is very smooth with just a hint of cherry. It is not a sweet, fruity beer. It definitely has some weight to it, but it’s not syrupy. It is a little pricey. The cheapest six pack I found was $13.99 at World Market. I have seen it as high as $19.99. The Anderson Valley Winter Solstice is not as big on alcohol, though still not a session beer at 6.9% alcohol, but you don’t notice it. It has a malty aroma and noticeable caramel flavor with a little bit of vanilla. It is very smooth. I did not detect a lot of spice flavoring. I give it an A+ and will add it to my winter shopping list next year as well. Goose Island Christmas Ale is also a very nice beer. This one is also very malty with strong caramel notes. It has a fairly light body, though it is dark. It is very smooth. The relatively high alcohol content is well hidden. It clocks in at 7.3& alcohol. 2Xmas was also a pleasant surprise. I really had not tried much from Southern Tier before this Fall, but have had a number of their beers and so far liked every one. Similarly to Goose Island and Winter Solstice, 2Xmas is also strong on the malt and caramel notes. I would not say it tastes the same as either, but is also very smooth and also hides its even higher alcohol content nicely. It clocks in at 8%. Schlafly went a little more for the spices I would have expected. It is also malty, but with noticeable orange peel and clove flavor. Also a very nice beer. It really is difficult to rank these first few beers against each other because they were all so good. Schlafly is also big on alcohol at 8%. There are some on this list that are not, if that’s not for you. Weyerbacher Winter Ale is the first to come in almost a sessionable alcohol level – 5.6%. It is a brown ale with slight chocolate overtones, but it is not strong on distinguishable flavors. That doesn’t mean it’s not good. It is very drinkable. Long Trail also comes in at a relatively low 6% alcohol. It is a Scotch Ale, which usually does come with a bigger alcohol kick. It also does not have strong spicey or seasonal flavors. It does have a malty flavor with a little caramel and molasses thrown in. Sierra Nevada Celebration is an excellent beer. It seems unfair that I’ve ranked it 8th. It is not what I would think of as a Winter or Christmas beer, though it comes with a red label and is called “Celebration.” It is a fresh hop IPA. The reason it falls into this season is that the hops are harvested in August or September, then the beer is brewed and ready in time for the Thanksgiving to Christmas season. As many of you may know, there has become quite the surge in breweries making fresh hop IPAs. The thing is, I think this one has been around a long time. Probably before the craze of super hopped or “how fresh can we make the fresh hop” IPAs. It does have the West Coast IPA characteristic of being very bitter and if you were not an IPA person you would probably not like it. However, I happen to like that and enjoyed this a lot. Full Sail makes an entry they call “Wassail.” I didn’t know until after trying it that Wassail is a traditional winter drink. I think it is usually made with fruit and brandy. This is nothing like that. It is a straight up English Ale. There were no detectable seasonal spices. I have seen it get great reviews, but I thought it was unremarkable. Anchor Christmas Ale was unremarkable. It is a malty, dark beer. Not necessarily strong on spices. It is relatively low alcohol at 5.5%. I was a little disappointed with Bison Gingerbread Ale. Bison makes all organic beer. I expected the gingerbread flavor to stand out a bit more, but it didn’t. It wasn’t a bad beer, but maybe I had too high expectations. Breckenridge Christmas Ale was not a bad beer, just because it’s last on my list. None of the ones I rated would I consider bad. I would probably give the last three a B. It is a malty ale, one of the heavier of the ones I tried. It has caramel and raisin tones to it, but generally no detectable spice profile. It is also relatively high in alcohol content at 7.2%.