If your relatives think of beer as the undemanding beverage of summer, here's a way to shake up their assumptions: Arrive at the family holiday get-together cradling a jeroboam of Samichlaus. The elegant three-liter bottle suggests champagne, but the potent garnet-colored beer inside is a perfect introduction to the complex, warming beers of winter.
Brewers have traditionally adjusted their recipes to suit the season, with lighter drinks for the hot months and heftier brews to fight the chill. But the last century saw the clear ascendance of a single beer style, American-style light lager, first in the United States, and then internationally. This mega-style swept aside beer variety, to such a point that many confirmed beer drinkers today have never, for example, heard of winter beers, much less tried them.
Samichlaus is the classic Christmas beer. Created in Switzerland 30 years ago, it reveled in the title "strongest beer in the world," at an alcohol content of 14 percent. (There are stronger beers available, but they come from the ale-brewing tradition, not the lager tradition. And, to lager brewers, ales aren't really beer at all.) Named for Santa Claus, it was brewed once a year, on Dec. 6, St. Nicolas Day, and then conditioned for 10 months until its release, in vintage-dated bottles, for the following holiday season.
To the dismay of beer lovers who looked forward to this annual treat, brewery consolidation killed off Samichlaus for a few years, until an enterprising Austrian company came to the rescue. Now this rich, warming brew is back on the shelves—in modest 11-ounce bottles, as well as the lamp-base-sized jeroboam.
And Santa's beer has company. The Belgians, with the most eccentric beer culture on earth, have multiple beer choices for any season. This time of year, look for Stille Nacht from De Dolle Browers ("the Crazy Brewers"), a strong pale ale. Or try Delirium Noel, a superb dark beer whose label features cautionary pink elephants frolicking in Santa caps.
Beyond special Christmas releases, the sustaining strong beers from the Belgian monastic tradition are perfectly at home with hearty winter fare. Look for beers labeled "dubbel," "tripel" or "abbey-style," and expect a range of lush flavors that suggest anything from stone fruit to marmalade to roasted nuts. Think "liquid fruitcake"—but in a good way. Many of these beers are packaged in 750-ml, cork-finished bottles that sit comfortably alongside wine—or can replace it—on the holiday table.
Belgian producers have realized that beautiful presentation can elevate beer from a delicious beverage to a starring role under the Christmas tree. Several breweries, Corsendonk and Petrus among them, offer their beer boxed or in a festive tin, together with a glass appropriate to the style. Most American breweries with superb winter beer to their names still haven't appreciated that a six-pack with a bow just doesn't cut it.
There are exceptions, such as Our Special Ale from the Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco. Anchor can claim a number of firsts in the modern American microbrewery movement, including the creation of this, the first seasonal craft beer. Anchor owner Fritz Maytag, craft brewing's great antiquarian, wanted to revive the centuries-old English tradition of celebratory beers for special occasions such as Yuletide. Our Special Ale is based on an English brown ale, but it is laced with a different secret spice each year. Despite its modest strength for a winter warmer—under 6 percent—it ages well. Tie a ribbon around this handsome, foil-topped magnum, and tell the lucky recipients they can enjoy the beer this year or save it for next.
Samuel Adams, the country's largest and most prolific craft brewery, has released its Chocolate Bock again this year, in a splendid bottle with a silver-embossed label. Inside is an opulent, near-black beer that not only evokes chocolate as many dark beers do, it's actually brewed with bitter Scharffen Berger chocolate. Rich, roasty flavors balance the cocoa notes, for a beer that never gets too sweet. Skip the plum pudding, and make this dessert.
Another welcome return that showcases excellent beer in a package worth presenting comes from North Carolina's own Highland Brewing Co. Cold Mountain is a winter ale with spices that vary every year, in a liter bottle with a heavy swing top. If this year's recipe resembles last year's, this deep brown ale will bring to mind gingerbread, cinnamon and roasted nuts.
As the holidays roll in, winter beers offer complexity and nuance to match every food and occasion, yet most of them are lower in alcohol than other beverages and more affordable. Dressed up, they make unusual and welcome gifts. Presented at the table, they support and complement festive dishes. And, in contrast to their summer counterparts, winter seasonals are big and comforting, perfect for this companionable time of year.
Editor's note: This week begins our new monthly beer column by Julie Johnson, the editor of All About Beer Magazine, which is based in Durham. "Beer Hopping" appears the first Wednesday of each month. Reach Johnson at email@example.com.