Bier de Noel

Written by Roger Phelps, Eight-Foot Brewing

Christmas and Holiday beer is a tradition in many parts of the United States, including Southwest Florida. You are probably even seeing some of these popping up around the stores in your neighborhood.

Of course, there are always those Goose Island Bourbon County stout releases on Black Friday. Or the variants of Breakfast Stout releases from Founders that we see coming out around this time of year.

These are phenomenal beers and are typically aged in Bourbon (Goose Island) or Maple Syrup barrels (Canadian Breakfast Stout) with other additions, such as coffee. They’re great for the season and enjoying in front of a warm fire on a cold night, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them Christmas or Holiday beers.

Typically, Holiday or Christmas beers that pop up contain some general consensus of ingredients and/or flavor profiles.

They are typically dark, and often contain dried fruit esters (ie fig, date, raisin, black currant, apples.) They are also often spiced with what some may consider holiday spices (ie clove, pine, spruce, licorice, nutmeg, vanilla.) Lastly, they are almost always high abv and/or medium to full-bodied. These beers attempt to take the essence of the holiday and compact it into a beer.

Long before the craft-brewing renaissance that has been sweeping the United States, these Holiday or Christmas beers were a tradition throughout most of Europe. Many different countries produce their own versions. Germany produces weihnachtsbier, which translates to Christmas Beer.

In German style, this beer is a lager, albeit a higher alcohol lager. It has copious amounts of roasted malts to give it a dark color, and a roast flavor profile with dried fruit esters and cloying alcohol warmth that finishes crisp, much like most German lagers.

One of the most popular and highest rated weihnachtsbiers is Monchsof Weihnachtsbier from Kulmbacher Brauerei in Germany. Usually only found on draft between October and December, if you can find it, it is highly recommended!

We would be amiss without touching on the Belgian Christmas brewing tradition. They have the rich history and brewing tradition of their German neighbors but without the Teutonic commitment to rigid brewing laws. The brewers of Belgium have become experts in the use of refined sugars to create rich colors and caramel flavors.

Unlike many American or even French Christmas beers, the Belgians don’t include spices. The complex esters produced by their unique yeast strains can impart anything from spice and clove to dried fruit.

A popular Belgian Christmas style beer is St. Bernardus Christmas Ale. This is a Quadruple style Belgian beer that has an intense aroma of cookies and caramel with hints of dried fruit including plum, baked apples, and brown sugar. It is complex, spicy, and finishes with a slight bitterness.

A close neighbor, France has been producing Biere de Noel for as far back as brewery records have been kept. This is typically just a darker version of their Biere de Garde,  which started being brewed during the holiday season as a marketing ploy to sell more beer during the winter months.

Examples of Biere de Noel range in color, alcohol, and flavors. However, typically this is a darker, higher abv beer with a complex malt backbone, often accentuated by fruity and spicy esters from the yeast that is used. Unfortunately, there are few versions of this beer currently available on the market.

In Britain, there is a long history of brewing strong ales to help its citizens cope with the cold, dreary winters. Barleywineis typically aged for up to several years. As it ages, the intense, noble hop aromas and bitterness tends to fade into a complex malt-drive dried fruit, nutty, and toffee backbone. Double-digit abv gives the drinker nice warmth for the cold dreary weather.

Fuller’s Golden Pride is a good example of this style of beer. Similarly, Winter Warmers tend to be malt forward with a huge body and range from red in color to pitch black. Many English versions don’t contain spices, although those that do follow the “wassail” tradition of blending robust ales with cinnamon, ginger, and/or nutmeg. Great Lakes Brewing from Ohio does a version of this beer called Christmas Ale which contains notes of honey, cinnamon, and ginger. It is a 6-time World Beer Championship medal winner and highly recommended if you can find it!

There are many styles and a wealth of traditions and history when it comes to Christmas or Holiday beer. It is fun seeking out and finding some of these beers from breweries in countries where the tradition or style originated. Similarly, because of the huge craft-brewing boom in the US, it is almost always possible to find a local or regional beer that is based on one of these styles or traditions. These beers are almost always seasonal, so seek them out and get a couple while you can. Enjoy them with family and holiday meals, and put some in the cellar to age and try again next year.