Just as the taps rotate and draft menus shift with the seasons here in Boulder, so do the tastes that Boulderites crave in their beer. Here in Boulder, a large indicator of the changing seasons is the shift in what beer we have available to us and what beer we crave. Just as a pint of Oktoberfest on a crisp night marks the beginning of fall, a hearty Christmas Ale hearkens to visions of skiing, cold weather, and kicking the snow off our boots on the door jam before walking into our favorite bar or brewery. Christmas Ales are synonymous with the beginning of winter snow and the holiday season.
While some people’s first foray into Christmas Ales might be accidental, perhaps due to stumbling across a festive, wreath-and-holly-berry-covered label (as was my case as a new Boulderite just over a year ago) the tradition of Christmas Ales is extremely diverse, dating back thousands of years and spanning the globe. From ancient European farmers being required by law to brew a winter beer to celebrate the winter solstice to spiced ales being passed amongst carolers and revelers in England celebrating Christmas to America’s first specific “Christmas Ale” released by Anchor Brewing in San Francisco in 1975, Winter, Holiday, and Christmas Ales have never adhered to strict guidelines or a set of rules in order to be characterized as such. With ingredients that can range from juniper berries to honey to cranberries and more, and profiles ranging from malty to spicy and everything in between, Christmas Ales are a tradition and do not adhere to a hard and fast categorization.
“The terms Christmas Ale, Holiday Ale, and Winter Ale, really are homogenized at this point,” says Mike Lawinski, owner and founder of Fate Brewing Company in Boulder. “The cold winter months bring about the desire to enjoy certain flavor profiles, smells, and spices. Cold weather lends itself to big beer. Styles enjoyed fireside or après ski with the goal of warming the drinker.”
In order to be considered a Christmas Ale, all a beer must be is brewed with the intent and spirit of gift-giving in mind that is synonymous with the holiday season. While Lawinski points out that it is a common practice to brew winter beer with spices similar to those you’d typically cook with during cold weather, such as orange, nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon, this is not a limitation. Many holiday beers do have a high alcohol content and the overall intent to warm the drinker from the inside out, but this stems from the season moreso than a need to categorize. This means that there is often a no holds barred approach to brewing Winter Ales, and the variety of Holiday Ales in Boulder is a testament to this.
“Breweries can make Christmas Ales spicy, chocolate-y, hoppy, and strong,” says Derek Ridge, Beer Department Manager at Hazel’s Beverage World in Boulder. Ridge notes that Christmas Ales can have cocoa in them or be a porter style of beer amongst many others, and that Christmas Ales are really self descriptive on the part of the brewer. The main focus of a holiday beer is to create an ale that both you and the recipient of the beer will enjoy drinking and celebrating the season with together.
While some of the most well known holiday ales in Colorado include the Breckenridge Brewery Christmas Ale and the Great Divide Hibernation Ale, imaginative Christmas Ales run rampant in Boulder as well both in terms of the beer ingredients and in the names of the ales themselves.
- There is Avery Brewing’s Old Jubilation Ale, which was tapped at a release party on October 12thand is being canned for the first time this year. This ale has hints of hazelnuts, mocha, and toffee, does not include spices, is mahogany in color, and ages very well.
- There is likewise the Upslope Brewing Christmas Ale, a concoction including holiday spices and dark, fruity tones that is ruby red in color.
- Boulder Beer offers the hoppy and hearty Slopestyle Winter IPA as well as the dark red, candied fruit-flavored Killer Penguin Barleywine, a limited release that is only available in November and December.
- Sanitas Brewing offers the Stocking Ale, a chestnut-colored ale aged with figs, the Winter Saison, a vanilla and nutmeg noted ale, and the Cinnilla Stout, with spice notes described as reminiscent of a snickerdoodle cookie.
- Up in Longmont, Left Hand Brewing’s Fade to Black beers coincide with the fading of the daylight in the winter and feature notes such as molasses and licorice.
- J Wells Brewing is gearing up for the November release of their Lights Out Stout, which is aged in bourbon barrels from Mile High Spirits in Denver.
- Finally, Fate Brewing Company has recently moved to the fermentation stage of brewing their Yule Log ale, a lightly spiced old ale with fruit.
Whether you’re a merry and festive Boulderite looking to warm up after a day on the slopes, an at-home chef looking for the perfect complement to your hearty crock pot meal, or someone looking to enjoy a robust and warming beer in front of a fire or bundled up on the couch, smile in knowing that the Holiday Ale you’re drinking was brewed with the intent of giving and revelry. As a holiday gift, whether to a beer-loving Boulderite or an outsider that you can’t wait to experience a Boulder beer, Boulder’s Holiday Ales embody the spirit of the holidays in the best way Boulder knows how, with the pouring of a draft, the clinking of a glass, and a cheers to a holiday celebration.