A version of this post was originally published on our marketing guy’s blog in December 2017.
When the temperature drops, we think of bocks, winter warmers and rich stouts. Snowy imagery on a beer label tends to evoke phantom wafts of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg or clove.
But beer can also be “seasonal” based on fresh ingredients, like hops. Many breweries release fresh hop beers directly following the fall harvest. Some breweries continue this trend into the winter, eschewing the aforementioned classic holiday flavors in order to showcase the year’s whole-cone harvest.
It may seem like strange marketing to plaster Christmas trees and snowflakes on a hop-forward brew, but these beers provide a refreshing alternative to the standard holiday spice lineup. Plus, they do a better job of cutting through some of the rich holiday foods, providing a nice complement to our heavy eating habits.
The best of these hoppy winter beers manage to balance the malt presence we expect from a winter beer with the expressive hop flavors we know and love.
Here are three of my favorites.
Citra Noel – Columbus Brewing Company
If you’re in Ohio, pretty much every special release from CBC is a big deal. If you’re outside of Ohio, you’ve probably heard of Bodhi. We’re lucky to be able to pick up Bodhi practically whenever we want. Its big brother Creeper comes around slightly less frequently.
Once a year (for a very brief window) we get Yakima Fresh, a standout fresh hop ale. Right on the heels of Yakima fresh comes Citra Noel.
Citra Noel is a beautiful ruby-amber that glows like a Christmas tree light. The flavor eschews toasted, roasty malt flavors in favor of a sweet, ripe backbone that perfectly supports the vibrant aromatic hops. Citra Noel is full yet refreshing with a nice pine finish. It’s like chopping down a real Christmas tree on a brisk day.
Plus, it comes with a cute little hop-cone air freshener.
Alpha Klaus – 3 Floyds
Alpha Klaus is labeled as a “Christmas Porter.”
It has a low stated IBU, and instead possesses huge concord and wild grape hop juiciness. The malts bring roasted bitter chocolate, putting it on a style collision course like a game of beer chicken. It’s a bit of sensory dissonance to encounter such vibrant hop aromatics from a beer as dark as this that presents itself as a porter.
When you start thinking too much about the distinction between a hoppy porter and black ipa, you should probably just chill and enjoy the beer. Each year I get worried that my fond memories of Alpha Klaus are skewed by nostalgia, and each year it reminds me how legitimately awesome it is.
Kudos to 3F for releasing Alpha Klaus in six packs of 12 oz. bottles in 2018
Celebration – Sierra Nevada
Is this a boring pick? Who cares, it’s great. A benchmark fresh hop IPA and American IPA in general.
Celebration, like Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale, is a bottled “moment in time” that has endured for decades. When it came out in the ’80s, it represented a beer genre that didn’t even quite exist yet. Who would have thought that a holiday beer could define and inform American IPAs for years to come? Decades later, it still feels fresh.
Plus, and perhaps most importantly, it is eminently available and affordable.
It’s too easy to get to caught up in beer hype these days. When you head to your next holiday party this year, cut through the BS and bring a six pack of Celebration.
This short list is not meant to represent an unimpeachable “three best” or the only three hop-forward holiday beers. It is a quick little highlight of brews that embody the concept, with the inevitable dash of homerism.
When talking about seasonal beers it’s important to remember to temper expectations. This is especially true since the average craft beer enthusiast’s knowledge grows a large amount in a year, if they are being a deliberate consumer. The beer you remember so fondly may be amplified by nostalgia. Will it disappoint when it comes around again? Heck, you owe it to yourself to critically examine your favorite holiday beer. Am I thinking of a specific one? Maybe.
I’m happy to say that all of the beers I mentioned have passed that ultimate test for me once again this year. Now, time to crack open another Citra Noel.