‘Tis the season for holiday beers, a time when breweries release festive winter warmers or special one-offs made with top secret ingredients, and a time that for me is the most exciting part of the seasonal beer calendar. In the past, I happily vetted many of these special releases for my December recommendation; however, this year I tried only one. Why? Because all I want for Christmas is St. Bernardus Christmas Ale, brewed by the Brouwerij St. Bernardus in Watou, Belgium.
I drank the Christmas Ale for the first time last year, and when I sampled it again this year, it was still as good as I remembered. Unlike a number of other holiday releases, Christmas Ale uses the same recipe year after year—a comforting and reassuring fact, especially when other iconic winter releases are disappointing flops due to recipe reinvention.
Dark fruits, holiday spice and St. Bernardus’ house yeast (in use since the brewery opened in 1946) dominate the aroma, but there are also hints of fig, apricot, banana, green apple, caramel, brown sugar, maraschino cherry, molasses and a hint of licorice. The taste mirrors the smell with the dark fruit and spice. Plum, fig and apricot create the backbone, and it is supported by clove, pepper and Christmas spice. Yeast, caramel and green apple emerge after the beer has warmed, and there are also flavors of banana and brown sugar. The alcohol is very noticeable but not distracting; it fades as the beer warms, but continues to provide a pleasant sensation with each sip, which is much appreciated in the winter.
St. Bernardus Christmas Ale is only available in 750 ml bottles. (The more the merrier!) With a little effort, the cork will come off with a loud POP! To serve, use a tulip or oversized wine glass. Pour slowly because the thick, buttery head will try to rise out of control. The color is dark mahogany and the foam will slowly dissipate to leave a ring around the edge, a thin lacing and trails on the glass.