December 18, 2020

David Nilsen

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The Essential Midwestern Holiday Beers

A six-pack of cheer

Midwestern winters are special. The crops that define the landscape for half the year have been harvested, and the empty fields shimmer under blankets of frost and snow. The holidays make this harsh but beautiful time of year feel warmer. Seasonal brews help, too. These tried-and-true releases define the season for many Midwesterners.

Courtesy of Great Lakes Brewing Company

Great Lakes Christmas Ale, Cleveland

As an Ohioan, I would be remiss if I did not begin the list with this classic. Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing Company first released Christmas Ale in 1992, and since then, it’s become their best-selling beer and a Buckeye State tradition. The ale gets its holiday flavor from a whole lot of ginger, cinnamon, and honey: 6,000-plus pounds of each spice and 200,000 pounds of the sweet stuff in each year’s 25,000-barrel run. In the old days, it was hard to find, and beer geeks would travel great distances following rumors that a few six-packs were available. You can now buy it in supermarkets all over the country, but it’s no less special. As co-founder Pat Conway told me last Christmas, “When I take a sip, it’s like I’m wearing a sweater.”

Courtesy of Three Floyds Brewing

Three Floyds Alpha Klaus, Munster, Indiana

Floyd brothers Nick and Simon and their dad, Mike, have marched to the beat of a different drummer since founding Three Floyds Brewing in 1996. To be clear, that’s a heavy metal drummer. This brewery, which has the slogan “It’s not normal,” often teases the Midwest’s wholesome sensibilities with horror-inspired label art. It’s hard to describe what’s on the label for their Christmas porter, Alpha Klaus. A goblin? Krampus? A demon Santa? What’s in the bottle is more straightforward, though still unique—a hoppy American porter that balances chocolatey, cookie-like malt flavors with big, bold American hop bitterness and aroma. Who ever wanted to be normal?

Courtesy of Revolution Brewing

Revolution Fistmas, Chicago

In any other year, Illinois’s largest craft brewery would celebrate the release of their Fistmas Christmas ale with a mall bar crawl. Yes, you read that right. Attendees don elf hats, head to Chicago’s Woodfield Mall, and meander between the shopping center’s bars and restaurants while sipping this 6.5% ABV red ale spiced with ginger and orange peel. The tradition is a tribute to the off-center spirit of Revolution Brewing and to a Millennial and Gen X nostalgia for the holidays of our childhoods.

Courtesy of Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales

Jolly Pumpkin Noel, Dexter, Michigan

Michigan’s Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales pioneered oak-aged sour beers here in the U.S. This seasonal beer is a sharp deviation from the holiday-spiced standard. Noel, formerly known as Noel de Calabaza, is a Belgian dark strong ale that weighs in at a hefty 9% ABV. A six-month rest in barrels gives the beer complex layers of malt and oak character, with some acidity, a subtle funk, and notes of dark fruit and chocolate.

Courtesy of Bell’s Brewery

Bell’s Christmas Ale, Comstock, Michigan

Michigan is cold in December, and a strong, comforting beer is a necessary companion to ice-fishing, wrestling wolverines, or whatever Michiganders do for fun when they’re home for the holidays. The state’s iconic Bell’s Brewery used to make a moderate 5.5% ABV holiday ale, but they updated the beer in 2017 to reflect consumer demand for a bracing, warming Christmas tipple. The beer jumped to 7.5% and is now based on the hearty Scotch ale style. Bell’s layers subtle spices over a malty, warming foundation for a beer worthy of a frigid winter night in Michigan.

Courtesy of Summit Brewing

Summit Winter Ale, St. Paul, Minnesota

The oldest beer on our list first went into bottles in 1987. Minnesota’s Summit Brewing is an institution in the Upper Midwest, and their 6.2% ABV seasonal is modeled after the British winter warmer style of old. Malt flavors of espresso, caramel, and black cherry meld with spicy, herbal notes from English and German hop varieties for a flavor profile both comforting and a little bit intriguing. The beer was almost discontinued in 2018, but fan support ensured its future. Summit promises their holiday brew will “warm your cockles, whatever those are.”

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