For nearly 20 years, I have greeted the holiday season with the ultimate winter ale: Anchor Brewing's (www.anchorbrewing.com) Christmas Ale. This traditional release, which revived the American tradition of holiday beer in the post-Prohibition age, was first brewed in 1975, but every year both the recipe and label change. The base recipe and its variants are a secret, but the ale is always dark, spiced and delicious.
This year, I rounded up several holiday beers that are available in Louisiana. In addition to Anchor's, I picked up two from Southern Tier (www.stbcbeer.com), since they are new to the market. Old Man Winter is a nonspiced dark ale and 2XMAS is a spiced beer. I also brought Saint Arnold Brewing Company's (www.saintarnold.com) Christmas Ale and another longtime favorite, Samuel Smith's (www.samuelsmithsbrewery.co.uk) Winter Welcome, to the tasting party.
Though I'm fond of Anchor's Christmas Ale, I generally don't care for spiced beer, so I was surprised that I enjoyed Southern Tier's 2XMAS ale. This 8 percent alcohol beer hid its warming alcohol nicely with fig and caramel malt notes. The clove, cardamom and cinnamon spices were very apparent and came just to the line of what I can handle, but didn't cross it. 2XMAS is much lighter in color and mouthfeel than the Anchor, which may increase its appeal to those who shy away from dark beers.
Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome Ale is another old tradition. This beer is a solidly British style (no spices) with Fuggles and Golding hops to balance the caramel maltiness. Saint Arnold's Christmas Ale, that brewery's tradition since 1995, is an Old Ale style, which this year has a great malt backbone but with a hops presence that ensures it's not too sweet. Both are easy drinking and enjoyable. — NORA MCGUNNIGLE