Christmas ales are obviously seasonal, they are strong, often dark, sweet and spicy. I don’t know exactly how many seasonal Christmas/Winter beers are produced in Belgium each year but it must be more than 200; that’s how many were on offer at the Christmas beer fair in Essen (Antwerp province).
Most of these beers are only available locally; if you have to rely on the beer shop you’ll probably find not more than a dozen of the most popular.
I’ve chosen St Bernardus Christmas; St. Bernardus 12 is one of my favourite strong beers, is world class and has the same strength as the Christmas ale (alc 10% vol.) So the question is: Why bother to brew this seasonal version and how does it shape up to the 12?
The Christmas ale pours a very dark brown/red with a large foamy head, which drops back to a manageable thin foam. The aroma is predminantly of fresh dark crusty bread but persevere and you’ll find a little fruit coming through after the malt.
I was expecting the beer to be sweet up front but this wasn’t the case; a touch of fruity sourness, lots of dryishmalt and a rum alcohol and cough drop background came out first. The beer slowly develops its sweeter side, bringing out toffee/caramel, and rich plum tastes. The light bitterness kept everything in check.
Medium bodied and smooth. The finish, not sweet, very malty with vanilla slowly creeping in.
No doubt this is a great beer for Christmas, or any other time, which brings me back to the 12 which is available throughout the year.
Which is better? It’s a difficult choice; they both look good but the aroma of the 12 promised more and this was backed up with the tasting. I found the 12 was fruitier with a more sherry like background and more spice , bitterness about the same. The finish was sweeter but as with the taste proved to be more complex.
The 12, for me, just manages to win but it was very close.