Goose Island Christmas Ale
Beer for Christmas is fine, but I'm generally not a fan of Christmas-style beer -- whatever that is. Apparently, though, I'm in the minority, because it flies off the shelves every year. Not all of it is bad, but there are too many over-spiced versions that are a struggle to get down. Many breweries are happy to just gussy-up a bit of syrupy swill with every spice they can get their hands on and slap a Christmas label on the bottle, confident it'll be bought by the festive multitudes anyway. Thankfully, Goose Island makes a Christmas Ale that can actually be enjoyed.
The Chicago brewery is adept at making quality beer that is drinkable and affordable. They understand there's no need to go over the top trying to impress with undue creativity. Their Christmas recipe gets an annual tweak, in order to lend some surprise and anticipation to the seasonal release. It's slightly different year to year, and ages well in the bottle in case you want to compare vintages. Normally, it's just decent, no-frills beer, to drink with a crowd of friends. The style is an English brown ale. In fact, that's all it is, and needs to be. Get that whole “Christmas” thing out of your head right now.
As the style suggests, it is brown, and tinged with a bit of red around the edges. The head is average at best, and fades to a small amount of lacing. There is the usual caramel from the toasted malt in the aroma, but, encouragingly, it's the hops that stand out. Even more encouraging is the almost complete lack of spices in the nose. There may be some in the mix, but they are where they belong: subtle and barely noticed.
The flavor is even better. The roasted malt lends just the right amount of sweetness, but the hops keep it from collapsing into the syrupy tasting mess that afflicts so many beers of this style. The biggest surprise, again, was the spice, or more precisely, the lack thereof. Goose Island is one Christmas Ale that has the spice level right. They're in there to hold up and push the other flavors forward, not bombard the tastebuds on their own accord. There's more of a chocolate undertone that comes out above any of the spices. The beer is light to medium bodied, with low carbonation. Very smooth and creamy, but a jolt of hops sharpens the edge. I could drink these all night.
As for food accompaniment, cheese leaps to mind. Any roasted meat would probably pair well enough, but this seems to be made for the small tidbits often being passed around on a tray this time of year. At a formal sit-down meal, something a little more specifically complimentary to the menu would probably be desired. Goose Island is a drinking beer. It goes well enough with food in general, but it's at its best just being casually knocked back at the party. The alcohol level is a fairly tame 5.4 percent, so it should keep you out of trouble for awhile.
If they didn't label it as such, I wouldn't really consider this Goose Island a Christmas beer at all. It's just a very good, but typical, easy drinking brown ale. If you actually like all that spiced-up and confused tasting melange that usually passes for Christmas Ale, this isn't it. Goose Island Christmas is a solid, cold weather brew, made for people looking to have several over the course of an evening. Complex enough for those demanding a bit of quality, but completely unpretentious. I'd suggest they just knock the “Christmas” off the title and offer it all winter long, for those beer drinkers who like their beer to taste like beer, instead of like their fruitcake.