St. Bernardus Christmas Ale: 'Tis the season for the best
Starting around Thanksgiving, beer shelves are crammed with "Christmas" beers from essentially every single brewery, large and small, in the world. The choices are overwhelming, and the style is much in demand. Feelings are hurt by some of the better breweries being unable to supply enough to stores and bars that hawked their other styles the rest of the year. Noses are put out of joint, and loyalties are lost. The beers themselves, as ever, can be hit-or-miss. Some of them are just cynical stabs at capitalizing on the market, and aren't the least bit remarkable. Many are excuses for the brewmaster to throw in buckets of spice, and whatever else is at hand, until they become undrinkable slurries of holiday sludge. Then, there are the ones that make the whole genre worthwhile. The ones that make winter the best season (well, one of the four best, anyway) for drinking beer.
How to choose a decent Christmas Ale, then? An obvious place to start would be to look to the brewers that make great beer the whole year round: the usual suspects from Belgium, the handful of reliable craft brewers in the States. There are more than enough decent offerings that finding a few to suit the occasion is easy enough.
True to form, St. Bernardus Christmas Ale is every bit as good as you would expect -- and you should expect a lot from these guys. Their version is more refined and elegant than most of the domestic seasonals. If you want a fabulous beer, first and foremost, but with just a taste of Christmas instead of having your tongue yanked out and beaten with it, this is a great choice.
Well, the Bernardus will beat you if you insist on drinking as many of them as you'd like, but it won't be the taste buds being abused. The 10% alcohol means that it would best be avoided at various Christmas parties where unusual behavior could affect the job (or marital) status. But, if you're among friends who understand, or at least tolerate, a possible Bernardus induced frenzy -- and may even be willing to participate in their own -- this is a perfect Christmas beer.
The required flavors are all present, but they stay in balance and aren't overpowering. The cloves and cinnamon are apparent from the aroma, and they stand out in the flavor. No surprise, those spices will be found in almost every Christmas beer you sample. But Bernardus offers just a little more than a hint, then adds some cherries and raisins. Chocolate. Good, yeasty, bread dough. All that and more, softened up in a creamy, smooth ale that is dangerously easy to drink.
The medium body will coat your mouth, and it is a substantial, full-flavored beer. Complex enough to keep you finding subtle flavors all night long. It's a deep, dark brown with a tinge of ruby on the edges when held up to the light. The head may be nothing to speak of, maybe a finger or two at best, but there is no mistaking the pure quality. The alcohol is quiet, but potent -- like a presence you feel rather than see. In short, this is not your WaterBeerLight drinker's Christmas beer.
Since this is more of an ale to sip around a fire than to slug back with dinner, I wouldn't pair it with anything more than a decent cheese plate. If you must, some roasted beast or other would be appropriate, but it would have to be incredibly delectable to stand a chance of outshining the beer. Don't serve this at the meal if you want your cooking noticed. Wait until after and your guests will admire your taste, and remember what you cooked.
St. Bernardus Christmas Ale is like slipping into your favorite sweater: it'll warm you up and give you that fuzzy feeling on a cold winter's day. This is Christmas Ale that knows it doesn't need to scream Christmas at every sip to be effective. This is not the commercialized, hectic, shop-til-you-drop version of a Christmas beer. There are plenty of those. St. Bernardus is special. More like a cold, snowy night, nestled warm by the fire kind of beer. The gifts are wrapped and under the tree. You've been good. Well, good enough. Kick back and enjoy the best.