Ohio craft breweries have proven adept at many styles of beer, as evidenced by the 14 medals won across 13 categories at this year’s Great American Beer Festival. However, Ohio can lay some claim to popularizing one specific style that takes over the state – and the country – every year: the winter warmer/Christmas ale.
In 1992, Great Lakes Brewing Company brewed their very first batch of Christmas Ale, incorporating ginger, cinnamon and honey into a strong amber ale. While the Great Lakes version is not the first winter warmer ever made – variations on the traditional English Wassail date back to medieval times – it quickly became one of the brewery’s most sought-after beers.
This popularity, coupled with the wave of Great Lakes brewers who went on to start their own craft breweries, led to the creation of several holiday spiced seasonal beers around northeast Ohio and, eventually, nationwide. Today, the overwhelming majority of Ohio craft breweries offer some variety of holiday beer: some stay true to the spirit of the original Great Lakes recipe, while others choose to buck tradition to create a unique seasonal beer.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of Ohio holiday brews, but here are 12 beers you’ll be happy to find in your stocking this year:
Great Lakes Brewing Company – Christmas Ale: The Ohio original, first brewed in 1992. Some folklore claims that the original, higher ABV recipe was quickly revised after some ill-advised imbibing, but the brewery maintains that the recipe is made the same today as it has been since it was first bottled.
Thirsty Dog Brewing Co. – 12 Dogs of Christmas: Former Great Lakes brewer Tim Rastetter pumped up the spices, added nutmeg and changed the malt and hop bills when devising this recipe. Thirsty Dog also releases a barrel-aged version of 12 Dogs every year for extra holiday punch.
Collision Bend Brewing Company – Eight Crazy Nights: While this beer shares some of the spice notes of Christmas Ale, former Great Lakes brewer Luke Purcell incorporates local Ohio apples to create a full-bodied, balanced holiday treat. Eight Crazy Nights will be available in cans around Cleveland for the first time this year.
Market Garden Brewery – Festivus: Yet another Great Lakes alumnus, Andy Tveekrem’s seasonal offering featuring caramelized wort, brown sugar and allspice pays tribute to the secular December holiday Festivus (as popularized by Seinfeld). Market Garden also brews draft-only holiday companion beers “Feats of Strength” and “Airing of Grievances.”
Maumee Bay Brewing Company – Blitzen: This dark malt beauty from Toledo sings many of the same notes as the ales above due to the honey and cinnamon, but Blitzen’s addition of orange zest gives it a touch of brightness that pops out to compliment the malt sweetness and hop bitterness.
Hoppin’ Frog Brewery – Frosted Frog Christmas Ale: This Akron brewery specializes in malty beers, and this 8.6% ABV winter warmer is bursting with rich flavor, complimented by a blend of traditional mulling spices. As with many Hoppin’ Frog beers, an exquisite barrel aged version is also available.
Zaftig Brewing Company – I.B.S. (I Believe in Santa) Ale: Another brewery that leans heavy on malt-driven flavors, this seasonal porter features vanilla bean, orange peel and cinnamon to accentuate the roasted malt character. Zaftig’s holiday entry clocks in at 10% ABV, perfect for a snowed-in Ohio night.
Taft’s Brewing Company – Santa’s Bribe: One of the darkest winter warmer entries, Santa’s Bribe is as black as a cloudy, moonless December night. Described as a Christmas Cookie ale, this beer is bursting with flavors of cinnamon, ginger and vanilla.
Fat Head’s Brewery – Pimp My Sleigh: While Fat Head’s does make a traditional Christmas Ale (called Holly Jolly), this 10.5% ABV seasonal will really make your reindeer fly. Pimp My Sleigh is a complex Belgian-style brew with intense flavors of dark fruit, raisins, figs, anise and spicy phenols from the proprietary yeast blend.
Warped Wing Brewing Company – Holiday Special: This Dayton brewery’s Christmas lager is making its debut this year. A balanced beer that derives its sweetness from the addition of molasses and honey, the aroma is distinctly reminiscent of the holidays with ginger, lemon peel and nutmeg. Unlike most of the beers on this list, Holiday Special is an easy drinking 4.7% ABV.
Columbus Brewing Company – Citra Noel: CBC is a brewery that often zags when most zig, and it frequently pays them dividends. A few years ago, they retired their popular Winter Warmer and replaced it with Citra Noel, an ale with a rich malt backbone that eschews winter spices for a boatload of Citra hops. A worthy seasonal alternative for those who prefer hop-forward beers.
Rhinegeist – Dad: Another alternative to the traditional, spice-laden Christmas Ale, Dad pours a brilliant red with juicy flavors driven by Bravo, Chinook and El Dorado hops.
Looking at the list above and the great winter seasonal beers from Barley’s, The Brew Kettle, Crooked Handle, Homestead, Lager Heads, MadTree, Millersburg, Saucy Brew Works, Royal Docks and so many others, you should probably just go ahead and get a second stocking to fill with all of those Ohio beers as well.