Noël de Belgique 

Christmas beers have likely been around in Europe longer than Christianity, dating to pagan solstice festivities where special spiced ales were brewed to warm the insides during the dark days of winter. In Belgium, where creative brewing is encouraged, brewers use the holiday season to turn out special beers intended to show off their skills and made with exotic ingredients. Most emphasize smooth malts, warming alcohol, and comforting spices, although dry, effervescent, and hoppy beers are increasingly popular. Generally packaged in 750-ml bottles with cork-and-wire closures, they make great gifts for dinner parties. Just tie a bright bow around the neck.

I've chosen five excellent examples that are available at the better retailers in the metro area, each with its own unique characteristics. All of the beers listed here are bottle-conditioned and thus are naturally carbonated and contain yeast sediment. Decant them slowly into a snifter, tulip, or oversized wine glass to highlight the color and head characteristics and trap the spicy aromas. Don't worry if some of the sediment gets into the glass. It won't ruin the taste and is full of healthy vitamins.

Noël des Geants Belgian Holiday Ale (Brasserie des Legendes, Irchonwelz, BEL, 8.5% ABV): This spiced Belgian ale is an example of the drier, more refined Christmas ales. With its glowing mahogany red color, it falls somewhere between a strong pale and strong dark ale. The active carbonation is evident in the big bubbles that continue to form around the edges. The aroma is earthy and floral, with a scent of grainy, red apple and a yeasty tang. The dry, woody malts and warming alcohol suggest bourbon, but with a fruity element of pear and plum. The finish is subtly spicy, with hints of cinnamon, fennel, and mint. Clean, dry, and sparkling, with a consistent balance from beginning to end, this is a very drinkable ale that would pair well with holiday food.

N'Ice Choufee (Brasserie d'Achouffe, Achouffe, BEL, 10% ABV): The distinctive gnomes of Achouffe warm their hands over an outdoor fire on the label of this delightful Belgian spiced ale. Brown sugar and clove from the Belgian yeast dominate the aroma. The taste blends caramel malts, nuts, and dark fruits like raisin, cherry and fig, with some dry cocoa, orange peel and herbs. Cabernet-like tannins and some sour yeastiness give it a vinous character in the middle, yielding to warming alcohol and some cardamom and pepper in the finish. I sampled the 2007 vintage, which likely benefited from some mellowing of the boozy character.

Père Noël (Brouwerij de Ranke, Wevelgem, BEL, 7% ABV): Another 2007 vintage, but one that did not hold up well in the bottle that I sampled. The label states that it can be served up to five years from the bottling date, so this bottle appears to have been infected or improperly stored at the distributor or retailer. After bubbling over for a few minutes after opening, it poured a murky brown with little head. The taste was overly sour and nearly vinegary, with a harsh, medicinal astringency in the finish. Having heard good things about this beer, I tried the Père Noël on draft at the Brick Store Pub and found it completely different. It is a hoppy beer, with a strong, bitter finish, but the fresh version was much better up front, with tart apple, dry, grassy hops, and woody malts. Bold and beautiful, but definitely for the hop lover.

Corsendonk Christmas Ale (Brewery du Bocq for Brewery Corsendonk, Oud-Turnhout, BEL, 8.5% ABV): This quintessential Belgian Christmas beer has been brewed for 10 years now, and still stands as one of the best. It pours a beautiful clear, garnet red. The active carbonation pushes up fat pearlescent bubbles around the edge of the glass and releases an aroma of orange zest, mulling spices, and brown sugar. Very festive. Cherries and blackberries greet the tongue, followed by cola-like caramel malts, an herbal bite, and a lingering evergreen bitterness. The tingly, dry mouthfeel and subtle spice make this a natural substitute for wine at dinner or dessert.

Scaldis Noël (Brasserie Dubuisson Frères, Leuze-Pipaix, BEL, 13% ABV): The big, fruity alcohol in this tawny brown ale make it a definite sipper. There's a strong floral hop element in the nose that is clean and aromatic. Candi sugar and toffee malts underlie deep flavors of brandied fruit, overripe apple, and citrus. Hazelnut and nutmeg surface in the liqueur-like finish, completing the Christmas theme. Guaranteed to make your nose glow like Rudolph.

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