Listen, it’s no secret that the holidays can be a difficult time. Explaining to your family what it is you actually do, or even worse, defending it. Sleeping in your childhood bed (link somewhat NSFW, it’s Saturday Night Live, so you figure out your own tolerance). Meeting up with friends you don’t have a lot in common with anymore beyond horror stories of your awkward years (which, if you’re anything like me, are still on-going). These are just some of the challenges out there awaiting you during the holidays.
But there’s a lot to be said about the holiday season too. Merriment, an excuse to eat too much food and take a lot of naps, snow (except in DC where a snow-covered holiday of your choice seems unlikely), and all of your favorite holiday songs that will take over the radio during your commute. Oh and winter seasonal beers. Definitely those.
This year, more than in the past, I’ve noticed a lot of holiday 12 packs out there on store shelves. These are pretty helpful for a few reasons. Headed to a holiday party? Grab one of these and you’re all set with a festive, useful, host gift. Looking to try some new beers but don’t want to commit to a six pack? Here’s 2-3 of a bunch of different ones for your sampling pleasure. But which ones are the best? By whose standard? Well, since I’m writing the post, you get my standards.
/watches readership statistics on this post plummet
Still here? Great. Let me provide you some reviews of these holiday 12 packs (and at the very least, an examination of what each contains). What do I favor? In no particular order: variety (I’d rather have six pairs of two beers than four sets of three), winter appropriateness (if you give me a winter gose, I’m done), and innovation (a lot of these beers are one-offs, let’s see breweries flex some creative muscles they might not otherwise).
I don’t love when breweries include their flagship beers in these holiday packs, but I certainly understand why they do so. Including something like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or a Samuel Adams Boston Lager in a holiday pack makes a firmer connection between the consumer and a brewery’s mainstay portfolio and may lead to sales from the portfolio at large during the rest of the year. So while I see the logic, it runs contrary to the characteristics I favor above.
Alright enough table setting (you’ll have plenty of that at your parents’ house. Do some chores, you laze, and empty the dishwasher, too). Onto the beers, which are arranged alphabetically by brewery name.
Blue Moon’s Winter Sample Pack
- 2 – Belgian White
- 2 – Mountain Abbey Ale
- 2 – Gingerbread Spiced Ale
- 2 – Cinnamon Horchata Ale
- 2 – Farmhouse Red Ale
- 2 – Rounder
First of all, bonus points for including six different beers, even if one is the ubiquitous Belgian White. The rest of the offerings include some innovation (a beer based on horchata brewed with long grain rice? a saison/Flanders red hybrid?) and some holiday appropriateness (a Belgian pale ale with hibiscus and orange peel and a gingerbread spiced beer). Whatever your feelings about Blue Moon (and I’m sure you have feelings of some kind), this 12 pack is worth a look. This is especially true because they’ll probably be pretty approachable for the family members who aren’t your typical beer drinker.
- 3 – Imperial Hefeweizen
- 3 – Oatmeal Raisin Stout
- 3- Oak-Aged Hazelnut Scotch Ale
- 3- Roasted Peanut Brown Ale
A perhaps unfair review because this holiday pack was 1. already released and may not be widely available anymore and 2. was only released in Maryland. Still, this is a cool little project. Brewed to pair with Baltimore’s well-known Otterbein’s Bakery, these beers are perfect for those of you with a sweet tooth. The Imperial Hefeweizen is inspired by and meant to be paired with Otterbein’s Sugar Cookies. Oatmeal Raisin Stout goes with (surprise) Otterbein’s Oatmeal Raisin Cookies.The Oak-Aged Hazelnut Scotch Ale teams with Otterbein’s Ginger Cookies, and the Roasted Peanut Brown Ale rounds everything out with Otterbein’s Chocolate Chip Cookies. If you’re in Maryland and see this and like cookies, go ahead and snag this.
Harpoon’s Snowed In
Call me crazy, but I have trouble getting excited about a winter holiday pack that is 50% witbier, even if 50% of those witbiers are gingerbread-inspired. Harpoon’s IPA is the quintessential “balanced” (leaning malty) east coast IPA, and the winter warmer is a spicy malt bomb. The only thing really innovative here is a ginger witbier, and that’s probably not enough for me to go ahead and pick this up.
Leinenkugel’s Winter Explorer Pack
- 3 – Cranberry Ginger Shandy
- 3 – Helles Yeah (Helles Lager)
- 3 – Snowdrift Vanilla Porter
- 3 – Winter’s Bite (Cocoa Schwarzbier)
This pack does a nice job of adding in variety, innovation, seasonal appropriateness, and representation from a flagship. Cranberry and ginger are, of course, classic holiday flavors, and the shandy’s inclusion here means that there’s someone for your odious family member who “doesn’t drink beer.” Likewise, for your uncle who can’t move beyond macro lagers, the Helles is a nice stand-in. Finally, you get beers with both vanilla and chocolate themes, neither of which is hopefully overly sweet. Solid job from Leinie’s here, even if they do go with the less adventurous four beers in the box rather than six.
- 3 – #9 (Fruit Beer)
- 3 – Snow Roller Hoppy Brown Ale
- 3- Encore American Wheat IPA
- 3- Starlit Star Anise Porter
I can’t say that I’m surprised that Magic Hat has a bit of an oddball amalgam of beers in their holiday pack. Although the aesthetic is very wintry (check out Starlit’s label art), there’s as much spring and summer here as there is fall and winter. With that said, #9’s apricot flavors and the malty notes from the Snow Roller will both pair quite well with all kinds of holiday foods. The idea of adding star anise to a porter is an excellent one, and I’ll be seeking this beer out. Kind of off the wall, but if you want something unpredictable, pick this one up.
New Belgium’s Folly Pack
- 4 – 2 Below (ESB/Winter Warmer)
- 2 – Fat Tire (Amber Ale)
- 2 – Ranger (IPA)
- 2 – Abbey (Abbey Ale)
- 2 – Rampant (Imperial IPA)
This is maybe not a fair review because this isn’t a true holiday 12 pack. The Folly pack is year-round but has beers rotate in and out. In this case, New Belgium rotates in 2 Below from its Revival series. But you know what, New Belgium makes a lot of beers, and they should have a true holiday sampler! Why not sub in the delectable Accumulation White IPA (also a seasonal) for the Rampant? Between the white IPA, winter warmer, and the holiday-friendly Abbey, you’d have 50% of the box seasonal and 50% flagship. Everybody would win. Despite not being a super example of holiday beer cheer, this pack does still serve as a great introduction to New Belgium’s flagships, which provide something for both hopheads and malt lovers.
Samuel Adams’ Winter Favorites
- 2 – Boston Lager (Vienna Lager)
- 4 – Winter Lager (Vienna Lager with spices)
- 2 – Old Fezziwig Ale (Winter Warmer)
- 4 – White Christmas (Witbier)
The good folks at Sam Adams really like the following ingredients for their holiday pack: cinnamon, orange peel, nutmeg, and ginger. Three of the four beers have at least three of these ingredients. While this will definitely help set the holiday mood, it won’t give you a ton of diversity in the flavor profiles. Still, the White Christmas, a white ale, isn’t what you would normally think of for a holiday beer, so those spices help shoehorn it in here. If you see the 24 pack out there, it will also include a fifth beer, Chocolate Bock. It’s a shame to only see two Old Fezziwigs in the box; this is a bit of a cult classic, and it only comes in the sampler each year. No surprise seeing Boston Lager here as founder Jim Koch tries to incorporate the beer that put him at the top of craft beer wherever he can.
Saranac’s 12 Beers of Winter
- 2- Long John Lager (Dunkel Lager)
- 2- Chai Brown Ale (American Brown Ale)
- 2- Into the Dark (Black IPA)
- 2- Pale Ale
- 2 – Legacy IPA
- 2- 4059’ Porter (Robust Porter)
I have a particular bias here. I have spent a lot of time in the Albany (NY) area with my girlfriend (now wife), and Saranac’s winter 12 pack is something I have come to look forward to each year. I don’t drink Saranac at all during the rest of the year, and truth be told the beers in this box (which rotate each year, only two of those in it this year, the 4059 and the Pale, appeared in 2013) are never slam-dunk top-tier 100th-percentile offerings. But they’re fairly well crafted, reliably tasty, and they fit into the season quite well. I’m excited to try the Long John Lager this year because last year’s Decoction Concoction was so tasty. If you see it on a shelf, it’ll be fairly priced for sure. This is worth taking a flier on.
Sierra Nevada’s Snowpack
On the one hand, a coffee stout and a porter are perfect for those cold winter nights. On the other hand, the classic grapefruit profile of Sierra Nevada Pale and the juicy, southern hemisphere hops from Boomerang IPA are better suited for the summer months. The rub is that it’s Sierra Nevada, so you know all four beers are going to be great. If it were me (and to be very clear, I’ll probably never run Sierra Nevada), I’d put in six beers instead of four and include the brewery’s industry-standard Bigfoot barleywine and some Celebration fresh hop IPA (which is certainly festive if not stylistically appropriate for winter). That would really round this out into something a little more holiday/winter-ish while also offering some more variety. If you don’t care about variety and you really love hops, then just skip Snowpack and go for the Celebration 12 pack. Festive and hoppy!
So those are all the holiday packs I was able to find for the DC market. Now, full disclosure, which am I most likely to pony up money for? Likely Saranac and Sierra Nevada (I'll give the coffee stouts to somebody else though), but who knows, maybe I'd take a flier on a Blue Moon pack. Who can say? Your mileage may vary (as it does for all beer buying). Whichever you pick, please have a safe and happy holiday season. Drink responsibly, and have a good time converting your family and friends to craft beer!