Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries


Beer Reviews

Christmas Ale

Bell’s Brewery, Inc.
Galesburg, MI

Style: Scotch Ale

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (Drinkable, but flawed)

Pair With:
Ho ho uh-oh …

Is it just Nigel, or does Christmas 2008 seem a bit different than past years? With the economy in recession and retail sales, home sales, and the stock market facing their weakest performances in at least a generation, it hasn’t exactly been a jolly, happy time thus far. Salvation Army volunteer bell ringers have been replaced by CEOs from the American automakers begging for government money. The state of Illinois is so strapped for cash that its governor felt it necessary to sell the vacant senate seat held by President-elect Obama, marking the first time in the history of Illinois that a politician was exposed as a crook. Even Nigel has cut back on his spending, trading in his Bentley for a far more economical Porsche. Times are tough, indeed.

What better way to drown out the many financial sorrows plaguing us this holiday season than with beer? After all, as Homer Simpson so eloquently said, beer is “the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.” (I’m thinking that may be slightly inaccurate; the cause of our problems right now can more likely be traced to Wall Street fat cats, poorly run mortgage firms, and a former governor of Texas.) The holidays are always a wonderful time in the world of beer, with a number of unique, limited-edition seasonal brews hitting the shelves, many of which are quite potent in order to ease the sting of the frigid winter weather. We all know the best way to spread much-needed holiday cheer is by getting liquored up on imperial stouts, donning a Santa hat, and dancing naked in front of the in-laws.

Thus far this year, Nigel has enjoyed many of his old standbys including Lakefront Holiday Spice, Great Lakes Christmas Ale, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, Goose Island Christmas Ale, the Belgian treat Delirium Noel, and others. I’ve also had a couple of new brews, including the so-so Mild Winter Ale from Goose Island, the tasty Alt from New Glarus, and Bell’s latest release, a brew ever so cleverly titled Christmas Ale.

My excitement was palpable after discovering that Bell’s, one of my all-time favorite brewers, had concocted a special Christmas ale. Few brewers have the creativity and skill that Larry Bell and the crew in Kalamazoo do, so I was expecting something big, tasty, and very different. But as is often the case, my expectations may have been a bit much and thus the resulting brew left me as unfulfilled and disappointed as a Green Bay Packer fan watching a New York Jets playoff game or a young child on Christmas morning who unwraps that new pair of slippers.

Christmas Ale is labeled as a Scotch-style ale, an interesting choice for this particular season. That’s not to say it can’t work; on the contrary, thick, smoky malt with a hint of sugar could fit well with typical holiday treats like turkey, ham, stuffing, yams, and pie. The pour is a bit odd, with much more carbonation than I was expecting. An initial fizzy tan head of well over an inch slowly dissipates, leaving a sticky lace throughout the drink. The color is also a bit off when compared to Scotch-style ales, as it’s much lighter, sort of a cloudy caramel/dark golden brown color. Huge amounts of sedimentation are present as well, giving it that nice, unfiltered touch.

While unexpected, the appearance didn’t lead me to believe that this may not be up to Bell’s usual lofty standards. The aroma, however, was another story. Holiday brews, like many other things holiday, typically are aromatic treats. Not so with Bell’s Christmas Ale; I about suffocated trying to inhale enough to sense what aromas were present (yes, this is a bit of an exaggeration … the aroma is there, but just not as strong as it should be). A light hint of caramel and toffee hits the nostrils, but the smoky notes typical of American-style Scotch ales are impossible to detect. Overall it’s a bit sweet and malty, but largely it’s a bore.

The best thing I can say about the flavor is “eh … it’s not bad.” To translate that deep, intellectual thought, Bell’s Christmas Ale isn’t bad, but I’ve come to expect far more from this brewery. This is a Scotch-style ale in name only, as lacks the smoky peat profile that should characterize a fine Scotch, instead tasting much like a boring ol’ bock. Another thing Christmas Ale doesn’t taste like? Christmas. I’m not sure why this is supposed to be a brew to mark the holiday season, as it literally does nothing to remind me of a chilly December evening spent swearing at those damn Christmas lights. A light caramel and toffee dominates the malt profile, backed up by the slightest tinge of American hops and hints of dark fruit (raisin and black cherry). It’s a bit too effervescent for the style, with constant carbonation biting the tongue. Hell, even the ABV seems to be low, which won’t help get you loaded should you take a sixer over to Grandma’s house hoping it’ll ease the sting when you unwrap the annual ugly sweater. It’s hard to describe something that’s so completely bland and uninspired, so I’ll close by saying it’s medium bodied and a touch rough on the palate due to the over-carbonation. The low ABV could indicate we have a holiday session brew on our hands, but I’d prefer to drink something that’s, you know … good.

Ultimately I’ll settle on a two mug rating, as Bell’s Christmas Ale is a huge disappointment from a great brewery and a lame excuse for a holiday beer. It’s probably a three mugger otherwise, as it’s just fine as a standard brew, but needless to say I wasn’t impressed. Perhaps the Grinch that is Christmas 2008 has a firm grip on Nigel, but for me, this one’s a no-go.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on December 22, 2008.
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