On the first day of Christmas, my brew love gave to me ...
1. Chestnut Head, Roak
This chestnut maple porter from Royal Oak's Roak Brewing Co. is like a wrapped gift. You may think you know what it is, but you don't. If you're not a porter fan, or at least think you aren't, the warm notes of maple and chestnut will win you over. It doesn't have spice flavors -- a plus when you consider how overspiced many holiday ales are. "Porters are rich beers, but I just feel the maple really balances it out," said Rosie Reilly, a Roak server. The maple isn't overly sweet and the chestnut gives it nutty, lingering finish. It's 6.8% ABV.
On the second day of Christmas, my brew love gave to me ...
2. Jadis, Greenbush
A winter white ale brewed with cardamom, clove and orange zest, it's the yuletide equivalent of a pumpkin beer. At 6.1 ABV, it still tastes lighter and brighter than many holiday ales. It's highly drinkable, another win from the always-strong Greenbush Brewing Co.
3. Lebkuchen Christmas Ale, Atwater
This sets the standard as a Christmas ale. Its spices are perfectly balanced in this deep amber ale which clocks in at 6.5% ABV. Its malt combination evokes walnut, raisin and toffee flavors in a not-sweet manner. It's reminiscent of the highly delicious Atwater Pumpkin Spice Latte, with a nutmeg note at the finish, but different enough to make you sit up and take notice.
4. Santa's Private Reserve Ale, Rogue Ales
Hailing from Oregon, this seasonal is a bit on the bitter side, and it works. The double-hopped red ale has a note of spice, malt and even spruce. This 5% ABV beer has an IBU of 65 and is likely found in these parts in a 22 ounce bottle. The brewery recommends you pair it with beef or pork and we agree.
5. Hanukkah, Chanukah: Pass the Beer, Shmaltz Brewing Company
Clifton Park, New York brewery Shmaltz loves a good pun as much as they love good beer. These are the folks behind He'brew: the Chosen Beer, and their annual anniversary ale Jewbelation (this year marks 19, so the anniversary ale is made with 19 hops). Hanukkah, Chanukah: Pass The Beer, is a dark ale made with eight malts, eight hops and is -- you guessed it -- 8 percent alcohol by volume. Find it in four packs, or as part of the Shtick in a Box, a gift box featuring other Shmaltz seasonals. Also keep an eye out for Chanukah in Kentucky, which also has eight malts and eight hops but is aged in Heaven Hill and Jim Beam barrels. L'chaim!
6. 4 Elf, Dark Horse Brewing
This beer is so big, Marshall's Dark Horse Brewing has a whole daylong party built around it. (Unfortunately, you just missed the event, which was attended by hundreds, and featured a rum barrel-aged version of the Elf that's still available at the brewery in 2- and 4-packs.) The brewers classify this one as a "winter warmer," and that's exactly what it does on a cold night, with notes of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. It pours a fairly dark brown with off-white lacing, and carries a sweet malt backbone with it's 8.75% ABV and toasty, spicy finish. Like many of the beers here, it's like Christmas in a glass and one of the first such ales I pluck from the shelf when they become available in the fall.
7. Christmas Ale, Great Lakes Brewing
This one's a can't-miss Christmas ale if you're stocking your family's holiday party. I've always liked it because it's not too much of any one thing, making it a safe bet for that uncle who's not sure if he's ready to try craft beers. The Cleveland-based brewers brew it with honey, and spice it with fresh ginger and cinnamon. It's well-balanced and easy drinking at 7.5% ABV, with less of that sweet maltiness of the 4 Elf. It won't overpower whatever you're eating, yet follows a Christmas cookie quite well. And here's a twist making the rounds on Untappd, the social-media site for beer: Rim your beer glass with cinnamon and sugar -- sort of like a wintertime margarita -- to kick the sweet-and-spicy up a notch.
8. Christmas Ale, Bell's Brewing
Kalamazoo-based Bell's will get you into the holiday spirit without too much of the spirits. Clocking in at just 5.5% ABV, Christmas Ale qualifies as a "session" ale, so-called because you can drink a few of them in a session without someone hiding your car keys in a stocking. This winter warmer is also interesting for another factor: It isn't brewed with the spices typically associated with Christmas like the rest of this list. Instead, those toasty notes of toffee and spice come from the Michigan-grown barley custom malted by Briess Malting. That and a light hoppiness give Christmas Ale a little different flavor than you might expect, but still make for a satisfying holiday brew.
9. Fistmas, Revolution Brewing Company
It's Christmas, so you're probably traveling. You'll have to do just that to enjoy this entry from top-notch Chicago-based Revolution Brewing Co. Fistmas is based in a red ale brewed with malts selected to deliver its red color, flavors of fresh bread and hints of caramel in the finish. Ginger root and orange peel give this beer its Christmas cred. It's warm, spicy and full of layered flavors (and 6.1% ABV). I don't get many cans of this (it's not available in Michigan), but it's always part of a holiday beer trade with family in Chicago. And it's always one of my favorite beers of the entire Christmas season.
10. Alpha Klaus, 3 Floyds Brewing
As long as you've left the southwestern corner of the state to find Fistmas, make a stop in Indiana to track down Alpha Klaus by Munster-based 3 Floyds Brewing. This is one delicious holiday porter, brewed with English chocolate malt, Mexican sugar and -- as is typical of 3 Floyds beers -- loads of delicious hops. The result is a roasty, spicy Christmas beer with a delicious hop kick at the end. In many ways it reminds me of a really good black IPA, but with a warm chocolate sweetness to take off the edge. Don't take my word for it: The prominent beer enthusiast site RateBeer.com has it rated 100-out-of-100 after 1,150 reviews. It's worth the drive. Or the sleigh ride.
11. 3 Scrooges, Griffin Claw Brewing
This pale ale brewed with honey, orange peel and spices is warm and inviting, but doesn't hit you over the head with nutmeg, coriander and a faint whiff of ginger. And after a few rounds of testing Christmas ales, that distinction is critical, because it can start to feel like drinking candles. Griffin Claw offers a balanced, pleasant and drinkable ale.
12. Juicy Tree, Short's Brewing Company
Sick of Christmas spice yet? Bellaire-based Short's has you covered (or at least should have you covered by Christmas) with Juicy Tree, a crazy-hoppy IPA brewed with blue spruce tips, juniper berries, and cranberries. If the other ales here are "Christmas-in-a-glass," Juicy Tree is a Christmas-tree-in-a-glass. To be fair, this one's not for everyone. Its hoppy, piny, tart and resiny flavor inspires love/hate posts on sites like Untappd and RateBeer. Here's a hint to your reaction: Do you like the taste of gin? Juicy Tree (7.5% ABV) started out as an experimental beer from Short's, but drew enough of a following to bring it back. It's not in stores yet. A call to the brewery found that this year's batch is still fermenting, but it will likely be bottled and released fairly soon. Previous batches have dropped as early as right now and as late as Christmas Eve.