The 12 Beers of Christmas: One Man's Attempt to Drink Himself into the Yuletide Spirit


I'm lagging in the Christmas spirit this year. Just like last year. And the year before. Scrooging has always been my go-to reaction to the yuletide, but as I grow older, fatter, and more sentimental, it's increasingly unacceptable to be crotchety and contrarian. It's unsavory. So, I decide to be proactive. I set aside a December Friday to gorge myself on Christmas cheer.

By which I mean Christmas beer.

Since December 1, Bulldog Uptown has been tapping a 12-pack of holiday brews in a variety of different styles. I see this as the perfect opportunity to fill my gullet with good tidings. I'm sure it's not Bulldog's intention for patrons to take on all 12 in a single evening, but, from my experience, Christmas is about nothing if not overconsumption, and I've got a lot of catching up to do.

See also: The Essential Holiday Gift Guide for Local Beer Lovers

Delirium Noël Belgian ale, 10% ABV, Beer Advocate score: 88

When I call Bulldog on Wednesday, they tell me they're out of three of their advertised 12 beers, though they've substituted in Delirium Red as the 13th. To make up the difference, I pick up two bombers of festive brews at Lake Wine and Spirits to drink before getting to Bulldog. I think of it as Christmas Eve.

Our festive scene.

Our festive scene.

Though Noël is one of the beers initially in residence at Bulldog, I gamble that it's probably been kicked already. It comes in a speckled pint bottled that sorta looks like eggnog, so I'm feeling the bromal vibes before I even uncork it. Also, my friends Todd and Jackie have decided to join my girlfriend and me on the adventure, so, even though I didn't hang so much as a wreath, my dining room is warm with holiday jazz and conversation.

Noël pours a huge, frothy head with a sweet aroma. The taste is plum-like with a tinge of apricot, and it finishes nutty. It's not as trappist as I'd expect, but this is certainly a formidable Belgian. Todd and I split the bomber and talk about how Wisconsin is getting "a little too Jesus-y." By the time we're done, I'm hoping they're still pouring it at Bulldog, because this is a beer that makes me want to string up colored bulbs and leave them hung until April.

Takeaway: All I want for Christmas is two.

St. Bernardus Christmas Ale Belgian abbey ale, 10% ABV, Beer Advocate score: 95

Frontloading my night with two 10% beers isn't the most prudent decision I've ever made, but I want to open the biggest presents first. St. Bernardus is the second bomber I purchase to drink at home, and I'm excited because the neckbeards at Beer Advocate rank the Christmas Ale higher than any brew on my menu.

The ale pours a dark burgundy like wine, no light passes through it, and it leads with a Flemish sourness that I'd been hoping to find beneath the cork. The head is wispy, and the body goes down like velvet. St. Bernardus stamps the slogan "Bringing Heavenly nectar within reach" on the back of the bottle, and that sounds about right. I'm not sure how "Christmas-y" it really tastes, but it's bringing the sleighride blush to my cheeks. Close enough to Heaven, I suppose. I'm ready to head to Bulldog.

Takeaway: God bless the Belgians, every one.

Delirium Red Fruit beer, 8% ABV, Beer Advocate score: 81

Since it's the Belgians that got me feeling like a third-act Grinch returning gifts to Whoville, I decide to ride the wave of good will into another Delirium offering. I explain to the waitress what I am doing with an elfish grin, and she is unenthused. Turns out they've sold out of another beer since I called, leaving a total of eight. That's OK, I can improvise. I start with the Red, which is a substitute anyway, because I'm in full-on kumbaya, come-all-ye-faithful mode.

The waitress brings me the Delirium Red, which is much more caramel-colored than the name suggests. The first thing that hits me is the smell. Gigantic cherry syrup explodes off the pint glass. I find out later that the beer is sweetened with stevia, which is weird and kind of dumb considering it's still 255 calories.

I like the acidic taste of the beer, it's reminiscent of a lambic or sour, but this is a beer of half measures. It wants to be a dessert beer, I think, but it doesn't have that light, effervescent texture I'm looking for, and it's too sweet to session on. This is like getting underwear in your stocking.

Takeaway: What's this? What's this? There's something very wrong.

Widmer Brrr American strong ale, 7.2% ABV, Beer Advocate score: 86

"Strong ale" is a euphemism for "just another red beer." The problem with red ales is that, no matter how much you put into making them unique, they all end up tasting the same. I order the Widmer Brrr early in the night because I need something with a lower ABV to even me out. I'm careening toward a drunk I haven't seen since college, and my criticisms of Serial are raising in decibel by the sip.

Brrr pours cloudy and amber, and in the light of the bar, there isn't too much of the chemical chartreuse that characterizes most Irish beers of its ilk. The malty smell blooms big off the rim. Todd is borderline appalled by the taste, but he's drunker than me, and I really revel in the hoppiness. This is by far the bitterest beer to meet my lips, and it's not necessarily what I'd expect out of a winter warmer. But it's a red beer, and it can never outpace that definition.

Our intrepid reporter.

Our intrepid reporter.

Takeaway: You'll shoot your eye out.

Rush River Winter Warmer Scotch ale, 8% ABV, Beer Advocate score: 84

Rush River's Winter Warmer arrives at my table with a pastrami sandwich and side of tots. It's a fucked-up pairing, honestly, but I ordered the greasiest thing on the menu in hopes of slowing the snowballing drunkenness currently fogging my brain.

The beer has a frothy, coffee-colored head. In fact, it smells a bit like grounds. I can see how this would slot in nicely for a coffee with post-holiday dinner dessert. Like Guinness for people with Catholic guilt. Unlike many of the pine-laced warmers I've had, Rush River is actually warming. It cleanses the grease from my moustache with an almost milky finish, leaving a porter-esque lace on the glass. For the first time, I feel the drunk in my chest. Maybe that's the oncoming coronary heart failure from the pastrami, or maybe it's a swelling of seasonal joy.

Either way, the tots are A+. But at this point, I know I won't be digesting them fully. I once met a pair of Australian dinguses who prescribed a "tactical chunder" on nights of heavy drinking -- meaning, before you go over the edge, you swallow your finger and make room for more. I sloppily excuse myself to the bathroom and stare into the porcelain.

Takeaway: You smell like meat and bile, you don't smell like Santa.

Southern Tier Krampus Imperial pilsner, 9% ABV, Beer Advocate score: 88

Our... intrepid... reporter?

Our... intrepid... reporter?

I return to the table as if nothing happened and bore into the Southern Tier Krampus waiting for me. It's a pale, reddish ale that masks the taste and scent of regurgitated tots admirably. I'm excited for the Krampus because it's named for the European Christmas devil who torments children on the Naughty List. Fans of The League will recognize this malevolent character as the antithesis of Santa, and he is quite nicely homaged in this marmalade-y double.

I stifle a burp and feel the beer vapor rise harshly through my nostrils, an oddly delightful sensation. It finishes with a walnut flavor that tickles the trachea. By this point, I've totally lost the thread of the conversation. I retreat into an alcohol-induced silence and scribble inanities into my notebook while I try decode whether or not the movie on TV is Operation Dumbo Drop. I am withdrawing into the void of holiday dissociation. Krampus has me.

Takeaway: How come a wry little reporter like me can turn into a thousand ugly monsters?

Sierra Nevada Celebration American IPA, 6.8% ABV, Beer Advocate score: 93

I try to re-center myself with something familiar. Few breweries dare to go IPA for their winter seasonal, but Sierra Nevada doesn't do much outside the pole of hoppy, bitter brews, so this feels more like home than anything else.

Celebration doesn't play nicely with the other beers sloshing in my gut. It's too crass and bold for its company. It doesn't have the caramel, bready profile of your typical winter lager, and this is when it dawns on me that Celebration is the lone non-denominational holiday beer. A revelation to the inebriate philosopher.

There is no visage of Santa, elves, reindeer, or even Krampus polluting my good time with centuries-old superstition. It's got that spruce nose that could be mistaken for leaves from the tannenbaum, but this is incidental. The body is amber, the finish is dry and robust, but highlight of the beer is its sheer iconoclasm. I wish I could articulate it without the waitress coming over and telling me I've been cut off.

Takeaway: I saw an ale flouting Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe.

Southern Tier Old Man Winter Winter ale, 7% ABV, Beer Advocate score: 84

I present, unedited, my page of notes related to this beer:

Takeaway: Reporter got run over by the eighth beer.

Summit Winter Ale Winter warmer, 6.1% ABV, Beer Advocate score: 84

I finish with probably the least ambitious beer on the menu. Though I can't remember much about this particular pour, I've had Summit Winter several times before, so I can tell you that it's got a thinly caramel taste to it that almost kinda betrays the rich darkness of the body. There are welcoming, homey hints of molasses, but there's something very macro about this one that keeps it from being great. Of course, in the moment, I am not so erudite.

I barely begin drinking this beer before the check comes. Seems it was ordered while I was taking a leak. Fine by me. I have a couple sips and drag the corpse of my Christmas cheer back to my apartment where I once again empty my stomach into the toilet with a groan. Some noel this has been. I unwrap my mattress and fall forward with a dampened thud that sounds like a boot stomping a yule log to ash.

Takeaway: Sleep in heavenly peace.

The Night by the Numbers

Beers actually finished: 9ish Average Beer Advocate score: 87 Average ABV: 8.01% Calories consumed: 2,262 (pastrami sandwich and tots not included) Pisses taken: 7 Tactical chunders: 1 Non-tactical chunders: 1 Hours at the bar: 3.5 Drunk tweets: 0, surprisingly No. of times I turned to my girlfriend and told her "I miss our dog": 3 Money spent: $67.55 Hours hungover: ~10 Regrets: Incalculable Grinchy dispositions overcome: 0

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