Beer Review 0545: Bell’s Christmas Ale

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Somebody has to make a Christmas beer that isn’t a “winter warmer” or spiced.

Bell’s (Kalamazoo, Michigan) was founded by Larry Bell in 1983 — originally, Bell’s was a homebrew supply shop. But the itch to create beer was there (with all that homebrew equipment, who could blame them?) and the actual brewery portion of the company fired up with the initial batches brewed in 15-gallon soup pots.

The first beer was sold in September 1985; originally self distributed by Mr. Bell and his (then) nine employees, the company grew to produce 500 barrels in 1989; and in 1993, the brewery became the first in Michigan to open an onsite pub.

Today, Bell’s has a capacity of more than 500,000 barrels, and the company has two different production facilities.

Bell’s take on a Christmas beer is for it to be sessionable and not use any of the typical spices often found in Winter Warmer style beers. As such, Christmas Ale is brewed in the Scotch Ale style, with 100% Michigan-grown barley, which they have custom malted by Briess Malting. The hops are a blend of varieties grown in Michigan and the Pacific Northwest. Available in the winter months, Christmas Ale is 5.5% ABV (alcohol by volume).

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The pour made a large, foamy head that was long lasting. As I sipped, it hung around in about half finger amounts, growing larger if you swirled the glass. The color was dark amber, with some lighter orange highlights toward the bottom of the glass. Obviously, this beer is unfiltered, as it has lots of chunky sediment floating throughout; despite the particles, it’s an otherwise clear beer. Lacing is excellent and began as soon as the head initially diminished, leaving thick clumps of suds.

On the nose, for a winter-type beer, we’ve got a timid aroma, yet well balanced. It has initial notes of sweet caramel and some general roast, and opens up into an equal hoppy side, giving off fresh pine and grapefruit. If you imagine a well-hopped Scotch Ale, you’re thinking correctly — just turn the volume down the aroma a couple of notches, as it’s quite subtle. It doesn’t change as it warms — a bit dull, but what’s here is nice.

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The taste is much the same, very light and bready with a hint of caramel sweetness. Not at all what I expected; this brew is really light and almost watery. Some nice citrus hops save it, picking up when the sweetness starts to fade, opening up to some pine and sweet, juicy grapefruit. The finish is wheat filled and grainy, creating a very clean and almost crisp finish that cements how light-bodied the brew is. Christmas Ale has a medium, foamy mouthfeel and average carbonation.

Well, this is not at all like a Scotch Ale or a Winter Warmer. The pine flavors do remind me of Christmas, and I can’t say I was put off by the beer when considering the time of year. It’s a decent brew, and it sure would be sessionable and easy to drink a few of these, but to be completely honest with you, after about half a glass I was ready to move on. It’s basic, no frills, and simple, and it’s unlike Bell’s to be this way. Perhaps a good transition starter for the commercial lager drinker.

Bell’s Christmas Ale, 83 points. Price: $1.99 US for one 12 oz. bottle.

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