Taste the holidays...in a beer bottle.
Gingerbread houses and cookies are Christmas-table staples. But gingerbread beer? Not so much—until now. What was once a novelty has gone mainstream, with dozens of breweries now offering the sweet and spicy suds.
Eric McKay and Patrick Murtaugh, co-founders of Richmond-Virginia-based Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, created the first official gingerbread beer in October 2011. They were working on their first winter seasonal when a local farmer walked in with stalks of fresh white ginger. The meeting led to what seemed at the time like a crazy idea—why not brew a gingerbread stout?
After its initial release in December 2011, Hardywood Gingerbread Stout won a bronze medal at the World Beer Cup and was awarded a 100-point rating from Beer Advocate, making it one of seven brews at the time with a perfect score. And all of this happened within six months of Hardywood’s opening.
“We went from having a small portfolio of beers known only in certain centers of the Richmond area, to all of a sudden having one beer being talked about all over the country,” McKay says. “It was extremely exciting for us.”
As a 9.2 percent ABV Imperial Milk Stout with 20 gallons of honey, 12 pounds of fresh ginger, three pounds of vanilla beans, and a half pound of Vietnamese cinnamon per 20-barrel batch, Hardywood’s Gingerbread Stout has earned a loyal following. Kim Jordan, co-founder and CEO of New Belgium, included it in her “desert-island” six-pack. Jim Koch, co-founder and CEO of Boston Beer Company, was inspired to make a Samuel Adams gingerbread beer after meeting McKay and Murtaugh.
This season, the number of gingerbread beers has continued to grow. Brewers like it because it fits the season spirit, but isn’t tied to a specific holiday, says Al Marzi, brewmaster at Harpoon. “We wanted something that would have a little bit longer legs, something you could still sell in January,” he says.
As for drinkers, well, we like gingerbread beer because it’s damn tasty. Here are six of our favorites:
Secessionist Gingerbread Stout, 10% ABV
Buffalo Bayou Brewery, Houston, Texas: Buffalo advertises its Secessionist Gingerbread Stout as the beer that makes “Mrs. Claus naughty.” Mildly sweet, creamy, and with lots of spice, this stout is a good fit for someone who would dunk a rich gingerbread cookie into beer—or at least think about it. Be warned: It’s much spicier than it smells.
Gingerbread Man, 6.7% ABV
Strange Craft Beer Company, Denver, Colorado: An American-style brown ale, Strange Craft’s Gingerbread Man has an aroma of freshly-baked gingerbread cookies. Not overly sweet, the malty flavors of the ale complement the spices perfectly, making this a beer that’s easy to drink year-round. The ginger warms as you drink, so be prepared for a slight bitterness on the finish.
GingerBreadHead, 4.6% ABV
Shipyard Brewing Company, Portland, Maine: Reminiscent of a gentle, bottled gingersnap, Shipyard’s newest winter venture has warming flavors of molasses and brown sugar to complement the CaraMunich and Chocolate malts. Light-bodied with some bubbling and lingering spices, this is a good starter brew for those looking to dip their toe in the world of gingerbread beer.
Back Home Gingerbread Stout, 8.50% ABV
Golden Road Brewing, Los Angeles, California: Golden Road founders Tony Yanow and Meg Gill have developed one of the warmest gingerbread beers around. If the strong taste of alcohol is your idea of the perfect complement to holiday spice flavors, this is your winner. Think hefty notes of ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg, a lingering cookie sweetness, and a pronounced booziness throughout.
Merry Maker Gingerbread Stout, 9% ABV
Samuel Adams, Boston, Massachusetts: For those who prefer their alcohol a bit more subtle, Samuel Adams’ Merry Maker is a tasty alternative. It pours the color of coal. It has a creamy, tan head of foam. And its filled with aromas of sweet caramel malt, gingerbread, nutmeg, and molasses. With medium carbonation and a warming, toasty finish, Merry Maker hits the lighter end of the stout "fullness" spectrum and would pair nicely with a slice of carrot cake—or gingerbread.
Gingerbread Man Amber Ale, 5% ABV
Swamp Head Brewery, Gainesville, Florida: One of Swamp Head’s “elusive reclusive” releases, this reddish-orange ale is well worth its sips—if you can get your hands on it. Using their Lost in Time ale as the base beer, Swamp Head adds cloves and vanilla beans in addition to the usual cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, helping round out the light, smooth taste and leaving a lingering spice.