As you browse the shelves of your local beer shop, you may notice some bottles labeled “zimní” (winter) or “vánoční pivo” (Christmas beer). Many of these beers come from familiar breweries, but have a more festive label and often include slightly different ingredients. So, I decided to find out exactly what a “Christmas beer” entails and I even held a small beer tasting with a couple of friends in the hopes of finding the best Czech seasonal brew.
Breweries in the US, UK, Belgium and other countries have been producing seasonal winter or Christmas beer for awhile now. They are typically of a higher degree and sometimes include wintery spices like cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and orange peel. Higher-degree beers are made with more malt, and the increase in sugar creates a beer with a higher alcohol content. So, it seems the main purpose of a Christmas beer is to provide just a little extra warmth during the long, cold winter.
Christmas beer seems to be relatively new to the Czech market. While preparing for this article, I quizzed a number of Czech acquaintances about Christmas beer and the vast majority of them had never even heard of it before. So, it would seem that Czech breweries are starting to realize the marketing opportunity of seasonal beers. But unless you visit a beer shop or pub serving beer from smaller, more local breweries, it would be easy to miss Christmas beer completely. From what I can tell, the largest Czech breweries don’t produce them at all.
In order to find a selection of Czech Christmas beer, I visited Pivní Rozmanitost, a trustworthy shop for those looking for harder-to-find Czech and imported beer. I was told they would be receiving more Christmas beer throughout December, so this is only a limited selection. Along with three friends, I tasted seven different brands and gave them a simple 1-10 rating (for a maximum score of 40 points). The results are as follows:
Eggenberg Krumlovsky Vánoční ležák 12º, Alcohol by volume 5.2% (14 CZK) 12/40 points
As the score suggests, there was nothing so special about this beer. It was slightly malty, with a nondescript taste. One taster didn’t even see the need to finish his small glass. Upon closer inspection, we found out that this was simply the usual Eggenberg 12º lager with a different, Christmas-themed label. Fool me once…
Chodovar Zimní Speciál 13º, 5.1% ABV (27 CZK) 14 points
The Chodovar came in a very attractive bottle, which is one of the few good things I can say about this beer. The taste was pretty underwhelming. A little investigative work also found out that this “Christmas” beer is identical to their “Easter” beer. Despite the fact that it is 13 degrees, it tasted like a lighter beer. We wondered why this beer should be more expensive than the others. At least the ski jumping dog on the label is adorable!
Krakonoš Vánoční speciál 14º, 5.8% ABV (18 CZK) 20 points
The Krakonoš was also a bit maltier and several of us detected a hint of spice. However, according to the label the only extra ingredient was additional sugar which makes the beer a bit sweeter and stronger. There still wasn’t much that makes this beer stand out except that it’s a bit more alcoholic than average.
Novopacké Sládkův Vánoční ležák, 5.5% ABV (23 CZK) 22 points
This beer from the Nová Paka brewery was the lightest in color of all, and we agreed it tasted a bit sweeter as well, a result of extra added sugar. Whereas most of the others had a heavy, malty flavor that this one was more suitable for all-night drinking. It was a smooth, drinkable beer, but it’s still hard to see what it has to do with Christmas, other than the holly jolly label.
Rebel Havlíčkobrodské Vánoční pivo 6.2% ABV (23 CZK) 27 points
Now this was a beer that tasted “Christmassy,” according to one taster. This Rebel is a half-dark beer, made with four different kinds of malt. Despite the fact that the Rebel was the strongest beer on our list, all four of us agreed it went down quite smoothly. It still retained more malt flavor than average, but was more complex and enjoyable than most of the others. This is a very solid brew.
Únětický vánoční speciál 13.5º, 5.3% ABV (90 CZK for 1.5 liter bottle) 30 points
Únětice is quickly gaining a reputation as one of the top new Czech breweries, so our expectations were high for this one. It didn’t disappoint. Únětice has the advantage of being unpasteurized and unfiltered, which results in a more natural, full-flavored taste. This half-dark beer was very pleasant, with a slightly smoky, caramel flavor. If you see this one on tap at a Únětice bar, try it while you can!
Permon Vánoční Speciál Ale Pale (not a typo) 5.2% ABV (35 CZK) 31 points
The Permon deserves an asterisk because it is the only ale we tried, and several of us are admitted ale fans. This top-fermented beer contains two types of malt and hops., and had the characteristic bitter, hoppy taste of a pale ale with a faint “fruity” aroma. One American taster said this beer “reminded him of home.” As the score indicates, we enjoyed this beer quite a bit although once again it was a mystery what it had to do with Christmas. But I am not one to complain about good beer, and with our ale bias in mind, this was the best we tried by just one point.
So what is special about Czech Christmas beer? In some cases, nothing at all. Some Czech breweries slap a different label on their normal lager and market it as a “Christmas” product. Others offer a slightly stronger beer, with a little extra malt and/or sugar. However, the more modern craft breweries do seem to be making an effort to produce something unique in the winter season. In addition to the ones listed above, I’ve been told that Poutník, Antoš, MMX and Zemský are all releasing their own holiday brews this December. It’s a sign that more variety is creeping into the conservative Czech beer market, even if many brewers are afraid to rock the boat too much.
You can also find Christmas beer at BeerGeek, as well as craft beer pubs including Kachna a Koráb, U Medvídků, Jáma, and Zlý Časy to name a few. If you’ve tried other Czech Christmas beers that aren’t mentioned in this article, leave a comment below and let us know how it is!
Which of the Czech Christmas beers gives you the most holiday cheer?