Sweetwater Festive Ale

Review Date 11/22/2001  Last Updated 12/26/2016   By John Staradumsky

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! For me, the holiday season officially starts with Thanksgiving, and of course this year is no exception, even if it is my first Christmas in Dixie. Here, as in New England, a Bruguru Christmas will of course have exotic and tasty beers as one of its essential components, and this year’s festivities will include holiday brews from the South’s finest microbrewers. One of those beers that will regularly appear in my beer fridge will be Sweetwater Brewing Company’s Festive Ale.

Holiday brews are nothing new, and have been around almost as long as the craft brewing movement itself has here in the United States. In Europe, the tradition of a special beer for Christmas is an ancient one in Germany and England. And why not? A special, robust ale or lager is a great way to toast the season and the New Year. Most people celebrate the holidays by dining on succulent turkeys, exotic fruits, rare cheeses, juicy prime ribs, spicy pumpkin pies, rich fruitcakes and other such delicacies. At the same time, many will still keep their refrigerators stocked with the same old Budweiser, Miller, or Coors that they drink throughout the year.

This year, why not treat your taste buds to something special for the winter holidays? You wouldn’t dream of eating a hamburger for Christmas Dinner. Don’t drink the liquid equivalent of one; pick up a six-pack or two of your local microbrewery’s holiday seasonal to go with your turkey, goose, or ham. As Sweetwater says, don’t float the mainstream!.

Sweetwater Brewing Company is based in Atlanta, Georgia with limited local distribution of their beer here in the South. You’ll see the beers offered on a regular basis in the Atlanta area in bottles and on draft, especially at places like Taco Mac, a local multi-tap chain. Their beers are readily available in bottles at most liquor stores and supermarkets here in North Georgia, but I did have to special order Festive Ale that seems to have a more limited distribution. The price, the only negative aspect of the beer in my opinion, may have something to do with that. Festive Ale runs $6.99 to $7.99 a four-pack.. High strength winter seasonals are frequently more expensive, but Festive Ale cannot be high strength since beers are limited by law to no more than six percent alcohol by volume here in Georgia.

The label on the 2001 edition of Festive Ale is different from the one that Epinions shows. In cheerful red and green against a silver background it depicts a pair of fisherman landing a catch with snow-capped fir trees in the background. Sweetwater describes their beer on the label thusly:

Festive ale is a unique seasonal blend brewed exclusively for the holidays.

Sweetwater Festive Ale pours to a dark brown to almost black color with a towering column of creamy tan foam quickly forming as you pour. The nose is appetizing with spicy malt notes readily apparent. The palate is simply delightful, huge and complex, slightly roasty and hinting at orange, nutmeg, ginger, piney hops and chocolate with toasty malt thrown in for good measure. The finish is nicely balanced and leaves a big lingering impression of chocolate and ginger mixed with a kiss of hops.

Festive Ale is a delicious Christmas cookie in a bottle, well worth its price. In many ways it reminds me of Anchor’s Our Special Ale and New England Brewing Company’s Holiday Ale, though with a slightly thinner body than those brews. I highly recommend this brew. Enjoy it with gingerbread cookies for a special treat.

Update 2005  It's the week of Thanksgiving, 2005 as I type and I've just popped the cap on a bottle of this year's Sweetwater Festive ale. As usual, this is a great brew, rich and roasty and wonderfully spiced with lots of cinnamon and mace. Now that the legal alcohol limit for beer in Georgia is no longer capped at 6%, Sweetwater doesn't need to hide the 8.6% alcohol content.

Curiously, though, this year's batch seems a bit thinner than in the past. It's still worth seeking out, but I think its just a peg less tasty than in the past. The good news, though, is that it's now available in six-packs for about the same price as in the past ($7.99).


Update 12/12/2012: Here it is 12/12/12 and I'm sipping a bottle of Sweetwater Festive Ale, a perennial holiday favorite. The beer has gotten a bit more expensive over the years at $9.99 a six pack, but it's also available in 22 ounce bomber bottles for $5.49. The latter, "festively" adorned in red and green and capped off with wax seal, make terrific presents for the beer lover on your list.

The beer itself is a pure delight, rich with roasty malts, chocolate and pungent cinnamon and mace spice (the latter most prominent). These all come together to make one very tasty Christmas cookie of a beer, with the spices drying wonderfully in the finish. A touch of alcohol warmth is present there, too (a tad lower this year at 8.5%).

Is that a pattern showing the beer is a bit different each year? Could be. Anchor says the same about their holiday brew, and others do too. My beer notes indicate Festive Ale had a "Higher Gravity Recipe" in 2008, though I failed to record the specifics.

In 2009 the beer was back to 8.6%, down to 8.2% in 2010 and now at 8.5% for 2012. A pattern of variation is surely discernible.

I still would like a bit more body, but the beer has more than I recall from my last notes in 2005. If you live in the south, Sweetwater Festive Ale should be part of your Christmas in Dixie. It always is for me.

Update 12/28/2014: Tonight my friends I'm enjoying a special treat here at Taco Mac in Canton. It's a veritable Merry Christmas wish from Sweetwater in the form of a keg of Festive Ale  2009 edition. Magnificent and at 8.6 alcohol by volume still a full mug pour and only $5.75, which is actually $.25 less than the 2014 version which is also on tap. I will not say this beer benefited from the aging. It didn't, but truth be told it didn't get any worse either. It was delicious and I really enjoyed it. An interesting experiment indeed to have a beer with the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Update 10/22/2015: Sweetwater Festive Ale...in October? Sweetwater beers are featured for beer of the month and one of them is the legendary Festive Ale. As one of the glass offerings was a Festive Ale glass, I couldn't pass up even this early in the year, especially not at $6 a full mug pour.

Merry Christmas!

And remember, try a new beer today, and drink outside the box.

*Pricing data accurate at time of review or latest update. For reference only, based on actual price paid by reviewer.

(B)=Bottled, Canned