Cult of the Holiday Brew

 ‘Christmas Ale!’ demand the thirsty hordes who descend upon Great Lakes Brewing Co., and any local store with a cooler, in their annual search for cinnamon-spiced winter bliss.
For many Clevelanders, the Christmas season begins in early November and runs until the foam stops rising on Great Lakes Brewing Co.’s Christmas Ale.

“It’s odd — people that normally don’t drink beer like it,” says Great Lakes co-owner Patrick Conway, sharing a bottle of the ale in October, weeks before it goes on sale. Though the early holiday gift is a potent 7.5 percent alcohol by volume, Conway thinks the ale’s smoothness and its sweet and spicy ingredients — cinnamon sticks, barrels of honey, myriad spices — are what attract even the novices.

Patrick and Dan Conway used to start selling the beer in mid-October, but this year, they kept it off store shelves until Nov. 3 to manage demand. (Grinches!) Production of the November and December best seller has increased by 30 to 40 percent every year, and sales have kept right up.

This year, Great Lakes is producing 85,000 cases, 8,600 kegs and 2,500 six-barrel containers of the ale. (Cue“Ode to Joy.”)The last batch will be made around Dec. 1, meaning the ale will be scarce or sold out by mid-December. Some years, the brewery itself has run out before the stores. When stocks get low, Conway says, grocery stores are the best places to find it. (It’s Santa’s secret beer shop.)

“We just kept stocking it last year, but there was never enough,” says Mike Furlinger, who heads up the beer and wine section at Zagara’s Marketplace in Cleveland Heights. When Great Lakes notified Furlinger in 2007 that the brewery was coming up short, he bought more in an effort to stockpile it — but still ran out.

“If I left it up to the market to decide how long we should keep brewing the Christmas Ale, we would be doing it as Christmas in July,” says Conway.

Actually, the Conways do brew a very small batch of Christmas Ale every summer for the brewer’s Christmas in July party. This batch doesn’t last much longer than the party.
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