The Christmas Ale is a Goose Island tradition, apparently. At heart it's a humble brown ale, to which the brewers add a slew of festive spices - "and with each year we change the recipe slightly so that you have something special to look forward to." This, then, is the 2009 vintage, something that's relevant for two reasons. First, this year Goose Island is giving some of their profits from this beer to the Chicago Christmas Ship (a local charity) - kudos to GI, then. Second, the bottle I'm drinking is a bit young, having only been brewed in October. Goose Island claims that the ale "develops in the bottle over 5 years" - which is a lot, considering the alcohol content is well south of what I typically think of as beers suited for storage (it's only a 5.7). Note that, seeing as this is a Christmas ale, they had to go and make the bottle design just about the most garish thing Goose Island sells. The wreath and Santa hat really look rather silly set next to the deliberate simplicity, e.g., of GI's heritage collection.
Anyways, that's enough post-holiday complaining, we have a beer to get to. This stuff pours a rather lovely amber color, with about a finger and a half of fizzy tan head. It's also quite thin-looking, but then again this is a brown ale - I'm not expecting chocolate sauce here. The aroma is the first real surprise: it actually comes off as boozy, which by all rights it shouldn't be. Aside from the very present alcohol, the main features are a mix of caramel and citrus (from the hops, I assume), undergirded by an odd earthiness and maybe a touch of yeast. It's not that great, really. More surprisingly, the spiciness I was expecting just isn't here at all.
Thankfully, the taste comes off somewhat better. "Brown ale" isn't the first style to come to mind, though - this strikes me more as an amber than anything else (and yes, I more than anyone admit that these categories are open for debate, but still). There's a bit of a bittersweet nudge up front. Towards the middle the pale malts start to come in - there's a sort of biscuit character to it all, mixed with some fruitiness (apples, maybe). The hops from the aroma are there at the end, and they've got a quite noticeable grapefruity bite, but they're not nearly as strong as I expected. Only after I swallow do I begin to notice some spices: suspended over the maltiness from before I get nutmeg, cloves, and maybe a little bit of cinnamon. Not an extraordinary aftertaste, but pleasant nevertheless. It's nice, it's festive, and it's by far the most interesting thing about this beer.
If you absolutely must have a Christmas seasonal with a Santa Goose on the label, well, this brew ain't all that bad. Beyond that, I wouldn't bother with it. If the Goose Island brown you need for your festivities can do without the holiday label, then do yourself a favor and find some Naughty Goose.
Summary: A middling brown (actually amber) ale with a somewhat nifty holiday aftertaste.