Beers to See You Through the Winter
As the days grow shorter and the nights grow colder, a delicious warming beer can make the long nights infinitely more pleasant. Winter beers mean many things to different people; some are spiced to imitate the smells and tastes of holiday baking; some winter beers are dark, roasty and thick, giving a different kind of comfort sense memory through coffee, cocoa, vanilla, toast. Many are high in alcohol to warm the drinker from the inside out; several beers on this list are included because, while not traditional holiday releases, their alcohol content, mouthfeel, and general sense of comfort and joy earn them a place.
Winter seasonals are often brewed with spices reminiscent of Christmas baking and aromas, like cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. The malts and yeast bring notes of dried fruit and molasses. An annual favorite winter brew of this style is Anchor’s Christmas “Our Special” Ale. The recipe and the label have changed every year since its first iteration in 1975, but fans can always expect a dark beer full of surprising spice and fruit notes. The Anchor vintages are perfect to age and serve as a “vertical” tasting of years past and present. The spices and alcohol tend to smooth out and become more complex.
Samuel Smith in Tadcaster, United Kingdom, has been brewing its Winter Welcome for more than 25 years, and is one of the first winter beers, along with Anchor, that I remember really anticipating. Lighter and more delicate than the typical dark and high-alcohol beers of the season, this 6% ABV beer is strong compared with traditional British ales, and also ages nicely from year to year. The creamy caramel malts with the floral hops of the Kent Golding and Fuggles creates a complex and flavorful beer that doesn’t overpower, making it a great beer to pair with the foods of the season, like turkey, lamb, ham, cheese, oyster dressing, eggnog, and sweet potatoes. Apparently, you can also add orange peel and cinnamon to it to create a traditional British holiday wassail, but I think it’s better to drink on its own.
In the tradition of the holiday spiced beer with a nod to our British forefathers, Samuel Adams’ Merry Maker is a gingerbread stout that rounds out its roasted barley, oats, and wheat with Kent Golding and Fuggles hops and seasonal spices - cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and clove. The use of British hops in this beer is a reference to the gingerbread traditions that originated on that side of the Atlantic, and its 9% ABV is as warming as its spicy heat.
Another American stout with warming qualities is the high-ABV Ten Fidy Imperial Stout, a Russian imperial stout style brewed by Colorado brewery Oskar Blues. The 10.5% ABV is well hidden by the dark roasty malts and an enormous amount of hops. This thick and dark beer can brighten any cold and lonely night, and bring a blush to your cheeks with its boozy, delicious notes of chocolate, coffee, and vanilla. These potentially sweet characteristics are tempered by the resin and pine notes of the hops, giving a more rustic, full flavored yet balanced palate. It’s on the pricey side, especially if you think cans are for cheap beers. Don’t let the packaging fool you - this is a world class imperial stout that will keep you warm and make you happy.
Taking the imperial stout to the next level, New Holland’s Dragon’s Milk Bourbon Barrel Stout takes the roast coffee and robust vanilla flavors and adds Bourbon flavors and booziness. It’s like a shot and a beer all in one glass. Along with the traditional stout and bourbon notes, this beer also conveys its 90-day journey in a Bourbon barrel through oak and charred wood flavors that come through each sip as the beer warms.
Although not a traditional winter beer style, Brouwerij Van Steenberge’s Piraat Belgian Pale Ale (Gold Medal winner in the 2013 NY International Beer Competition) is great for sipping by the fire, or to keep one company on a quiet, cold, moonlit night - especially by those who don’t care for dark, roasted malts or spices in their beer. The 10.8% ABV will keep anyone toasty, and its amazing yeast, hop and malt profiles come together with a rush of alcohol that warms the tongue and the throat, and then the brain. The first rate, traditional craftsmanship of this explosively delicious Belgian strong ale will blow your mind and melt your heart.
While not based in Belgium, Quebec’s Unibroue Brewing delivers a forceful yet elegantly complex Belgian/Abbey strong dark ale style with its Trois Pistoles (Silver medalist in the 2013 NY International Beer Competition.) This beer delivers a bounty of sweet treats on the tongue - dried fig, dates, pumpkin, cherry, blackberry, plum. The spice from the yeast and the breadiness of the malts combine to make a dangerously drinkable and delicious beer, one of Unibroue’s finest.
Another annual favorite, Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale, is different in every way from traditional winter or holiday beers. It’s brewed to celebrate the end of the annual hop harvest, which runs from August 31 through October 31. They use these fresh hops in a limited run of the Celebration seasonal, which, luckily enough, also pair well with roast turkey. The west coast hops used in the bittering and dry hopping - Centennial, Cascade, and Chinook - provide a pine aroma and flavor that is arguably one of the season’s most recognizable.
The definition of “winter ale” and “Christmas beer” is in the eye of the beholder and can mean whatever you want it to mean. It can be warm and spicy, boozy and decadent, bright and bitter; Belgian, British, West Coast, East Coast; with yeast spice, bread malt, caramel sweetness. Whatever’s in your glass, I toast to you, and hope you have a wonderful season full of wonderful beer!