The holidays are a time for relaxation, for family, for food and for fun. They are also a time for beer, and every December, brewers around the world uncap a special variety of brew that, while released for the Christmas season, is known collectively as “winter beer.”
While there are no specific qualifications that define a beer as “winter,” the category usually follows certain guidelines. First of all, the beers are generally medium to dark in color. Light flavors and bodies are fine for sunny weather, but when the bitter cold strikes a full-bodied, dark beer is more likely to warm you up. Winter beers are also flavored differently, forgoing strong hops for spices and flavors typically associated with baking.
Since the explosion of microbrews, the selection of seasonal is staggering and sometimes hard to sort through, so here is a run-down of some of the more common lagers and ales that are hitting the shelves this winter.
The first beer on anyone’s lips when seasonal beers are discussed is Sam Adams, the titan of craft brewers, and during the winter they pull out all the stops. The Sam Winter Variety Pack comes with three distinctly Christmas-themed brews, including the excellent Holiday Porter and the not-quite-beer Cranberry Lambic, but their true seasonal offering is the Winter Lager. While not as refreshing as their Summer Ale or as robust as Octoberfest, the Winter Lager is a decidedly decent beer. It is lighter in flavor and body than some of the other winters on the market, though, and those who are looking for something to really keep them warm would be better off picking up Sam’s Cream Stout.
Blue Moon, brewed by the Molson Coors Brewing Company, is famous for it’s signature Belgian-style wheat taste, and for their winter seasonal. The Full Moon Ale has a medium body, and is easy on the palette. It is brewed with a hint of dark sugar, which blends well with the wheat background and gives it a smooth, caramel flavor. The Full Moon ale is not very spicy, and works well as an after-dinner dessert beer.
Harpoon, best known for making the IPA a household name, also has a winter brew. Their Winter Warmer is perhaps the most flavorful and pungent winter on the market this season, spiced strongly with cinnamon, nutmeg and caramel. The combination works well, and gives the general impression of a spiced pumpkin pie full of booze. It has a long finish but is quite refreshing, and anyone who enjoys Harpoon’s standard offerings should enjoy the Warmer.
Redhook, makers of the Long Hammer IPA, have a winter seasonal known as the Winterhook. This particular variety of their “liquid goodness” is well balanced and very full-bodied. Rounded out with a hefty six-percent alcohol content, the Winterhook is one of the best beers available this season and is available more readily on tap than in the bottle.
Magic Hat Breweries, in their usual tradition of churning out interesting and quirky beers, seized on the concept of the solstice and released a distinctive beer called Howl for the darkest season of the year. This elixir has a medium body but is darker than the night itself, due to the heavily roasted malt which gives it a coffee-like bite. With an alcohol content of only 4.6-percent, Howel doesn’t have quite as much alcohol as other winter seasonals, but it is a solid offering and fans of the brand should be sure to pick up a pack.
The final beer in the roundup is Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale. Sierra’s most popular beer is their signature pale ale, noted for its light flavor and strong hops bite, and the Celebration is not all that different. At a staggering 6.8-percent alcohol content, Celebration stands out among the other winter beers with a light body, palpable hops and lighter golden color. What makes this a “winter” brew is the notes of fruit in the body of the beer and the Christmas spices that linger on the tongue. It is not a traditional winter beer, but those who enjoy pale ales year round are likely to enjoy the Celebration.
Although these are some of the most well-known brewing brands to offer up a winter variety, they are by no means the only ones. Dark, rich and generally high in alcohol, these beers make winter one of the best seasons for the thirsty epicurean. Explore every bar tap and find out your favorites. And until next time, bottoms up.
Andrew Sheridan can be reached at [email protected]