Emily’s winter beer-swilling guide

By Emily Brightman

Erica/Flickr
Erica/Flickr

I’m not one to get on the bandwagon of a trend, especially when it comes to beer. And recently, the madness of the holiday season that subsequently flooded liquor stores with an abundance of themed beers only served to exacerbate my frustrations. A plethora of breweries looking to turn a quick profit join in the endless parade of “Christmas ales” and other such tawdry holiday trappings come late November, and those of us who couldn’t care less for the superficial glamor of holiday beer are left rolling our eyes and desperately hunting down any bottle without a holly wreath on the label. Through much trial and tribulation (and by that I mean a few trips to a few separate liquor stores), I secured a healthy stash of winter beers that have little or nothing to do with the dreaded holidays to warm my gullet through the dark days of the winter. Based on extensive research, I highly recommend the following brews to any fellow beer geek in search of libations for the cold nights that still lie ahead.

Rogue Yellow Snow IPA

If you have the same sick sense of humor that I do, you still get that Frank Zappa song “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” stuck in your head every time you happen to pass by a mysterious patch of yellowed snow. Even if you don’t share my depraved sentiments, or even if you’ve never heard of Frank Zappa (shame on you), Rogue Brewing Company’s Yellow Snow IPA is nonetheless a delicious means of swilling away a snow day. Poured from the classic Rogue 22 oz. bottle, this gold-orange beer has an effervescent head that dissipates quickly and leaves minimal lacing. The senses are all but bombarded with the smell of citrus and pine atop a distinctly floral element, an aroma somewhat reminiscent of overripe fruit. These powerful scents translate to powerful tastes, rounded out by a hoppy bitterness melded with the tartness of grapefruit. Most notable about this brew is the intensity of its aroma, which is worthy of some praise of its own. I myself can never say no to a good IPA, and for those of you with similar palettes, Yellow Snow is sure to please without the added burden of having to watch out for dogs doing their business.

Ninkasi Sleigh’r Dark Double Alt Ale

Though I did initially buy the bottle for its label’s homage to the trademark font of seminal metal band Slayer, the beer itself honorably lived up to its namesake. The foamy head atop this dark caramel colored brew leaves a full layer of tan lacing, enhancing the pungent aromas of molasses and dark chocolate. An almost overwhelmingly sweet malt taste is offset by the robustness of bitter coffee, but light carbonation allows the flavors to meld pleasantly in an aftertaste reminiscent of a rich dessert. While the finish is somewhat dry, the creaminess of this ale gives it an almost stout-like quality that warms the gullet with thick maltiness. Sleigh’r is billed as an “alt” ale, derived from the German “Altbier” style of brown ales characterized by distinctly smooth taste and flavor composition. One of Ninkasi Brewing Company’s most popular seasonal beers, Sleigh’r is only available until the end of the season but worth the splurge for a 22 oz. bottle for a long winter night.

21st Amendment Fireside Chat Winter Spiced Ale

Named for the Depression-era radio broadcasts from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 21st Amendment’s Fireside Chat displays the nostalgic visage of Roosevelt looking jovial beside a roaring fire in true testament to its name. This seasonal treat is only available from October to December, so I bought a 6-pack in late November and somehow managed to stave off the desire to drink it until the holidays. Pouring one of these brews from can to pint glass releases an aromatic wave of spices that immediately evokes visions of gingerbread and orange zest. Beneath the robust scents of ginger and roasted caramel lies a pungent hint of clove that makes itself known in the first sip, rounding out a blend of spices that would make a jug of mulled cider blush. Fireside Chat is a bit on the watery side, but the boldness of its spice and malt composition makes up for any shortcomings in consistency. Sadly this beer won’t be making the rounds again until next October, but the wait is worthwhile if you’re craving a beer that will cradle you in the nostalgic warmth of a hearty fire – metaphorically of course.

Widmer Brother’s Ginger Barrel-Aged Brrrbon

This delectable little nectar was given to me as a present by a fellow beer geek, who deserves unlimited credit for introducing me to my newest addiction: beer aged in bourbon barrels. As a big fan of bourbon on its own I was delighted to be able to sample it in conjunction with my love of beer, and to that end I was not disappointed. This particular brew is a special 2013 modification of the Brrr Seasonal Ale from Widmer Brothers Brewery, infused with ginger and aged for several months in bourbon barrels as part of a special reserve series. At 10.7 percent alcohol, Brrrbon certainly does justice to its liquor infusion. Unlike most winter ales that tend to fall on the darker side, Brrrbon pours out a crisp scarlet color with a creamy but quickly dissipating head. Ginger is the most prominent aroma of this beer, coupled with subtle hints of citrus and toasted malt. As expected, the taste of bourbon is prominent in this beer, but not to the extent that it becomes unpleasant. In fact, the zest of ginger and the underlying flavor of oak are an impressive complement to the bitterness of the bourbon. Certainly this is an excellent choice for any whiskey connoisseur, but fans of IPAs and stronger ales (like me) can also be tantalized by Brrrbon’s hoppy bitterness that makes its presence known in the after taste. While this beer does fall on the pricey side, the flavorful complexity of this limited release is well worth the inflated price.

Samuel Smith Winter Welcome Ale

Those of us relegated to the frozen tundra of the northeast abhor the idea of “welcoming” winter, but the brewers at Samuel Smith greet the season with open arms with their Winter Welcome Ale. A seasonal specialty, Winter Welcome is characterized by the heady aroma of dark fruit mingled with toasted caramel and toffee elements. The thin head on this hazy golden beer leaves filmy traces of lacing but feels thick on the tongue with emerging notes of sour apple and hoppy bitterness that become apparent mid-sip. A crisp finish with a distinct earthy aftertaste makes for a smooth drinking experience that is not so bitter as to overwhelm the sweeter elements of this hearty ale. Winter Welcome Ale may not alleviate the disastrous cold fronts that surely await us, but at least the alcohol content can make the season a bit more tolerable.

Saint Arnold Winter Stout

I find myself indulging in stouts and porters more consistently in the winter months. Whether this is a direct result of the creeping darkness of the season creeping also into my taste palate or just a mere seasonal coincidence I am not entirely sure, but in either case a good chunk of my beer fund is spent on darker beers from late November to early March. My newest favorite in the stout family is the Winter Stout from Saint Arnold Brewing Company, the oldest craft brewery in Texas, according to the company’s website. Poured into a pint glass, this beer is a few shades off from the color of molasses and has an aroma just as strong, with equal elements of toffee and chocolate layered over malty sweetness. Flavors of dark fruit become more apparent in the taste and round out subtle hints of smokiness on the tongue, but the first mouthful overall is entirely dedicated to the thick creaminess of a hearty stout. More sweet than malty, Winter Stout serves as an excellent solo dessert or a beverage compliment to any confection involving chocolate. While Winter Stout is only available for the brief season, Saint Arnold Brewing Company offers a small selection of other unique brews available year-round.

Berkshire Brewing Company Cabin Fever Ale

This is the one beer that I ritualistically must have at least once over the winter, more than once if possible. I stocked up on a couple bottles of BBC before heading home for the holidays, and naturally those didn’t last long, but thankfully my hometown liquor store regularly stocks brews from BBC, so I was afforded the opportunity to continue my indulgences. Cabin Fever pours out a hazy copper with a thick off-white head that leaves considerable lacing, even when poured from a bottle that spent the better part of a week in my basement freezer. A burst of hops and citrus composes the nose of this beer with hints of toasted grains and simple spices, but the taste is entirely dedicated to the bittersweet marriage of hops and malt that permeates the palate. In this way Cabin Fever is very much the archetypal ale, but what sets this brew apart from others in its flavor family is the smoothness of its taste—many ales of this ilk toe the line between being bitter enough and too bitter, but Cabin Fever falls in that happy medium of mild carbonation that makes for a smooth drinking experience and a crisp finish. I recommend Cabin Fever any time of the year, but it is one of my essential winter beers to keep in stock to alleviate the dreariness of those long winter nights. If you’ve never sampled any of BBC’s repertoire, I highly recommend just about anything they brew, but Cabin Fever is, in my opinion, their shining star. The obvious joke here is that this brew may well help you stave off cabin fever, but the truth of the matter is that this beer is delicious enough to make being consistently stuck indoors that much more tolerable.

We may be only halfway through the darkest season of the year, but there are plenty of craft beers available to make those long, cold nights more tolerable. If nothing else, the constant threat of impending snowfall is a ready excuse to curl up around the heater with a bottle of good beer and be sedentary as much as possible. Here’s to winter beers and the imminent drinking that always accompanies the season.

Emily A. Brightman can be reached at [email protected]