The 2nd annual winter brew challenge: Eight solstice suds tested

As the mercury drops and the cold nights get longer, beer drinkers across the land reach for rich and hearty brews to warm the soul. Breweries everywhere, of course, realize this and release their cold-weather winter offerings, usually called Winter Warmers, Christmas Ales, or Winter Ales/Lagers. These seasonal suds can be of any style but generally utilize roasted and crystal malts to achieve a darker, richer flavor profile. Some of these malt-forward, substantial beers are spiced and most are well above 6 % ABV (Alcohol by Volume). Speaking from experience, many do indeed elicit a warming feeling.

We decided to put some of these winter seasonal brews to the test. There are dozens of these offerings to choose from at the local beer mega mart (Total Wine and More) and eight were chosen based on mere whim — with the only criteria being that they be available by the six-pack. Since many different styles were covered under the guise of “Winter Seasonal,” this was not a blind tasting and each selection was evaluated solely on its own taste merit.

Last year, eight winter seasonal beers were reviewed and many made the grade. This year, in the 2nd annual Winter Beer Challenge (see the 1st annual tasting), a new crop of eight solstice suds step up to the plate vying for some holiday attention.

The eight 2011-2012 wintertime contestants:

Blue Point Winter Ale: Long Island’s finest Winter seasonal comes in at a respectable 7.0% ABV. Scents of perfume, fruit, and amber malt fill the air as the pint pours on this bronze colored brew — it smells wonderful. Sweet malt hits the tongue first followed by nutty toffee notes mid-sip. It finishes crisp with dark malt and flowery hop flavors along with a little bitterness. A nicely balanced and complex beer that‘ll please the holiday crowd. Grade: B/B+

Lakefront Holiday Spice Lager: A friendly green wreath with the words “Seasons Greetings” covers a red label on this innocent-looking, session-able sounding Milwaukee lager. However, the first sip on this spiced 11% ABV full-bodied, auburn-colored holiday beer warns of a beverage meant to be slowly savored. Festive cinnamon and clove hit the nose as the glass lifts on this cold-weather brew. The initial taste is a tour of traditional holiday spices-nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove all make an appearance followed by orange zest. Rich, dark malt makes a prolific entrance towards the end. A terrific raisin and honey finish plus some hop bitterness and alcohol heat completes the experience. Aperitif-like, complex, and warming-a great choice for sipping by the fire. Grade: A

Photo Courtesy of Lisa Colburn

Eight Cold Weather Beers

Breckenridge Christmas Ale: This 7.4% ABV Colorado Winter Warmer comes wrapped in a cheerful red and green label decorated with a small wreath. Ruby-brown in the glass, it smells faintly of dark, sweet malt. Modest dark caramel greets the taste buds first with a mild roast-y flavor arriving mid-sip. It finishes clean and with some mild hop bitterness. Drinkable, balanced, and non-offensive but nothing stands out. Grade: B

Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Ale: The funky little California brewery with a sense of humor puts the word “Sucks” in because, in order to make the 7.85% ABV Holiday Ale,they apparently have to halt production, at least this year, of their popular Brown Shugga‘ Ale. Golden-yellow in color with a juniper nose, this brew is not the typical winter seasonal. As the glass lifts abundant grapefruit hop flavors blast the tongue with tropical citrus, orange, and lemon hop goodness climbing through mid-sip. Light but dry complex malts attempt to balance but come out on the losing end. Pine, perfume, and resin notes finish this spectacular IPA. This is not a winter beer but an exemplary IPA. It’s like a survey course on hop flavors. Hop-heads should seek this out. Grade (Winter Seasonal): C; BUT Grade (IPA): A

Summit Winter Ale: Saint Paul, MN’s classic Winter Warmer tips the scales at 6.1% ABV. This mocha brown brew smells like a fresh bag of Whoppers candy. Mellow caramel malt flavors are perceptible to the palate first followed by dark, sweet, chocolate. Rich and smooth, this one finishes with a just a hint of hop bitterness. Overall, a nice, mellow, Winter Warmer that will please the masses. Grade: B+

Anderson Valley Winter Solstice Ale: Snow-capped mountains with a bear sporting antlers while wading in a stream highlight the label on this 6.9% ABV Boonville, California beer. Wafts of sweet ginger ale intrigue the nose while dark copper hues catch the eye. Soft, sweet caramel flavors start off the malt voyage and are joined by toffee and toasted notes shortly thereafter. Silky smooth vanilla flavors make for a memorable finish. Multi-dimensional and full of layered malts, this one is superb. A great beer to match with Christmas cookies but it does well all by its yummy self as well. Grade: A

Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale: A well-known 6.8% ABV winter seasonal from a famed Chico, California microbrew. This orange-amber IPA smells of sweet malt and fresh Christmas trees. Grapefruit hop and amber malt flavors lead into toasty and slightly charred malt notes. The finish is all pine hop goodness with a near tongue bruising bitterness. A celebration of hops and malts. Rich, complex, and bold, this is a top-notch IPA. Grade (Winter Seasonal): A-; BUT Grade (IPA): A

Sam Adams Old Fezziwig Ale: Named after a character in Charles Dickins “A Christmas Carol”, the label comes complete with a scene from the famous story — the best label of the bunch. It’s one of four beers only available in the Winter Classics Variety Pack, a box of many fine brews that is worth seeking out. The 5.9% ABV dark crimson seasonal ale smells of spices (it’s brewed with cinnamon, ginger, and orange peel) and fresh cake. Rich malt greets the palate first followed by flavors of caramel, ginger, cinnamon, and dark malt. Candied, resin English hop notes pleasantly end the delightful taste experience. This one is loaded with scrumptious dark malt flavors and the hop finale is downright divine. Grade: A

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