The 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. 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 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 tasty merit.

The eight wintertime contestants:

Bell’s Christmas Ale: Medium-bodied and balanced 5.5% ABV beer from craft powerhouse Bell’s Brewing Company. Colored a striking translucent brown, it smelled of fresh baked bread with just a hint of citrus fruit. The flavor was mostly of hops, with evergreen-like hop flavors noticeable at the end. Some moderate caramel malt could be felt, especially mid sip. Overall it was drinkable and clean but unremarkable, a mild disappointment considering the brewery. Grade: B-

Southern Tier Old Man Winter Ale: Sitting at 7.2% ABV, it’s a reddish-copper colored old ale with remarkable clarity, and brewed with three different hops and two malts, according to the label. The hop aromas are prevalent: piney and grapefruit scents, along with some dark malt to pleasantly greet the nose. Light caramel malt flavors are the first to hit the tongue, followed by toasty and raisin notes. It finishes dry with significant hop bitterness. The malt flavors really shine through and the hops are especially apparent at the end. A very good beer. Grade: A-

Shipyard Prelude Special Ale: This is a fairly rich 6.7% ABV British ale with a label straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. It pours clear chestnut brown with a terrific coffee, roast malt, and sweet chocolate nose. Vanilla, fruity bubblegum and sweet malt flavors hit the palate first followed by roasted coffee, cola, and toasted malt. This seasonal really shines with its complex malt profile and is simply delicious! Grade: A

Sam Adams Winter Lager: Probably the most recognizable in the group, it’s a 5.6% ABV dark wheat bock from famed micro-brewer Sam Adams. It’s the only lager in the taste test and is spiced with orange peel, cinnamon, and ginger. It pours beautifully clear with dim amber with crimson highlights — a viscous cream head quickly fades. Orange, caramel, sulfur and toffee aromas rise up from the glass but they‘re fairly minimal. Slightly bitter with vanilla notes and pleasant spice flavors, this one is crisp, clean, flavorful, and quite drinkable. Grade: B+

Heavy Seas Winter Storm Category 5 Ale: This smooth, 7.5% ABV Imperial ESB from Maryland’s Clipper City Brewery pours a dusky orange in the glass and it’s the lightest colored beer in the tasting. The nose is all sweet malt and delightful. Caramel malt flavors dominate throughout with earthy English hop flavors on the finish. Mellow and malty, approachable yet satisfying — this is one very good! Grade: B+

Avery Old Jubilation Ale: With an ABV sitting at 8.0 %, this English Old Ale from Boulder, Colorado’s Avery Brewing Company really packs a punch. The bottle arrives with a scenic label; it looks beautiful and classy with an appropriate Old English font. This beer itself is gorgeous with deep reddish-brown hues and inviting, sweet caramel malt, date, and sourdough aromas entrancing the nose. Dark cherry and hazelnut flavors hit the tongue initially followed closely by raisin and plum. The Avery finishes with sublime dark chocolate notes along with a hint of coffee and some hop bitterness. Nearly flawless and perhaps the quintessential winter beer. This rich, warming, English Strong Ale was impressive all around — the best beer in the tasting, hands-down! Grade: A

Boulder Beer Company Never Summer Ale: Fun and attention-drawing mountains, snow, and coniferous trees don the label and along with words like “Aggressive Winter Seasonal” and “Assertively Hopped” give us the impression that this isn‘t the typical winter seasonal. The ruby-red 6% ABV Never Summer Ale looks great in the glass. Pine and citrus hop aromas blast the nose, with some sweet malt in the background. Hop flavors are apparent throughout with grapefruit flavors evident initially and festive Christmas tree hop flavors on the finish. This one is bitter but smooth, dark caramel and raisin malt flavors work to balance this brew out. Hoppy and unique, the Never Summer is an entertaining winter seasonal. Grade: B

Weyerbacher Winter Ale: Mischievous (stealing?) and gift-bearing (beer) snowmen complete with top-hats make this label the most entertaining of the bunch. This dark brown 5.6A% ABV ale boasts intricate scents of vanilla, toasted malt, and cocoa. A clean, reserved mocha flavor hits the taste buds initially, followed by some mild roasted malt flavors. It finishes with flavors of sweet chocolate and caramel. Balanced with some hop bitterness, it’s still on the malty side. Smooth, creamy, and drinkable. Not quite on par with the best of the group but satisfying nonetheless. Grade: B+

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5 comments to The winter beer challenge: Eight solstice suds tested

  • Michelle

    Other awesome, awesome Christmas brews: Ommegang Cup O’ Kindness and St. Bernardus Xmas Ale

  • Robb Larsen

    Those sound delicious! I’ll have to check them out.

  • Robb,

    Nice review and tasting array of craft brews.

    But, I’m surprised that the Delirium Noel or the Anchor Steam Holiday were not on your list. This year’s Holiday offering was Anchor’s 36th year of using a unique (and always a secret) recipe for their Christmas Ale – and it was remarkable. Well worth trying on tap (everywhere in Tampa this year!) or at least in bottles while it is still in stores.

    Also, Cigar City Brewing featured a special winter offering this year in addition to their freshly bottled Oatmeal Raisin Cookie brew. Total Wines actually sells the Cigar City Brews cheaper than the Tasting Room itself.

    Slainte!
    Carol

  • Robb Larsen

    Hey Carol,
    Thanks for the comment! I’ll have to pick up Anchor Steam’s Christmas Ale, usually I pick up at least a 6 pack each year. Delerium Tremens Noel is one that I haven’t tried yet, I do enjoy their flagship and the Nocturnum. I’ve had both the Cigar City Winter Warmer and the Oatmeal Raisin Cookie, both delicious-it’s amazing how much the latter really does taste like an oatmeal raisin cookie.

    Cheers!

    Robb

  • Lisa

    Great article! It seems that, like pumpkin beer, the winter beer selection gets better & better every year.

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