Beer maestros brew for the seasons: Light and thirst-quenching suds for summer, malt forward amber brews for autumn, and for spring-refreshing beers with some hop presence and a decent malt backbone. Winter — with the cold, snow and lack of daylight — requires a whole different kind of beverage.
In winter, beer drinkers across the land reach for rich and robust brews to warm the soul. Brew masters and breweries everywhere, of course, realize this and release their cold-weather winter offerings, usually called Winter Warmers, Christmas Ales, Holiday Ales, or Winter Ales/Lagers.
These solstice-celebrating suds can be of any style but are usually of the heartier variety — Old Ales, Scotch Ales, Brown Ales, Porters, Stouts. The vast majority 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 years of experience, many do indeed elicit a warming feeling.
Each year we put eight of these winter seasonal brews to the test. There are dozens to choose from at any beer mega mart (mine is Total Wine and More) and eight are 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.
In both last year (2011) and in 2010, eight winter seasonal beers were reviewed and many made the grade. This year, in the 3rd Annual Winter Beer Challenge, a new crop of challengers compete for holiday party invitations. A few were also reviewed in 2010 but recipes tend to change for these late-year seasonal brews, so we decided to include them.
The eight 2012-2013 Winter competitors:
Brooklyn Winter Ale: New York’s finest weighs in at a modest 6.1% ABV. Dark bronze in color, it smells of sweet amber malt. Toasted bread is the first noticeable flavor followed by caramel. The medium-bodied ale finishes nicely with grainy sweet vanilla malt notes and some slight hop bitterness. Clean, smooth, and malt-y throughout, it’s a solid winter brew that will please the masses. Grade: B
Weyerbacher Winter Ale: A cool but kind of strange and creepy label containing a snowman, jester, and other assorted characters adorns the bottle of this Easton, Pennsylvania native. Beautiful in the glass, it’s colored amber brown with ruby highlights. Subtle, almost muted aromas of dark malt are evident on this 5.6% English Brown Ale. Caramel flavors appear first with some sweet vanilla notes showing mid-sip. It finishes slightly roast-y with little hop bitterness. Dry for a winter beer, it’s drinkable but lacks a little in complexity. A bit weak overall but it would be a good choice for newer craft beer drinkers. Grade: B-
Smuttynose Winter Ale: The retro-looking winter scene on the label of this Portsmouth, New Hampshire brewery is entertaining and original. A light-brown hat of foam covers this elegant, dark, amber-red ale. Wafts of caramel, sweet malt, and dates fill the air as the bottle cap pops on this 5.6% ABV brew. It smells phenomenal. Fig, nuts, and caramel flavors dance upon the tongue initially and are almost port-like. More sweet malt notes along with caramel arrive next and it finishes with grainy toffee, mellow-hop bitterness, and slightly fruity yeast notes. This American take on the Belgian Abbey Dubbel style is complex and rich but not over the top. It’s our favorite of the tasting and a damn fine beer that everyone should check out. Grade: A
Penn Brewery St. Nikolaus Bock Bier: Pittsburgh’s microbrewery goes German with a Bock beer for its winter seasonal. Visually, it’s midnight copper in the glass with a minimal, light-tan head. Mouth-watering scents of toffee, prunes, and fresh bread dough permeate the surrounding air as it‘s poured. A toffee flavor is evident initially with a malt-y midsection of sweet caramel and raisin coming up right behind. The finish is slightly nutty and a little lacking. This 6.5% ABV lager is medium-heavy bodied and has a slick mouth-feel. St. Nik’s is certainly malt forward and really sweet (almost syrupy) but there are lots of yummy malt flavors throughout and it’s surely a solid seasonal despite its mundane ending. Grade: B
Harpoon Winter Warmer: The nautically themed brewery out of Boston produces a Winter Warmer for the cold New England months. A tan-brown head hat of foam covers the orange-copper colored 5.9% ABV ale. Aromas of pumpkin pie spice and orange emanate from the pint, reminiscent of a pumpkin ale. Cinnamon grabs the palate first followed by ginger — it’s all spice initially. Some sweet vanilla malt flavors come through toward the finish along with a hint of hop bitterness. It’s light and lacking for a Winter Warmer or a winter beer for that matter. It is drinkable and non-offensive however, and would make a good Halloween brew. Grade: C
Avery Old Jubilation Ale: From one of the famed breweries out of Boulder, Colorado, the Old Jubilation’s label looks like an illustration from a Dickens’ novel. This mahogany-hued English Old Ale comes in at a potent and very warming 8.3% ABV. Scents of baked bread please the nose as the glass lifts. Rich, dark malts are the first flavors encountered, along with some hop bitterness. A healthy dose of roasted malt and burnt caramel push through next. The finale is boozy with a blast of hop bitterness along with a nice coffee ending. Thick and malt-y, the Old Jubilation also has plenty of balancing bitterness throughout. It tasted a little young — these high ABV brews with loads of ingredients can take a while to properly age. The Avery is definitely a solid winter ale though, and a nice robust version to boot. Grade: A-/B+
Boulder Brewing Company Never Summer Ale: A cool and colorful label with a snowy mountain evening complete with coniferous trees indicates this is indeed a winter brew. The 6.5% ABV neighbor of Avery Brewing Company is deep auburn in color with ruby highlights and a light brown head. The nose is fantastic — sweet malt goodness and much like the pines on the label. Floral hop flavors and scorched caramel hit the tongue first with toasted malt arriving just after. The finish is bitter with lots of pine hop notes and roasted malt. Hop forward and bitter for a winter seasonal but it’s still balanced. Overall, a unique winter brew and a nice assertively hopped addition to the tasting. Grade: B+
Great Divide Hibernation Ale: This English Old Ale hails from a famed Denver brewery known for producing brews not made for the meek. Chestnut in color, the formidable 8.7% ABV ale smells extra malt-y-with lots of chocolate along some very British, earthy hop scents. Earthy and citrus hop flavors also start off the taste voyage. Sweet malt, dark caramel and toffee all make their presence known halfway through, adding complexity and body. The finish is memorable with light roasted malt notes, coffee, hop bitterness and some heat from the alcohol. It’s thick and chewy but yet well balanced and not overly sweet. This Old Ale really delivers with decadent malts, plenty of hops, and a nice buzz inducing ABV. Grade: A-