There’s a beer for every season, and winter is no exception. Less daylight, colder temperatures, and snow and ice as you head north might have you reaching for a winter warmer.
As the name suggests, this is beer for the winter months. But that’s all you’ll learn about it from its name, because it is not a particular style. Brewer interpretations range all over the place.
Generally, these beers start with a strong ale and go from there. Much like spiced wines and ciders, some of them get additions of spices for winter and holiday purposes. Many, but not all, have high alcohol content. Most are amber to dark in color.
Stouts and porters received their own special attention in my column last month, but for our purposes here, let’s at least mention that the stronger versions of those—the imperial stouts, the Baltic porters, and the various barrel-aged varieties—are popular winter choices, with that extra bit of alcohol making you a little warmer and fuzzier in front of the fireplace. Some brewers also add spices to give them some holiday flair.
As far as winter beers go, here are a few examples to look for.
Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome Ale
Yorkshire’s oldest brewery produces this medium-bodied British strong ale. The medium mouthfeel and relatively low alcohol content (6 percent) make it a good introductory winter warmer. The flavor favors the malt, with caramel notes and a smooth finish.
Great Lakes Christmas Ale
Great Lakes Brewing has been producing this seasonal since 1992, and it has earned them several medals in competitions. Sweetened with a touch of honey and seasoned with ginger and cinnamon, this amber-colored ale warms you with 7.5 percent ABV. It sells in six-packs so you can share.
Belgian-based Brouwerij Huyghe is the brewer of Delirium Tremens, once voted the best beer in the world, and their labels sport their trademark pink elephants. This winter brew packs a 10 percent ABV punch, so after a couple of these, those elephants may come to life—in fact, they are ice skating on this brew’s label. Expect spicy and sweet fruit flavors, with a very modest touch of bitterness for balance. Bottles come in 330-milliliter (11.2-ounce) and 750-milliliter (25.4-ounce) sizes.
Highland Brewing’s Cold Mountain
In 1994, Oscar Wong, a retired engineer and homebrewer, opened Highland Brewing in a pizzeria basement in Asheville, North Carolina. In celebration of success in their second year, they brewed this spiced winter ale, and its annual release has become an anticipated tradition.
The flavors change each year as the brewers apparently “bicker like family” as they decide what to put in it. Typically this will include vanilla, a variety of nuts, and spices. It comes in one-liter bottles, 22-ounce “bomber” bottles, or six-packs. A new toasted coconut-infused option is also available in four-packs of 16-ounce cans, and there is a stronger “imperial” version as well.
St. Bernardus Christmas Ale
This Belgian brewery inside a Trappist monastery makes several critically acclaimed beers throughout the year, but this is their Belgian Quadrupel—sibling style to Belgian Dubbels and Tripels—with a stronger alcohol content—in this case, 10 percent ABV. No spices enter the recipe, though you may pick up spiciness from the yeast. Look for it at local liquor stores, sold in single 750-milliliter bottles sealed with corks and cages.
Anderson Valley’s Winter Solstice Ale
Natural flavors are added, so says the label, but what those may be is the brewery’s secret. Expect some caramel and toffee flavors, maybe a bit of vanilla, and cinnamon or nutmeg. The bitterness is very low, which might make this a bit sweet for some palates, and the medium body and 6.9 percent ABV put it somewhere between the heavy hitter warmers and a sessionable beer.
Capital Brewery’s Winter Skål
It’s easier to drink this beer than it is to find the special character for its name. This winter seasonal from Capital Brewery, an amber-colored, Vienna-style lager, bucks the trend of heavy and spiced. It has a stronger malty character balanced with a touch of bitterness, and more body than your typical pilsner, but without the higher alcohol, heaviness, and seasonings of more typical winter brews. The name is the Norwegian word meaning “cheers” or “good health”—a nice sentiment for the holiday season.
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com