It’s always fun to walk into the beer aisle, but when those winter warmers start showing up, it’s like being a kid in a candy store. So many dark, rich beers featuring coffee, chocolate, and spices . . . It almost makes winter feel too short.
Almost. This is Chicago, after all.
Still, ’tis the season when there’s nothing like coming in from the biting wind, slathering your cracked hands with Neosporin, and reaching for a beer big enough to warm you from the inside out. Or breaking out these strong, festive ales for your holiday parties and surprising those guests who didn’t know beer could taste anything other than hoppy.
There are so many beers to enjoy this holiday season that it can be a little daunting, so here’s a kind of road map to help you begin to make sense of what’s out there as you prepare for your holiday parties.
Nothing Says Holidays Like Spices
Or at least, that’s how it seems in the beer cooler. Adding spices to ale for midwinter drinking goes back to ancient Britain, though the modern practice owes more to the resurgence of craft beer than to any continuing tradition.
Watch for lots of holiday or Christmas ales advertising the use of various festive spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, cloves, orange peel, and more. Great examples include Anderson Valley Winter Solstice, Anchor Christmas Ale, and Revolution Fistmas Holiday Ale.
A Beer By Any Other Name . . .
Be prepared for a variety of names. You’ll find some folks will differentiate between winter warmers and holiday ales, for instance. Whereas holiday ales feature spices, winter warmers tend to be heavier and richer so that they can, well, warm you up on a cold day. Deschutes Jubel Ale is a great example of a winter warmer, as is Arcade Chiberian Winter Warmer.
Winter Beers Have Style, Too
Just like summer seasonals, winter ales come in a wide variety of styles and recipes, so a great part of the fun is discovering what breweries come up with for winter drinking.
You may see some beers labeled a holiday, Christmas, or festive ale but also called by familiar styles. Bell’s Christmas Ale is a Scottish ale, for instance, but they also run their Winter White, which is a lovely, if unexpected, witbier. Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale is a fresh hopped IPA (some winter beers can still be hoppy, but then again, winter means something different in Chico, California).
If you’ve seen Lagunitas Sucks on the shelves, you’ve probably guessed that it’s their holiday ale by the festive, star-shaped Santa on the package. Otherwise it just looks like a sweet brown ale (in fact, it was created when they didn’t have the time to make their normal winter seasonal, Brown Shugga’, thus they call it a “substitution ale.”)
Seasonals to Last Past Christmas
Then there’s a whole class of winter seasonals that aren’t labeled for the holidays at all but are meant to get your through that long dreary patch between New Year’s and the first buds of spring.
These tend to be imperial stouts or porters that may or may not feature fruit and spices but will still be dark, high-ABV beers with lots of toasted and roasted notes. These include Great Lakes Blackout Imperial Stout, Ale Syndicate Richie Imperial Porter, and of course Two Brothers Northwind Imperial Stout.
Many of these are available into the first quarter of the next year, but because they are high-ABV and heavier, they should keep pretty well if you stock up on them now.
It’s worth noting that not all winter beers are ales, either. Hometown lager heros Metropolitan roll out their Generator Doppelbock about this time, and Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewing put out their Holiday Spice Lager just to show that beers stored at cold temps can still be drunk in cold temps.
For Those of You Keeping Track…
Incidentally, Ratebeer doesn’t filter for either Holiday Ale or Winter Warmer, while Beer Advocate has only Winter Warmer, and UnTappd has both Winter Warmer and Winter Ale. Fortunately, you can still find beers on each of those sites by searching by name or by “holiday ale.”
Also, don’t be surprised to find that a lot of seasonals are draft only. If only there were some way you could try all the great winter beers without stopping at several dozen breweries around the country . . .