Winter Beers: Of Strength and Spice

It’s beginning to look a lot like I’m behind the times. Beer columnists are supposed to write about holiday and winter beers before Christmas, when they are first released. But between the holiday parties, Christmas shopping, and a head cold, I just didn’t have the time to get it done. I did want to cover the topic however, so I’ll begin the New Year with a brief talk about winter/holiday beers.

I’d be happy to give you a one-sentence definition of what a “winter seasonal” is, but it’s impossible because there is more than one type. Some brewers make a beer that tastes like a fruitcake. Others make a big strong beer using normal ingredients in abnormal amounts.

Traditionalists go with tried and true styles that are popular in colder climates. Whatever form they take, the beers are not always worthwhile. What follows is a guide through the three most common types with some examples to help you get what you want.

Spicy Stuff
The easiest way to make a Christmas beer is to dump some cinnamon and nutmeg in amber ale and print snowflakes on the label. This stuff may go well with snickerdoodles and pumpkin pie but the spice is just too overwhelming to drink on its own. You’d have to have Santa-like powers to get through more than a pint of the stuff. If you’re curious, Harpoon’s (Boston) version is locally available.

The Big Boys
Christmas being a time of excess, some brewer’s make strong beers full of malt and hops for the holiday. Rogue’s (Oregon) “Santa’s Reserve” is a fine example. It’s a monster of malt, hops, and flavor that will put you in hibernation if you’re not careful. Another would be Tremont’s (Charlestown) Winter Ale, a more delicate version but still chock full of the good stuff. While the high alcohol content in these ales whop you upside the head, the sedative affect of the hops lull you to sleep. Put one of these and a plate of cookies out for Santa and you might find him passed out under the tree on Christmas morning.

Classic Cold Weather Beers
While some brewers like to make something novel, others stick with the tried and true varieties of beer that may not necessarily be designed for winter but certainly don’t seem out of place. Both Sam Adams (Boston) and Dornbusch (Ipswich) put out a German style Schwarzbier for winter. This black Bavarian style has the color and body of a porter but, as a lager, has the clarity that ales can’t duplicate. Other breweries, like Smuttynose (Portsmouth, NH), issue robust porters at this time of year and, like Schwarzbiers, they are well-suited for a chilly night.
When looking for something seasonal, it’s always a good idea to know what you’re getting yourself into. Before buying or ordering a winter beer, try to find out exactly what’s in it. Ask the bartender or store clerk what style it is or read the label carefully. There’s a lot of winter crap out there so be careful. I’d hate for anyone to spend good money on a beer that would’ve made a better cookie.