What Makes a Winter Beer?

Bob Barnes - It isn't just one style.

There are varying schools of thought on what is a winter beer. Some will insist that a winter beer, winter warmer or Christmas Ale must have spices added, which makes sense, as the month of December lends itself to a bevy of sweet treats laden with cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and the like. Those not wanting to be limited to pairing with holiday celebration foods support specializing in beers with a darker hue, such as brown ales, porters and stouts, as the roastiness and burnt-like coffee flavors go down easier when the temps are cold than do beers with lighter SRMs. A third way of thinking adheres to turning to beers with stronger ABV, as perhaps we need more alcoholic fire to help us get through those freezing nights when we just want to stay indoors and try to stay warm. And lastly, true hopheads see no reason to forego hoppy beers during colder months, although the hops may be toned down a bit in some seasonals.

Below are representatives of each winter beer type, all of which are sure to please your taste buds, no matter which school of thought you adhere to.

Dark and Rich

Coronado Brewing Stupid Stout

The San Diego-based Coronado Brewing Co. which launched in 1996 has stepped up its game in recent years, branching out into a variety of beer styles, including some that are big in flavor and ABV. Case in point is its Stupid Stout, originally brewed in 2008 as an English Stout, that is now bumped up to an Imperial Stout and part of the brewery’s limited-release Crown Series. I love the name of this brew, and wonder if the brewery chose it because that may be just how you’ll be after drinking a whole 22 oz bottle of this 9% ABV dark monster, but the name actually refers to what co-founder Ron Chapman affectionately calls “a stupid amount of hops.” Pitch black it is, with chocolaty flavors derived from roasted barley and chocolate malt, and a body rich enough to stand up to the “stupid” hops. Coronado Brewing suggests that this is the perfect beer to warm up with as winter cold sets in, and for those with enough will power, consider aging this beer, as the big flavors will mellow, leaving behind a smooth, balanced sipper.

Holiday Spices

Southern Tier 2Xmas

Southern Tier Brewing Company was founded in 2002 in Lakewood, NY, and since 2012 has been brewing this ultimate holiday spice beer in the Swedish tradition of Glögg, a hot mulled wine made from various spices. The brewery’s choice of spices for its 2Xmas are figs, orange peels, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and ginger root, but unlike Glögg, it suggests you serve it cold. The dark, crimson red hue and Christmas tree ornaments on the label will help you feel in the holiday spirit and the aforementioned spices are wonderfully vibrant and lively on the tongue. The spices blend quite well and although it’s not listed as one of the ingredients, the predominant flavor I sensed was allspice.

Hops are Good Any Time of Year but Toned Down

Widmer Brothers Brrr

First released as N.W. Red Ale as part of Widmer’s experimental W Series in 2006, the Portland, OR-based brewery releases this beer annually and 2015 marks the eighth straight year. This hoppy Northwest-style red ale, a departure from many dark malt-driven winter warmers, has a deep red, rich body and a hearty malt presence. The addition of Simcoe (which was a fairly new hop strain when this beer was first released) and Cascade hops give it a big citrusy aroma, and a proprietary Alchemy hop blend provides a balanced bitterness to complement the sweet malt profile.

We Need More ABV to Keep Us Warm

Mavericks Big Break Belgian Style Golden Ale

A sister company of Half Moon Bay Brewing, the Mavericks name refers to risk-takers, innovative and unwilling to compromise, like the surfers who take on some of the world’s most challenging waves in Half Moon Bay, CA where the brewery is located. Its first releases were Belgian Style Wit and Rye Pale Ale, session beers that both logged in at 3.75% ABV. Its latest release is this Belgian Style Golden Strong Ale, which at 8.3% more than doubles its earlier creations. This beer has already drawn acclaim, taking the gold medal for best French/Belgian Ale at the 2015 U.S. Open Beer Championships. Available in draft and in four-pack of 16 oz cans, it features Pilsner malt with a touch of wheat, which results in a beautiful golden color and a light, sweet malt background. European hops add a subtle grassy, earthy and herbal flavor and there are Belgian-style yeast aromas of honey, bubblegum and banana with a soft spice character. The final piece of the puzzle is Belgian clear candy sugar, added for a complex and dry finish.

The Author:

Bob Barnes is editorial director of The Las Vegas Food & Beverage Professional, regional correspondent for Celebrator Beer News and writes the Top 10 Beer lists for Gayot.com. He welcomes your inquiries and can be reached via e-mail at bob@lvfnb.com.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.

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