For many brewers and drinkers of beer, winter is the time to think big. Heavy beers flavored like pie and as strong as a Napa cabernet proliferate in the season of short days, sleet and Arctic winds. Often served in snifters, high-calorie "winter warmers" are traditionally brewed to offset the cold weather with the warmth of Christmas spices, sugar and alcohol.
Beer critic and author William Bostwick, who recently wrote The Brewer's Tale: A History of the World According to Beer, spoke with me about the loosely defined but tricky category of wintertime beers. A good winter warmer, he says, is mildly sweet, with at least a moderate level of alcohol for an overall warming effect on the drinker. But Bostwick is quick to offer a word of caution, noting that the most frequent fault in the style is a lack of nuance.
"The spices are often over the top," he says. "A Christmas beer shouldn't be like an allspice beer or a cinnamon beer. Just like with a delicious Christmas pie, you don't want to taste and be able to identify each individual ingredient. You want the spices to create a cohesive whole."
A proper winter warmer beer, according to the Beer Judge Certification Program guidelines—a frequently used resource for brewers—is an amber-colored to darker beer brewed with "[a]ny combination of aromatics that suggests the holiday season…" Spices are welcome, as are non-malt sugars like honey, maple syrup and molasses.
"But I think the category is so much broader," Bostwick says. Rich porters, soft milk stouts, Belgian and Scotch style ales, and English barleywines—less hoppy than their American cousins—are some of his favorite beer styles to drink in depths of winter. The Europeans, Bostwick notes, seem to have bested the art and science of brewing strong cold-weather beers with restraint, balance and poise. But among American beers, there are some commendable winter warmers. With our traditional gift-giving celebrations just days away, I asked Bostwick for his suggestions of a few of the better ones on shelves. (The last two on the list are my own personal favorites.) Try one yourself and slip another into the Christmas stocking of the beer lover in your family.
Great Lakes Christmas Ale
Released each November, this beer contains the classic spice melange of the winter warmer style. The effect is like a modest mulled wine, ideal for the frigid evenings of a Midwest December.
Another spiced beer, Ommegang's Christmas release is 10 percent alcohol by volume and drinks like gingerbread soaked in brandy. Like many darker beers with lots of alcohol, allow it to warm to about 55 degree F before sipping for the most pleasing experience.
This holiday beer is a comparative lightweight, at just 6.7 percent ABV. Still, the particular blend of dark malts and mild hops adds up to a beer heavy and dark with the taste of holiday cheer.
Troegs Mad Elf
This wine-strong Pennsylvania ale is brewed with cherries and a spicy Belgian yeast strain for a warm and filling beer. The fruit character is present but subtle.
Sam Adams Old Fezziwig
From America’s biggest little brewery, this blend of dark malts and zesty spices adds up to a beer redolent of toffee, chai and a shot of espresso.
Oskar Blues Old Chub
Old Chub, brewed in Colorado and packaged in a can, is a big but graceful rendition of the classic Scotch ale. The smoky, fudgy beer weighs in at 8 percent ABV.
Samichlaus Classic Bier
The bottle of this super-strong Austrian lager proclaims the liquid within to be "the world’s most extraordinary beer." The claim is a bold one in today's world of 10,000 brews, but it's also hard to argue with. The beer tastes of mulled wine, whiskey and candy and is aged for almost a year before release. It is 14 percent ABV and packs 420 calories in 12 ounces. Share it with a friend or two.
Shmaltz Brewing Hanukkah Chanukah
In the brewing season of elves and sleighs on beer labels, it would be an oversight to forget one of the few beers specifically brewed in honor of Hanukkah. At 8 percent ABV, Hanukkah Chanukah is brown, thick and intense, nutty and, for what it’s worth, free of Christmas spices.