Winter is brewing

This season’s rich, holiday beers

By Jim Witmer

Photo: Brasserie d’Achouffe’s classic and complex Belgian strong ale; photo: Jim Witmer

There are those among us who love the cold snap of winter. I don’t happen to be one of them, but I do look forward to the release of the seasonal beers meant to bring a bit of cheer to the otherwise long, dark nights and minimalist gray landscape.

And then, the holidays come into play and are pretty much what you want to make of them. Holiday and Christmas beers can be solid choices for the many celebrations as food pairings or desserts. They also make thoughtful gifts —unless you are a complete Scrooge.

It’s not too soon to think about winter brews. Seasonal beers are released earlier and earlier every year, so it’s not unusual to see stacks of Christmas beers land around Halloween, while pumpkin beers are still thick in the market. But pumpkin beers can be savored at the Thanksgiving meal to compliment pumpkin pie flavors and well into the Christmas season, too. And many of the hefty winter seasonal brews can be enjoyed long after Santa has left the mall.

The beer styles of this season do not follow one particular flavor profile, but they are typically richer and fuller-bodied, and a higher than normal ABV thump is not uncommon. But breweries that label their beers with the name “Christmas” or “Holiday” risk not selling any after Dec. 25. However, the special releases this time of year can range from IPAs (hop forward) to winter warmer (gingerbread spices that evoke the desserts of the season) to old ales (boozy and malty), Belgian (fruity and yeasty), stouts (chocolate and coffee notes), and everything in between. If spices are used, they will be, in most cases, allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and star anise. All are ready for immediate enjoyment, but others with alcohol in the 8 percent range and higher will be worth putting away to age for future holidays—no matter what the “best by” date says.

Historically, brewing special winter ales predates the observance of Christmas. And for hundreds of years, monasteries brewed a special high ABV elixir that required a longer fermentation time that would be ready to serve during the darkest nights of the year. Now, American craft breweries have released their own versions, some with cultish popularity.

While there is certainly no shortage of quality beers for the consumer, there are some that have long been my favorites and worth the wait for their annual appearance, while breweries continue to add new, interestingm and flavorful releases.

In the U.S., many seasonal brews have stood the test of time, and at the top of the list is Anchor Christmas Ale, in the spicy “winter warmer” category. Since 1974, the brewers have kept everyone guessing about what each year’s secret recipe will reveal, making slight changes each year. So, not knowing what you are going to get with this one might be a deal-breaker, but I have never been disappointed. Another early example in this category is Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale, but it has always been an American IPA hop-forward holiday ale since it was first brewed in 1981. I can clearly remember being enthralled with these two seasonals when the craft beer landscape was dismal.

In a shout-out to Ohio, the original from Ohio Brewing Company is the ever-popular Great Lakes Christmas Ale (Cleveland) with its gingerbread and malty, bready qualities. Once hard to find, it is now seems to be available everywhere. Thirsty Dog (Akron) 12 Dogs of Christmas is also a spicy libation, offered in a barrel-aged version. Hoppin Frog (Akron) also offers a barrel-aged Frosted Frog, limited and available only in 22 oz. bombers.

Locally in Dayton, Warped Wing Brewing Company has collaborated with Esther Price to produce Esther’s Li’l Secret, a chocolate peanut brittle porter as their Christmas seasonal (now in the third year) that has limited distribution in the area in 16 oz. cans and draft. Fifth Street Brewpub will present an encore appearance of their popular Mint Cookie Stout from last year’s member home brew winner due to be released on Nov.  23, in the brewery and local taps, as well.

A look around at local bottle shops will reveal a vast selection of many fine seasonal offerings. In no particular order, here are my top 10 favorites this year:

1. Delirium Noel

Brewery: Bourwerij Huyghe

City: Melle, Belgium

ABV: 10%

Style: Belgian Strong Ale

Tasting Notes: Belgian yeast and malt provide rich notes of dark fruit, clove, malt. Creamy, highly carbonated, and boozy enough to set a few away to re-gift yourself next year.

2. Hibernation Ale

Brewery: Great Divide

City: Denver, Colorado

ABV: 8.7%

Style: Old Ale

Tasting Notes: A classic old style interpretation with bumped up chocolate and hop notes from an American craft brewery. Maybe not for hibernation, but should make you sleep in heavenly peace.

3. Global Warmer

Brewery: Sixpoint

City: Brooklyn, New York

ABV: 7.0%

Style: Imperial Red Ale

Tasting Notes: Roasty and bready, with a tropical hop profile of 70 IBU to complement and round out the hint of malt sweetness. This will warm your globe. Not an IPA but dank enough for you hop heads to enjoy.

4. Holly Jolly

Brewery: Fat Heads

City: Cleveland, Ohio

ABV: 7.4%

Style: Winter Warmer

Tasting Notes: Rich character of malt, honey, ginger and cinnamon spices is by itself perfect but pairing with Christmas desserts and a crackling fire…’Tis the season to be jolly.

5. Thundersnow

Brewery: Madtree

City: Cincinnati, Ohio

ABV: 8.50%

Style: Spiced Scottish Ale

Tasting Notes:  Nutmeg, ginger, vanilla bean, cinnamon, and cloves in a base of bready and chocolate malts all play nicely together for a full flavored dessert. Warming and smooth as Nat King Cole’s voice on the Victrola.

6. Xocoveza

Brewery: Stone

City: Encondido, California

ABV: 8.10%

Style: Sweet/Milk Stout

Tasting Notes: Mexican hot chocolate notes of cocoa, coffee, pasilla peppers, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg artfully brewed for online world class ratings. This one should be at the top of everyone’s Christmas list.

7. Nutcracker

Brewery: Boulevard

City: Kansas City, Missouri

ABV: 7.8%

Style: Winter Warmer

Tasting Notes: a fine example of the non-spiced warmer, just all full-bodied malts and aromatic fresh hops. Pairs well with hearty fare and peace on earth.

8. Slope Style Winter IPA

Brewery: Boulder Beer Company

City: Boulder, Colorado

ABV: 6.4%

Style: American IPA

Tasting Notes: A good example of a winter IPA with pine, citrus, and malt that allows easy drinking and outside activity on the slopes. The aroma of piney hops is reminiscent of a winter wonderland.

9. Alpha Klaus

Brewery: Three Floyd’s

City: Munster, Indiana

ABV: 6.00 %

Style: American Porter

Tasting Notes: Dark and creamy with a roasty, smoky, chocolate profile and loads of hops to make this a truly unique brew. Wise men still seek him.

10. N’ice Chouffe

Brewery: Brasserie d’Achouffe

City: Achouffe, Belgium

ABV: 10.00%

Style: Belgian Strong Ale

Tasting Notes:  Deeply complex, sugary, chewy, spicy, fruity, and boozy, this is one of the most classic of Belgian Christmas beers. It’s beginning to taste a lot like Christmas…

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Jim Witmer
Reach DCP beer writer Jim Witmer at JimWitmer@DaytonCityPaper.com

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