Lots of breweries have special brews for all four seasons. But the winter seasonals (which usually hit shelves in late fall) are the best. Spring often involves wheat beers. Summer may bring wheat beers or even lighter pilsners or Kolsches. And fall often brings Oktoberfests or the occasional doppelbock. But winter brings dark, rich, malty, and often spiced beers. They tend to be a bit high in ABV for the alcohol warmth, which is probably how they got the style name “winter warmers.”
I recently mentioned I’m not especially fond of pumpkin beers because many of them are clumsily over-spiced. In winter warmers the spices are usually more subtle and complex. Another point in favor of the cold weather brews is that their higher alcohol contents make them good candidates for aging, and over time spices will mellow.
Sweetwater Festive Ale has been the Atlanta brewery’s winter seasonal for several years. At 8.6% ABV, it’s right in the sweet spot for winter warmers. Cinnamon and mace are the spices, which is a welcome departure from the abuse of ginger and nutmeg many brewers are guilty of. The real beauty of this beer is that it has a wide array of very subtle flavors competing against each other, and nothing hits you over the head. There’s some nuttiness, dark fruit, chocolate, light roasted coffee, and of course cinnamon and mace. But none of these dominates, which is the hallmark of a great winter beer in my opinion.
At least through Christmas, I will probably buy very little beer other than winter seasonals. Especially since our selection in Alabama will see an impressive increase over past years because of the change in ABV limit. I can recall about six winter releases that were readily available around here last year. Off the top of my head I can think of at least fifteen we’ll be seeing this year, many of which are already hitting stores. And there will certainly be more than that, as I don’t know everything the wholesalers are bringing in.
You may not be surprised that I recommend enjoying these beers paired up with holiday meals and sweets. Sweetwater Festive Ale would go nicely with a pecan pie or some fudge, perhaps as you curl up next to the fireplace and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org