Generally speaking, most winter beers fall into one of a few categories. Some are malty and spiced, some are malty and strong (often old ales), some are exceptionally hoppy, and some are whatever random style the brewer wanted to turn into a seasonal.
Malty and spiced beers This category probably makes up the largest percentage of winter seasonal beers. They’re something to go with those holiday meals, enjoy with cakes and pies, and generally evoke the mental images associated with holiday treats. Notable examples include the following:
Samuel Adams Winter Lager—Undoubtedly the most widely-distributed winter seasonal in our state. Easy to find in pretty much any grocery store. It’s a bock brewed with wheat and spiced with orange peel, ginger, and cinnamon. Tasty and tastefully brewed for a spiced beer.
Anchor Christmas Ale—The oldest craft-brewed winter seasonal in the United States, first released in 1975. It’s a dark ale, masterfully spiced, featuring a different recipe each year. It has become one of my favorite holiday traditions.
Sweetwater Festive Ale—A regionally-brewed example inspired by Anchor’s original. This one is heftier at 8.5 percent ABV and is a great companion for an evening watching any one of a few dozen movie versions Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Malty and strong beers These are in the same vein as the malty and spiced beers, but instead of adding actual spices, the brewers strive to create spicy flavors with the use of certain hops and/or yeasts. American brewers often aim for something inspired by English old ales. Notable examples include the following:
Avery Old Jubilation Ale—Features spicy Bullion hops, which originated in England but are also now grown in the U.S. It warms you up with 8 percent ABV. An abundance of dark malts provide hints of coffee, caramel, and toffee.
Great Divide Hibernation Ale—The hops in this one are a bit more on the grassy side as compared with Old Jubilation, and it’s just a tad more potent at 8.7 percent ABV. But it’s very much in the same company as the Avery brew above, and has even won gold at the Great American Beer Festival. Exceptionally hoppy beers What would any survey of selected American craft beers be without mention of some hop bombs? No one in the world uses hops better (or more over-the-top) than Americans. It shouldn’t be surprising that we put absurd amounts of them in our winter beers, too. Here are some examples:
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale—This one’s been around longer than any other seasonal out there except for Anchor’s Christmas Ale. It was first brewed in 1981 and has used the same recipe since 1983. It was one of the first American-style IPAs ever brewed and uses fresh hops. No spices are used, but the specific combination of hops produce a spicy flavor profile perfect for cool weather.
Rogue Santa’s Private Reserve—Rogue calls it a “double-hopped” red ale. Intensely-hopped red ales are among my favorite types of beer, and they are surprisingly hard to come by in Alabama. The crystal malts that provide the reddish hue add a great caramel sweetness that beautifully balances the hop bitterness. Beers of random style It’s obvious the folks at Bell’s Brewery don’t want to do what everyone else is doing. They have two winter seasonals out right now that don’t fit any of the conventions followed by most breweries:
Bell’s Winter White Ale—At 4.5 percent ABV, this has the lowest alcohol content of any winter seasonal beer I know of. Witbier is a spiced style of beer, and it’s not hard to see what the folks at Bell’s were thinking when they pegged this for a winter release. Nice change of pace.
Bell’s Christmas Ale—Having hit the spicy side with Winter White, they also went the malty route with their Christmas Ale, a Scottish style beer. This one is also more sessionable than anything else on the list except Winter White, as it clocks in at just 5.4 percent ABV.
This is the best season of the year for special releases of beers. Don’t let it go to waste!
“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 email@example.com.