Strictly speaking, “winter beer” or “winter ale” isn’t a specific category of beer like stout, amber or gose. It isn’t a style that reaches back decades or centuries to Europe, and it hasn’t really become an emerging craft trend in the US either, although it’s a common seasonal lineup for most craft breweries. As a bartender and bottle shopkeep I hear requests for winter ales this time of year. I always wonder what exactly the customer is wanting–because the genre of beer is so vague, I’ve always got to prompt the customer for more information. There are some major recurring characteristics of a “winter beer,” however, and you are probably already thinking of them. Here in the northern hemisphere around the winter holidays it’s cold, dark, and either snowy or rainy and damp. These environmental factors change the way we eat, interact, feel, and yes, drink.
Roasty or Dark Malty Beers
Stouts, porters, brown ales, and the like are more common this time of year. I know that some of the world (examples being Ireland and the Caribbean) loves their stouts year-round, but I am often more of a fickle consumer, as most of us here in the US seem to be. There’s just something about the roasted, more nutty and caramel-notes in a porter that seem appropriate in darker days. Mouthfeel is a factor here as well.
Imperials and Barrel-Aged Beers
Chances are that if you’re at a social gathering this month, you’ll be in a warm room with lots of rich foods, sitting cozily around a fire or at a table with a sweater on. A much better situation to consume a strong, sweeter and more alcoholic accompaniment than say, at a summer party playing volleyball or romping around a beach. The bigger, boozier beers are often limited in release and good for sharing with family and friends for a special occasion.
Spiced, Infused or Fruited/Vegetabled Beers
Cocoa, pumpkin, coffee, cinnamon, nutmeg, even spruce or fir tips: these are all fall and winter-themed flavors that frequently end up in winter beers. Whether that’s ideal for pairing with seasonal foods or just playing on the overarching trends of the time, you won’t really see too many of these come summer.
Many breweries brew a special version of their flagship, or release a line of holiday or winter-themed beers around December. Winter is sometimes a harder season to draw patrons into a taproom (although restaurants are usually quite busy)–patio seating is just not as desired in 38 degree weather, and coming in for a growler for a backyard BBQ isn’t as common either for obvious reasons.
You won’t have trouble finding example of the genres listed above this time of year, but if you need inspiration, here are a few of my favorites that are fairly easy to find on the West Coast. Bring any of these to your holiday dinner and I’m pretty sure you’ll be popular.
For a rather drinkable, subtly spicy and hoppy option, try a pFriem Winter Ale!
For a robust and malt-driven NW-style winter beer, try a Fremont Winter Ale!
For a very easy drinker with a very Christmasy flavor try New Belgium’s Imperial Frambozen with Cocoa!
For the IPA-head, featuring lovely levels of hops and a nice maltiess too, try Sierra Nevada Celebration!
For a gently spiced and big roasty treat, try Great Divide’s Chai Yeti Imperial Stout!
Cheers and happy holidays to all you fellow beer lovers!