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Seeking out the best in malty, hoppy refreshment.

Serious Beer: Winter Warmers and Christmas Beers

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[Photograph: Maggie Hoffman]

'Tis the season for warming beers—for velvety barrel-aged stouts and serious brews from Belgium. Over the last few weeks, we've also been sampling winter warmers and other winter seasonals: beers released specifically for Christmas and for sipping over the cold months ahead.

A few of these beers might satisfy your Christmas cookie cravings: They have hints of oatmeal and nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger. Others are toasty and dark with a bit of smokiness. Most, though, are simply well-made ales with rich malty flavors and enough alcohol to warm you up. There are quite a few winners here; you may want to stock up before the stores run out. I hate to remind you (and myself), but winter is just beginning, and a few of these might help you make it through.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating here that these beers should not be served ice cold. If your first sip is a little bitter, let these beers warm up a minute or two before you cast judgment.

Do you have a favorite winter seasonal beer? Did we miss the best Christmas Ale of all? Let us know in the comments!

Serious Beer Ratings

***** Our new favorite
**** Awesome, worth remembering
*** We'd consider buying this again
** There are probably better options
* No, thanks, I'll have water.

Ratings are subject to personal taste.

Winter Winners

Odell Brewing Isolation Ale Colorado, 6.1% ABV
We were knocked out by this one. Malty and full-flavored, it's rich and caramelly but with a sturdy hoppiness. The mouthfeel is smooth and creamy. There are hints of lemon and cloves, hard water, and whole wheat toast. This is a perfect cold-weather beer.
*****

Clipper City Heavy Seas Winter Storm Maryland, 7.5% ABV
This seasonally available ESB delighted the hop-heads among us. Very rich caramel malt is offset by a punch of orange-marmalade flavor—this beer reminded us a bit of Campari. We also detected a hint of bay leaf and chamomile. While it didn't strike us as particularly Christmasy, we could drink this throughout the fall and into early spring. We loved the bitter brightness of this warming beer.
*****

Great Divide Hibernation Ale Colorado, 8.7% ABV
This robust Old Ale tastes like toasted hazelnuts and coffee with cream. It's a little oaky and has hints of maple syrup and tobacco—it would be good with a cigar, if you're into that, and it tastes great with spicy slices of salami.
****1/2

Anchor Brewing Our Special Ale California, 5.5% ABV
Each year Anchor brews a different version of this beer, and the 2009 version is quite tasty. It's dry with a sturdy hop backbone—we tasted a bit of juniper and a hint of fennel along with flavors that reminded us of gingerbread latt├ęs and cinnamon rolls. The finish is clean and it's quite drinkable—a sixpack would be a nice contribution to a holiday party.
****1/2

Breckenridge Christmas Ale Colorado, 7.4% ABV
This dark brown warmer would be perfect to sip by the fire in a ski lodge. Crisp, piney hops compliment the toasty malt-ball flavor. We tasted sourdough bread and a hint of fennel seed, firewood, and red pepper flakes. We'd love to try this with roast chicken or ham.
****

Smuttynose Winter Ale New Hampshire, 4.8% ABV
This deep brown ale tastes of burn caramel and dark toffee with a hint of prunes and yeasty flavor. There's very little bitterness, and a decent complexity with a hint of sassafras and clove.
****

Full Sail Wassail Oregon, 7% ABV
A hint of rosemary bitterness balances the warm malty flavors in this rich brown beer. We tasted unsweetened cocoa, caramel popcorn, freshly baked sourdough bread, and steel-cut oatmeal with brown sugar. This beer is very savory—there's a woodsy flavor to it—one taster said it reminded him of wild mushrooms. The finish is dry with a slight coffee aftertaste.
****

Put a Few of These Under the Tree

Delirium Noel Belgium, 10% ABV
This rich and thick Belgian Strong Dark Ale tastes like apricots soaked in dark rum. There's very little bitterness, though it does have a hint of delicate rosemary flavor. As we sipped this, we were reminded of black cherry pie and banana, along with toffee, dates, and brown sugar. This isn't our favorite beer of this style—we'd rather have a Rochefort 8—but it did remind us how fitting a Belgian dark ale is for the season, whether or not it comes in Christmas packaging.
***1/2

Brooklyn Winter Ale New York, 6.1% ABV
This reddish copper beer was pleasantly rich, malty, and smooth. We tasted apple cider and apricot jam, graham cracker and orange zest. It's quite drinkable: full flavored but not heavy.
***1/2

Full Sail Wreck the Halls Oregon, 6.5% ABV
This IPA has a fresh citrus scent and slightly floral flavor. Creamy, warm malt is balanced by resiny hops. Maple and brown sugar flavors duke it out with the hoppy bite—some tasters found the flavor a little too bitter.
***1/2

Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale California, 6.8% ABV
This rich, malty beer has a big helping of Sierra Nevada's trademark hoppy bitterness. The bright lemon flavors are nearly balanced with malty butterscotch notes. Be sure not to serve this too cold, or all you'll get is grapefruit and pine.
***1/2

Samuel Adams Winter Lager Massachusetts, 5.8% ABV
This ruby-colored beer surprised some of us; we loved its rich toffee flavor, hints of oatmeal, velvety poached pears, and nutmeg. While it's nothing earth-shattering, this tasty beer is quite drinkable, with very little hoppy bitterness—it's likely to appeal to whomever you have over during the holidays. Serve with with mild creamy cheese.
***1/2

Samuel Adams Holiday Porter Massachusetts, 5.8% ABV
This creamy beer pours a dark brown and has a full bready flavor. We tasted dark-roasted sesame seeds and a hint of honey, unsweetened cocoa powder and just a pinch of nutmeg. This beer is quite filling—we're happy to sip it, but wouldn't bring it to a party.
***1/2

Deschutes Jubelale Oregon, 6.7% ABV
This dark copper-colored ale is a hoppy winter warmer, with floral notes and hints of cloves, along with the occasional lemon zing. It's quite dry and earthy, but not heavy. As it warms, this beer tastes like buttery caramel and roasted nuts. This is not our favorite beer from Deschutes, but that says more about the high quality of the brewery's other offerings than it says about this beer.
***

Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome Ale Tadcaster, UK, 6% ABV
This winter warmer is a bit crisper and brighter than many of the others, and some found it a little weak. Hoppy lemon tea flavors mingle with golden toffee notes to make a restrained, but quite drinkable beer.
***

Bridgeport Ebenezer Ale Oregon, 6.4% ABV
This dark coppery ale smells a bit like peach jolly ranchers, but the taste is malty and dry. Some tasters noticed a hint of banana and toffee. There's a bit of toasty warmth and a slight sour bitterness, but not a ton of resiny hop flavors.
***

St. Arnold Christmas Ale Texas, 7% ABV
This Christmas ale pours a golden red, and has a touch of toffee flavor. It tastes yeasty and has a slightly bitter finish, with a sweet, malty center that reminded one taster of cornbread. This beer isn't quite as rich and full bodied as some of the others.
***

Pyramid Snow Cap Washington, 7% ABV
This mahogany colored beer is dry with a bit of a bitter edge. The flavors reminded us of unsweetened chocolate, toasted almonds, and blackberry jam.
***

Spiced Beers for Santa

Great Lakes Christmas Ale Ohio, 7.5% ABV
Almost like a mulled beer, this spicy brew has nutty walnut flavors, hints of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and a bit of molasses. We tasted a little black pepper, ginger, and citrus zest, and enjoyed it with a slice of dry aged cheese. This beer might work in a beer float with a little vanilla ice cream, if Santa has time to sit down for dessert. This beer was the favorite of a few tasters who were really looking for something festive.
***1/2

Sebago Slick Nick Winter Ale Maine, 6.2% ABV
This winter ale has caramel notes and a whiff of maple syrup—the taste reminded us a little of Eggo waffles. A hint of nutmeg and walnut are balanced by a hoppy, citrusy edge, as if they'd brewed with with whole clementines (including the pith.)
***

Bison Gingerbread Ale California, 6% ABV
This organic beer smells more sweet and spicy than it tastes; it's actually quite dry. We tasted oatmeal cookies and chicory, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and walnuts, but wished it were a little more full-bodied.
***

Dark and Smoky

Magic Hat Howl Vermont, 4.6% ABV
This black lager is crisp and dry, with hints of anise, cloves, and toasted chilies, but it's a little too smoky to drink unaccompanied. One taster described it as "ashy," while another found it reminded her of grilled cheese with crispy bacon on dark toast.
***

Sweetwater Festive Ale Georgia, 8.6% ABV
This dark brown beer tastes of dates and bacony smoke, with dark roasted coffee flavors and even a hint of teriyaki. It would probably go nicely with roasted meat and creamy cheese, but it's not the kind of thing we'd sip on its own.
**1/2

Skippable

Pike Auld Acquaintance Hoppy Holiday Ale Washington, 5% ABV
This beer tastes like it has the whole fruitcake in it: cinnamon and candied cherries (as well as those mysterious candied green fruits,) a hint of watermelon, orange peel, and nutmeg. The hops are pungent and bright, and you can taste the coriander that was in the brewing vessel. The spices—and a bit of green pepper flavor—were a little heavy for some of our tasters, who felt that this beer was just a bit off balance.
**1/2

Saranac Maple Porter New York, 5.3% ABV
The first taste of this is dry and coffee-like, but it opens up into a big maple candy flavor. The tasted reminded us of Vanilla Coke and Bailey's Irish Cream, and some were disturbed by the synthetic-seeming maple scent. It might be good with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
**

We'd Rather Get a Lump of Coal

Full Moon Winter Ale Colorado, 5.6% ABV
Coors (who makes Blue Moon) should be ashamed of itself for calling this winter seasonal an abbey ale; this sweet and watery brew is a bit like beer-flavored soda. The flavors get a little muddy and metallic at the end, with none of the richness of a true Belgian dubbel.
*

Disclosure: All beers except the Clipper City, Smuttynose, Delirium, Brooklyn, Sierra Nevada, Samuel Smith, Magic Hat, and Full Moon were review samples.

About the author: Maggie Hoffman and her team of tasters are always looking for their new favorite beers. Maggie also writes about cooking for Pithy and Cleaver.

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