Winter Warmers are the signature beer style of the holiday season. They are robust, rich, and boast an alcohol presence that is usually, well, warming. But over the years craft breweries have reached beyond this singular style to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year, and this roundup highlights some of our favorite non-traditional selections that are perfect for sharing.
Sleigh'r is an unusual style to settle on for the holidays, and I'm thankful for the variety. The Oregon-based brewery selected a Dark Double Alt as the style for their seasonal offering, and it is a pleasant alternative to the many ales of Christmas. Jamie Floyd, co-owner and founding brewer, explains that "the motivation for Sleigh'r was to make a beer that was different; we created a malt-forward yet dry, toasty and hardy beer brewed in the traditional German Alt way, only darker."
This super dark beer would probably not help Santa guide his sleigh, but it would definitely light up a holiday party. A bit of dark, grainy bread comes through in the aroma and there is a pronounced nutty malt flavor. Alts are typically brewed with ale yeast and fermented at lager temperatures, so the result is clean. This one is no different, and the crisp finish allows Ninkasi to showcase their hop-loving holiday spirit.
Odell Woodcut No. 7
Sometimes a good seasonal doesn't come right out and claim a season. Odell's Woodcut Series No. 7 is not technically a winter seasonal, but this imperial stout will certainly take the chill out even the most bitterly cold Colorado day.
At 12.5% ABV, this is the strongest of the offerings on this list, so be wary when sharing at a family gathering or things can get messy! The beer is aged in fresh oak barrels, which contribute a vanilla-scented woody complexity to the finished product.
The flavor is huge: toffee, pecans, coffee, vanilla, and tobacco, all rolled up in a creamy, pleasing mouthfeel. The oak is definitely perceivable, as is the alcohol, and while this would do well with age, No. 7 is definitely drinkable in time for the 2013 holiday season.
Drink this beer with your pecan pie. Or instead of your pecan pie.
Elysian is calling Bifrost a strong pale ale, and chose this style to keep hopheads happy among the barrage of winter warmer-inspired brews. "We decided to release this style of winter beer rather than typical winter styles to appeal to hop lovers," says Elysian's Director of Sales & Marketing Matt Thompson.
Forget the fresh-cut Christmas tree, this beer packs floral and piney hop aromas that are fragrant enough to fill the room on its own. The biscuity malt holds up the hoppy punch and though a little thin for its heft, there's plenty in the flavor to keep the imbiber engaged. Bifrost would make a perfect stocking-stuffer for the hop-lover in your life!
Sixpoint Global Warmer
When Superstorm Sandy barged into Brooklyn in October of 2012, the Sixpoint brewhouse was flooded. Originally, this beer was originally a draft-only release, however post-hurricane they felt it was an appropriate time to reinvent the beer and release it—almost one year to the day after Sandy—in a canned 4-pack format.
The beer pours a rich, brick red that wouldn't be out of place hearthside. There is a spiciness here, but it isn't drawn from the addition of nutmeg or cinnamon; it comes instead from a deliciously aggressive hopping that the beer has undergone. Toasty malt and an apropos warmth from the 7% ABV settle in beneath the fresh blanket of bitter, resiny hops. Santa will be saving this beer for only the nicest of beer geeks this year. That is, if he doesn't keep them all for himself; I would!
The toasty, caramel malt would be a perfect fit for roasted turkey or duck, and would even serve well when it's time for dessert with sweet potato pie or a roasted chestnut mousse.
Samuel Adams Merry Maker Gingerbread Stout
Of the beers sampled for this article, this one is the truest to the Christmas-time theme. From the tobogganing gingerbread men careening forth on the bottle's label to the nailed-it aroma of freshly baked gingerbread, if you are in the market for a beer that tastes like the holidays, this is your bet.
Beers like this are sometimes dismissed as promotional, and while perhaps a bit sweet to be a regular in the fridge, I did enjoy Merry Maker as an introduction into the holiday beer season. It has a classic spice profile of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger, but their presence is stronger in the nose and better integrated on the palate than you might expect. The beer is robust, its sweet stout base breaking through the spices with molasses, anise, and bitter coffee, and despite its 9% ABV, it's very drinkable. Bring this brew to your office's holiday cookie swap.
About the Author: Stef Ferrari is a Brooklyn-based Certified Cicerone, food writer/photographer, and author of a forthcoming beer industry guidebook with Wiley & Sons Publishing. Find her on the web and on Twitter at @stef_ferrari.