There's something about the long, cold nights of winter that make people want to reaffirm their faith in life. In my experience, that means plentiful toasts and sipping glasses of cheer around a warm fire. Europeans have been producing special ales for the holidays since at least the Renaissance, and the tradition is now catching on among American brewers. These festive beverages can take many forms, from dry saisons to rich, dark stouts. Here are five American winter seasonals that are each brewed in a different style.
Magic Hat Brewing Company's winter variety pack, known as the Feast of Fools, contains two bottles of a so-called Odd Notion that varies from year to year. This year's special treat is a braggot, an ancient beverage referenced in Chaucer. It is a mixture of beer and mead (fermented honey) brewed with spices. At 6% ABV, Magic Hat's version is not particularly strong, but it's quite flavorful. The aroma is floral and sweet, with the essence of chamomile, honey, and ginger. Flavors of white grape, pollen, grassy hops, spices, lemon, and pine are evident. The body is quite dry and tart, with the honey character more evident in an earthy perfume than in any sweetness. Nicely balanced and easy drinking. The Feast of Fools pack also contains the well-regarded red ale Roxy Rolles, so it is certainly worth picking up.
Samuel Adams also puts out a variety pack for the winter containing two bottles each of six different brews. Along with the standard Boston Lager and Cream Stout, the pack contains the Winter Lager, Cranberry Lambic, Old Fezziwig Ale, and Holiday Porter. The last two are your best bets here. The Old Fezziwig is a winter warmer that is pleasant enough, but I love the way Sam Adams does a porter. The holiday version is beautiful to look at, with a fluffy two-finger head and a deep walnut color. Roasted malt dominates the front end, with some clean tastes of nut, coffee, cocoa powder, grassy hops and herbs coming through mid-palate. The crisp finish has a mineral tanginess. A bit more ale-like fruitiness and creaminess would make this great beer even better.
Rogue Ales produces an American amber ale each year that is designated as Santa's Private Reserve. This a simple but well made ale that carries lots of malt and spice in its light body, without becoming a spiced malt soda, like some holiday offerings. The dry toasted malt, caramel, cherry, piney hops and nutmeg flavors are well-balanced, giving way to a nearly astringent nut-like bitterness. Santa's Reserve would pair well with a heavy holiday meal, and the modest 6% ABV won't put you under the table.
Red Brick Winter Brew, a Belgian-style strong dark ale that comes in at 8.2% ABV, is Atlanta Brewing Company’s winter seasonal this year, replacing the chocolate oatmeal porter that has been amped up to an imperial version and added to the year round lineup. ABC’s effort to step outside of its comfort zone with a Belgian-style beer is laudable, but this version is a bit of a disappointment, especially considering how well the porter turned out. Estery Belgian yeast aromas of banana and clove dominate the nose, along with some obvious alcohol. The toffee sweetness of the malts struggle against the rum-raisin bite of candi sugar and some herbal hops. The phenolic finish is sharp and borders on astringent. There are some interesting flavors here, but if you are looking for a winter beer from ABC, the Double Chocolate Oatmeal Porter is a better choice.
Old ale is a classic British style that is often released during the holiday season; this is a strong, malty ale with a deep, fruity character. One of the best made in the United States is Old Jubilation from Colorado's Avery Brewing Company. A rich aroma of caramel, toffee, and toasted grains greets the nose and carries over to the taste. Dark dried fruits like prune and raisin are also evident, along with nuts, whiskey-like malts, pine and a hint of maple. The mouthfeel is medium, with a lively carbonation that keeps the spices from weighing down the malts. Soothing and warming, it makes a great after dinner or dessert beer.
Next week I will feature Christmas treats from Belgium, where brewers have taken these complex ales to the level of art.