Friday, December 24, 2010

Holiday Brews: To Spice or Not to Spice

Each season has their special releases which are appropriately enough called "seasonals". Spring has maibocks, Summer has citrusy weizens and Autumn has Oktoberfest biers, but none of are more well-known, more established or more anticipated than the Winter brews.

Winter brews are born out of the wassail tradition. Today many think of wassail as a mulled cider or spiced punch, but it is more likely that the first wassail was a mulled beer. There are conflicting stories as to how the beverage and custom came into being, but the meaning of the word "wassail" is agreed upon. It is a compounding of two words from Olde English: "wes" and "hal". I've known guys by those names, but in this case those words meant "Be in good health!" and was commonly used as a toast. But enough history, we're here to talk about the beer that was spawned from this tradition...those wonderfully strong brews that are used to shake off the bone-numbing cold of winter.

The coming of colder weather harkens the release of heavier ales (and even lagers). There are many varieties that start showing up on the better beer stores' shelves once the trees are bare in the northern climes. The vast majority are ales, but there a few winter lagers. The names vary in their references to winter and cold weather, but they all have one thing in common: they have pretty hefty malt profiles. Yes, there are exceptions that concentrate more on the hops but those are from the West Coast (are you surprised? I'm not) and even most of those go heavy on the malt.

Back in the day when microbreweries were just rising there were only a few of these cold-weather gems to chose from.
Anchor has been releasing their Christmas Ale since 1975. They actually call it "Our Special Christmas Ale" and then add the date. The label hasn't changed much through the years, but there has always been a tree on it. The type of tree has changed however...1995 even sported a palm tree. I've heard many beer geeks call this one "Christmas Tree Beer".
Sierra Nevada
first produced Celebration Ale in 1981, but the current recipe wasn't finalized until two years after that. This is one of the winter anomalies as it is actually an IPA. Even though SN had been producing a hoppy pale ale since it opened in 1980, Celebration - their first IPA - would come a year later.
refers to their winter release as Winter Warmer and has been doing so since 1988. Like Anchor's Christmas Ale this beer is spiced in the wassail tradition. Early on, the spicing was subtle but in more recent years it has become a little more heavy-handed. In my opinion, a bit too heavy-handed.
Samuel Smith
calls their winter beer Winter Welcome. The first imported winter beer offered in the US, it was introduced in 1989. This one is not spiced, which is more the norm for the United Kingdom's winter ales. British winter ales tend to focus more on the malty sweetness and higher ABV.
Sam Adams
first brewed Old Fezziwig in 1995. Although not my favorite winter beer, it does boast what I think is the best name for a festive brew. This is another spiced beer and also delivers the sweetness common to Winter Warmers.

Today, almost every brewery offers some variety of winter seasonal brew. And with more imports coming to the US each year, the variety of winter beers has grown exponentially. By the second week in December it becomes impossible to keep up with the influx and I must admit that there are still many that I really need to try. It is literal example of "so many beers, so little time". But I've still managed to include my list of favorite winter offerings, but you'll notice that there are very few spiced beers. I'm not overly fond of the style despite being appreciative of the brewmasters' efforts to keep true to tradition. So in no particular order, here are eleven of my favorite winter beers.
  1. Anchor Christmas - the first in the US and still a classic, spiced beer done right
  2. Weyerbacher Quad - you only need one to warm you up and send you off to long winter's nap
  3. St. Bernardus Christmas Ale - a strong, dark Belgian abbey ale with a 10% ABV kick, dark cherries
  4. N'Ice Chouffe - another strong, dark Belgian with a 10% ABV punch, but with an apple overtone
  5. Samuel Smith Winter Welcome - consistently sweet and clean, a favorite every year and always classic
  6. Nogne Underlig Jul (Peculiar Yule) - one of the few spiced beers that I loved, but drink it close to room temperature
  7. Celebration Ale - an IPA released to bring you a Merry Christmas and a Hoppy New Year (sorry, I couldn't resist)
  8. Weyerbacher Winter Ale - how can you resist the "Kleptomaniac Snowmen" label on this light-handed version of a spiced beer
  9. Lake Placid Winter Lager - yes, a lager in winter - heavy enough to qualify as a winter brew with the distinct taste profile of lager yeast
  10. Weyerbacher Riserva - more akin to a raspberry lambic, the sourness of this one is a refreshing departure
  11. Brasserie Dupont Avec les Bon Voeux - a saison for the holidays? Why not...and a damn good one at that
Yes, I'm a bit partial to Weyerbacher - I promise to try a lot more winter beers next year so that the chance of 30% of this list being Weyerbacher is lessened...but I can't promise that.

Next Time: A Beer Poem