If there's any consolation for Minnesotans who dread the winter months, it can be found in a pint glass. As the weather gets colder, the beer gets better, and December is prime time for winter seasonals.
"It seems to be winter seasonals get people more excited," said Dave Berg, brewer at August Schell Brewing Co. "I guess, cold weather, you know it's going to be a heartier beer, and we're Minnesotans so we like to have a hearty beer when it's cold."
Berg knows a thing or two about winter beers. A Schell's tradition dating to 1992, the brewery in New Ulm, Minn., releases an annual one-off beer dubbed Snowstorm, available in select bars and liquor stores, each November. With the style and recipe changing yearly, Snowstorm is a vehicle for the German-heritage brewery to experiment with new varieties.
"When we first started it, we didn't have a lot of year-round craft beers and it was a way to test the waters," said Ted Marti, Schell's president. "It was almost like a pilot program."
After releasing its first holiday batch, called Xmas Brew (now Schmaltz's Alt) in 1992, the nation's second-oldest family-owned brewery took two years off from the winter-beer game before returning with its draft-only Blizzard Ale series, Snowstorm's precursor. After three years under the Blizzard Ale banner, Marti said, a certain ice cream chain with a similarly named product flexed its muscles as Schell amped up its promotion materials.
"They must've ended up in a bar near the Dairy Queen headquarters," Marti said with a chuckle.
After the cease-and-desist letters came in, Marti, who's helmed the 152-year-old brewery since 1986, made the call to change the name. "It drives my wife crazy, because she doesn't mind putting up a fight, but we figured that it might be better to switch the name than to take on Dairy Queen -- live to fight another day, or something."
While many Snowstorms have been novelty styles, a few have become regulars in the Schell's lineup, like the now-year-round Firebrick, a Vienna lager introduced in 1998. This year's brew is a French Christmas beer that Berg says resembles farmhouse ales, which have heavy wheat characters. The bier de noel's herby, yeasty flavors are common among holiday beers, as is its malt-forwardness. Without using any spices, Berg notes, much of its profile is wheat-derived.
Such onetime releases give brewers creative license to dabble in big flavors for love-'em-or-hate-'em profiles not aimed for mass appeal. Having hit everything from a raspberry amber ale to a dunkel doppel weizenbock, Snowstorm typically garners a range of reactions.
"Every year we get people that say 'I liked it better last year' and 'this year is the best Snowstorm ever,'" Berg said. "That's kind of the fun about it."
Schell's isn't the only Minnesota brewery busting out bold winter beers. Here are a few other locally made brews to get you through the snow season.
• Pioneering brewpub Town Hall Brewery (1430 Washington Av. S., Mpls. 612-339-8696, www.townhallbrewery.com) is releasing a pair of its annual holiday beers, which use new recipes each year, with a Dec. 18 soirée (5 p.m.). This year's Festivus is a dark wheat beer made with Belgian dark chocolate and bananas, while Elves Elixir will be a strong Baltic porter lager. Its seasonal standby, Grinch's Grog, an American pale ale, gets a Monday release.
• Last week, newcomer Northbound Smokehouse and Brewpub (2716 E. 38th St., Mpls. 612-208-1450, www. northboundbrewpub.com) rolled out an 8.9 percent ABV Scotch ale called Snowpocalypse as the first in its three-part Snow series. An imperial honey brown ale (Snowmageddon) is due in early January, followed by Snownami, a raspberry double chocolate stout, in February.
• Other notables: Summit's hyper-malty Winter Ale (now available), Boom Island's Yule, made with aged tart cherries, cinnamon and nutmeg (now available); Indeed Brewing's roasty, caramel-hinted Stir Crazy (now available); Fulton's cold-weather favorite Worthy Adversary, with a Saturday taproom release; Lift Bridge's Belgian-style ale Biscotti (Dec. 15), and Steel Toe's limited barleywine, Lunker, expected mid-December.
High school friends Simeon Rossi and Mark Schiller have launched a fundraising campaign to get Loon Liquors (www.loonliquors.com), their would-be Northfield distillery, off the ground. The pals plan to peddle Loonshine, a white whiskey made with local ingredients, crafted "from grain to glass" with an emphasis on environmentally friendly production. Rossi and Schiller hope to raise $40,000 by Jan. 18.
Santa pub crawls
'Tis the season for beer-sopped white beards, as the annual Santa bar crawls begin. Saturday's St. Paul Santa Crawl (5 p.m. $20, St. Paul, www.stpaulsantacrawl.com) will have red-suited revelers hopping between capital city watering holes (with party-bus assistance) to benefit Toys for Tots. Next Saturday St. Nicks will stalk participating Lowertown bars during the fifth annual Lowertown SantaCon (5:30 p.m. Dec. 15, free, Lowertown St. Paul, www.lowertown santacon.info). Check the websites for itineraries.
Michael Rietmulder writes about bars and nightlife.