Brewers are rolling out their holiday and winter ales. Aside from poinsettia and elf-bedecked labels, what is it that makes these beers particularly appropriate to the season? While most tend to be rich, malty and a wee bit strong, the real truth is that holiday beers quite often are holiday beers simply because the brewer has labeled them so.
These wintry brews come in all colors, weights and tastes. There are light ones and dark ones; some spiced and some straight. There are strong ones with alcohol warmth to cut the winter chill, as well as some lightweights that are refreshingly easy to quaff. Whatever your taste, you'll find something to like among the holiday beers.
One of the lighter examples is Shiner Holiday Cheer from the Spoetzl Brewery in Texas. Brewed with roasted pecans and Texas peaches, this dark wheat beer is about as close as you can get to bottled peach cobbler; sweet, cooked peaches enveloped in a nutty crust of wheat, caramel and pecans. Yeast-derived clove notes complete the effect.
Two of my favorites get a wintry blast from the addition of juniper berries or spruce. Alaskan Winter Ale is a malty-rich amber beer with toasty caramel notes that offer contrast to the berry-like flavors of fresh spruce tips. Hinterland Winterland from Wisconsin's Green Bay Brewing is a black-as-night Baltic Porter. Chocolaty roast provides a perfect backdrop for the refreshing herbal and fruity character of juniper.
A beer for a storm
Schell's brews its seasonal Snowstorm to a different style every year. The 2012 version is called Bière de Noël. It takes its inspiration from the farmhouse ales of northern France. Bread crust, biscuit and dark honey flavors support loads of herbal, spicy and fruity red-apple and orange notes. It's all wrapped up in a blanket of cotton candy-like Belgian yeast. This beer screams "holidays."
Another local offering with a Belgian flair is Yule No. 1 from Boom Island Brewing Co. A chewy, 12 percent alcohol, strong dark ale, this beer highlights the deep flavors of prunes, plums and raisins. The comforting flavor of dark bread slides in underneath. It's a sweet beer, but the dry finish keeps it from being cloying. Pour it into a snifter or tulip glass to gather the luscious aromas, then savor it slowly to see how its character changes through the glass.
From just across the St. Croix in River Falls, Wis., comes Rush River Winter Ale. There are no Christmas-cookie spices here, just silky-smooth caramel malt and gentle alcohol warming. Based on the strong ales of Scotland, Winter Ale leans to the sweet side, but there is just enough subtle, hop bitterness to provide balance.
If not-so-subtle hops are your thing, then Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale is the holiday beer for you. Celebration Ale is exactly what you would expect from the pioneers of hoppy, American Pale Ales. High levels of bitterness and pronounced citrus, mint and herbal hop flavors are the stars of this relatively high alcohol IPA. Those hops are balanced by bready-toasty supporting malt and a bit of alcohol. This is definitely a Christmas beer for the hop heads.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at michael@ aperfectpint.net.