Our species has been using colder weather and holiday seasons as an excuse to drink special beer for centuries. Whether Christmas/holiday ales, winter warmers, old ales, juleøl, jólabjór, or myriad other titles, the seasonal releases of the coldest months tend to aggregate around a core set of distinctions: often stronger in alcohol, darker in color (with a heavier focus on the malt contributions), and frequently spiced. But a quick glance at Sierra Nevada’s hop-focused Celebration—zero spices; malt in the back seat—reminds us how variable those bounds are.
Ultimately, consumers tend to be a bit more inclined to embrace sweeter, heftier beers in the colder months, and breweries often have their own ways of letting their winter flag fly as the weather changes. Bell’s Brewery’s 9th annual All Stouts Day showed off 20 different versions this year, while the five-day Holiday Ale Festival in Portland celebrated its 22nd year. Even as the craft-beer consumer continues to evolve, this season remains a window to try something new—possibly with a little extra oomph. We take a closer look at five key winter ales below.
Sierra Nevada Wintertide Ale
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.; Chico, Calif., and Mills River, N.C.
Smooth, chewy caramel and subtle spice at the core make for an easy-drinking winter ale. Its nutmeg brings a big portion of the spice component (other additions are coriander, ginger, and cinnamon), with an overall vibe that’s between pumpkin spice and firmer winter footing. Light on hops, malty sweet, with nicely rounded edges.
Anchor Christmas Ale (2017)
Anchor Brewing Co.; San Francisco, Calif.
Both the secret recipe and pictured tree species change annually, this year highlighting Abies bracteata, aka the rare Santa Lucia fir. The 43rd iteration of this popular annual release pours a dark chocolate-brown and is firmly bitter at (hmm…) 43 IBUs. The core sweetness of burnt brown sugar and toffee is met by spicy, herbaceous hops and nutty, chicory-like savoriness.
Indeed Stir Crazy
Indeed Brewing Co.; Minneapolis, Minn.
Sometimes referred to as a porter, this canned winter ale incorporates cacao nibs, raisins, and vanilla for a heavier tilt toward sweetness than the two California options reviewed here. But it’s softly roasted, packed with caramelized sugars and cocoa, and letting this one warm a bit gives the special additions time to breathe. The caramel emphasis seems ideal beside roasted pork.
Double Mountain Fa La La La La
Double Mountain Brewery & Taproom; Hood River, Ore.
That whole thing about Anchor’s option being on the bitter side at 43 IBUs? This winter ale from Double Mountain is listed at 85. At 7.5% ABV, the net result feels almost like a double red or American strong ale—packed with resinous, dank hops. That key caramelization from crystal-malt additions helps serve as a ballast, but it’s very much a generous snowfall of hops.
Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome Ale
Samuel Smith’s Brewery; Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, England
This seasonal from Samuel Smith’s gets a new label each year, plus it’s been imported since 1990: “the first imported winter seasonal beer.” It’s got pedigree, but it’s been a long time since we’ve hung out. This proved an exceptional revisit: packed with pristine caramels, toffee, and a spicy undertone of hops. It’s a classic winter option that still disappears.