Now that Dry January is finally over, ’tis that season again, that time of the year when Old Man Winter sweeps across the Northern Hemisphere bringing blizzards, chilly wind and making life generally miserable.
That is, until you leave work, remove your heavy coat and replace it with a liquid jacket – the warmth that only a good winter beer can provide.
Winter craft beers are darker, hardier breeds of belly-warming goodness. Winter beers are brewed to offer a rich, full body that embraces the sweetness of malt more than their fair-weather counterparts. Some are spiced, others are almost chocolate-sweet, and some simply jack up the alcohol content and call it a season.
Being from the damp Pacific Northwest of the US, I’ve grown up with no shortage of beer varieties.
The region is, after all, the craft beer capital of America, with friendly (and sometimes downright bitter) rivalries between breweries stretching all the way down the I-5 corridor from Bellingham to Seattle, through beer-boasting Portland, then on down until Oregon becomes Northern California.
Regardless of their recipe, winter beers should be served at a warmer temperature than normal—an almost tepid 50 degrees will really bring out the flavor and add some extra warmth to wipe the chill from your bones.
Here’s a guide to my favorites:
City: Eugene, Oregon
Style: Dark Double Alt Ale
We might as well open with the beer I have at my side as I write this guide (and it goes without saying that it’s an excellent aid to writing beer guides).
Based out of Eugene, Oregon, Ninkasi is renowned for brewing quality beers, and the Sleigh’r is no different.
Many winter releases can be so sweet that some people find them difficult to drink, but the Sleigh’r offers a robust combination of crisp hops and smooth malt, making it perfect for someone who wants a good dark beer but is still holding onto the easy-drinkability of summer.
The Sleigh’r sets itself apart for another reason. While most alts are a fairly typical 5 percent ABV, Ninkasi’s double version ups that by more than 2 percent, giving it a much appreciated extra kick.
Verdict: With a smooth, malty flavor and its 7.2 percent ABV, it’s got enough strength in it to keep the chill at bay.
Brewery: New Belgium
City: Fort Collins, Colorado
Style: White IPA
The Accumulation from New Belgium—based out of Fort Collins, Colorado, and among the most popular craft breweries in America—is new to this brewer’s roster. When I saw it hit the shelves a few weeks ago, I was rather surprised to see an IPA as a winter release, but I tried it, and it’s great.
It’s light, but that’s nothing to hold against it. Accumulation offers the bitter crispness of an IPA, with just enough hints of sweetness to pretend that you’re drinking a more traditional winter beer.
According to the brewmaster at New Belgium, the Accumulation is packed with hops and given a lighter color in order to serve as an alternative to your standard dark winter brew.
Verdict: It works. In a season of dark, malty beers, a lighter, crisper option is a rather pleasant change. Think of it this way—it’s as refreshing as kicking back in the snow and making snow angels.
City: Bend, Oregon
Style: English Strong Ale
I’ve been a fan of the Bend, Oregon, based brewery Deschutes for about as long as I can remember, and it’s without a doubt one of the most beloved and successful craft breweries in the country. There’s a good reason for it—many of the beers they’ve produced over the years have been fantastic.
World Beer Championship Gold Medal recipient Jubelale is no different. Offering a complex blend of spices and a color so deep that you can’t see through the pint glass, it’s practically soup in a bottle.
Historically speaking, the richness is one of the reasons dark winter beers were created. In the winter months when food became scarce, heavy, dark beers were brewed to be packed with nutrients. Jubelale maintains this tradition, and after just one or two you’ll be full enough to swear that you’ve consumed an entire meal.
Verdict: Thick, dark, and potent, Jubelale is no mere jacket—it’s the parka of beers.
City: Escondido, California
Style: American Strong Ale
This beer is a troublemaker.
Based out of Escondido, Stone would have you think that it is the king of breweries. And it might be, not so much out of craftsmanship, but from pure attitude alone. They do, incidentally, have some finely crafted brews, although I’m not sure the Double Bastard is so much finely crafted, as it is a forceful shove into celebration. If this thick, heavy, 11.2% beer is a show-stealer.
Double Bastard is unique because it can be purchased in either 22oz bottles or massive 3L monstrosities, which make for great gifts. The 3L decorative bottle is the perfect present for a rambunctious 21-year-old who still believes he’s invincible.
Verdict: This isn’t a beer to be trifled with. You know what they say: “That which doesn’t kill you…”
City: Seattle, Washington
Style: Winter Pale Ale
Let’s reel back from the dark and pungent for a moment.
Elysian—which is located in Seattle—is arguably my favorite brewery. All of their beers are well-crafted, and their Bifrost Winter Pale Ale is no different. It’s light and refreshing while still offering the subtly malty sweetness that defines a good winter release—not to mention its bold 7.6% ABV.
This is a great beer to have along with a big meal. Heavy enough to stand up against other winter beers, it’s lighter flavor provides more room in your appetite for food, unlike some of the thicker brews.
Verdict: This is a great go-to beer for any situation—a meal, a party, or an excursion into the snow.
Brewery: 21st Amendment
City: San Francisco, California
Style: Winter Spiced Ale
Named after the consoling yet sometimes enflaming radio addresses once delivered by FDR, the Fireside Chat stands alone from the other beers on the list in that it comes in a can.
Rich and spicy in flavor, yet pleasantly smooth, this dark, high-ABV brew is a bit too heavy for party drinking and too thick to accompany a meal. It’s more of a pleasant, standalone sipper—a great desert beer, perhaps. In fact, its recipe features a fairly unique and desert-minded ingredient—chocolate.
Verdict: This is a great beer for those moments when you want nothing more than to sit and have a chat with an old friend over a drink or two.
Brewery: Sierra Nevada
City: Chico, California
Style: American IPA
From of the widely distributed Sierra Nevada Brewery, this is a winter beer that you’re likely to find in just about every beer aisle in America.
Brewed with fresh hops, this copper-colored IPA offers more bitterness than anything else on the list. And as it dates back to 1981, the Celebration is by far the oldest member of the list, as most of them were created within the past four or five years.
An excellent sipping beer with a higher ABV, this is a great brew to have in hand during any winter festivity. I guess that’s where it got its name.
Verdict: As the elder of the bunch, the Celebration stands alone in terms of flavor. Forcefully bitter, this will hold the most devout hop lovers over through the winter.
When all is said and done, we drink winter and summer beers for two completely different reasons.
Summer beers are lower in alcohol and easier on the tongue, allowing them to be enjoyed quickly in moments when refreshment is needed to combat the heat. Winter beers, on the other hand, are thick, dark, and sometimes a flat out challenge to drink. They aren’t brewed to refresh—quite the opposite.
A good winter beer will make you feel warm all the way through. When I called it a liquid jacket, I meant it.