Seasonals are the second-best-selling style of craft beer in the United States, according to the Brewers Association trade group, coming in right behind IPAs, that perennial hegemon splintering in all sorts of directions. And among seasonals, none loom as large during the calendar year as winter beers.
These winter lagers and ales, usually in wide circulation from December through February, tend to be super-malty, reddish-brown to dark black, strong in alcohol, and both sweet and spicy in taste. If summer beers are thinner breaks from the heat, winter beers are heavier palliatives for the chill.
The problem is that while all winter beers are created similarly — malty, spicy, strong — they are not all equal in the end. Balance is the key with this seasonal. Too much of that sweet, malty taste, and you have a goopy, treacly mess before you. Too much alcohol, and what’s the point, really? (Might as well just graduate to barleywines already.)
Balance in the spiciness should go without saying. Craft brewers understandably revel in the likes of nutmeg and cinnamon for winter beers, as well as richer malt and tangier hop varieties, with the intent being to provide a lusciously sharp accent to the malty sweetness. Too much of one or the other, though, and, again, you’ve got a mess before you, unbalanced and downright difficult to finish.
A winter beer should be a pleasure to drink, one of depths of lingering discovery and gently rolling warmth. These seven beers are each just that, balanced and memorable, worth the long sips and the sometimes higher price tags. Cozy on up to one over the next few weeks, even if the mercury in your neck of the woods doesn’t dip much below 50.
Yard Sale Winter Lager
Uinta Brewing Co., Salt Lake City
This lager was the most drinkable of the lot. A toasty, biscuity maltiness dominates the aroma and taste, and we also picked up a lot of caramel. It was the light body, and the sessionable 4 percent ABV, that made Yard Sale such an easy sell.
Harpoon Winter Warmer
Mass. Bay Brewing Co., Boston
Cinnamon and nutmeg roar forth immediately, aroma- and taste-wise, and stay with you all the way through — hey, strongly balanced is a kind of balanced. For all that spiciness, Harpoon’s winter ale is light-bodied and goes down smoothly. Just under 6 percent alcohol by volume.
BluePoint Winter Ale
BluePoint Brewing Co., Patchogue, New York
A well-balanced nuttiness runs throughout this seasonal from Long Island’s oldest craft brewery (though now under Anheuser-Busch InBev’s umbrella). It had us thinking brown ale, in fact. At 7.7 percent ABV, the strongest of the bunch.
Smuttynose Winter Ale
Smuttynose Brewing Co., Hampton, New Hampshire
The fruity earthiness of Smuttynose’s winter offering comes from a well-balanced use of Sterling and Bravo hops, the former for flavoring and aroma. Overall, the ale is smoothly rich, a malty treat that clocks in at a relatively strong 7.5 percent ABV.
Samuel Adams Winter Lager
Boston Beer Co., Boston
The winter offering from America’s biggest craft brewery starts out pretty messy, beginning with a really spicy nose. A few sips in, though, and it’s clear this lager has a drinkability to rival that of Uinta’s Yard Sale. A heavy maltiness balances the spiciness, and it ends with a gentle hop bite. It’s 5.6 percent ABV.
Summit Winter Ale
Summit Brewing Co., St. Paul, Minnesota
The dominant taste here is a bready fruitiness (fruitcake?!). There are also hints of caramel and even coffee in the winter offering of Minnesota’s oldest craft brewery. Though with all this going on, it still went down smoothly, almost lightly. Deceptively strong at 6.2 percent ABV.
Samuel Smith Winter Welcome
The Old Brewery, Tadcaster, Yorkshire, England
The cold-weather seasonal from one of the United Kingdom’s oldest continuously operating breweries is lighter than its Yankee cousins. There is an earthy fruitiness throughout and a neatly crisp finish. We’ve heard that an older version of Samuel Smith Winter Welcome was richer and fuller-tasting (the beer has been imported to the U.S. since 1990). Still, a solid, if simpler, performance. An even 6 percent ABV.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution and the new fine-wine history American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story.