Every year at about this time — when all color has been blasted from the trees by the north winds, the days grow noticeably shorter and cooler, the precipitation alternates between not-quite-rain and almost-snow, and year’s end once again looms on the horizon — I think of poet Ezra Pound‘s famous cold-weather-cursing parody, “Ancient Music,” which begins,
Winter is icummen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm.
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
And, next to poetry, nothing helps to lift my spirits and stave off the ravages of winter (imagined or otherwise) more than a big, bold beer. In fact, brewing special seasonal beers is an ancient tradition, with roots in the pagan celebrations of the solstice. As the autumn harvest was concluded, farmers used the remaining grains to brew heartier beers with higher caloric (and, often, alcohol) content than their normal output, to fortify themselves during the leaner, less bountiful months. Not surprising, these richer, more flavorful brews came to be called “winter warmers.” And, like a filling meal on a brisk late fall evening, this season’s offerings (ales and stouts mostly) are meant to load the belly and thaw the body and mind. Also, because the array of spices traditionally included in the brewing process (such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves) are the same ones used to prepare holiday victuals, these beers are well-suited to accomodate the intense flavors found at the dinner table.
Luckily, these days most of us do not rely completely on the land and the whims of nature to keep the pantry full. As a result, as beer expert Michael Jackson once wrote, “winter beers are as much a state of mind as a style.” And that was especially true with the beers that I sampled recently with some friends. Some of our selections clung to tradition like a wool security blanket, while others used it as a framework on which to build something new and different.
An abundance of seasonal brews are available on the market, both as imports and domestics. I chose a dozen or so of the latter, to simplify matters, but I could easily (and happily) have picked as many or more from across the pond. Of course, much of what is cooked up here in this country is modeled after its Old World brethren. So, fa-la-la-la-la, I suppose.
Following are the beers sampled over the past week, ordered more or less from light to dark (how fittingly luminescent!) in terms of flavor, sweetness, etc. We consumed some seasonally appropriate fare as well, including dry-roasted almonds, crackers and creamy Port Salut cheese; a rich, honey mustard-glazed pork loin with buttery sweet potatoes; and chocolate cake and ginger snaps for dessert. All in all, I’d say we enjoyed each one, but standouts included the Pursuit of Happiness, Celebration Ale, Belgian Freeze, and Anchor’s Christmas Ale, the merriest of holiday drinks.
K-9 Cruiser Winter Ale, Flying Dog Brewery— Continuing their dogged pursuit of all canine references, the folks at Flying Dog have concocted an appropriately named seasonal beer that would make any craft beer lover wag his or her (or its) tail. Hoppy from the get-go, this dark, sweet mutt’s bark is worse than its bite, when it comes to spiciness — one panelist commented that “it could be an IPA.” Nonetheless, very enjoyable and it paired especially well with the nuts and cheese.
Winter Ale, D.L. Geary Brewing Company — Like the K-9, this slightly non-traditional brew combines the malty sweetness of a winter warmer with the dry, hop finish of an IPA. The beers I’ve tasted from this Maine-based company are consistently tasty and filling, and this new-to-me seasonal was no exception. Pair it with appetizers.
Pursuit of Happiness Winter Warmer, Clay Pipe Brewing Company— The label on the bottle proclaims this as a “special, brisk-weather seasonal ale,” which I can attest is truth in advertising. It’s another case where the more traditional spice notes take a back seat to the robust malt flavors and tart bitterness. I would only add the words “balanced,” “citrusy” (because of the hoppy finish), and “that could be enjoyed all year long.”
Winter Ale, Smuttynose Brewing Company — According to the brewery, this full-bodied amber ale features a Trappist ale yeast, creating a Belgian Abbey Dubbel body-double, with a rich, malty texture and fruity aromas. And yet the slightly lower-than-usual alcohol content (4.6%) and understated but pleasant hops flavor make for a very mellow yet complex cold-weather quaff.
Snow Goose Winter Ale, Wild Goose Brewery— Incorporating roasted and chocolate among its specialty malts, this beer, brewed in the English ale tradition, has a rich, toasted-caramel flavor that is sure to make you take another gander. The addition of Fuggles hops creates a bright, slightly bitter finish that balances out the nutty taste. It was great with the cheese and the ginger cookies.
Winter Storm, Clipper City Brewing Company— As part of the brewery’s “Heavy Seas” line, this ruby-colored ale with a layer of yeast at the bottom packs a wallop — 7.5% alcohol by volume — and is styled after an Imperial ESB. What does that mean? A rich, malty flavor, with a strong hops aroma and distinct bitterness that, as the label proclaims, will protect you “from the rigors of life at sea” and land, presumably.
Old Man Winter Ale, Southern Tier Brewing Company— I enjoy this brewery’s habit of dry-hopping (or adding an extra hopping step to) its beers, which helps to round out the flavors and add some body. In this case, the additional step helps to temper the thick, roasty flavors of its English old ale pedigree with a refreshing hoppiness that cut the sweetness. It went well with the pork loin. But, at 8% alcohol, you should handle this geezer with care.
Winter Warmer, Harpoon Brewery— According to the label, this full-bodied, rich ale uses “a touch of cinnamon and nutmeg to achieve its spirited flavor.” As such, it was closer to a more traditional, spicy winter ale than many of its competitors. Luckily, there’s enough hoppy aroma and bitterness to prevent this chestnut-colored beer from becoming a liquid cookie. Great with the desserts, though.
Celebration Ale, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company — With its dark, ruddy color, intense aromas, and rich malty flavors, this award-winning dry-hopped beer is an annual favorite of mine. And the 2008 batch did not disappoint. It made for a bright, lively accompaniment to both appetizers and the rich meat dish. Like St. Nick’s, it’s an arrival worth celebrating, for sure.
Belgian Freeze Winter Ale, River Horse Brewing Company — As its name indicates, this amber Belgian-style ale is the perfect companion to a cold night with a companion. It is moderately hopped and less sweet than some of the other seasonals, but with a higher than normal alcohol content (8%). And I thought the toffee flavors perfectly matched the roasted caramel in the sweet potatoes.
Special Ale, Anchor Brewing Company — Perhaps best known for its steam beer, Anchor brews an annual Christmas ale that is equally and consistently enjoyable. It’s also the closest to what I would consider a traditional winter warmer: dark and treacly, tangy, and pungent with all sorts of ancient aromas and flavors, like balsam, allspice, ginger, and peppercorn. According to the company, the recipe for the beer, now in its 34th incarnation, is different every year, as is the tree on the label. I have a bottle of ’07 in the back of the fridge and can’t wait to open it with a 2008 and compare tastes.
The Mad Elf Holiday Ale, Troegs Brewing Company — Brewed with cherries and honey, this pleasing beer is as red as the nose on Rudolph’s face. However, with it’s sky-high alcohol content (11%), drinking more than a few would make anyone feel jolly — and quick. The chocolate malt flavors help to sweeten the sour, fruity character, and the subtle spices are genuinely warming. Sip it at meal’s end.
There — that should provide more than a few good choices to keep you well fortified for what may arise during the darker and (I hope) quieter months that lay ahead. Perhaps they will arouse your poetic impulses, too. For I’d like to think that, when he penned his poem, Old Ez (who was nutty as a fruitcake, as they say) was nestled among the books in some stone cottage in England, warming his feet by the fire, singing the ranting refrain, laughing aloud, and sipping a glass of spicy winter ale. Goddamm, indeed.