A Flurry of Seasonal Beers to Warm Up Any Winter Wonderland

Snow, what? So,


Snow. Snow, snow. Snow!


Unless you were living under a rock, or hiding under your bed covers, you have probably heard by now that the normally temperate middle Atlantic region got snowballed over the weekend. It snowed so hard and so quickly, in fact, that it felt like we were living in a snow globe for about 48 hours. Snow much snow.

Snow many beers, snow little time.

Such blizzard-like conditions are truly an amazing and mesmerizing sight. The kind of thing that coaxes the kid out of all of us. In fact, all of us at the offices of Scribbleskiff took turns staring out the window to watch the white stuff at play — swirling, drifting, rising and falling, piling up, blanketing everything: sidewalks, shrubbery, sleds, soccer balls left in the yard, etc. Then, all of a sudden, it would slow, thin out, settle down.

Then, just as suddenly, the big hand in the sky would give us a shake, and it would start all over again.

I know a snowstorm of this caliber is no big deal for many people, especially those living in points north of the Mason-Dixon. But it’s a big deal around here, a truly wondrous and rare event, and something we hope for every year and never tire of, not matter how long it lasts (and, alas, it never lasts long).

I recognize that not everything about this whiteness is wonderful. There’s the clean-up, for instance. Although the Inuit reportedly do not have 100’s of words for snow, I can tell you that, after shoveling as much slush as I did in the course of two days, I have accumulated my fair share of words for the stuff, most of which should not be uttered above my steaming breath.

But I really shouldn’t complain — I got to go sledding on my birthday! And besides, all of this snow, dropping down on us like it did this mid-December, got me think of two of my favorite things: a hearty meal and a warming beer.

Not long before the Nor’easter struck, I had begun investigating this year’s “seasonal” arrivals — Christmas ales, traditional “winter warmers,” etc. — to see how they stacked up. Part of that effort involved partaking in a private tasting of some Belgian imports that, like the Blizzard of ’09, blew me away. Even more revealing, though, was simply strolling the aisles of The Wine Source, my favorite holiday beer hub (despite all the hubbub). I was overwhelmed by the number of winter beers on the shelf — truly more than are dreamt of in your sugar-plummy visions, Horatio. Every brewery, it seems, has something unique to offer. I would wager that you could consume a mix-pack a day for the 25 days of Advent (not that I advise you to do so) and you would still have leftovers.

So, once it appeared that the big storm was a sure thing, we decided to stock up on the necessities — including the fixings for some homemade comfort food, and more than a few bottles of malt-based bubbly — to finish my “research.” Here, then, are the byproducts of my inquiries: a sampling of the 2009 seasonals, organized pretty much in order of encounter. Cheers!

Delirium Noel, Brasserie Huyghe. The most distinguishing feature of this alluring, crimson traditional Belgian strong dark ale is its inherent fruitiness. The complex bready, raisiny, dried-currant aroma is unmistakable from the moment you pop the cork — like a pleasing waft of fresh Christmas stollen (which I consumed by the loaf as a child). There’s plenty of rich malty sweetness, nice spice, and racy carbonation to inspire a little holiday giddiness, too.

Kerstmutske, Brouwerij Slaapmutske. If you like rum, you’ll love this ruddy, creamy, very warming Belgian strong ale (by a boutique brewery whose name means “nightcap”). The base malt is molasses, which imparts a slight, tempering bitterness to the overall sweetness, along with a little burn, reminiscent of the West Indian potable. Luckily, the rich assortment of other malts and aromatic hops, along with the noticeable hints of plum, toffee, and other flavors, combine to create the perfect capper for a wintry night.

Santa’s Private Reserve, Rogue Brewery. Despite its ruddy glow, this red ale is not what I think of when it comes to a Christmas beer, not in the traditional sense. Maybe that’s intentional (though there’s a picture of Santa on the label). Nonetheless, this was a very unreserved, hoppy, resiny ale, like an Imperial IPA, with plenty of body and moderate malty sweetness. It was certainly Scrooge-like in terms of the expected spiciness, though, which should please anyone who doesn’t wish to receive the gift of fragrances that some seasonals bring.

Christmas Ale, Abita Brewing Co. As the final beer brewed each year, the recipe for this annual offering reportedly changes with every incarnation. Another reddish amber ale, its spiciness is present but subdued and, as a result, pairs well with traditional holiday fare, such as gingerbread (cookies or house) or spiced cakes. Try it also with a rich, creamy cheese, such as Camembert, which draws out a sweet, nutty aftertaste.

Snow Cap Ale, Pyramid Brewing Co. Styled after a British winter ale, this full-bodied beer pours out mahogany in color with a rich, malty aroma. Although the initial taste is dry with a slight hops bitterness, the chocolate and caramel flavors peak right away, finishing with a touch of spice. Heavier than a pale ale but not quite a porter, it’s quite jolly with dark chocolate.

Winter Ale, Stoudt’s Brewing Co. Here’s another brewery that changes things up for its annual winter release, and it’s always surprising. In 2008, I popped the top to find a porter. This time around, it’s a red ale (I’m sensing a theme). One thing’s for sure, their beers are consistently good. I enjoyed this smooth, hoppy cracker a lot, mainly because it floats nicely between a super-spicy Christmas and a souped-up malty “warmer.” Can’t wait to be surprised again in 2010.

Doppelbock, Fordham Brewing Co. I had the good fortune to taste this old-school Bavarian seasonal when it was released in early December at The Rams Head in Savage Mill (thanks, Jeani). Very stouty, yet smooth and sweet as it is dark. It’s also quite bold and strong (8.4% alcohol), with a hint of smokiness that’s tamped down by a subtle, syrupy almost-molasses quality. Double up with a slice of German chocolate cake.

Winter Ale, Smuttynose Brewing Co. A perennial favorite, this tasty, toasty, full-bodied amber ale features a Trappist ale yeast, creating a Belgian dubbel-like warmth with pleasing fruity aromas and a caramelesque flavor. It’s dry but plenty sweet, with hints of cinnamon and nutmeg spice. There is just enough hops to make it the perfect match to homemade carrot cake.

Winter Warmer, Lancaster Brewing Co. As the name implies, this very dark, very strong (9% alcohol), malty-sweet beer will certainly take the edge off a chilly night. What’s less direct is the complexity of flavor, which after a sip or two reveals chocolate, vanilla, caramel, and even some cherry notes. It’s a great with rich and spicy foods, like the salsa and corn chowder that Amy made on Saturday.

Shiner Holiday Cheer, Spoetzel Brewery. Apparently, it’s not just the stars that shine big and bright in Texas. You could even say the beer glows, at least during the holidays. This new-to-me brew, an old world dunkelweizen (or dark wheat ale), is nutty as a fruitcake — literally. With bright peach and pecan flavors, a yeasty aroma, and crisp taste, it’s a unique, refreshing, and cheerful alternative to the usual Christmas beers.

Yule Tide, Clipper City. Like its Heavy Seas siblings, this Belgian triple ale packs a wallop. At 10% alcohol by volume, it is one of the stormiest seasonals I’ve tried. Yet, above decks, it shows a nice balance between malty rich and lightly sweet. It was so surprisingly drinkable, in fact, I nearly forgot it’s intended as a seasonal sipper — though it made a super supper companion to savory homemade chicken pot pie.

Special Ale, Anchor Brewing Co. Every year since 1975, Anchor has brewed a Christmas ale that is both unique and equally as enjoyable as its flagship Steam Beer — and well worth the wait. It’s the closest thing to the traditional winter warmer I have tasted: dark and treacly, pungent, full of old-world aromas, such as balsam, allspice, ginger and peppercorn. It’s also my favorite.

So, there you have it, 12 reasons why winter really is the most wonderful time of the year. At least for beer-drinkers. After all, St. Nicholas himself is the patron saint of brewers and coopers, among others, and reportedly loved nothing more than a mugful of good beer. It’s no wonder, then, his eyes twinkled and his nose was red as a cherry.

As always, tell us what you think. Have you tasted any of these beers? Or are there other seasonals that you prefer? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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  1. Henry,
    Did you save a few for the after snow shoveling party?
    Thanks for the review. Will we do wine for the spring?

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