The Beers of Winter

Winter is the perfect season for beer, provided you make the right choice. Forget the crisp, refreshing brews of summer. A chilly night and a roaring fire call for a beer that is mellow and warming, potent enough to be relished slowly, and flavorful enough to stand up to rich dishes and spiced sweets.

Winter seasonals—whether they are called Christmas beers, holiday beers or winter warmers—are not bound by style categories. Many, however, share some common characteristics. Most are malty and full-bodied, with less emphasis on hop bitterness. Many are strong, best suited for sipping. And a good number of them are spiked with the familiar flavors we look for in traditional holiday treats and desserts.

Winter beers are more closely associated with specific holidays than other seasonal selections, which gives retailers ample opportunities for creative displays and promotions. Since these beers were often brewed in the past exclusively as thank-yous to employees and friends of the brewery, there is a tradition of presentation that makes these winter warmers ideal as gifts, with appealing packaging and accompanying glassware. And, because of their transient nature, many seasonal beers have achieved near-cult status, as customers await selections that are limited both in quantity and availability.

The Return of Winer Seasonals

We don’t wear the same clothes year round, or eat the same foods. And yet, most Americans drink the same style of beer—pale lager—month after month. It wasn’t always the case. Before the rise of the mainstream breweries in the last century, when pale lagers swept away much of our beer variety, brewers frequently offered a shifting menu of beers that followed the calendar.

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Yankee Wine sells a number of holiday beers.

So when San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company released Our Special Ale in November of 1975, the first American seasonal beer since Prohibition, it was a return to tradition — not a departure from it. Every year for the next 40 years, this much-anticipated annual treat has been brewed with a different recipe and different spices (both secret), with a different tree depicted on the label. Packaged in a magnum, Our Special Ale set the standards for winter warmers: dark, rich, surprising and festive.

In the years that followed, craft brewers and traditional heritage breweries fanned the public’s desire for diversity and seasonality with a growing range of winter specials. At the small end of the market, brewpubs capitalized on the novelty of special seasonals to keep customers returning; in time, at the other end of the industry, even the mainstream breweries saw the benefits of introducing—or in some cases, re-introducing—these robust, limited brews.

In general, most of these specials are “deep and dark—like the days,” says Lisa Morrison, co-owner of Belmont Station in Portland, OR. “I think our tastes turn a little on the sweeter side when it’s cold, so these beers are a little more malty, as well. We’re thinking of spiced cookies and hot toddies and things like that, so there are a lot of Bourbon-barrel-aged beers that come out; a lot of beers with spices in them.”

She singles out Jubelale from Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon, as a particularly popular choice. The beer, with flavors of chicory, dried fruit and toffee, is the same from year to year. But the label is not: a competition awards the creative honors to a different local artist each winter. “I know some people who have collected a bottle from every single year,” Morrison says, “and they bring them out as part of their holiday decorations.”

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