Beer enthusiasts rejoice as breweries across the country unveil their latest seasonal concoctions. Here are our choices for the best of the best in winter brews, from critically acclaimed imports to homegrown classics — but this list is certainly not exhaustive, and we look forward to hearing about your favorite seasonal ale picks.
Affligem Noël Christmas Ale
What the experts say: “Pours a large tan head from ample carbonation. Beautiful, deep amber with honey-like highlights. Aroma is quite subtle, yet complex with a clean, Munich-like malt with a distinct nuttiness, but sweeter than a typical German lager” – BetterBeerBlog
Christmas may be over, but winter is only in its second week (winter officially began on December 21). This dark ale from Belgium’s acclaimed Brouwerij Affligem hits all the right flavor notes — including dark chocolate, plum and cherry — without suffering from the over-sweetness common to other Belgian beers. And at 9 percent, Noël Christmas Ale is guaranteed to keep you warm like a roaring fire.
Fremont Bourbon Barrel Abominable
What the experts say: “The key element to describe this beer is balance—while it is a big beer, it is far smoother and more evenly balanced than many other similar bourbon barrel-aged beers” – What We’re Drinking
Ask any Seattleite where to find the best beer in town, and most (if not all) will point you in the direction of Fremont Brewing Company — especially during the winter months, when this beast of a winter ale is available. The distinctive bite of oak barrel-aged bourbon is complemented by hints vanilla, spices, chocolate and other holiday flavors. But be sure to drink your B-Bomb slowly — the ABV is 11 percent.
Great Lakes Christmas Ale
What the experts say: “This is a world class winter warmer from Great Lakes. They truly trapped the essence and flavors of the holidays in a bottle” – Guys Drinking Beer
Name any smell/taste that reminds you of December — cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, etc. — it’s probably included in this annual concoction from Great Lakes Brewing Company. And as if this wasn’t enough to boost your holiday cheer, the brewery also partnered with Mitchell’s Homemade Ice Cream this year to produce the Christmas Ale Ginger Snap, which is good news to anyone who lives in Northeastern Ohio (where the frozen treat is available). Cleveland road trip, anyone?
Kona Pipeline Porter
What the experts say: ”It’s as popular at the craft beer bars as it is at home with a steamy bowl of beef stew, which is a great place to be when it puts the first hair on your chest” – Mandatory
Is anything more welcome during the winter months than a fresh cup of joe? This heavy-hitter from Kona Brewing Co. infuses the bold bite of premium malted barley with the distinctive taste and aroma of Hawaiian coffee. Pipeline Porter is available throughout the fall and winter months.
Ninkasi Sleigh’r Dark Double Alt Ale
What the experts say: “It has an incredibly smooth sweet malt flavor which makes me want to pour a glass, sit by the fire, and sing Christmas carols. I’m not going to lie, every drink made this beer taste better” – Blog About Beer
A seasonal favorite throughout the Pacific Northwest, Sleigh’r is a testament to the innovation and quality that have come to define Ninkasi Brewing Company. According to the brewers, this double alt ale — fermented at a colder temperature to give it a lager-esque finish — is best paired with savory dishes like beef, lamb, duck, or steamed shellfish.
Schloss Eggenberg Samichlaus
What the experts say: “Chocolate and brandy at first; a quick burst of bitter. Then soft and more mellow roasted coffee as the aging shows its value. A great big beer” – Madison Beer Review
This juggernaut of flavor and alcohol content (14 percent!) comes to us from Schloss Eggenberg, one of the most revered brewing establishments in Austria. If you can resist the urge to drink your bottle of Samichlaus (slowly), consider storing it in your garage — experts say the beer is ideal for aging, and it develops a smooth, creamy quality the longer it sits on the shelf.
St. Bernardus Christmas Ale
What the experts say: “Served at 55 degrees and sipped slowly, St. Bernardus Christmas Ale is the perfect beer for the holidays” – Boston.com
This Belgian favorite has all the elements of a classic winter ale: dark color, rich texture, high alcohol content (10 percent) and the perfect blend of sweet and spice. The Christmas Ale is the newest and second strongest offering from the St. Bernardus Brewery, which began as a monastery and then served as a cheese factory before it began producing beer for public consumption.
Samuel Adams Winter Classics
What the experts say: “Sometimes the best things come in bunches. In this case, it came in a 12-pack” – Fermentedly Challenged
Some brewers churn out one or two seasonal ales and call it good for the year, but not Sam Adams. The Winter Classics include the Old Fezziwig Ale, Winter Lager, Holiday Porter, Black Lager and Cranberry Lambic, which collectively represent a holiday-themed liquid feast. The mix packages also include a few bottles of the standard Boston Lager, which goes great with any dish (or Patriots game).
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale
What the experts say: “Represents a time honored tradition of brewing a special beer for the holiday season. There are generous portions of barley malts and fine whole hops of several varieties, creating a brew with a full, rich and hearty character” – Beer Geek Nation
Celebration Ale is widely considered to be one of the best seasonal ales out there, period; it currently holds a Beer Advocate rating of 93 (‘exceptional’) out of nearly 3,000 user-generated reviews. The reason is simple: the beer’s creamy texture and rich taste have made it a perennial favorite for more than three decades — and many aleheads argue it gets better every year.
Widmer Brothers Black Pitch IPA
What the experts say: ”If you’re a hophead, you’ll want to seek this beer out immediately” – Gayot
Widmer Brothers Brewing Company boasts 25 different brews, and the Black Pitch IPA is (appropriately) one of the Oregon label’s darkest selections — but a generous amount of hops and malt preserve its fruity flavor and sweet aroma, respectively. Black Pitch IPA is available from January to April.
Bonus Pick: Westvleteren XII
What the experts say: “Would I say it was the best beer in the world? I don’t know: there are others infinitely more qualified to make that statement and with more time on their hands to debate it. But I would say it was pretty damn close” – GQ British
For the first time in history, this “holy grail of beers” (as characterized by beer connoisseur Andrew Stroehlein) is available in the U.S. — just in time for the holidays. And while Westvleteren XII isn’t technically a seasonal ale, its flavor (containing hints of caramel, tobacco, leather and other rich elements) makes it an ideal choice for wintertime imbibing. Just make sure to mind the pricetag before you bring it up to the checkout aisle.
Now’s your chance to agree or disagree with our selections. Which wintertime ales did we miss?
By Brad Nehring