Top 10 winter beers

Published December 13, 2012

| Gayot

What do we do when the weather turns frosty? Warm up with a "strong one" of course — a hearty winter brew. Alcoholic beverages give an instant warming sensation, like the feeling of sunshine on your skin, but spreading from the inside. Brewing has historically been a specialty of regions where winters are harsh and grains are grown, like Germany and the British Isles. For centuries, brewers have made seasonal beers for winter that are fuller in body and maltier than standard styles. Some are festively spiced, others are simply turbocharged versions of year-round recipes. But all feature that extra richness of texture that comes with heaping helpings of barley malt. Winter warmers have less water in the mix, delivering more nutrition and higher alcohol content than typical summer quenchers. To best banish winter's chill, serve these beers no colder than 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which is also ideal for showcasing their delicious flavors. Serving "ice cold" suppresses flavor; a good strategy only if you're not keen to really "taste" your beer.

AMERICAN CRAFT BREWS

DUBBEL
Ommegang "Abbey Ale"- New York / All-Year
Price: $8 for 750 ml.
8.2 per cent Alcohol By Value (ABV)

You may know Cooperstown, NY, as the location of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, but the town has also gained some notoriety for its Belgian farmstead-style brewery, which is inspired by the centuries-old brewing practices of Belgian Trappist monks. Brewery Ommegang is located on a 135-acre former hop farm (six miles south of Cooperstown), which was the epicenter of American hop production in the nineteenth century. Typical for the farmstead style, this flagship brew pours a dark, nearly brown, red, with prevailing aromas of dark fruits such as raisin, plums and dates. Clove, sweet malt and caramel flavors help to mask the beer's hefty 8.2 per cent ABV. Like its Belgian cousins, it boasts a generous selection of spices — in this case licorice root, star anise, orange peel, coriander and cumin. A great candidate for cellaring, this ale will develop caramel, fig and currant notes with age.

BELGIAN-STYLE GOLDEN ALE
North Coast Brewing Company "PranQster" - California / All-Year
Price: $11 for a four-pack of 12 oz.
7.6 per cent ABV

The label depicts merry revelers in garb of long ago celebrating a prank, which lends to the impression that this is an Old World beer. But its New World locale proves that American breweries have become as adept at brewing Belgian styles as those across the Atlantic. The mixed culture of antique yeast strains brings a complexity of flavors and aromas, with notes of coriander, pepper and clove and a bouquet of banana and apple peel. It's golden orange in color and its light hopping allows the malty richness to shine. This 7.6 per cent ABV golden ale is fairly easy drinking, so watch out. Its relatively thin body may sneak up on you and make a fool of you!

BELGIAN-STYLE STOUT
Allagash "Allagash Black" - Maine/All-Year
Price: $10 for 750 ml.
7.5 per cent ABV

Allagash Brewing, out of Portland, Maine, is becoming sought out for its Belgian-style creations. Founder Rob Tod has crafted a Belgian-style stout with the full-bodied, roasted malt flavor that’s a prerequisite for the stout style, but generous additions of Belgian dark caramelized candi sugar give this beer the full and silky mouthfeel and malty sweetness that’s typical of Belgian styles. Flavors of chocolate and coffee come through, thanks to the variety of roasted malts used in its production, which include German two-row barley, wheat and oats. Further adding to its Belgian heritage is its use of a Belgian yeast strain and re-fermentation in the bottle, which gives it a natural carbonation. Suggested food pairings are lamb burger, bleu cheese, sweet cream ice cream and oatmeal raisin cookies. Like many other American craft breweries, Allagash is minimizing its carbon footprint by obtaining 100 per cent of its energy from wind power.

CASCADIAN DARK ALE
Widmer Brother Brewing Company "Pitch Black IPA" - Oregon / January-April
Price: $7.59 for a four-pack of 12 oz.
6.5 per cent ABV

As the days grow shorter and the temps dip lower, one tends to find comfort in darker brews. As this Oregon brewery is located in the Cascadian range of North America, it's only natural that it brews a beer in the Cascadian Dark Ale style. Aptly named, this dark IPA pours true to its moniker and allows you to go dark without giving up the hops. A healthy dose of the latter brings a grapefruit bite, balanced with a rich, burnt roasted flavor with a touch of sweet malt character. A citrus and piney bouquet pays further tribute to its hefty hop heritage, along with smoky coffee, providing an interesting blend of aromas. If you're a hophead, you'll want to seek this beer out immediately.

AMERICAN IPA
Sierra Nevada "Celebration Ale" - California / Seasonal

Price: $1.50 for 12 oz.
6.8 per cent ABV

Sierra Nevada makes the country's top-selling pale ale, and has almost single-handedly sold a generation on ale over lager. Many other brewers put out a turbocharged version of their pale ale year round, often called India Pale Ale or IPA. However, Sierra Nevada dances to its own tune, waiting for the cold weather before bringing out the big gun and labeling it a Winter Ale. "Celebration Ale" has been long revered as an icon of American micro-brewing. Though it can seem downright understated next to its hyper-hopped competition, raw power hums under the hood. Hearty, grainy malt balances dulce de leche decadence, while sappy, sticky Cascade hop aromas leap from the glass. Brewed annually for more than fifteen years, this brew shows the merits of patience and experience.

IMPERIAL STOUT
Uinta "Labyrinth Black Ale" - Utah / All-Yea
r
Price: $12.50 for 750 ml.
13.2 per cent ABV

Rich flavors of dark roasted barley and a warming from the high alcohol content combine to make this beer an excellent companion for a cold winter night. The label and the name both conjure up an image of finding your way through a complex maze, which is apropos, as flavors of black licorice, toasted oak and bittersweet chocolate intermingle to create a multi-dimensional brew. Aged for six months in oak barrels that previously contained oak or rye, the ale is packaged in a cork- and cage-finished bottle, suggesting a celebration of a special occasion each time the cork pops. The brewery hails from Salt Lake City, Utah, and the 13.2 per cent ABV alcohol strength of this imperial stout helps to destroy the myth that beers made in Utah are wimpy. Uinta is decidedly green, obtaining 100 per cent of its power from wind and solar, and its local delivery trucks are powered by bio-diesel.

WINTER WARMER ALE
Deschutes "Jubelale" - Oregon / October-December

Price: $1.50 for 12 oz.
6.7 per cent ABV

This winter warmer has been helping us get through the onslaught of the coldest season for 25 years. The brewery's dedication to art is evident, as it has selected a local artist each year to illustrate the label. The 2012 version features a complex collage by Bend, Oregon, artist Kaycee Anseth Townsend, which was appropriately made entirely from pieces of Jubelale labels from the previous 24 years. Expect an earthy aroma, nut brown hue and a comingling of West Coast hops, brown sugar, candied dark fruits, baking spices and a good dose of malty flavors. The very first beer to ever be bottled by the brewery, this beer's 6.7 per cent ABV will help warm you as the nippy chill of winter approaches.

IMPORT BREWS

BELGIAN STRONG DARK ALE
Affligem "Noël Christmas Ale" - Opwijk, Belgium / Winter

Price: $10 for 750 ml.
9 per cent ABV

The winter holiday season is an optimal time to appreciate spices in our food and drink. This abbey ale (contract brewed by Heineken for the Belgian Benedictine monastery of Affligem) fits the bill, with both a moniker and medley of spices to put you in the mood for greeting the season. This reddish amber ale, spiced with sweet orange peels, aniseed and caraway, also delivers flavors of toasted malt and dark fruits such as prune and cherry. An aroma of cocoa, cinnamon and clove adds to the celebratory vibe. Note that the flavors will intensify as this beer warms, so allow it some time to warm up a bit, or enjoy the evolving flavors as you sip. As this strong ale has a Champagne-like second fermentation resulting in high carbonation, drink it from a goblet-style glass; the bulbous shape will help trap the scent and flavors while maintaining a lively head.

SCOTCH ALE
Innis & Gunn "Rum Cask Oak Aged Beer" - Scotland / All-Year

Price: $13 for 750 ml.
7.4 per cent ABV

Innis & Gunn, Scotland’s largest independent brewery, based in Edinburgh, has invented a new style of ale, one that is a perfect marriage of rum and beer. Aged in oak barrels that previously contained navy rum, the ale acquires aromas of caramel, toffee and citrus fruits. Deep red in color, it's matched with the unique, sweet, spicy flavors imparted by the rum barrel and a hint of vanilla that’s compliments of the oak. Definitely a sipping beer, it’ll grow on you with each taste, and the higher alcohol content of 7.4 per cent ABV results in a warm finish. An interesting experiment is to taste this brew alongside the Innis & Gunn Original, their rum-less version. The complexity of flavors makes this a good beer to cook with or to match with food. Try pairing it with scallops, white fish or rich meats such as pork loin, lamb, or sausages.

HYBRID OR FRUIT BEER
Unibroue "Quelque Chose" - Canada / All-Year

Price: $12 for 750 ml.
8 per cent ABV

The cold of winter invites one to warm up with a hot drink. While beer usually wouldn’t do the trick, this is one of the few that can and should be served like a mulled wine at 122 to 158 degrees Fahrenheit. Made by the Belgian-inspired Canadian brewery Unibroue and named after a popular French-Canadian expression that means "that's something special," this brew gets its deep ruby hue and aroma of ripe cherries from a 50/50 blend of a Belgian kriek with a brown ale. The bouquet is matched with an intense cherry flavor that’s the result of having been steeped in cherries for several months. A balance of sweetness and tartness is accented by cinnamon, cloves, honey and vanilla. Adding to its uniqueness is the fact that this beer has almost no carbonation, which gives it a syrupy and smooth mouthfeel. Another unconventional suggested serving suggestion is to pour it over ice; the flavors you note will change with each way you drink it. With unorthodox recommended serving temperatures and its lack of carbonation, this brew will challenge your accepted notion of beer.

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