Long nights and bitter cold days...and great beer
Styles & Seasonals
November 14, 2002
Written by argo0
Oh the winter – long nights and bitter cold days, howling squalls and blinding snow storms, bundling up for icy walks in blustery weather. How I long for it. For it is then, and only then, that many of the finest beers make their annual appearance.
For some reason, the beer is just better in the wintertime. Heck, even the Pete’s Wicked is better, though there’s no reason to stop there. My list of winter seasonals, which is consistently updated, includes over 200 beers. And those are just the bottled ones.
Europe provides a bounty with Corsendonk’s Christmas Ale and Fantôme Winter among the most worthwhile treats. Brewers throughout the United States have fully embraced the winter seasonal concept, with much success. Nationally, Brooklyn Chocolate Stout and Allagash Grand Cru are wonderful examples. Locally, Wild Goose’s Snow Goose and Clipper City Reserve Winter Ale are very good beers made just up the road from me.
I’ve found that winter seasonals come in two varieties. The first is a spiced treat – the most commonly used spices seem to be nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, orange peel, and cardamom. Probably the most well-known examples in the U.S. are Anchor Our Special Ale and Harpoon Winter Warmer. Quite a few of these beers, including Our Special Ale, change their recipes from year to year, thereby increasing the excitement associated with their annual appearances. The differences each year also encourage one to try vertical tastings, assuming you can stand to leave some to sit for a couple of years.
The second type of winter seasonal is big and bold, and likely high in alcohol. Certain barley wines, imperial stouts and Belgian-style strong ales only make their appearance to counter those brutal winter nights. Victory Old Horizontal is one example, the Belgian treat Delirium Noël another. One of the most extreme examples is the relatively recent Dogfish Head World Wide Stout, all 23% ABV of it. A few of the beers in this second category also change recipes, but even when they don’t, the beers can still vary noticeably across the years.
While I like a number of beers in the first category, it is the second that I find contains more of the excellent beers. My favorite beer, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, is one such. For years, when people who have known me as a beer geek have asked what my favorite beer is, I’ve answered the 1993 vintage of Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. My tastes have broadened in the intervening years, but I still hold that memory highest. Some years Celebration Ale is unbalanced, but most it is of the highest quality. I eagerly await each year’s vintage, though I find that it usually tastes better a couple of months after its debut.
How best to celebrate the winter’s bounty? I do so by holding a winter tasting, where I ask everyone to bring a 6-pack (or its equivalent) of winter beers. Special batches of homebrew are always welcome. I provide the chili and the chocolate, as well as several special brews that aren’t readily available. This year will mark my seventh, and each year the celebration and selection of beers grows larger. I encourage others to do the same, as it is a worthy homage to the best time of the beer calendar. Seasons Greetings!
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The differences each year also encourage one to try vertical tastings, assuming you can stand to leave some to sit for a couple of years.
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