Thank the beer gods! Like a German lager fiend champing at the bit for October to give due respect to the year’s Oktoberfest sampling, the first major snow brings a welcome justification to finally crack open a batch of those winter beers that have been staring at us on the grocery store shelves for the past four weeks.
You’ve already seen them. There’s a myriad of winter beers - the beer coolers are lousy with them. Every brewery in the world wants to show their malty chops by dropping some beer that includes a pun on winter or the holidays. It’s worse than Oktoberfest season in terms of sheer numbers, but it’s tempered by the fact that “winter beers” actually span a wide range of unique styles.
This, by the way, is an incredibly fantastic problem to have. No beer lover ever said “THERE’S JUST TOO MANY GOOD BEERS TO TRY!”
Not only are the beers plentiful, but they’re always changing. Just as every winter is different, every brewery seems to want to tweak and adapt their winter offerings from year to year. For example, Schell’s has regularly produced Snowstorm for 17 years, but they’ve only repeated a style once or twice. This year’s Bière de Noël is delicious and spicy, but thankfully it’s not too spicy. It’s a welcome change from your typical Christmas beer - sweet, cloying and fruit-cake-esque - in that it’s complex and European.
While we love this year’s Snowstorm, winter in our home celebrates the arrival of a pseudo-style called the "winter warmer," which instantly brings to mind frozen ski slopes, St. Bernards, and barrels full of brandy-like concoctions. In the world of craft beer, the winter warmer is a sweeter, maltier, overall bigger beer that warms the stomach and turns the simple task of gift wrapping into something much more involved.
Technically, the “Christmas Beer” classification, according to the braintrust at the Beer Judging Cerfication Program, is 21B Christmas/Winter Specialty Spiced Beer. That’s fine. That’s where your cinnamon and overly fruited spice beers fall - something like that weird Shiner Holiday Cheer or some of the stuff Sam Adams trots out in their seasonal sampler - but this designation only covers the spiced part of winter’s bounty. The BJCP looks for aromatics that bring to mind the holidays, while the winter warmer is simply a slang term for a “delicious malty boozy thing” that makes sense not next to a pumpkin pie but instead next to a shovel and about, say, 10 inches of snow.
(For the record, the official BJCP category of a “winter warmer” is 19A Old Ale. Remember that next time it comes up in Trivial Pursuit.)
Instead of a reliance on spices and other fancy stuff, winter warmers focus on dark, thick, maltiness - the kind that leaves a definite hint of alcohol on the back of the tongue - and a tendency to be fruity. Not spicy, but fruity.
And delicious, to tell the truth. This year’s winter warmers are highlighted by Deschutes’ Jubelale and Odell’s Isolation Ale. Exemplifying the two paths a winter warmer takes, Deschutes rides the “new recipe every year” train, while Odell rocks a consistent, fantastic beer every single year. Jubelale goes for a taste that borders the fine line between full and syrupy, and is what you’d probably expect from a beer called “winter warmer,” while Isolation Ale tunes it back a bit to make what I consider to be the best winter beer on the market.
Not into sweet beers? You’re in luck. New Belgium keeps hop heads happy with Snow Day, a perfect winter mix of the winter warmer style melded with the hoppiness you’d find in a Ranger. “Keep the syrup to yourself,” you might say, “and bring me a Snow Day.”
Winter brings an odd combination of beer and weather, where the two complement each other unlike any other time of year. Whether it’s the warming glow of an Isolation Ale or the hot exhaust from your seventeen-year-old snowblower, there’s one thing you can’t deny: winter was made for cold beer. After all - why else would snow make such a perfect outdoor cooler?