While most winter seasonal ales and lagers are designed to warm you up on a cold evening, some aim for simple drinkability with little-to-no spice accents and very subtle holiday fanciness. We found three well-brewed domestic holiday ales (in 12-ounce bottles) that nodded toward the flavors of the holidays without going too far into "winter warmer" territory. All three clocked in at standard strengths, too.
Located in the mountains along the Hood River in Oregon, Full Sail Brewery specializes in well-balanced American-style pale and dark ales. They've been brewing their tasty, award-winning Wassail ale (7 percent a.b.v.) every year since 1988. Available September to January, Wassail is a sturdy, medium-bodied dark ale, deep mahogany-brown in color with a mild malty/caramel aroma — sort of a holiday brown ale (of American-style Old Ale) with a balance of malt sweetness and hop bitterness. It's not too rich, but each sip follows through with a caramel-bready finish with a nice touch of hops at the very end.
Asheville, N.C.-based mircobrewery Highland Brewing Co. tends to feature respectful renditions of traditional Scottish and English styles across the board. Their winter seasonal, Cold Mountain Winter Ale (5.8 percent a.b.v.), resembles a traditional Extra Special Bitter or a low-strength Scotch Ale with just a touch of cinnamon and clove in the flavor and aroma. Highland tinkers with the recipe of this amber ale from year to year, but it's usually very malty and lightly hopped. This year's version is crisp, well-conditioned, and nicely balanced. There's much more caramel and toasted malt flavors than wild holiday zest.
One of the lightest winter beers of the season is Bell's Winter White Ale (5 percent a.b.v.), a yellow-pale Belgian-style white ale with a citrusy/spicy character derived from a special ale yeast. Based in Kalamazoo, Mich., Bell's offers a variety of seasonals every few months. This one hints and implies clove, cardamom, lemon, and ginger without actually using any of them in the brew. As a slightly thin-bodied witbier that could easily pass as a summer ale, it's not quite as satisfying as Bell's malty Christmas Ale (5.5 percent a.b.v.). That's one worth seeking out during the cold weather months. During typical Lowcountry wintertime warm spells, however, Winter White should do the trick.