For some, the holiday season may be the reason for traditional spirits, creamy eggnogs, and heavy wines, but for the beer enthusiast, winter brings a wonderful selection of domestic and imported specialty ales. And more hefty "winter warmers" seem to hit the shelves each year.
Some are spiced with holiday-themed ingredients, and others are unspiced, but spruced up with a unique recipe of specialty barley malts and hops. The best holiday brews boast complex character, rich flavors, and spicy aromas. From a short list of our own long-standing favorites and a few recommendations from the staff at Charleston Beer Exchange, we compiled this list of seven delicious ales worth seeking out this season — six domestics and one import — many of which were only made available in Charleston in recent years.
Northern California mega-microbrewery Sierra Nevada's annual Celebration Ale (6.8 percent a.b.v.) boasts a lot of hop flavor. Golden, sparkling-clear, and well-conditioned, Celebration is a full-flavored pale ale with a grassy aroma and a nice balance of caramel malt breadiness and vibrant hop flavor that finishes with a smooth aftertaste (thanks to the generous dose of Cascade and Centennial hops).
Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco brews a slightly different Happy New Year/Christmas Ale (a.k.a. Our Special Ale) every winter. With an elegant Monterrey Cypress on the tan label, this year's handsome ale has medium strength (5.5 percent a.b.v.). It's dark brown in color, full-bodied, and quite malty with exotic piney flavors blending together in the finish. They've released a holiday beer every year since 1975, making Anchor one of the great-granddaddies of the craft brewing scene.
From Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, Colo., the winter seasonal Old Jubilation is a beautiful amber ale with a red-accented, copper color, and a handsome label depicting a snowy scene with a two-horse sleigh. Well-conditioned, it pours clearly and retains a dense, clingy head. Much maltier in flavor and aroma than most of Avery's monstrously hoppy signature ales, the darker, more roasted malts (caramel malt in particular) dominate the smooth flavor, with slight hints of plum, maple syrup, walnuts, and molasses. Each sip begins sweet and toasty, but finishes with a bit of that inevitable Avery hop bitterness. At 8 percent a.b.v., it's a sturdy, slow-sipping winter ale worth sampling.
From Georgia, Sweetwater Brewing Company's 2009 Festive Ale — a dark, nutty, spicy seasonal brewed in a small batch only one day a year — is available in the fall and early winter. At a strong 8.6 percent a.b.v., it's a huge, full-bodied ale with a spicy blend of roasted and chocolate malt and citrusy hop flavors, countered by a hint of cinnamon, raisin, and mace in the tangy finish. The two salmon fishermen on the label look like they're freezing on the lake, but a hardy Festive Ale could certainly warm them up.
Oregon-based Rogue Ales Brewery has been cranking out fine ales for 20 years. The unspiced, red-hued Santa's Private Reserve Ale stands out in their vast collection as a terrific winter beer. While it's a mere 6 percent a.b.v., Santa looks a bit tipsy as he raises a fist and a stein on the label. Not too bitter and not too roasty, Santa's Private Reserve balances malt and hop flavors, and finishes with a zesty bitterness typical of pale and amber ales from the American Northwest (Rogue uses a ton of Chinook, Centennial, and its own home-farmed hops).
Akron, Ohio's Hoppin' Frog Brewing Co. gained a reputation in recent years for wildly-spiced seasonal offerings. The over-the-top, deep-brown colored 2009 Frosted Frog's Christmas Ale — its first Christmas holiday effort — reaches similar heights. The brewers write on the label that they "captured the essence of Christmas" with this one. A strong blend of spices — ginger, nutmeg, and loads of cinnamon — nearly prove them right. The cinnamon, in particular, almost overpowers the sweet maltiness underneath. It's a bold holiday blend for a strong winter beer (8/6 percent a.b.v.).
From across the Atlantic, the imported Winter Welcome Ale from the Samuel Smith Old Brewery has been a holiday favorite among American beer enthusiasts since the late-'80s. The brewery in Tadcaster was founded in 1758 (Yorkshire's oldest brewery). Winter Welcome is vintage-dated with a special label each year and packaged in heavy 18.7-ounce "Victorian Pint" bottles (550 ml). There's nothing resembling the pine/citrus hop stylings of American pale ales in this classic English version. Just slightly higher in alcohol than the ales of northern England (6 percent by volume), it's really just a hearty step above I.P.A. on the chart. Orange-amber in color, medium-bodied, delicately rich, and full of flowery, herbal hop flavor (the traditionally British Fuggles variety of hops, no doubt), Winter Welcome is certainly the most traditional of the bunch, but one of the most delicious, nonetheless.