Drinking beer on a patio is nice, but substantively, beer is a beverage made for winter. Like a good meal, a beer can can stick to your ribs. In the early New England colonies, beer was life-sustaining. Today, as part of an arsenal that includes L.L. Bean boots and Netflix, a good beer may not sustain you, but it may feel like it is.
The winter beer category is not a monolith, inclusive of everything from rare annual brewery releases to holiday brews. Below, in no particular order, are eight of my favorites.
Over the course of the calendar year there are maybe four or five releases I anticipate. On the day Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale is released, I buy a case. It’s almost always gone by New Year’s. Since 1981, Sierra Nevada has brewed Celebration with the first hops of the growing season. Most of the world’s hops are harvested between August and November, then dried and used to make beer for the rest of the year. Sierra makes this beer with fresh hops. It’s a special IPA released at a time when you want one.
Included in the company’s Winter Classics pack, Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig Ale has developed a cult following. It’s a full-bodied beer tasting of toffee, caramel, ginger, and orange peel.
There are a lot of spiced beers in circulation this time of year, many of which are not so good. Maine’s Peak Organic Winter Session Ale lets the hops stand in for spices. The result is one of the more surprising beers of the season, 5 percent alcohol, dark, and hoppy enough to get your fix.
One year in a bourbon barrel turns a too-hot alcoholic brew into one of the most prized beers in the country. Goose Island Bourbon County Stout is a thick beer with delicate vanilla notes, kind of like an alcoholic milkshake.
The monks know how to celebrate Christmas. St. Bernardus Christmas Ale is a big, sugary Belgian ale from a renowned Trappist brewery is made annually for the holidays. The bottles can be aged up to 15 years, but I’ve never gotten that far. Ten percent alcohol by volume, with notes of raisins, pepper, cinnamon, and cherries. An actual masterpiece.
RiverWalk Brewing Winter Porter from the Newburyport brewery adds vanilla bean and cinnamon stick to this porter. Lighter than a stout but not lacking flavor, this is a beer that’s quickly becoming a favorite.
The Delirium Noel label features a pink elephant on a sled wearing a Santa hat. Delirium Tremens, out of Belgium’s Huyghe Brewery, is the best readily available beer from that country and we don’t drink enough of it. This is the winter version, 10 percent ABV and punching. The aforementioned bottle looks like a Christmas gift. Better yet, when you get there, you can drink it.
I have great memories of watching Christmas movies while drinking Troegs Mad Elf, but every time, the next year, I assume that the 11 percent ABV beer will be a mess. It’s not. A Belgian-style beer tasting of cherries, honey. This is your Christmas jam.