How to choose the perfect seasonal beer for the winter holidays
You won’t hear many beer lovers complaining about the chill winter air, or the hectic holiday season. For those who enjoy lifting a pint glass—or more likely in the winter, a snifter—this truly is the most wonderful time of the year.
Andy Sparhawk, craft beer program coordinator for the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association, says winter seasonal brews are some of the year’s larger sellers.
“You can expect a little more alcohol, more malt content and spicing seems more prevalent,” he says, noting that the savvy taster may pick up notes of spices like cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg. “Those spices add complexity to the richer and stronger beer.”
When Sparhawk looks for a seasonal beer, he keeps an old Christmas story in mind.
“I think of visions of sugarplums dancing in my head,” he says with a laugh. “I think of raisins and plums and spiced brown ales.”
His No. 1 suggestion to consumers is to think local when looking for a great holiday beer. With 3,000 small independent craft brewers in the nation, you’re sure to find one near your home.
“If you haven’t visited your local brewery, you’re doing yourself a disservice,” he says. “And if tours are offered, it’s a perfect event when you have guests visiting for the holidays.”
Marty Jones, a longtime beer enthusiast from Denver who has worked in publicity for several breweries over the years, agrees with Sparhawk that such strong brews are often best savored in a snifter.
“They’re richer and maltier, and the heat of your hand will release the flavor the beer,” he says. “It’s a better way to appreciate the art of the beer. And they’re higher in alcohol, so you don’t want to overdo it with full pints.”
A few beers that come to mind when Jones goes shopping: “Anchor Christmas Ale (by Anchor Brewing Company) is an original,” he says. “It’s one of the iconic holiday beers, and each year it’s a little different. They play with the recipes, so it can range from spice to heavy caramel and figgy flavors. I wish all breweries would change it up a little from year to year.”
He’s also a fan of Hibernation Ale from Great Divide, with its notes of caramel and chocolate. Avery Brewing Company makes Old Jubilation Ale, a great malty beer. Celebration Ale by Sierra Nevada Brewing Company is always a good pick, as is Frambozen from New Belgium Brewing.
And if you find a store with a fantastic selection, Jones suggests looking at the Belgian beer selection, many of which are perfect winter beers.
Finally, he doesn’t go a year without finding Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome Ale.
“It’s one of the oldest seasonal beers you can still find,” Jones says. “The Brits really understand nuance and subtlety.”
What’s best about these beers? They’re a perfect gift for anyone who appreciates a complex brew.
“For many brewers, holiday beers are a gift to the year-round drinker,” Jones says. “They’re unique and something a little special to put under your tree.”
Just be sure to stick around after it’s unwrapped to toast with friends and family, he says.
“What better way to make the holidays special than sharing a beer with a friend?”