Winter beers are the beer industry's brief respite between pumpkin-spiced everything and the new year's bleak months of nothingness.
In fall, brewers rest their hopes on pumpkin beers, Oktoberfest Märzen lager and, in certain corners of the country, pale ale and IPA brewed with hops fresh from the recent harvest. However, winter brings a far more diverse selection of offerings.
Sure, there's holiday-specific beer that's just as packed with ingredients from the spice rack as any pumpkin ale attempting to mimic a pie. But winter holiday beers also include Porters, Stouts, Brown Ales, Old Ale, Barleywine, Amber Lager, Wheat Wine, White IPA and other styles.
They aren't limited to offerings from small brewers, either: MillerCoors' (TAP - Get Report) Leinenkugel and Blue Moon brands produce winter seasonals, as do some of its recently acquired craft brands including Saint Archer and Terrapin. Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) , meanwhile, releases winter seasonal beers through its Shock Top label, as well as many of the 10 craft beer brands it's purchased since 2011.
All of that winter beer arrives just in time, too, as the beer industry goes into its last big push before sales drop during the new year. According to the U.S. Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the 16 million barrels of beer that the industry sells in August winnows away to 12 million by November before briefly climbing to 13.5 million for the December holidays. By January, sales drop to fewer than 13 million barrels and remain frozen there until roughly St. Patrick's Day. New Year's resolutions often make beer an unwelcome winter guest, especially among folks who see eliminating it in late winter and spring as a shortcut to a beach body by summer.
That said, when people do reach for a winter beer, they look for one that's perhaps the most seasonally appropriate of the bunch: The Winter Warmer. It would be helpful if everyone agreed on what that is. According to the folks in the Beer Judges Certification Program, that term can apply to "Winter Seasonal Beer" that suggests "cold weather and the Christmas holiday season, and may include holiday spices, specialty sugars, and other products that are reminiscent of mulling spices or Christmas holiday desserts." Those beers are typically dark in color and have more than 6% alcohol by volume.
However, the BJCP also notes that British Strong Ale falls into the "Winter Warmer" category as well. That particular style is an "ale of respectable alcoholic strength [5.5% to 8% ABV], traditionally bottled-conditioned and cellared. Can have a wide range of interpretations, but most will have varying degrees of malty richness, late hops and bitterness, fruity esters, and alcohol warmth." The folks at beer discussion and ratings site RateBeer don't have a category for winter seasonals and, instead, break winter beers into their specific styles.
But sometimes winter styles just don't want to stay in their little niches. Founders Brewing in Grand Rapids, Mich., reserved its Breakfast Stout imperial stout for winter release in years past, but just announced that it will be a year-round beer starting in 2018. Belgian brewers, meanwhile, will often simply release stronger versions of their year-round beers for the holidays and spruce up the label a bit.
However, you'll know a Winter Warmer when you see it because you just won't want any part of it after New Year's. From the folks at Boston Beer Company who make Samuel Adams and holiday styles like Old Fezziwig to your local bottle shop, everyone is aware that once a beer with a festive holiday label hits the shelves, it'll either sell by New Year's or won't sell at all. Folks get tired of the holidays and those pesky revolutions kick in.
Beer Advocate still sets aside a Winter Warmer category and weighs their merits based on reader input. We've tracked down their top choices and narrowed them down to the Top 25. Our list overlooks stateside favorites such as Sierra Nevada Celebration and New Belgium Accumulation (both IPA) or Belgium's De Dolle Stille Nacht and St. Bernardus Christmas Ale, but it's a good start to keep you in the holiday spirit:
Fremont Brewing Company
The dark, smoky, roasty, rye 6% ABV Bonfire Ale is this brewery's standard winter offering, but the BeerAdvocate drinkers clearly have a soft spot for this imperial. Loaded with dark chocolate malt and roasted barley and backed by an undercurrent of Columbus alpha hops and milder Willamette and Golding hops, this 8% ABV sipper is far weightier than its lower alcohol sibling. It also provides a lot more body, richness and alcohol warmth, which we can't suggest enough when the Pacific Northwest mountain passes are snowed closed as they were in winter 2017.
Sweetwater Brewing Company
How does Atlanta get into the holiday spirit? With a whole lot of munich, chocolate and black malt and an abundance of cinnamon and mace - nutmeg's less abrasive cousin.
This dark pseudo-porter is a bold blend of sweet and spicy that's a bit more forward about the "warmer" portion of its winter warmer character than most of the beers in this group. However, with 8.5% ABV to light the fire, maybe making the drinker aware that they're enjoying something so potent is one of the better holiday gifts that SweetWater can offer.
Full Sail Brewery
Hood River, Ore.
Years after selling to a private equity firm -- and becoming first employee-owned brewery of any kind to sell -- Full Sail still clings to some of its finer traditions. Full Sail has been brewing Wassail since 1988, and will sometimes debut it as early as mid-September. A combination of caramel and dark chocolate malts give it a deep mahogany color, while European noble hops and Pacific Northwest aroma hops give it a citrusy, slightly grapefruit finish that brings a taste of the region to a 7.2% ABV holiday beer.
Hoppin' Frog Brewing Company
You're going to be seeing a lot more of Ohio on this list, but this malty, fruitcake-spiced bomb of a beer is a great introduction to the state's holiday lineup. At a potent 8.3% ABV even before it takes on a little extra heat from the bourbon barrel, this beer illustrates what it takes to brew beer in a Great Lakes state that it outright bleak from the holiday season until well into spring.
Berkshire Brewing Company
South Deerfield, Mass.
This 21-year-old Massachusetts brewing institution could have made a winter beer list strictly on the merits of its Coffee House Porter. Instead, this 6.3% ABV amber ale shows up each winter to remind New Englanders what the English-style ales of the early Northeast craft beer movement used to taste like. Malty, substantially bodied and easy drinking, this is more of a "winter mild" than a winter warmer.
Anchor Brewing Company
Well, this is it: The final batch of Anchor's 43-year-old Christmas Ale before the whole operation spends its first year as a subsidiary of Japanese brewer Sapporo. The beer tastes somewhat different each year it is released, but this year's installment is a 6.7% ABV blend of cacao, toffee and roasted nuts. Though a bit lighter on the nutmeg and ginger notes than it's been in years past, this year's Christmas Ale and the Saint Lucia fir that graces its label are going to be savored by fans of this 121-year-old brewery who may be concerned about what lies ahead in the new year.
This 6.4% ABV six-malt blend is rich with caramel and has a lovely, roasty finish. It's a very easy-drinking seasonal beer from a three-location pub chain that knows its way around malt. But why pick this beer instead of their barley wine, espresso stout, Russian imperial stout or other seasonal offerings? Because it's a mainstay and, quite frankly, the holidays are no time for improv.
Dick's Brewing Company
This family run brewery started out as a smoked sausage and deli operation before trying its hand at brewing in 1994, but this brewery off of I-5 in Centralia became a Washington staple quickly. Within striking distance of Mount Rainier, Dick's did what came naturally and made a dark winter ale teeming with Munich malt, caramel malt, white wheat, and roasted black barley to give complexity to this ale and added a healthy mix of hops into the kettle. The result is a 7.5% ABV behemoth of a beer that's gone by January but would still be welcome just before the first snowmelt.
Indeed Brewing Company
We're glad to finally see an entry from Minnesota on this list, and we're impressed to see it's a porter. A 6.5% ABV of coffee and chocolate malts, flaked oats to tamp down the alcohol burn, brown sugar, raisin, cacao and vanilla, Stir Crazy is basically all of the rich winter flavors in beer form. There's coffee and cocoa in it, but notes of fig and fruitcake as well. In a state and city that know how to handle their winters, this is Indeed's way of saying "relax and enjoy the season."
We were surprised that there weren't more Southern brewers on this list, but the next few entries will change all of that. The South tends to like itself some malt and some high alcohol content, and First Frost brings both, but with a lot more creativity than some of its counterparts on this list. Using Persimmon, the "fruit of the gods," to imbue this beer with cinnamon and apricot flavor that comes after that first frost. With a little help from Belgian ale yeast and some brandy-barrel aging, this 10% ABV brew becomes one of the more complex, but enjoyable offerings of the season.
The Brewer's Art
The Brewer's Art isn't some middling brewpub outside a ballpark: It's more of a restaurant that developed a particular taste in house beers. Sure, you can still go to the bar and lounge to get a burger and you can still have a growler filled. But there's a better chance of you having this 8% ABV blend of five malts, Curaçao, orange peel and ginger with pork shank or steak frites than on a couch watching the Ravens.
Anderson Valley Brewing Company
Best known for its Boont Amber Ale, this nearly 30-year-old microbrew mainstay has made a legacy out of its smooth, malty brews, its "Bahl Hornin'" Boontling logger speak and its part-bear, part-deer "beer" mascot Barkley. It's Winter Solstice, however, is one seriously enjoyable winter warmer. Seriously, if you bring some to a holiday party don't just let the folks who brought that light lager hog all of it. This beer is just a whole lot of warm, roasty malt in a dark amber package. Little bits of toffee, caramel, pecan and pie spice blend together like a holiday dinner as the Munich and Crystal malt works its magic. That 6.9% ABV should keep things nice and toasty.
Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro
There's a surprising amount of great holiday beer along the I-5 corridor, but this great brewing town near the Canadian border produces one of the best. This 22-year-old brewer pulls no punches with an 8.5% ABV warmer that is deep red and nearly all malt. This brewery has stood by its heritage and continues to make ESB, Scotch Ale, Stout and Irish Red ale, and it pays off in this warmer that owes a debt to the British Strong Ales that came before.
Dark Horse Brewing Company
The Morse family's pride and joy distributes in all of 14 states, but this is a four-pack of bottles worth looking out for. They don't reveal a whole lot of the secrets behind this spicy 8.75% ABV beast, but that ruby color, candy sweetness and hints of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg makes for a jolly little beer.
Yukon Brewing Company
Whitehorse, Yukon Territory
This is not a seasonal beer, but Beer Advocate readers rightly throw this Old Ale into contention. Its 7% ABV, six kinds of malt, two months of aging and chocolatey richness qualify it as a winter ale and a solid holiday beer. This is the beer other brewers try to create when they're looking for something with the spirit of the season. Yukon Brewing makes it year-round because it captures the spirit of the Yukon.
Barley's Brewing Company
This 25-year-old brewery and pub was a forlorn, abandoned bit of urban landscape before opening in 1992. It's now a mainstay amid a thriving Columbus beer scene that's so impressive that it lured Scottish brewer BrewDog into opening its first stateside location nearby. However, this 6.6% ABV holiday ale hasn't changed all that much and still incorporates orange zest, fresh young ginger, whole cinnamon sticks and organic honey into its warm seasonal mix.
Odell Brewing Company
Fort Collins, Colo.
When you eagerly await that first snow of the season, you kind of want a winter ale as soon as possible. The Colorado brewers have mastered this caramel-colored, brown-sugar-flavored Old Ale style largely because they know their audience. At just 6% ABV, however, Isolation is a bit easier on that fan base than many of its contemporaries. Sure, it lacks the punch of a Belgian quad or Strong Ale, but it's an easy-drinking holiday treat that doesn't overwhelm with spice. Sure, it can be considered a holiday beer, but to many of the folks who drink it, any day you can get on the slopes is worth celebrating.
East End Brewing Company
Thank you, East End, for realizing that folks might want a winter ale during winter. Snow Melt and its 7% ABV ruby-red, biscuity, chocolatey, spicy blend first appears in November and leave until April... or March at the earliest. East End even makes a coffee-infused version called Joe Melt in February just to offer some options. In Western Pennsylvania, pulling winter beers won't make the harsh weather go away. If anything, it'll just make the people coping with it more dour.
Deschutes Brewing Company
Jubelale is surprisingly pleasant and mild for holiday ale from a town that loves its hops and high alcohol content. Its a caramel-sweet but molasses-cookie rich Strong Ale with 6.7% ABV, Jubleale goes down deceptively easy thanks to its roasted barley malt. Its deep garnet color is matched in beauty only by its label's ever-shifting artwork (which, this year, is a snowflake theme created by Bend's own MaryLea Harris). If the arrival of skiers on Mount Bachelor didn't signal winter's arrival in Central Oregon, the first bottles of this surely did.
Carton Brewing Company
Atlantic Highlands, N.J.
Augie Carton keeps his taplist varied, but this winter seasonal stands out. Decoy took its cues from both Eleven Madison Park chef Daniel Humm's five spice roast duck and Belgian Strong Dark ales like Chimay blue or Delirium Nocturnum (or Delirium Noel, for that matter). Dark malts and Belgian candi sugars are spiced with coriander, lavender, Sichuan red peppercorns and honey. However, unlike their Belgian counterparts who allow yeast esters to do much of the heavy lifting, Carton uses fairly benign American ale yeast to showcase the malt and spice. The result? More Christmas cookie than fancy Christmas dinner, but we'll take it.
Great Lakes Brewing Company
A Cleveland holiday tradition, this blend of honey, cinnamon and ginger seems brewed specifically for miserable winters by the Cuyahoga River. The Browns are horrible, the Indians didn't make it back to the World Series, the Cavaliers lost to the Golden State Warriors again and Ohio State was left out of the college football playoffs in favor of Alabama. Add all of that to lake-effect snow and a grey sky that doesn't break up until about may and you get a great reason to decorate a bottle and spread some holiday cheer.
Peticolas Brewing Company
Some breweries will disavow the spice-rack approach to winter beers altogether and claim they aren't trying to emulate Christmas cookies in the slightest. They are liars. Peticolas, meanwhile, is not only up front about this 10% ABV warmer's use of nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and ginger, but it gives a shout out to their provider, 147-year-old Dallas-Fort Worth spice maker Pendery's, located a half block away from the brewery.
Highland Brewing Company
More than twenty years ago, this was the only brewery in a town that's now teeming with them. Two decades ago, Cold Mountain Winter Ale was the only winter beer that city produced. However, at just 5.2% ABV, this blend of Vienna, Chocolate, Wheat, and Caramel malts is easier to drink than most of the higher-alcohol beers on this list. When Highland adds hazelnut and vanilla to the ingredient list, it only becomes more palatable. Sometimes, the oldest seasonal traditions are the best.
Thirsty Dog Brewing Company
We have plenty of Ohio holiday ales on this list, but this one's brawny enough without the whiskey. A deceptively complex winter warmer whose cocoa-and-molasses backbone is perked up with some honey, nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon. That 8.3% alcohol content doesn't show up until the end of your sip and doesn't stick around long enough to make your regret it. It's as close as gingerbread should get to beer form. Add some extra whiskey bite, and this foil-wrapped beauty puts some heat beneath your holiday.
Rahr & Sons Brewing Company
Fort Worth, Texas
Rahr's history in Texas only dates back to 2004, but the Rahr family has been brewing in the U.S. for 170 years. Their German immigrant ancestors opened a brewery in Wisconsin in 1847 (though its founder died after falling into a brewing kettle) and opened a malting operation that still serves the overwhelming majority of brewers in the U.S. Their descendants do the family proud by producing this blend of of chocolate, Caramunich and Carahell malts. That yields a whole lot of dark fruit flavor that responds well to 12 weeks of aging in oak barrels. The resulting vanilla and oak elements, and the 9% ABV that comes with them, puts a welcome spin on this English dark ale.