Editors' pick: Originally published Nov. 15.
We're beyond both Halloween and Election Day: you can start dipping into the winter beers now.
Unlike fall, which leans heavily on pumpkin beers and Oktoberfest Marzen beers, winter brings drinkers a broad spectrum of offerings. Porters, Stouts, Brown Ales, Old Ale, Barleywine, Amber Lager, Wheat Wine, White IPA... all of that qualifies and "winter beer" and all of it is usually among brewers' winter offerings. They aren't just for small brewers, either: MillerCoors's 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, mean while, releases winter seasonal beers through its Shock Top label as well as many of the nine craft beer brands it's purchased since 2011.
All of those styles come at a desperate point on the calendar for brewers. The holiday season is the last hurrah for brewers who watch robust summer sales retreat into their winter doldrums. According to the 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 12.9 million barrels and remain frozen there until roughly St. Patrick's Day.
As a result, many brewers start to push the winter beer that is most closely tied to the season: The Winter Warmer. The problem is that folks in the know have a tough time agreeing on what a "Winter Warmer" 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." In fact, 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.
What everybody can agree upon is that, unless you decided to name it something seasonally unspecific, nobody's going to want to buy your Winter Warmer once New Year's Day ends. It's a particularly cruel cycle, especially considering that winter temperatures linger long into the New Year and those particular beers would be a fine fit well into the worst of the season. That said, beer news, forum and ratings site Beer Advocate still sets aside a Winter Warmer category and lets members weigh in on what they consider the best of the bunch. In the interest of keeping things simple and not getting too esoteric with the holiday favorites, we went right to BeerAdvocate's rankings and found the 25 highest-rated U.S. Winter Warmers they offer. We aren't saying these are the best winter beers on the market or even a fair sampling of them -- as there are more than 4,700 breweries in the U.S. alone. We're just considering this a good start to the season: