Editors' pick: Originally published Feb. 9.
As a blizzard coats the Eastern seaboard, you officially need to start dipping into the winter beers.
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.
But the smartest of brewers are pushing the winter beer that is most closely tied to the frigid 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.
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 , 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 way to warm up as the snow piles up inch by inch:
SweetWater Brewing Company
How does Atlanta handle winter? 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.
Yes, Full Sail sold to private equity in 2015 and was the first employee-owned brewery of any kind to sell, but Wassail is one of the facets of Full Sail that hasn't changed. 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.
Berkshire Brewing Company
South Deerfield, Mass.
Happy 20th anniversary to this Massachusetts brewing institution that 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.
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.
Double Mountain Brewery and Taproom
Hood River, Ore.
Hey, don't blame the messenger for yet another Pacific Northwest beer on this list. It isn't my fault that the region's become really adept at making winter beers and the rest of the country has taken note. However, given the region's affinity for hops and Hood River's location just a brief drive away from the Yakima hop fields, we aren't surprised that an Oregon brewer brewed a straight-up IPA as a holiday beer. This piney 7.5% ABV beauty puts Centennial hops right up front and lets the light pilsner and minimal crystal malt fade into the background. The pine aromas and citrus flavors are just as seasonally appropriate as the bready, biscuity cookie beers that usually constitute winter warmers -- they're just more so in the evergreen-shaded shadow of Mount Hood.
Golden Valley Brewery and Pub
This mini brewpub chain (all of two locations) in Oregon got its start in the middle of the Willamette Valley wine country almost 20 years ago, but it's expanded to a second home in the Portland suburbs as well. Christmas tree farms abound in either location, and the brewpubs are awash in tree-toting families and holiday shoppers around that time of year. This 8% ABV malt bomb has a lovely reddish tint to it, but packs a whole lot of caramel and chocolate malt in with its cherry and dark fruit flavor. With more than a quarter of all U.S. breweries existing as brewpubs, places like Golden Valley and beers like Tannen Bomb have become cornerstones of holiday tradition in themselves.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
Yet another two location "chain," Carolina Brewery has some distribution beyond its Chapel Hill and Pittsboro locations for spreading holiday cheer. However, getting cozy in the pub and enjoying this 5.9% ABV blend of six different malts, coriander, cinnamon, orange and allspice doesn't seem like a bad way to spend a winter night. So what's Santa's Secret, you ask? For his sake, we hope its that mix of malts and not his secret life as a Duke fan.
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.
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.
Really didn't expect to see this on here, so we'll disclose now that we went to the brewery on Sandy Boulevard in Portland last year and picked up a case of it at overstock prices. Why pick up 24 of them, other than the less-than-$1-per-bottle sale price? Because 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 four-location pub chain that knows its way around malt.
Carton Brewing Company
Atlantic Highlands, N.J.
When you have a portfolio as deep as Augie Carton's list of special offerings, it takes a lot to make a winter seasonal stand out. In Decoy's case, it 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, bor 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.
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.
Barley's Brewing Company
This Columbus brewery prides itself on real ale, and this 6.6% ABV seems like a fine candidate for the cask. Caramel malt with hints of nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger with just a little hop citrus on the back end.
West Sixth Brewing Company
Breweries in bourbon country are becoming less of an anomaly, but you have to make a strong statement with a winter warmer if you don't want people to just pass you over for the more effective warmth of whiskey. Thus, we'll start off by saying that the West Sixth Christmas Ale is stiff: a whopping 9% for beer that often appears in 12-ounce cans. It's also dark with Munich, Caramunich, Abbey and dark Belgian malts, as well as roasted barley and Belgian dark beet syrup. Throw in some ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves and orange peel, and you have a beer that would go over just as well in Brussels as it would among bourbon drinkers.
Bull & Bush Brewery
You aren't going to find a whole lot of brewpubs that date back to 1971, but this one didn't start actually brewing its own beer until 1997 -- so consider that start date a technicality. Unlike its "Man Beer" IPA, however, Yule Fuel is a much more inviting and welcoming mix of piney hops, caramel/molasses backing and cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger spice. We understand Bull & Bush's in-your-face marketing: This 7.8% warmer is a big old spice packet. That said, this warmer is also a lot more mellow than its tapmates would indicate.
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.
Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro
We really didn't expect to see this many entries from the I-5 corridor, but this great brewing town near the Canadian border is just full of surprises. This 21-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.
Great Lakes Brewing Company
A Cleveland tradition that's been on tap since early November, this blend of honey, cinnamon and ginger is just what's needed for cold nights by the Cuyahoga when lake-effect snow is in the forecast. Winter weather in Cleveland can be as miserable as losing a 3-1 lead in the World Series, but having this beer to get you through is as uplifting as overcoming a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals.
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.
Thirsty Dog Brewing Company
This is the big dog of Ohio winter ales even before it enters a whiskey barrel. 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 behind that winter cheer.
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. If the arrival of skiers on Mount Bachelor didn't signal winter's arrival in Central Oregon, the first bottles of this surely did.
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.
East End Brewing Company
Finally, a brewery that gets it. A winter warmer shouldn't disappear until the snow does, which is why East End introduces Snow Melt and its 7% ABV ruby-red, biscuity, chocolatey, spicy blend in November and doesn't pull it until April... or March at the earliest. They even make 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.
Highland Brewing Company
Some 22 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.
Rahr & Sons Brewing Company
Fort Worth, Texas
The blend of chocolate, Caramunich and Carahell malts that yields all of the original's dark fruit flavor 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.