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: